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Taiwan, China share common heritage, checkered history

September 14, 2018

Relations between Taiwan and China have been tense in recent years as Beijing increasingly tries to isolate Taipei globally. The international community should appeal to moderation on both sides, says Alexander Görlach.

Bildkombo - Taiwanesische Präsidentin Tsai Ing-wen vs Chinesichen Präsidenten Xi Jinping
Image: Reuters/T. Siu, picture-alliance/Xinhua/L. TAo

I had just completed my tenure at a university in Cambridge on the US East Coast when I arrived at National Taiwan University to take up the position of visiting scholar. Most certainly, I arrived with an understanding of how complex and painful the aftermath of a civil war can be.

As I left the United States, the nation had descended into a brawl over the flag of the Confederate States, the army of the Southern states that eventually lost to the Northern troops during the American Civil War. There are still plenty of monuments in the South that celebrate the military achievements of those days. More than 150 years later, the US remains divided on the interpretation of its history.

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I reencountered much of this in Taiwan. The island state has its origins in the Chinese Civil War. In 1949, the defeated Kuomintang party of Chiang Kai-Shek retreated to the island. They remained convinced that they were still representing the real China that had become a republic under their leadership only a few decades ago.

For the coming decades, the notion of reclaiming mainland China remained a crucial part of their rhetoric — despite the fact that their large neighbor was already on its way to becoming an economic superpower. The People's Republic of China on her part considers the island republic a renegade province.

As always, when the victors and the defeated interpret their history, conflicts arise. Only in 1992 did both parties finally agree to accept the notion of "one China," although differences in its conception persist.

Kommentarfoto: Prof. Dr. Dr. Alexander Görlach
'One thing is certain: neither will Taiwan reclaim mainland China, nor will the People's Republic occupy and undermine Taiwan,' says GörlachImage: Harvard University/D. Elmes

Dealing with 'transitional justice'

As a German, I'm well acquainted with this gimmick: during the post-World War II period, both German states — the democratic West Germany and the communist East Germany — considered themselves to be legitimate representatives of the "one Germany." As each had a powerful ally — the US and the Soviet Union, respectively — they were both able to leave their mark on international politics. 

What could the experiences of both the United States of America and the Federal Republic of Germany mean for the conflict between the People's Republic of China and Taiwan? First and foremost, it signals that both sides should continue their work on the consensus of 1992 to pave the way for a better future. Neither side should be forced to lose face in this process. 

Because one thing is certain: neither will Taiwan reclaim mainland China, nor will the People's Republic occupy and undermine Taiwan. Both states share a common heritage and a chequered history. Today Taiwan is a modern, open and tolerant democracy. It has nothing in common with the dictatorship that the Kuomintang had brought to the island when they arrived in 1949.  As a German, this aspect of recent Taiwanese history was of extraordinary interest to me. I was often invited to speak on "transitional justice."

A clear question leads the discipline: how should democratic states deal with representatives and agents of their dictatorial past? Germany, too, is still discussing the right approach to reunification thirty years on. In the communist east, citizens were disenfranchised, imprisoned and tortured. When the regime collapsed, victims and perpetrators had to learn how to live together in the new Germany. 

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China vs. Taiwan - controversy over flight route M503

Highlighting the democratic model

During my time in Taiwan, I realized that the young generation dissociates itself from that heritage. The Civil War, which ended in 1949, is far away. Hence, they consider themselves Taiwanese rather than Chinese.  

The rest of the world should appeal to moderation on both sides of the conflict. In doing so, it is important to point out the democratic and liberal model of Taiwan. The island is, after all, one of Germany's and the European Union's most important trading partners. Taiwan, once again, exemplifies the success of the democratic model: political and economic freedoms go hand in hand and eventually lead to prosperity and harmony. Despite our friendship with China, Taiwan will thus remain a special ally among the Asian states.  

The People's Republic of China won the Civil War. It is in China's interest to interpret the outcome of the war in its own words. In this regard, the country is not acting exceptionally. That provides context, but does not excuse Beijing's behavior. The Chinese leadership under President Xi Jinping has not shown any intention of restoring the wisdom and harmony between the two unequal siblings. Should that happen in the future, the People's Republic of China will have achieved its goal of becoming a distinguished and responsible actor on the international stage. 

Alexander Görlach is a Harvard Scholar and a Senior Research Associate at the Institute on Religion and International Studies at the University of Cambridge, UK. He is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs and honorary professor for ethics and theology at the University of Lüneburg, Germany. He holds PhDs in comparative religion and linguistics.