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Monday, Dec. 27, 2004



Grass-root case for independent Taiwan

NEW YORK -- Sallie Huang is a passionate advocate of Taiwan's independence. She argues that China is simply flaunting its ignorance and wrongheadedness in claiming Taiwan as part of its territory.

At one point in her sweeping monograph, "Fiction and Reality," she asks: "Can the Beijing government insist that Poland, Hungary, Iran, Iraq, Korea, Burma, parts of Russia and many other countries are its territory simply because the Mongolian Empire conquered them at its apex? Can Communist China insist that Taiwan, Korea, Outer Mongolia, Vietnam and others are its territory simply because the Manchurian Empire once conquered or ruled them?"

This is a stark way to remind us of what we tend to forget: China has not been a continuous historical entity. The so-called Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368) was in fact a period in which China, under Mongolian rule, ceased to exist as a sovereign entity. Similarly, the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) was a period when the Manchurians, not the Hans, ruled the land.

During those two periods China wasn't China -- if we conceive a country as an entity under the control of the majority of the ethnic group that dominates a given area, however amorphously defined.

Huang's question, of course, is not what makes a country. As she puts it: "If Mongolia today does not claim China as its own even though it once ruled it as part of its vast empire, and that for 89 long years, how can China claim Taiwan as its own when it held it as an administrative unit for a mere 7 1/2 years . . . during the alien dynasty?"

For, as Huang sees it, the Manchurian government of China managed Taiwan for just that brief period of time -- from 1887, when it reluctantly adopted the island as one of its provinces (sheng), to 1895, when it gladly ceded it to Japan.

"Gladly" is the sentiment Qing's "Northern Minister" Li Hungchang (1823-1901) expressed in negotiating a peace treaty with Japan following the Sino-Japanese War. For nearly two centuries, Qing China had maintained the harsh policy of banning emigration of women to the island as well as cultivation on it. Why?

As Manchurians took Beijing, some noble members of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) rebelled in an effort to restore Han rule. (Something similar would happen after the Republic of China came into being in 1912.) The half-Japanese Zheng Chenggong (1624-62) -- Tei Seiko in Japanese -- emerged as an able rebel military leader. But in the end he was forced to flee to Taiwan. He tried to create a rebel base there, but soon succumbed to illness and died.

Although the Qing government crushed the Zheng remnants in a few decades, it depopulated the coastal region facing Taiwan and imposed a starvation policy on the island to guard against further trouble.

There was another reason Li was happy to hand Taiwan over to Japan. Despite earlier attempts by the Dutch and Spaniards to colonize parts of the island, it was regarded as barbarous, disease-infested and dangerous, as it was inhabited by ferocious headhunting tribes.

Li wrote in his autobiography that ever since "the holy, beautiful Empire" -- Qing, that is -- came in contact with it, Taiwan had been "an embarrassment to the Crown," nay, "a black tumor." So, when he learned that Japan's principal demand for the peace treaty was the ownership of Taiwan, he wrote: "I was so happy I would have danced with joy if I had been in my own chamber, alone."

The settlers from the continent were upset that Li so casually turned their island into "the Qing Court's discarded land," and rebelled, but the Japanese "pacified" them. Then, in 1912, Sun Wen (Sun Yatsen: 1866-1925) proclaimed the establishment of the Republic of China, bringing Qing China to an end.

Huang argues that when Li ceded Taiwan to Japan, Qing forfeited its rights to the island permanently or until the signing of another treaty.

Defeated in its war with France, Qing gave up its control over Vietnam (Annam) in 1885; defeated in its war with Japan, it allowed Korea to become a sovereign, rather than tributary, nation in 1895. Not once since has Communist China claimed either Vietnam or Korea as part of its territory. Then why Taiwan?

The present-day Beijing government says, among other things, that the 1943 Cairo Declaration and the 1945 Potsdam Declaration recognized China's sovereignty over Taiwan. Cairo does list "Formosa" among "the territories Japan has stolen from the Chinese," but that, Huang says, is an obvious "misunderstanding." (Portugual, the first to put Taiwan on the map, called it Ilha Formosa, "The Beautiful Island," in 1597.) Potsdam declares, "The terms of the Cairo Declaration shall be carried out," but adds nothing new on the question of Chinese territorial sovereignty.

To read the Cairo and Potsdam declarations today is to be reminded how nothing has changed when it comes to the savage hubris that military superiority can breed.

A declaration is just that -- a declaration. It is a pledge among consenting nations, not a legally binding agreement. Furthermore, both Cairo and Potsdam declarations were subsumed into the 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty in which Japan formally renounced "all right, title and claim to Formosa."

But the People's Republic of China, which came into being in 1949, was at war with the United Nations at the time over Korea and wasn't invited to sign the treaty; nor was the Republic of China for its inability to represent China. Accordingly, "to follow the U.N. principle of self-determination," Huang says, "Taiwan belongs only to Taiwanese people."

I don't know where Huang's thesis stands in the overall argument for Taiwan's independence or how it may fare in the world of realpolitik. The latest elections in that land put the question on hold. But I decided to present her argument because she plans to publish "Fiction and Reality" in Chinese, Japanese and English, and asked me to proofread the Japanese version she wrote herself.

I agreed, and I'm glad I did. I knew so little of the place where I was born -- almost half a century after Japan wrested it from Qing. You can be oddly incurious about something that ought to fascinate you. Among the photos I remember from my family's Taiwan album, for example, is one with several Japanese officers, my policeman father among them, standing by a rack of skulls. I don't think I ever tried to learn what it was all about.

Hiroaki Sato is a translator and essayist who lives in New York.

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