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China: A Call for Plain Speaking
What George W. Bush should say.
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The news that China is continuing its build-up of missiles opposite Taiwan, with 100 more short-range ballistic missiles now in place at a newly-built base, comes as one of China’s most senior officials, Vice Prime Minister Qian QiChen, arrives in Washington for the first high-level Sino-U.S. discussions of the new administration. (That “q,” by the way, is pronounced half-way between a “ch” and a “ts.”) What should George W. Bush say to Mr. Qian about Taiwan?

It is important first to understand what the Chinese are up to. They have no intention of launching barrages of ballistic missiles into Taiwan, unless driven to it in desperation. That is not the Chinese way of making war. All Chinese military strategy stresses guile and subterfuge. The height of military prowess is to bring the enemy to surrender without firing a shot. It’s a chess game, not a boxing match. You don’t win a chess game by whacking your opponent’s king with a seven-pound hammer; you win by getting him into a position where he has no meaningful moves to make. The greatest military hero in Chinese history was Zhu-ge Liang (a.d. 181-234) who, unless I missed something — the relevant book is 1,260 pages long — never took hold of a weapon. He was a strategist, a supremely skilled master of feint and deception.

The build-up opposite Taiwan is, therefore, part of a long game to maneuver the Taiwanese into a position where they have no choice but to yield to China. It will have succeeded, not when Taipei City is an expanse of smoking rubble, but when Taiwan’s leaders say: “Goddammit, we’re going to have to talk terms with those bastards, or watch our economy go down the tubes.”

The terms won’t be bad, as terms of enslavement go. The Taiwan flag — it is forty years older than the Communist Chinese flag, and esthetically far superior — will be banned, and the Taiwan armed forces will have to submit to PLA control. The more vocal politicians and intellectuals will be re-assigned to work at breaking rocks in Tibet. There will, of course, be no more nonsense about “bourgeois democracy”: leaders of current political parties will be hustled off to the camps and replaced by CCP stooges. At worst there will be a repeat of the “2–28” incident, when, on February 28, 1947, the people of Taiwan took to the streets to protest their re-incorporation into Chiang Kai-shek’s Republic of China, when they had thought they might have a chance of independence. Chiang’s troops mowed them down, and followed up with purges and mass executions. Tens of thousands died. The communists will do the same if they have to, knowing that the rest of the world, after some ritual expressions of outrage, will soon forget all about it. The PLA is very good at killing unarmed civilians.

Is there anything the U.S. can do to prevent this happening? Certainly: recognize Taiwan. The Chinese would have a cow, of course, but what action could they take? A retaliatory invasion of the island? Hardly. They know the chance of success for such an operation would be no better than fifty per cent. Losses would be appalling, in a nation that has been practicing a “one child” policy for 24 years now — how many Chinese parents are keen to see their pampered “little emperor” go off to a hero’s death? Failure would bring down the Communist Party, since the Communists themselves have been telling their people that the conquest of Taiwan is a major national policy goal. Succeed or fail, there would be a diplomatic catastrophe: China is already friendless, a member of no alliance at all, feared and detested in fact by all her neighbors in Asia. There might very well be an economic catastrophe, too: go round your house counting the “Made in China” labels — who needs who in this relationship? Trade sanctions against China would kill their economy stone dead in a month. No: an invasion would be high-risk, and China’s current leaders are not high-risk players.

So is the U.S. going to recognize Taiwan? Of course not. America’s foreign-policy elites have all internalized the doctrine that China will evolve quietly into a democracy sooner or later, as exposure to the outside world shows her people and their leaders the ugliness and folly of unconstitutional government. This is a nice idea, but I don’t believe it. China’s Taiwan obsession itself is proof of a different state of affairs.

It is not as if the desire to subjugate Taiwan is something found only among leaders of the Chinese Communist Party. Practically all mainland Chinese consider the continued separation of Taiwan from the warm embrace of the Motherland to be an outrage. I have had the following conversation approximately 1,000 times with Chinese persons.

Derb: Why don’t you leave Taiwan alone and stop bullying them? Hardly anybody in Taiwan wants to be ruled by the People’s Republic.
CP: It’s part of our national territory.
Derb: Even if it doesn’t want to be?
CP: How would Americans feel if Hawaii declared that it wanted to be independent?
Derb: I’m sure the U.S.A. would let them go. Who wants unwilling citizens?
CP: The southern states didn’t want to be part of the U.S.A., but Lincoln went to war to force them back in. He didn’t let them go.

It does no good to point out that the South was a huge chunk of the country with 40 per cent of the population, while Taiwan is an offshore island with 2 per cent of China’s population; nor that Lincoln didn’t think the Union would survive if the South left, and that he was probably right, while China survived for three thousand years without Taiwan. Nor does it help to observe that saying “the southern states didn’t want to” is to ignore the one-third of their inhabitants whose opinion about the matter was not canvassed — the black slaves. Nor that the Confederate States had been part of the U.S.A. from its creation, while Taiwan has been under Chinese administration only since 1683, and has been ruled from the mainland for just four of the last hundred years.


The central fact is that modern Chinese nationalism, of which the Taiwan obsession is merely a component, is of the pathological sort. It feeds on a gnawing sense of grievance — carefully cultivated by the Communist Party — towards the rest of the world, and most especially towards Japan and the Anglo-Saxon nations. You wronged us. You broke into our nation and looted it. You humiliated us, forced opium on us, stole our land. Now we have our country back, though. Now we’ll show you! You won’t be pushing US around any more!! Scratch any modern Chinese and you will uncover sentiments like these.

I have some conservative friends who, when I talk about the ferocity of modern Chinese nationalism, say: “Good for them. Wish our people felt as strongly about our nationhood.” Be careful what you wish for. A sober, mature patriotism is one thing. “My country, right or wrong: if right, to keep her right, if wrong, to put her right” — I have no problem with that. What we have with China is more like: “My country is right! And if you say otherwise, you are my enemy!”

There is a difference between honest patriotism and autistic nationalism. China has the latter sort, and even the most intelligent, well-educated Chinese start to foam at the mouth if you ask them why their armies are occupying two million square miles of other people’s land (Tibet, East Turkestan) and still covet more (Taiwan, Outer Mongolia, the Spratley Islands). Beijing wants to host the 2008 Olympics, and is bidding in competition with Paris, Toronto, Osaka and Istanbul. If their bid fails, you will see the mother of all national temper tantrums, with fierce accusations that Beijing’s bid was sabotaged by the U.S. in order to wound Chinese pride and deny the country her rightful status as a great power. The foreigners have humiliated us again! Just like before! Can you imagine the Canadians, the French or the Turks behaving like that? This is not a nation in sound psychological health — not, in fact, a very grown-up nation.

Things are going to get worse, too, before they get better. The “third generation” of Communist Chinese leaders is getting ready to leave the stage, and a “fourth generation” is waiting in the wings. This “fourth generation” — people like Jiang Zemin’s 58-year-old heir-apparent, Hu Jintao — came of age at or just before the beginning of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). The years after university graduation, when a person’s outlook is broadened by work experience and foreign travel, were all lost to them in those eleven years of madness. They are ignorant, insular and narrow-minded. They lost their Marxist ideology in the follies of the late Mao period and filled the vacuum with rabid nationalism. They have internalized all the stuff about “western imperialism” and “national humiliation,” without the softening experience of actually dealing with foreigners in their formative years, as older leaders did (with Americans during WW2, or with Russians in the early Maoist years). Jiang Zemin, Zhu Rongji and even the robotic Li Peng are cosmopolitan sophisticates compared with what we’ll be facing ten years from now.*

So what should George W. Bush say to Mr. Qian about Taiwan? As the leader of the free world, his first duty is to speak up for decency against lawlessness, for civilization against barbarism, and for reason against madness.

He should say firmly and plainly that Taiwan is a friend of the U.S., that his administration would do everything it could lawfully do to help Taiwan if the island nation were attacked, and that the U.S. will strive to keep Taiwan well-armed as a deterrent against such an attack. He should say that to America’s way of thinking, as a democracy under constitutional law, Taiwan is de facto independent, but that the administration will refrain from expressing this opinion out loud from respect for Chinese sensitivities, so long as China does not indulge in aggressive actions. He should say that the U.S. will not disturb the status quo — for example, by formally recognizing Taiwan — if China does not — for example, by mustering large troop concentrations across the Straits of Formosa. He should say that a free, democratic China might have some hope of enticing Taiwan into a voluntary union, but that it is unreasonable to expect people to give up liberty, law and self-government in exchange for provincial subject status under a corrupt, self-elected dictatorship.

Mr. Qian will have turned purple and begun to sputter by this point, as Molotov did when Harry Truman was similarly blunt with him, but there is much to be said for Truman-style plain speaking with these foreign despots. The alternative is to leave the Chinese with the impression that their contemptible bullying and bluster are taken seriously by the free world, that we consider them the legitimate, as well as merely the effective, rulers of their territories, that their crazed fantasies of re-creating the old Manchu Empire have any chance of success, and that they can threaten and intimidate their neighbors without any consequences. President Bush must make it plain that they are wrong on all counts.


* There was a good analysis of this upcoming “fourth generation” in The China Quarterly for March 2000: “Jiang Zemin’s successors: The Rise of the Fourth Generation of Leaders in the PRC” by Li Cheng.

(Republished from National Review by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: China, Taiwan 
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