A Look at China’s Disunification Problem, and How It Relates to Taiwan

July 18, 2022 Updated: July 30, 2022


The world has been overly worried about Taiwan being invaded by China under its reunification program. Instead, it should focus more on the communist country’s disunification problem and learn more about the true wishes of the bonded peoples on its vast peripheries.

Since Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen got reelected in a 20-point landslide against a pro-Beijing candidate back in early 2020, there haven’t been many days on which China did not send swarms of warplanes and battleships to harass and threaten the democratic island state. China claims such actions to be expected in its effort to “reunify” China. With Putin’s Ukraine war as a backdrop, that kind of gangster-like behavior may have Taiwan’s friends justifiably worried.

But in reality, China has been saddled with more problems than its leaders can handle. Xi Jinping’s generals should be smart enough to see that invading a well-fortified island state at least 80 miles away is not as easy as walking over and wiping out your fenceless neighbour.

That was the main reason the Germans could never pocket Britain during WW2 as they did France, even though the English channel was only 20 miles wide between Calais and Dover. And that was also why in 1949, upon overrunning China, some 20,000 troops from Mao’s PLA sent to capture Kinmen, a tiny island located within loudspeaker distance from China’s coast still held by Chiang Kai-shek’s ragtag holdouts, couldn’t do it and instead were 100 percent killed or captured in the Battle of Guningtou (古寧頭戰役).

But before doing a Normandy, can’t China first neutralize Taiwanese defense through a missile barrage? Possible, but likely too late. The island state has already developed credible deterrence. Since 2019, Taiwan has been batch-producing its 3rd generation mobile-launch, supersonic precision S2S attack missiles with Beijing, Shanghai, Wuhan, and even the nuclear submarine base in Yulin, Hainan within range.

China’s soft power projection is not working in Taiwan either. The most recent update of a biannual poll by the reputable National Chengchi University’s Election Study Center shows the number of people there favoring “reunification” with China to be 6.5 percent; a record low reached in a sustained downtrend.

All this shows that, at least for the near-to-medium term, Taiwan is relatively safe from China’s “reunification” efforts. The West should focus on the opposite: China’s handful of disunification problems on its vast, historically troubled peripheries.

Within the Chinese boundary of effective control are numerous ethnocultural groups that have never been assimilated into predominantly Han China. Many of them are growing apart regarding their self-identification. The biggest include the Tibetans, the Uyghurs, the Mongolians, and the Hongkong people. Victims of the China regime, these peoples, each with its distinctive culture, language, religion, and history, have been forcibly tethered, absorbed, and finally held down, either by outright military conquest or through a system of control that progressed through stages. The latter, known first in the Tang Dynasty as Jimi (繫縻 cattle and horse tethered), then during the Yuan Dynasty as tusizhi (土司制, governing through co-opted indigenous leaders), and now trumpeted by Xi as One-Country-Two-Systems, was forced upon Hong Kong in 1997.

How should one think about these people and their lands? They nominally belong to China but are, in reality, colonies. Their subjects are treated as third-class citizens, oppressed culturally and politically just like those in actual colonies past and present, often worse. For that, the West criticizes China on human rights grounds. That is necessary but insufficient because it mainly looks at the form of the oppression—loss of freedom, physical abuse, and so on, as harm is done primarily to the individual while missing the historical context and hence the origin and nature of the oppression, which is the wholesale subjugation of ethnoculturally different peoples by the CCP regime and its close supporters. If not for the need to abide by the international norm of respecting sovereign rights, the natural and proper remedy for this oppression is national liberation.

A historical parallel makes this clear. If the sufferings inflicted on colonial Americans could not be simply reduced to violations of their human rights, then there are even fewer grounds for making that reduction regarding the peoples in China’s internal colonies. If it was righteous for the 13 American colonies to fight for and help themselves to nationhood in 1776, then national liberation for the Tibetans, Uyghurs, and Hongkongers could be justified several times over.

But if the world needs a compromise, a good example is the case of Taiwan.

Before the name “Taiwan” became common, the island had been populated exclusively by indigenous people. Five groups of colonists then successively encroached upon it, either partially or wholly, decimating the natives even as they mixed blood, languages, and custom. From that checkered past, Taiwanese (台灣人), a people with a unique identity, came into being, partaking in Indigenous, Dutch, Manchurian, Chinese, and Japanese biological and cultural genes in different proportions. Things got better for them, especially after the 1990s, when it democratized as a fully autonomous entity.

But with Taiwan rising, communist China has become the biggest bully, blatantly claiming the entire island as its own, a position not recognized by the major Western powers but which often gets lost in the loud and warlike propaganda from Beijing.

America, for instance, consistently holds that, while it takes note of Beijing’s claim of “there being only one China, which includes Taiwan” and does not openly challenge it, it has its One-China Policy, which recognizes no sovereignty claim of any kind by any party regarding Taiwan, consistent with the San Francisco Treaty of 1951 which formally ended WW2. That treaty specifically required Japan to relinquish possession of and power to govern the island but deliberately left its future status undefined because of its history.

That lack of certainty has served Taiwan well enough. The American strategic recognition of this ambiguity regarding the sovereign status of Taiwan underpins the other, more well-known, strategic ambiguity regarding a direct American role in defense of the island state in case China invades.

The equally unfortunate history of the peoples and their lands on the rest of China’s periphery and the harsh political reality they suffer together justify recognizing a degree of ambiguity regarding their sovereign status similar to that of Taiwan. This does not mean that the West should actively seek China’s disunification. Still, insofar as that process reflects the freedom wishes of the bonded peoples living inside the Chinese territorial boundaries and has distracted Chinese military planners from pursuing their imperialistic ambitions outside them, it is not necessarily a bad thing.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Professor Lian was born and raised in Hong Kong. He obtained his B.A. in mathematics from Carleton College and his PhD in economics from the University of Minnesota. Lian has published extensively in academic and professional publications, and among his many books is a travelogue of his round-Taiwan cycling trip.