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Paris, Saturday, May 20, 2000

Understanding Taiwan's History

By Philip Bowring International Herald Tribune
HONG KONG - The inauguration Saturday of Chen Shui-bian as president of the Republic of China, better known as Taiwan, is an opportunity for a reworking of relations across the Taiwan Strait. But progress requires more than just a skillful choice of words by President Chen. Above all it needs a better understanding by Beijing of the consequences of Taiwan's long detachment from the mainland. It is not just another province, but an island with its own singular history.

In the first instance, Mr. Chen will need to address in some form Beijing's demand that Taiwan recognize the ''one China'' principle, despite his party's theoretical commitment to Taiwan's independence.

Squaring this circle should not be beyond the wit of Mr. Chen's wordsmiths, provided that Beijing is in a listening mood and does not want to keep banging a nationalist drum over Taiwan for internal purposes. Few object to the notion that in an ideal world all Chinese people should be under one political umbrella. Like world government, it is a remote prospect, but not one worth arguing with.

Mr. Chen has the advantage of relative youth, having been educated both after the Japanese occupation and the Chinese civil war. His Taiwanese identity is the product of his own experience, not of ideology or foreign domination. Nor does he carry what Beijing regards as the stigma of Lee Teng-hui's affinity for the Japanese culture in which he was educated.

Mr. Chen's essential pragmatism, displayed in his previous role as mayor of Taipei, and his nonabrasive demeanor will ensure that he proceeds with due caution, ever mindful of his party's minority position and the need to hold the middle ground of Taiwan politics.

However, no amount of deft footwork will do much good if Beijing insists on treating Taiwan as though the island, which is geographically closer to the Philippines than to the mainland, were another mainland province. An understanding of its history is vital.

China may have a 3,000-year history, but its control of Taiwan dates back only 300 years. Ethnic Chinese have been the majority for an even shorter time. Ironically the Dutch rulers in the 17th century were the first to encourage actively migration from the mainland, which was then hastened by the Ming defeat at the hands of the Manchus.

The aboriginal tribes who were gradually (and often violently) dispossessed and outnumbered are ethnically Malay and speak Austronesian languages akin to those of the islands of Southeast Asia, the South Pacific and Madagascar.

Even under the Ching dynasty, Taiwan had more contact with the outside world than did most of China, thanks to its strategic trading position and economy based on agricultural exports such as sugar, rice and tea. This was particularly the case after treaty ports were established in the mid-19th century.

Taiwan's experience of 50 years of Japanese rule was radically different from that of China or Korea. The legacy was education, infrastructure and industry rather than the destruction wrought on the mainland.

The arrival of Nationalist rule from the mainland in 1945 brought grief and a bloody rebellion to Taiwan. It would take U.S. pressure and money to force reform on the Nationalist Party.

Taiwan's subsequent success has been due to learning manufacturing technology from the United States and Japan and applying it most effectively. It has learned and applied a new political system from the West, in the process supplanting mainland-derived political elitism and authoritarianism with the unemotional but determined populism represented by President Chen.

In short, it has learned nothing from the mainland except the need to be wary of appeals to Chinese nationalism.

Beijing needs to realize that it is not just dealing with a historical legacy of its own civil war, or even of Japanese and Western imperialism. It is also dealing with an entity that is culturally Chinese but has long had a very separate history and has never been given much reason to trust the government in China. Only if the younger generation on the mainland understands this can there be lasting progress toward accommodation.