Taipei—It was clear that the Taiwanese Minister of Foreign Affairs had been working on his “I-mean-business” face.
“We feel offended, when we are referred to as ‘Chinese Taipei’,” Dr. Jaushieh Wu said sternly, forcing the natural upturn of his smile into a straight line of lips pressed together. “In the interest of our shared values of freedom, democracy and respecting human rights we must resist Chinese expansionism.”
Flanked by six staff members at the long wooden table, the “we” Wu was directing his comments toward was an international delegation of media from pro-democratic countries.
And though he swept his gaze across my fellow journalists; who heralded from Poland, Germany, Fiji, The Bahamas and Australia, I couldn’t help but feel his eyes come to rest on me— the lone representative from the U.S. of A.
I might have written it off as jet lag (after all, I had spent 19 hours of the previous day on an airplane), except it kept happening again and again during my week-long visit to the Republic of China (Taiwan).
With an official name like that, you can see how people might get confused about the relationship between China and Taiwan. Before being tapped for the trip by the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office in Denver, I’ll admit to being fuzzy on the distinction between the two my self.
But during my time in Taiwan I learned that for anyone who thinks democracy is a good thing, the distinction between mainland China and the tiny island republic of Taiwan is an imperative one to make.
What’s in a Name?
To begin with, as a writing instructor I struggle with Taiwan being in the parenthesis where the acronym is supposed to be. According to the style I teach my Colorado State University students it would be “Republic of China” on first reference and then “ROC” thereafter. But notice how that leaves out Taiwan altogether? That won’t do. In fact mentioning China and not Taiwan in reference to this island republic is the first step in the mainland’s effort to erase the island’s sovereignty.
The ROC/Taiwan name game reminds me of the “Better Homes and Gardens” magazines in my parents basement addressed to “Mrs. Frank Edward Cada.” The label implies that when Dorothy Michalek married Frank Cada she traded in her sovereign state to become a lesser extension of my Dad.
The Taiwanese are their own people, 23.55 million strong. They are about 95 percent Han Chinese, 2 percent indigenous Malayo-Polynesian and 2 percent new immigrants, primarily from Southeast Asia. Their government, and this is the important part, is a multi-party democracy.
Of the 22,500 square miles that make up the main island and islets of Taiwan, about half is covered in forested mountains and foothills. The Republic is a land of 1,000 miles of beaches and abundant flora and fauna. Named “Ilha Formosa” (beautiful island) by Europeon sailors in the 1500s, Taiwan has been occupied by many dynasties, including Qing and governments including Dutch, Spanish and Japanese.
Since the Japanese surrender of Taiwan after World War II, mainland China has had jurisdiction over Taiwan, while each under different governments. The communist government in Beijing has never exercised sovereignty over democratic Taiwan—is what the official party line reads.
Taiwan adopted a democratic constitution in 1947, but it was frozen in 1949 when the Republic was put under Marshall Law by the communist government in Bejing.
It was 1987 before these wartime restrictions were lifted and the country was able to begin building a democracy. It was 1991 before the Taiwanese first freely elected their congress and 1996 before they freely elected a president by popular vote.
Taiwan and I have been on the same timeline for independence. I graduated high school in 1986 and was finding my way around adulthood in the 1990s. I feel Taiwan’s pain–my “Motherland” has had trouble letting go as well.
In recent years Beijing has gotten more aggressive in its efforts to bring Taiwan back into their control. Taiwan, no match for China’s military, is pushing back in this war of words, enlisting journalists—including this American one–to fight the good fight for democracy.
To Be Continued