Issue: 2007: Vol. 6, No. 2, Commentary

Taiwan: A Key to China’s Rise and Transformation

Article Author(s)

Fei-Ling Wang

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FPIF contributor Fei-Ling Wang is professor of international affairs at the Georgia Institute of Technology, whose most recent book is Organizing through Division and Exclusion: China's Hukou System. He can be reached at [email protected]
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Taiwan: A Key to China’s Rise and Transformation(This article first appeared in Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF), a joint project of the International Relations Center (IRC, and the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS,, December 21,, 2006; reprinted with permission from FPIF)

The peaceful rise of China is in the fundamental interest of the Chinese people and world peace. But as Chinese power and confidence increase rapidly, so has international scrutiny and reaction. The United States and its allies, the currently dominant powers, will very likely develop more misgivings about China’s rise, unless Beijing also becomes a responsible stakeholder in and shares the basic values and norms of the global community.

Therefore, a peaceful rise of China increasingly depends on the successful political transformation of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in the direction of the rule of law and democracy. Key in catalyzing this profound change is the tenacious, democratic, and unduly marginalized Chinese political opposition: the Republic of China (ROC) on the island of Taiwan.

The Qin System as the Sword of Damocles

Since the time of its first emperor Qin Shihuang in the 3rd century BC, China has been under a centralized, authoritarian, and imperial rule. In 1912, when the ROC was created on the mainland as Asia’s first republic, the two-millennia-old Qin political system was poised for fundamental change in the direction of the rule of law, greater respect for human rights, and increased local autonomy as well as democracy and freedoms of press and assembly. However, plagued by repeated external and internal wars, the self-serving leaders of the ROC and their ill-equipped opponents tragically retarded China’s political progress. In 1949, a peasant rebellion colored with imported communist ideology created the PRC and drove the ROC offshore to Taiwan. Mao Zedong, the PRC’s self-proclaimed new Qin Shihuang, perpetuated and intensified China’s despotic political tradition.

After three decades of phenomenal economic reform and growth, today’s China is once again on the verge of departing from its Qin system. Yet, successful political reform of the PRC is still far from certain. Overplaying the fear of chaos and overselling the achievement of a rapid, albeit highly uneven, economic growth, Beijing still appears to be unwilling and perhaps also unable to democratize peacefully. The current leadership therefore risks precipitating another “big bang” type of crisis, a repeat of the cyclical crashes that have plagued Chinese political history since the Qin dynasty. Political fragility, the institutional suffocation of human rights and innovation, and out-of-control corruption all combine to fashion a sword of Damocles that hangs over the future of China.

The rise of China is thus in danger of stagnating, straying, or derailing—with dire international implications. A new superpower with the Qin political system and worldview, if such a regime could really elevate China to the height of global power, would be a disaster for the Chinese people and world peace. A China that has collapsed under the weight of corrupt governance would be an equal, if not greater, catastrophe.

The Taiwan Story

Taiwan is key to the political reform of the PRC and the peaceful rise of China. By surviving the Cold War and evolving into a vibrant and prosperous democracy, the ROC in Taiwan has become a de facto and viable political opposition to the undemocratic PRC in Greater China (which includes Hong Kong and Macao). Over the past decades, the Taiwanese have proudly proven that Western ideas of capitalism, freedom, and rule of law can thrive together with Chinese culture. Driven by the combined force of bottom-up and top-down efforts as well as complementary foreign influences, the Taiwanese successfully introduced and expanded local elections, fought hard for a free press, and managed to establish a young democracy.

The Taiwan story of solid economic growth and peaceful political change is a great success story for all Chinese, on and off the island. In addition to the massive transfer of capital, technology, and socioeconomic norms and values to the mainland over the past two decades, Taiwan can also serve as a powerful model and leverage for political changes in the PRC.

Yet, having long enjoyed a de facto independence, many in Taiwan are now aggressively searching for full, de jure independence. A democratic Taiwan seeking to leave China paradoxically undermines democratic transformation on the mainland. In fact, the Taiwan issue has served to justify and magnify rising Chinese nationalism, instilling excessive humiliation, anger, and frustration among Chinese against outsiders rather than against internal injustices and irrationalities. This nationalist reaction also gives the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) a means to steer Chinese away from learning from the Taiwanese experience and pushing for democracy at home.

Driven by powerful indoctrination or simple nationalist feelings, most Chinese in and outside of the PRC are highly united over the Taiwan issue. It goes beyond a mere dispute over territory. Indeed, many historical, cultural, economic, political, and emotional arguments can be made for why unification with Taiwan lies at the core of China’s national interest and also legitimates the one-party rule of the corporatist alliance of the PRC’s governing elite. Like it or not, so many Chinese have pinned their own sense of dignity, pride, and destiny on the Taiwan issue that even a war with the United States seems to be a tolerable price to pay.

Target or Catalyst?

The Taiwan issue is consequently not just the biggest problem between the PRC and the United States, as statesmen and analysts have been insisting for decades. It has become a key factor shaping China’s overall foreign policy and the PRC’s internal political development, which affects the future of China, East Asia, and beyond. It may drive the rising Chinese power irreversibly into the horrific, dead-end alley of militarism and imperialism. But it may also facilitate the PRC’s transformation into creating a democratic and peaceful nation in Greater China before it is too late. Taiwan, under a conditional unification with the Chinese mainland, could become a powerful catalyst of change to help reform the PRC and enable a peaceful rise of China. Much bigger and unevenly developed, China indeed must travel the inevitable road of political reform in its own way and at it own pace, but in the same general direction as the Taiwanese. And Taiwan can help solidify, quicken, and smooth that process.

Unfortunately, leaders on both sides of the Taiwan Strait have discounted and marginalized the Taiwan story. Rather than viewing Taiwan as a viable force of political opposition and a model of successful political change, China sees the ROC as just a local regime seeking independence in the refuge of foreign protection. Even though Beijing’s stubborn refusal to enact political reforms has made independence ever more attractive to many Taiwanese, the words and acts by many in Taiwan for full independence have served to deprive the ROC of its rightful political influence in Greater China. Shrewdly seizing upon the opportunity, Beijing has successfully portrayed Taipei as an anti-China traitor that has harmed and divided the Motherland, leading many Chinese simply to despise and reject Taiwan’s experience. As such, Beijing, and the world, continually underestimate and undermine Taiwan’s catalytic role.

Toward a New Consensus

Beijing’s political rivalry with Taipei should stimulate, rather than stifle, China’s democratization. Instead of propelling China into imperialism and militarism, Chinese nationalism could become a powerful driving force to constrain the rising Chinese power and reorient it toward democracy and peace. Taiwan must act as a catalyst for China because only with a democratic, free, and peaceful China can the Taiwan story securely continue. Unless the Taiwanese are willing and able to fight and win a war of independence against the ever powerful China, Taiwan will lose its de facto autonomy in the not-too-distant future, not to mention the impractical cause of full independence.

Only by assisting the peaceful rise and change of China can Taiwan solidify lasting support from the United States. Otherwise, the American national interest could conceivably lead to a new Sino-U.S. strategic compromise in the Western Pacific and take away Taiwan’s most important bargaining chip, effectively bringing the Taiwan story to an abrupt end. To help China change politically and rise peacefully, and also for Taiwan’s own future, the Taiwanese must sacrifice their understandable but ultimately self-defeating desire for full independence.

The latest signals from Taipei are promising. The opposition leader Ma Ying-Jeou, while upholding the “one-China” principle, insists that unification with the Chinese mainland must be conditional. The PRC must democratize, and Beijing must be held accountable for its misdeeds. More encouraging, many senior cadres of the ruling party (which has traditionally supported independence) now assert that “unification is one of our future choices, too,” while echoing Mr. Ma’s conditions. The maturing Taiwanese democracy, with a stabilizing two-party system, seems to be rising to the occasion by bravely making hard choices about a future inseparable from the destiny of Greater China.

American Interests

The United States must assist in this process. Ignoring or neglecting the situation will only further marginalize the ROC and diminish the PRC’s chance of democratic political reform and the likelihood of China’s peaceful rise. In addition to the three U.S.-China Communiqués and the Taiwan Relations Act, the United States should develop a two-pronged policy. First, the United States should continue to help Taiwan defend itself. This security commitment, if conditioned by the U.S. “one-China” policy, will not be perceived as hostile by a rising Chinese power. The United States must use any means to oppose attempts to change Taiwan’s autonomy and political system by force. To allow an undemocratic power to use force to destroy a young democracy and re-impose the Qin system on Taiwan would not only be a fatal blow to America’s global leadership but would also spell the end of the hope for a peaceful rise of China.

Second, Washington should actively support a peaceful, conditional unification between Taiwan and the PRC, not just a vague “resolution” of the Taiwan issue. This way, America’s security commitment to Taiwan will be much easier for the Chinese people to understand and accept. A timetable for China’s conditional unification should be linked directly and clearly to verifiable political changes in the PRC. Nationalist desires for unification among the Chinese, including many elites, will generate the kind of incentives and energy for political change in Beijing that few external pressures could ever achieve. It will be a great awakening for the Chinese people to see that the biggest obstacle to China’s national unification and peaceful rise lies in Beijing’s refusal of political reform: a powerful message that will help to reshape minds, paradigms, policies, and paths.

As part of its long-term strategic interest, the United States should urge and facilitate direct Beijing-Taipei talks about their one-China political future. The United States should not shy away from the leadership and broker’s role that are historically an American interest and obligation. Washington should also not to be deterred by any criticism from Beijing about interference in internal affairs or derailed by radical claims of some lobby groups at home.

Unification and Transformation

Taiwan is therefore a very precious and highly potent catalyst for China’s rise and transformation. It must not be marginalized. Imagine how Taiwan’s very Chinese but free media, legal norms and practice, and multiparty democracy could, on direct contact with and extensive presence in the PRC, captivate, energize, and edify the Chinese people on the mainland. Taiwan’s role of catalyst is especially valuable given that Beijing now seems to be lacking both the appetite and the stamina to engineer its own democratization.

A federation-style political integration under the rule of law will allow the Greater China to abandon the Qin political system for good. Only when the Chinese government is accountable to its own people can (and should) there be a peaceful rise of China. Toward that end, a democratic and free Taiwan will work wonders when it genuinely—but conditionally—unites with China.