Daily Archives: 2 May 2005

Taiwan: Nation, Province, or Colony?

Postwar Taiwan is difficult to categorize: is it a nation, a province, or some combination of the two? The case studies of Taiwanese reactions to Nationalist rule contained in this chapter raise still another possibility: a colony. Although even the suggestion of colonialism is politically sensitive, colonialism merits discussion because it captures the complexity of the Taiwanese interaction with the Nationalists and forms part of the ideological underpinning for the independence movement today. Since retrocession, when islanders compared Japanese and Nationalist policies, aspects of colonialism were not defined in any abstract sense, but by the similarities between the pre- and post-1945 administrations.

One common way of describing colonial rule is the model of core and periphery. The metropole is the core, which dominates and exploits the less developed periphery. A variation of this model is the notion of internal colonialism developed by Michael Hechter. Essentially, Hechter places the core-periphery paradigm within one nation-state; in his case study, the Irish, Welsh, and Scots within the United Kingdom. He writes that a “spatially uneven wave of modernization over a state territory creates relatively advanced and less advanced groups.” Hechter points out that the core has economic dominance and political control, and practices “national discrimination on the basis of language, religion or other cultural forms.” The core uses its political power to maintain its advantages, much as a colonial power seeks through direct or indirect rule to dominate a colony. “Disadvantaged groups,” Hechter notes, “are likely to demand that decision-making be ‘localized’ so that their special problem might become appreciated and therefore taken into account in the allocation process.” This describes the goals of the Taiwanese elite.

However, to describe Taiwan as a colony or internal colony under Nationalist rule is problematic. First, this peripheral island was more advanced economically than the mainland. Second, immigrants from the mainland after 1945 were more exiles than colonists. Furthermore, the government struggled to prove that the local population was culturally, politically, and historically one and the same with mainlanders. The Nationalists never thought of themselves as colonizers, and in fact based their legitimacy on a claim of restoring Chinese rule to the island. This idea was even embedded in language, as retrocession (guangfu) became the term used by the Nationalists to describe their takeover of the island after the war. To the Nationalists, three factors “proved” Taiwan was not a colony: international law (the Cairo Declaration returned the island to China), intent (mainlanders did not seek to make Taiwan a colony), and policies (government measures were designed for the entire nation). Specific programs such as local self-government represented the fulfillment of long-term goals for China, not a specific colonial policy.

Nevertheless, when examining the island’s elite, the model of Taiwan as a colony has some validity. The various positions taken by Taiwanese vis-à-vis the Nationalist state, and the divisions among prominent islanders, had many similarities to the pre-1945 colonial experience. As these case studies illustrate, most islanders found ways to reconcile their personal, professional, and political aspirations with the reality of Japanese, then Nationalist, control without resorting to violence. This is not to gloss over the brutality of Jiang Jieshi’s [= Chiang Kai-shek’s] police state…. However, the authoritarianism of the Nationalist regime constituted just one of many factors that shaped the provincial elite’s relationship with the government. Continuing a trend initiated during the Japanese period, many islanders participated in an impotent system of local self-government even as they tried to reform it. Although the Nationalists preferred to have the support of islanders, they were satisfied if Taiwanese simply avoided all political activity and did not openly oppose the regime …

Terms like assimilation and independence do not convey the complexity of the Taiwanese understanding of their place in China and the Republic of China. Most islanders hoped to find a modus vivendi that fell between these two ends of a continuum–usually articulated as a drive for expanded local self-government. In the same way, the term colonialism is too simple and does not fully explain the reality of Nationalist policies on the island, even if the Taiwanese elite reacted like a people living under colonial rule. Perhaps this lack of clarity is to be expected in postwar Taiwan. The advocacy of local self-government, itself an ambiguous concept whose meaning shifted over time, corresponds to this situation just as nationalism can be a reaction to “pure” colonialism. Ultimately, Taiwan is best understood by examining the complex interaction of all three of these seemingly contradictory elements: nation, province, and colony. After the Nationalists’ defeat on the mainland, Taiwan represented a nation with a state that insisted it was a province, and the Taiwanese were a people whose political activity suggested they were living in a colony. Ironically, the real colonizers were the Han Chinese immigrants to the island during the late Ming and Qing periods who had conquered Taiwan and subdued the aboriginal peoples–the first Taiwanese. This fact, like so much of the island’s history, was conveniently forgotten by Han Taiwanese and mainlanders alike.

SOURCE: Between Assimilation and Independence: The Taiwanese Encounter Nationalist China, 1945-1950, by Steven E. Phillips (Stanford U. Press, 2003), pp. 136-139

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