Saturday, December 3, 2016

Little trick

19h-century carved glove puppet theater at Lin Liu Hsin Puppet Theatre Museum in Kaohsiung, via The Star (Malaysia).
I thought the official Chinese response to the President-Elect's little Taiwan phone escapade was pretty sophisticated, combining the expected formal protest from the foreign ministry ("solemn representations") with a display of fairly competent snark from the foreign minister, Wang Yi:
This is only a little trick put up by Taiwan, and it’s impossible to change the ‘One China’ pattern that has formed in the international community. I don’t think the US government will change the ‘One China’ policy it has insisted for years, which is the cornerstone of the healthy development of the Sino-US relations. (Quartz)
Or a "petty trick" in the translation offered by the South China Morning Post. Managing to disrespect President Tsai Ing-wen as a kind of spitballer, making trouble to no serious purpose, and Trump as a helpless simpleton for being gulled by her so easily.

And if you didn't get that last, China's English-language papers were happy to fill it in for you:
“Taiwan made a petty gesture before Trump is sworn in, and Trump responded to it,” state tabloid Global Times wrote, adding he is “not familiar with foreign relations.”
And the ministry got into the act as well, with the same tone of regretful surprise at finding itself involved socially with people who are really not of the better sort:
Geng Shuang, a spokesman for China’s foreign ministry, said in a statement on Saturday: “It must be pointed out that there is only one China in the world and Taiwan is an inseparable part of Chinese territory. The government of the People’s Republic of China is the sole legitimate government representing China.”
Geng added: “This is a fact that is generally recognised by the international community.” (Guardian)
I might add that the official Chinese story about Taiwan being an "inseparable part" of the Motherland is even worse bullshit than the official argument about Tibet, and I'm sure the Chinese officials know that, though it's not the sort of thing they typically talk about.

Taiwan is no more an inseparable part of China than it is of the Netherlands. Taiwan started becoming Chinese around the same time New York started becoming English. The Netherlands has an older title to Taiwan than China does, in fact, having seized it from its mainly Austronesian inhabitants in 1624, at a time when the Chinese authorities were barely aware of its existence. The Dutch encouraged Chinese from across the Strait in Fujian to settle there, but with little success, and the first Chinese to establish an important presence there came in 1661, under the famous half-Japanese guerilla warrior Koxinga (Zheng Chenggong), who came to create a redoubt for Ming-dynasty loyalists after the Manchu Qing-dynasty conquest of mainland China was more or less complete. He defeated the Dutch, and he and his heirs after his death held it until 1683, which is when the Qing forces finally took it and annexed it to the Empire.

Also, they gave it up to the Japanese after the first Sino-Japanese War, in 1894-95, and it was Americans, not Chinese, who liberated it at the end of World War II, treating it as Japanese territory under US occupation until 1952. So in the four millennia of Chinese history Taiwan was part of the Empire for just over 200 years, a lot less than the thousand years they held on in Vietnam.

Meanwhile, with the end of Japanese power on the mainland, the civil war between Communists and Nationalists or Guomindang had resumed, which ended up driving the losing armies to Taiwan in sort of the same way Koxinga had been driven there three centuries earlier, and Chiang Kai-shek's forces assumed power as the remnant of the Republic of China as Koxinga had represented the rump Ming Empire.

They also added a new element to the population of Austronesian aboriginals and increasingly dominant Fujian Chinese—northern Chinese, speakers of Mandarin, taking over as a ruling military caste, reworking the civil service and education system in their own favor, and forbidding the public use of the local Minnan language, and establishing a real fascist-syle dictatorship which lasted for quite a long time before a loosening up made it the prosperous and deeply cool democracy it is today. (I'm supposed to be going there in January myself for the first time, as it happens, which is why I'm a little excited.)

It is this history, in the much broader context of Chinese history, that makes the Beijing authorities freak out so much over Taiwan, not the island itself so much as the dynasty it represents, in this case not a dynasty but the 1911 Chinese Republic. While Beijing likes to refer to Taiwan as a "renegade province", Taipei has generally asserted that the renegades were the ones in Beijing, and relentlessly denied its legitimacy as the government of China, or as a kind of dynasty in its own right. Except when Taiwan is suggesting that it's really an independent country, which the Beijing authorities hate even more. Tsai Ing-wen is the second president from the Democratic Progressive Party, which is the one that has tended to favor independence, and she herself is of particularly local ancestry (a quarter Aboriginal).

BUT NONE OF THIS MEANS THE US PRESIDENT GETS TO MESS AROUND WITH IT as if it were a question of whether to say "Merry Christmas" or "Happy holidays". It is an issue that needs to be stepped around very delicately, especially when China doesn't need a rich Taiwan as much as it once did—
in 1990, Taiwan’s GDP stood at US$170 billion, equivalent to 43.8 per cent of China’s GDP of US$387.8 billion. The island’s GDP jumped to a whopping US$528.3 billion by 2014, at which point it only represented 5 per cent of China’s US$10 trillion, such was the difference in their respective growth rates.
But even today
there are more than 70,000 Taiwanese companies with operations in mainland China, representing total investment of US$133.7 billion, that have been approved by the Taiwanese authorities between 1991 and 2013.
Nevertheless, ever since President Carter (no, it wasn't Nixon who did this) normalized diplomatic relations with the People's Republic of China and abrogated its treaty relationship with the Taipei-based Republic of China in 1979, this is how it has been. The US ensures Taiwan's defenses against the mainland via the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, but doesn't have diplomatic relations with the island, and everybody walks through this field as if it were knee-deep in eggshells, and the US president does not publicly acknowledge the existence of the Taipei government.

Yes, I was so excited I couldn't even spell.

But what I wanted to say is that the takeaway on this for the People's Republic isn't that Trump is some kind of tough negotiator, or politically incorrect. It's that he's STUPID, VAIN, IGNORANT OF THE INTERNATIONAL SITUATION, AND EASILY LED TO DO WHATEVER HIS INTERLOCUTOR WANTS HIM TO DO. The danger isn't that the Beijing government will freak out and start World War III, it's that they will have taken the measure of the man and realized he's an ignoramus and incompetent and when it's time for him to show them his celebrated Art of the Deal they will simply eat him up like the asshole he is. With this stupid phone call, he has thrown away whatever credibility he might have had with them.

Especially in the context that everybody now knows the Trump Organization has been SCOUTING OUT POSSIBILITIES FOR A TAIPEI HOTEL. The Chinese leadership knows all about how to evaluate information like that, on mixing family business with official responsibilities, believe me.

If he wanted to scare the Chinese government, to be honest, it would have been a lot more effective to sign on to the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

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