There could be no more fitting illustration of the arrogance of American power in the world than speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s recent visit to the island of Taiwan. After days of breathless will-she-or-won’t she anticipation, and furious Chinese government warnings, Pelosi’s U.S. Air Force C-40 touched down in Taipei a little before 11pm local time on Tuesday August 2nd. It was the first time in twenty-five years an American speaker of the House has visited the island in an official capacity.
Over the next 18 hours Pelosi luxuriated in photo ops with Taiwanese politicians and business leaders, lunched in a colonial mansion once built by occupying Japanese forces, and even found time to stroll around the grounds of a Chinese Nationalist (KMT) detainment center that has been turned into a human rights museum. Placing her visit within a binary global frame of “autocracy” vs. “democracy,” Pelosi spoke repeatedly about the “ironclad” commitment of the United States to Taiwan, an odd statement from the representative of a government that does not recognize Taiwan as an independent state.
Pelosi casually tossed away the suggestion that what she was doing was out of line with longstanding diplomatic precedent, or that her visit was inflammatory at a time of incredible tension between Euro-America and Russia/China. With the world roiling from a brutalizing ground war in Eastern Europe, inflationary pressures across global supply chains, climate catastrophe, two simultaneous pandemics, and the generalized market inequality of 21st-century capitalist life, it is remarkable that Pelosi felt the best use of her time would be to publicly embarrass the Chinese military, then depart the region under US military escort to leave her Taiwanese counterparts – and the people of Taiwan — to face the inevitable backlash.
Flash forward twenty-four hours, and the excited local cheerfulness over official American attention in Taiwan has turned into fretful anxiety over live-fire military exercises around the island launched by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). According to recent reports, eleven dongfeng missiles have landed in the seas around Taiwan (four of which went directly over the island), amidst a six-zone ring of military activity that has been discussed as a potential permanent blockade by the PRC of the island. The economic damage occasioned by Pelosi’s visit is already being borne by Taiwanese farmers, fisherman, and merchants – whose products are now being banned in the PRC — while critical commercial shipping and flight paths have been disrupted, potentially permanently. Taiwan’s air and naval forces, quantitatively overmatched in comparison to their Chinese counterparts, have mobilized for a reactive war. American naval assets continue to stay in the region, but they offer scant information and even less reassurance. Between Taiwan and the Mainland, a new normal of threatened military confrontation, economic disruption, and utter disregard for diplomatic de-escalation seems upon us.
It is critical at this point to produce some kind of grounded critique of how matters have spiraled so completely into this impasse. At the most basic level of analysis one can say that the current predicament is an expression of the long-standing hubris of all three governments involved in the crisis. This has involved the active promotion of discourses and policies that inflame and divide, the weakening over time of de-escalation mechanisms, and the abandonment of productive, long-standing norms. All three governments are culpable in bringing us to this point.
Pelosi’s visit has been called reckless (Thomas Friedman in the New York Times) and the basic contradiction in the US stance regarding the Chinese world has been critiqued (that is, constantly treating Taiwan as an independent state while publicly assuring the PRC that they stand against Taiwan’s independence). The hypocrisy of the Chinese position should also be critically noted: though the PRC proclaims that “across the strait all are one family” (兩岸一家親), if this were even remotely the case why would it be necessary to threaten to invade and occupy Taiwan? By mobilizing for war, China has proven to the world that the Republic of China on Taiwan is an independent country which they can only try to control from the outside. Meanwhile, China’s words and actions will only further amplify the distrust the Taiwanese people feel toward that regime. Each day of military threat to Taiwan creates more of the enemies the PRC claims they need to stamp out. It is a classic expression of a colonizer’s dilemma.
But let us also focus on the Taiwanese government, which is not blameless in this whole affair. While it is sometimes argued that Taiwan as a state is “caught” between two superpowers (or empires) with little agency of its own, in fact Taiwanese governments over time have had considerable options available when it comes to managing cross-straits relations. This is clear with the different nature of those relations under various administrations since democratization (1990s). The Taiwanese government is not a passive actor. Rather, we must look at how current Taiwanese state rhetoric and policies have inflamed tensions considerably since Tsai Ing-wen’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) came to power with a parliamentary majority in 2016. Indeed, with the US and China locked in a battle for global geopolitical and economic hegemony, it will be largely up to the people of Taiwan to come up with productive solutions that keeps war at bay. For this reason, a critique of Taiwan’s government is vitally important.
Cross-straits relations are volatile, and they are held together by a series of necessary and productive ideological sleights of hand (strategic ambiguity, in popular parlance). When the political leaders of the United States abandoned their diplomatic recognition of the ROC on Taiwan in 1972/1979, they were still afflicted by lingering affection for their long standing KMT allies. The US thus passed the Taiwan Relations Act through Congress, which provided for continued arm sales to the island and vague claims about the US defense of the island’s integrity. On the face of it, this is paradoxical. Why would the United States government allow arms sales to a regime whose national legitimacy it had just denied? Here is the first sleight of hand. While the formal derecognition allowed the US to publicly declare fealty to a mandated “one China” policy, the Act allowed the US to declare support for Taiwan; at the same time, all sides began massive capitalist investment in China under Deng Xiaoping’s reforms while also managing and ignoring the ambiguous volatility
For its part, the PRC government always protested the arms sales, but with the re-orientation of the economy towards capitalism, the focus turned to GDP maximization with an influx of foreign investment and market liberalization. Thus, the second ideological sleight of hand: while the ROC on Taiwan was still a de-facto independent state, the PRC on the mainland could insist that a process of peaceful rapprochement and eventual reunification was underway. It could treat the island in juridical terms as one territory among many within one China headed by the CCP. Meanwhile, capitalist market reforms set soon made mainland China one of the world’s largest centers of capital accumulation, while producing deep economic links with both Taiwan and the United States. Indeed, Taiwan remains one of the largest capital investors in China and itself is reliant on the Mainland for a significant portion of its overall exports. In 2021, the Mainland and Hong Kong accounted for 42% of Taiwan’s exports (over 188 billion USD), compared to just 15% for the United States.1 Ambiguous volatility again was managed.
Political and economic normalization across the straits was achieved by the so-called 1992 consensus, essentially an agreement between the CCP and the then-ruling KMT on Taiwan to conceptualize cross-straits relations as a question internal to the Sino-world (what can be called the 中華世界 zhonghua world). Within this framework, disagreements between the two parties over sovereignty, governance, and history were to be worked out directly, on their own timelines, without outside interference. While distrust and armed deterrence still existed, and while threats were always on the horizon and at times exploded into confrontation, nevertheless the consensus struck a fragile but crucial balance. With Taiwan considered by both governments as internal to the Sino-world, the option of removing the island from a pan-Chinese framework (that is, the option of Taiwan declaring independence) was taken off the table, thus respecting the PRC’s ideological red line against an autonomous Taiwanese republic. Connected through independent, if informal, diplomatic relations to Japanese and Euro-American allies, who never stopped their own commercial, technological, and cultural relations with the island, over time, Taiwan was able to build a society defined by democratic governance and intellectual openness. This social form stood as a daily rebuke to the essentialist fantasy about “Chinese culture” being incompatible with democracy. In this sense, Taiwan occupied the Sino-world in a very unique way.
With the election of the DPP in 2016, the fragile commitment to a zhonghua world disappeared. The DPP immediately rejected the 1992 consensus. In rejecting the bilateral framework between Taiwan and China, Tsai’s administration rushed into the arms of the American security empire, almost begging the Americans to make Taiwan into a full neo-colony. And with Trump’s election in the US, US-China tensions began to rise precipitously. From 2016 onward, there have been few positive statements from Tsai Ing-wen and other senior ministers in Taiwan about anything related to China, not just as a country, but as an inherited culture of reference. Instead, there are endless invocations of the shared values of “democracy” and “freedom” that define the “Indo-Pacific” region led by the United States. The DPP’s de-Sinicization efforts have attempted to transform Taiwan, through sheer magical thinking alone, into a society that exists without reference to a larger overall modern Chinese project. This has hollowed the ROC state form of pan-Chinese meaning all together.2 The fine line between Taiwan as geopolitically part of the PRC (rejected by most Taiwanese) and Taiwan as historically part of a Sino (zhonghua) world has been erased.
In this sense, the PRC are not wrong in their critique of the DPP as a political institution committed to de-sinicization. The origins of the DDP as a formal political party can be found in Taiwan’s nativization (本土化) movement, which began from the late 1970s and has gathered momentum over the following three decades, having now become the dominant ideological force on the island. Born out of justified outrage over the denigration of local Taiwanese languages and histories, as well as the authoritarian policies of the KMT’s post-1949 one-party regime, intellectuals such as Yeh Shih-tao, Su Beng, Chen Fangming, Tzeng Guei-hai and many others mobilized post-colonial theory to create a new idea of the Taiwanese as a self-determining people, ethnically, linguistically, historically, and politically distinct from China across the straits.
Taiwanese nativist scholarship is thus marked by an intense search for “Taiwanese subjectivity” (台灣主體性): those elements of Taiwan’s history which can be seen as forming the basis of a distinct national consciousness. As the scholar Su Beng, repeatedly celebrated publicly by Tsai Ing-wen, put it in a famed moment of his nationalist historiography A Four Hundred Year History of the Taiwanese People (台灣人四百年史):
The struggle against A-shan (阿山, i.e. Mainlanders) that defined the 228 revolution… thoroughly destroyed the connections within the realm of consciousness that the Taiwanese people had with the Chinese people, connections that had once existed because of the shared blood relations between them. Taiwanese nationalism, that is the fervent desire for the independence of the Taiwanese ethnic-people, began to advocate for the interests of its people, concerning itself with the fate and future of its people. This thoroughgoing national ideal became the Taiwanese people’s single and highest principle.3
This Taiwanese nationalism is the epistemic fuel that fires the current government’s political agenda in Taiwan. It has upset the delicate balance of cross-strait relations. When the notion of the Sino (中華zhonghua) is completely eliminated, there remains little shared epistemic framework between Taiwan and the PRC, to say nothing of political sympathy or trust. To be clear, it is obvious that Su Beng can say whatever he wishes; it is the Taiwan government’s embrace of this position that contributes now to the epistemic and political impasse.
The tenor of discourse in the Taiwanese media, on the Taiwanese internet, and from sections of the Taiwanese government, make it all but impossible today to suggest that Taiwan must find some way to think the Sino once again. Any such suggestion automatically opens one up to being stigmatized as a sellout, of welcoming unification under PRC rule, or of being a fellow traveler of the CCP. The mayor of Taipei, Ko Wen-je, whose family was a victim of the 228 violence in 1947, has been critiqued in such terms.
Yet material realities of geography, history, language, state structure, as well as forces and relations of production across the strait cannot be dislodged by sheer ideological incantation alone. Has this recent crisis not shown what happens when a government wholeheartedly becomes the pawn of American geo-political gamesmanship? And when the PRC, in its own nationalist interests, takes advantage of this situation?
The Sino-world may be on the precipice of war. The only responsible path forward is to rethink it in loose, flexible, but integrated ways, safeguarding the security, dignity, and peace of the multiple nations, peoples, regions, and societies that comprise it, while recognizing the manifold layers of its material and ideational past, as well as its potentially shared future.
In my view, this rethinking is not possible if the Taiwanese government continues to hold to its unwavering nativist nationalist position, and if it continues to believe in the ideological fantasy that American assistance will provide protection and peace for the island (Vietnam, Korea, Iraq, Afghanistan, among many others, all suggest otherwise). One way of signaling to Beijing a genuine desire for peace would be to start to speak and think through the category of the Sino (zhonghua) once again. The category has served as an important source of fragile cohesion and delicate trust in the region in the past. It also has the added benefit of largely according with the socio-cultural realities of the island’s own life world.
To be clear, a discourse on the Sino is not adequate alone. We need to remain critical of the way in which capitalist accumulation in both societies work to deepen social inequalities, and the way in which “cross-strait” relations are, first and foremost, capitalist relations. Here, it is important not to fall into the trap of “a global analytical turn that takes the culture of the state and the state of culture- not materialist political economy in all its breadth and depth- as the magic conceptual determinant of history and the arbiter of the present/future.”4 When we do so, we normalize the “magical fantasy of capitalism with no limits,”5 which leftist thinkers must resist..
However, if the drums of war are to be silenced, some basic framework must be re-forged to bring cross-strait relations back onto a peaceful track. There is a line of historical socialist thinking in Taiwan- one that stretches from at least Xie Xuehong to Chen Yingzhen- that once upon a time elaborated the Sino as a necessary and productive category to think and manage cross-straits relations. It is this legacy that I propose remains relevant today.6
For its part, Beijing must guarantee that no part of the Sino-world be subject to violence by any other part, and that differences across countries, states, ethnicities, and regions are respected.
Yet is there anybody on either side of the strait that has the courage to think, no less speak, in these terms? Can the US intervention be stemmed? We are talking here not of forced reunification, nor of perpetual military gamesmanship, nor of the fantasy of outside hegemons keeping a chimerical peace. Rather, we are speaking of a quiet federalism of dignity, mutual recognition, and peace.
This, it seems to me, is the only morally responsible position for progressive thinkers. Anything else is just goading on the forces of war.
Mark McConaghy, National Sun Yat-sen University, Kaoshiung, Taiwan
1 See the ROC’s Ministry of Economic Affairs’ Bureau of Foreign Trade for relevant statistics: https://cuswebo.trade.gov.tw. For popular reporting, see Evelyn Chang, “Taiwan’s trade with China is far bigger than its trade with the U.S.” https://www.cnbc.com/2022/08/05/taiwans-trade-with-china-is-far-bigger-than-its-trade-with-the-us.html
2 For a critique of this ideological sleight of hand performed by the Tsai administration, see McConaghy, Mark. “The Potentials and Occlusions of Zhonghua Minguo/Taiwan: In Search of a Left Nationalism in the Tsai Ing-wen Era” Open Cultural Studies, vol. 6, no. 1, 2022, pp. 38-53. https://doi.org/10.1515/culture-2020-0131
3 Shih, Ming (1980). A Four Hundred Year History of the Taiwanese People (台灣人四百年史). Pengdao Culture, p. 1096.
4 Rebecca Karl, The Magic of Concepts: History and the Economic in Twentieth-Century China, Duke University Press, p.72
6 For Xie Xuehong’s socialist project, see Mark McConaghy. “Between Centralizing Orthodoxy and Local Self-Governance: Taiwanese Sinophone Socialism in Hong Kong, 1947-1949” The Journal of Asian Studies (ISSN: 0021-9118). 81:1, pp. 63-79. (February 2022). One of Chen Yingzhen’s most powerful statements regarding what he saw as the historically necessary inter-relationship between socialism and pan-Chinese thought in the Sinitic world is his “Towards a Broader Historical Vision (向著更寬廣的歷史視野),” reprinted in Shi Minhui, ed., 1988, Selections from the Debate on Taiwanese Consciousness (台灣意識論戰選集), Taibei: Qianwei Chubanshe, 31- 37. Chen Kuan-hsing’s leftist critique of Taiwanese nationalist thought is also relevant here: “The slighting of racial, class, gender, and other marginal perspectives with a fixation on ethnicity, is the Taiwanese nationalists’ most tragic blind spot.” Asia as Method: Toward Deimperialization. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, p. 53.