Because of my interest in (and love for) Taiwan, people often ask me what I think about the issue of Taiwanese “independence“. This is what I usually say:
Think about Cuba.
Because America’s (insane) policy towards Cuba has nothing to do with Cuba and everything to do with the Florida vote. All politics is local.
Taiwan is a vibrant, independent, democracy. If anyone has a claim over it it is the Japanese, who were colonial rulers there from 1895 to 1945 (not that being imperialists confers any rights). When it was part of the Chinese empire it was a remote frontier territory that was often in open rebellion. It was only during the last twenty to thirty years of Qing rule that the state was able to institutionalize its rule and claim some kind of stability and legitimacy. Yes, culturally the people are “Chinese”, but so is Flushing, NY and the PRC isn’t claiming Flushing (yet…).
No, the only reason the PRC cares about Taiwan is because of local politics. If the Taiwanese can declare independence, then so might Hong Kong, Tibet, Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia, etc. There is a deeply held feeling in China that China could be much greater than it is if it wasn’t for the interference of Western powers in their national affairs. The Taiwan issue also taps into this (not completely unjustified) belief.
Similarly, Taiwanese care about the issue because of local politics as well. At the end of the World War Two the Nationalist Party (KMT), who were loosing the Civil War in China, fled to Taiwan with two million soldiers and maintained their power there through military force. (Read more here.) Martial Law wasn’t lifted until 1987. And not until 1991 was the myth of being at war with the PRC ended. Until that time the KMT still had representatives of each province in China sitting in the national assembly (the Legislative Yuan). Taiwan was considered just a “province” of the Republic of China (ROC), and even had its own provincial government which paralleled the national one. School children were forced to speak Mandarin and learn the names of every railway station in China. This is what the Taiwanese want independence from!
But in many ways the issue is moot. The opposition party won the last elections, local history is taught in the schools, local languages are being taught in the schools (although not as much as they should be), the provincial government has been eliminated, as were the seats held by representatives of mainland provinces, etc. At the same time, 70% of Taiwan’s overseas investment is in the PRC, and over 300,000 Taiwanese are living in Shanghai — many with “second wives” to keep them company while they are away from home. So Taiwan is both more independent from China than it ever has been, and more closely integrated with China than it ever has been. A referendum isn’t going to change very much, but it is a useful way of stirring up nationalist sentiment in an election year.
Of course, it isn’t all about local politics in Taiwan and China. No. It is also about pleasing U.S. senators in states that build things like the “Theatre Missile Defense” (TMD) system — which is totally useless, but which Taiwan buys anyway.