Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Cross-strait semantics

When one is as immersed in the fascinating world of politics of identity and sovereignty in Taiwan as I am (which probably applies to many readers), the seemingly careless manner in which academics and the media use of words to characterize relations across the Taiwan Strait can be frustrating. Seen through this lens, terminology such as “Mainland,” “island” and “one China” take on a special meaning.

Three terms that are bandied about as if they were interchangeable are deserving of special consideration, as their meaning is in fact quite divergent: reunification, unification, and annexation.

Reunification is often used, though not exclusively, by the regime in Beijing, which continues to claim that Taiwan is part of China. Aside from historical documentation supporting the fact that Taiwan never was part of China and that it was not “returned” to China after the end of World War II, it would be an even more grievous fallacy to claim that Taiwan is part of the People’s Republic of China.

Unification, meanwhile, implies that the two sides are in favor of a union and that both are proactively pursuing that objective. While both the regime in Beijing and Chinese in general agree to that goal, poll after poll in Taiwan has shown that the great majority of people in Taiwan (90 percent) support the “status quo” rather than a union with China. As such, when one side favors an outcome that is not sought by the other, the term unification is inapplicable.

Which brings us to the third term, annexation, which is a far better description of the situation in the Taiwan Strait. Annexation involves the appendage of a small entity to a larger one, and though it does not do so explicitly, it also implies a force imbalance in the relationship, meaning that the union is sought against the will of the smaller entity. As we have seen, despite the cross-strait rapprochement launched by the Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) administration and growing cross-strait exchanges in the economic, social and political spheres, the desire for a union with China does not exist at the moment (in fact, support for the “status quo” has grown in inverse proportion to cross-strait integration over the past 20 years). Annexation would gain special meaning if Ma’s policies engendered such dependence on China as to put Taiwan in a straightjacket.

Three words, all used as if they meant the same thing; but in fact, they are laden with implications regarding history, dynamics, and will. For readers who are acquainted with the history of Taiwan’s relations with China, it is easy to tell which words are closer to approximating the truth. But for readers abroad, who may not know much about the situation — but whose support could be key one day — misuse of the terms could create false impressions and mislead them as they make decisions.


Anonymous said...

Semantics are a very important issue, and glad you raised it. And on this subject, one could take it a step further.

Unless I'm missing something, there is no distinction drawn between "re" unification and unification in Chinese.

But more importantly, the terms "unification," "independence," and "status quo" are thrown around without much thought given to what they mean.

For example, it is common nowadays to say the KMT is driving Taiwan toward "unification" (or "reunification")with China. What exactly does unification mean, and what form would it take?

Likewise, it has been common to say that the DPP has been driving Taiwan toward "independence." What exactly does "independence" mean, and what form would it take?

Taking it a step further, what is "China?" This may sound like a silly question, but use of the word "China" (zhongguo or even zhonghua) by itself can be pretty ambiguous. Are we talking PRC, ROC, or some sort of as-yet-to-be defined political state?

These states -- unification/reunification, independence, and China -- are rarely if ever defined with precision.

First, people seem to assume that unification means a change in the ROC's political status, internationally, domestically, and with regard to the PRC. In effect, the abrogation of the ROC constitution, abandonment of its claims on international sovereignty, and transition to the status of a province equal to Sichuan, Fujian, or Hubei.

Or, unification could be defined in terms of Deng Xiaoping's or Jiang Zemin's "one country, two systems."

In either of these cases, unification means the political and legal subjugation of the democratically elected ROC political leadership to the Chinese Communist Party in Beijing and the PRC constitution. China is defined as the PRC.

Here is where great care needs to be taken. It's unrealistic on so many levels to think of unification on these terms. Sure, this is Beijing's definition. But the notion of the KMT subjugating itself politically and legally to the Communist Party of China and the PRC constitution? No friggin way, and I would argue that the KMT would be very willing to fight to prevent this.

So what are other forms of unification? You've defined unification as "two sides are in favor of a union and that both are proactively pursuing that objective." This is a good start, and could be refined in much more detail. The basic premise if that a union could not subject the ROC legally to the PRC.

Trails tend to lead toward some form of commonwealth in which neither the PRC or ROC is subjected to the other. There are various forms that a commonwealth union could take, but generally some legal document is drawn up based on careful negotiation regarding how much authority to give to a governing body. It could be merely symbolic or there could be substantive aspects to it, usually functional in nature.

This notion of a commonwealth has been viewed as acceptable some independence advocates, if done the right way. Seems strange, huh? DPP/TSU people could actually agree to unification, as defined in the context of some form of commonwealth?

Or, would a commonwealth or confederation solution not only be a form unification but also a form of independence?

What exactly is "independence?" People seem to think that the DPP was hell bent on it, but rarely if ever has it been defined. Are we talking about independence in the form of a new Republic of Taiwan with a new constitution? Is there a draft constitution available to review, or is it too secret or sensitive for public dissemination?

I suspect the answer is maybe, but not in any serious way. I have yet to meet a DPP, TSU opinion leader or independence advocate with much of a vision or strategic-mindedness at all. With few exceptions, all very tactical about how to win the next election, how to personally position oneself for advancement, and with lots of spears to throw with few solutions.

Anyway, starting to ramble but it all starts with this issue you raise -- semantics.

Tim Maddog said...

Anonymous (9:00 PM) wrote:
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Unless I'm missing something, there is no distinction drawn between "re" unification and unification in Chinese.
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No distinction? Think "回歸" (a word often used in describing Hong Kong's return in 1997) for "reunification" vs. "統一" for "unification."

Tim Maddog

Άλισον said...

Tim's translation is quite good.

Reunification is never used for describing the future relationship of China and Taiwan on Taiwan's side.

For clarity, I have used the word unification this way:

China seeks to "unify" (annex!) Taiwan, by force if necessary whereas Taiwanese seeks to safeguard the de-facto nation from China's missile threat.

Thomas said...

One symantic issue that always has me scratching my head is the use of the term "mainland" in Hong Kong. I kid you not, in the SCMP and other English-language papers, they don't say China. It is always "the mainland".

I brought this up to one Chinese person before, and she said she thought it was a way for Hong Kong people to insist that they were different. I think she is totally wrong. The media is in the pocket of the government, and it seems that the use of the term is stylistically imposed. I think the reason is that they don't want to imply that Hong Kong is not a part of China. So if China releases some economic statistics, they don't call them Chinese statistics. They call them "mainland" statistics.

And it gets weirder when you consider that, in Chinese, the mainland is not the mainland here. It is "neidi" (the hinterland). So they overuse an English term that makes no sense (most of Hong Kong is part of the mainland -- not on an island). But in Chinese, they seem to have made the distinction.

Aside from that, the use is the same. In the Chinese papers, it is is "neidi" this and "neidi" that. You would think that China never did anything.

At least, in the case of Taiwan, it is still not incorrect to refer to the mainland as a place in opposition to an island.

Tim Maddog said...

Thomas wrote:
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At least, in the case of Taiwan, it is still not incorrect to refer to the mainland as a place in opposition to an island.
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I must disagree because of this part of the definition of "mainland":
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the principal land of a country, region, etc.
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For people in Penghu or Orchid Island, for example, the "principal land of [the] country" would be here in "mainland Taiwan," and the "nèidì" would be Nantou.

In Taiwan, I've never heard anyone use "the mainland" to refer to anything other than the PRC (which is what I mean when I say "China"), so unless the word "mainland" is used in the phrase "mainland Asia" (亞洲大陸), it incorrectly implies that Taiwan is a "non-principal" part of that foreign country across the Strait.

More resources:
* Wikipedia entry "Mainland China"
* YouTube video "Mr. Chuang wants green media to stop saying 'mainland'"

Tim Maddog

Anonymous said...

Tim's correction on Chinese terms for reunification versus unification (huigui versus tongyi) is helpful. I'm curious why Chinese authorities adopted "tongyi" WRT to Taiwan after dropping "liberate."

"Annexation" is an appropriate substitute for "unification," assuming you're talking about legal subordination of Taiwan (or ROC) to China (or PRC). Annexation involves the joining of two sovereign entities.

Annexation is distinct from "amalgamation," which is another term that has been used in lieu of "unification." Bonnie Glaser, who usually is careful with her words, used this term in an Asia Times editorial last year in which she outlined policy recommendations for the incoming Obama administration. In the political world, amalgamation is the joining of two entities within one single sovereign jurisdiction.

Thomas said...

Tim, I think you are being too restrictive about the use of the term. Nobody said that Taiwanese think of "mainland" as a political term as anything but China. The comment that you disagree with merely indicates that China IS on the mainland from the point of view of someone in Taiwan. The comment does not say that China is the mainland. The "correctness" of any statement therefore depends on the usage of the speaker. For example, if I said, "A cold-air mass swept from the mainland across Taiwan, this would be indisputable if the speaker is thinking of Taiwan as an island.

I think this is important because, while politics and semantics do go hand and hand, some flexibility in usage should be accounted for based on contexts which are not at all political.

MikeinTaipei said...

Thanks to all for the enlivened and enlightening discussion — learning much from this. Just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, I guess in this situation the political meaning of certain words is also contingent on who is doing the speaking, and in what frame of mind. Personally, my preferred term is “proper,” as in Taiwan proper (as distinguished from outlying islands) and China proper (as distinguished from Hong Kong, Hainan and Macau). But here, too, we can run into problems, as someone in China could use “China proper” while still considering Taiwan as being part of China (same with continental China, which has its analogue in, say, the relationship between CONUS and Hawaii). Tricky stuff, which again emphasizes the difference in usage and cognition between those who live the conflict on a daily basis, and those who don’t and therefore might not be as informed on the implications.

Anonymous said...

Just one small addittion:

My personal experience is, that many Chinese I talked to rather dislike the term "mainland", and preferred China as they perceived the term mainland degrading towards China...

But, I don't think its not that important after all. The English used to refer to the rest of Europe as the continent, right? Didn't really turn them into greater fans of the EU I guess.

Tim Maddog said...

Thomas, I stand by my above comment -- to which you replied:
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The "correctness" of any statement therefore depends on the usage of the speaker. For example, if I said, "A cold-air mass swept from the mainland across Taiwan, this would be indisputable if the speaker is thinking of Taiwan as an island.
- - -

I dispute it.

I must emphasize that in Taiwan, "the mainland" usually means "mainland [sic] China" -- not "the Asian mainland." Hence, it's not appropriate, even if some think it's "indisputable."

If I changed your sentence to read "A cold-air mass swept from the Asian mainland across Taiwan," that would be indisputable.

People really need to pay much closer attention to these things in order to understand the deeper ramifications.

Tim Maddog