China Should Let Go

The Chinese political mindset is still very much a statist one, and still very much rooted in the Confucian idealization of the family. This traditionalist, paternalistic attitude characterizes the current Chinese approach to the Taiwan question, and has prompted several pro-Taiwan commentators in the West to use the old saying, if you love someone, let them go; if they come back to you, it was meant to be.

This sentiment comes up in a post by John Dugan, the Betelnut Blogger:

If China backed off on its pressure on Taiwan, I believe you would see a flowering of awareness and pride in the very real and deep connections that exist between China and Taiwan. Identity issues like that are for the people of this island to decide.

This led me to thinking about the American Independence Movement, or as Niall Ferguson puts it, the Second British Civil War (although the one he's thinking of as the First is probably the English Civil War). In his work, Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power, Niall addresses it in Chapter 2 under the heading "Civil War", then revisits the pattern under "Mars", when he compares the different outcomes in the other white colonies of the British Empire:
Durham, Buller, and Wakefield spent just six months in Canada before returning to England and presenting their report. Though primarily concerned with the specific problems of Canadian governance, it had a profoundly important subtext relevant to the whole of the British Empire. Indeed, the Durham Report has a good claim to be the book that saved the Empire. For what it did was to acknowledge that the American colonists had been right. They had, after all, been entitled to demand that those who governed the white colonies should be accountable to representaive assemblies of the colonists, and not simply to the agents of a distant royal authority. What Durham called for in Canada was exactly what an earlier generation of British ministers had denied the American colonies:
a system of responsible government [such] as would give the people a real control over its own destinies ... The government of the colony should henceforth be carried on in conformity with the views of the majority in the Assembly.

The report also implied that the Americans had been right to adopt a federal structure between their states; that too was to be copied in Canada and later in Australia.


So there would be no Battle of Lexington in Auckland; no George Washington in Canberra; no declaration of independence in Ottawa. Indeed, it is hard not to feel, when one reads the Durham Report, that its subtext is one of regret. If only the American colonists had been given responsible government when they had first asked for it in the 1770s -- if only the British had lived up to their own rhetoric of liberty -- there might never have been a War of Independence.

By all accounts, the Americans and the British have gotten along splendidly with a few exceptions since that Civil War (and as Niall relates, it really was a Civil War, with all the internecine struggles that attend to such), and since the end of the Second World War have been even closer.

Now, this is not to say that this is the only model. Great Britain was, after all, a rather smaller country than the incipient United States, and had powerful Continental adversaries in France and Spain. But surely there is something to be said for the model, as the American colonies were, as Niall notes, largely composed of Britons, who thought of themselves, before the War, as Britons first and Americans second.

Nevertheless, the similarities are very striking. In my younger days, I had advocated that the People's Republic consider letting Taiwan go on its own, for the purpose of gaining a sympathetic vote in the UN General Assembly. (This is where Taiwan's relationship with China would best fit into Huntington's theory of the Clash of Civilizations.) Moreover, a sympathetic Taiwan wold be a useful ally against a resurgent Japan, as control of the Taiwan Straits, an indispensible route for the shipment of Middle Eastern oil, would not be complete without the acquiescence of Taiwan.

However, instead of this perspective, China has adopted a traditionalist vision, which dictates that offspring must remain with the parents. This traditionalism, this clannishness, is ironically one of the forces that took the greatest beating from the Cultural Revolution.

It would not be difficult to imagine China apologists defending this aspect of Chinese policy by claiming it to be part of some superior system of "Asian values", as Lee Kwan-yew famously said. This is, however, a duplicitous defense, inasmuch as it goes against the spirit of modernization (which supposedly is what both the Nationalist and the Communists were after), and represents a return to the same "feudalistic" mentality that Maoists loved to condemn during the Cultural Revolution.

As many Chinese parents of Americanized children have come to understand (sometimes even with amusement rather than bitterness), there comes a time when one must let one's children go. If Chinese nationalists insist on referring to the mainland as the "mother country", and Taiwan as some sort of inferior of offspring, perhaps it would be wiser to bear in mind that old saying.

If you love someone, let them go; if they return, then it was meant to be.

Besdies, the level of acrimony is hardly warranted, for more than the reasons of fate (?). After all, temporary disunifications are hardly unusual in Chinese history. As noted by Luo Guanzhong (???) in the first line of his famous novel, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms (????):


It is said that the great pattern under heaven is
Those long apart must unite
And those long united must come apart

Besides, as Niall Ferguson noted with regard to the British Empire, when fellow subjects are given the right to choose for themselves, they remain loyal to the Empire at large; when denied that right, they rebel, and in the end, after all that bloodshed, recognize the brotherhood nonetheless.

Chinese culture and legacy has much to recommend it. But the ChiCom reliance on military intimidation says more about the Party's own (well-founded) insecurities than of its faith in the strength of its arguments.

Sometimes, you just have to let go. The long term results may surprise you.

[Cross-posted at Between Worlds and Naruwan Formosa]

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