The actor and professional wrestler John Cena recently made news around the world for first referring to Taiwan as “the first country” where people would be able to see his new movie, “The Fast and the Furious 9,” then apologizing for an unspecified error in that statement when it brought a backlash from people within China.
Not to criticize Cena – indeed, I applaud him for his rare decision to learn Chinese and interact with native speakers in their own language – but these events nevertheless reveal important and persistent misunderstandings about Taiwan.
Cena’s apology highlights two things: the power of ideas – in this case, the idea that Taiwan is an “integral part of China’s historical territory” – and the geopolitical and economic power of countries like China to shape opinions and actions both domestically and around the world. These two forms of power coincided in these recent events. Let’s take this opportunity to better understand the history that lies behind such ideas, at a moment when Taiwan has received much deserved attention for its successful management of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The oft-repeated dictum about Taiwan’s territorial status was not widely held within China in 1895, the year that the Qing Dynasty ceded Taiwan, which it had annexed in 1684, to Japanese colonization. When Qing officials received Japan’s territorial demands in the wake of the First Sino-Japanese War, they ardently defended the Liaodong Peninsula, in Manchuria, as essential imperial territory, but viewed Taiwan as a shield that could be surrendered. Although some individuals insisted that Taiwan must be retained, or at least not surrendered to Japan, most viewed it as less important than Liaodong.
Taiwan’s relative standing reflected the fact that knowledge within the Qing government of Taiwan’s geography was so limited that it was not until the 1870s that serious efforts began to govern the majority of the terrain. Similarly, an official handbook for Fujian Province from 1871 presented a vague description for the location of Diaoyutai – today a hotly contested site that also often gets the label of “an integral part of Chinese territory since ancient times” – and described it as a place where “over a thousand large ships” could berth.
These opinions and depictions do not suggest that Taiwan and its environs rose to the level of integral territory for Qing-era Chinese. Historians have shown that popular and official discussion of Taiwan as a part of China, and formal efforts to gain control of Taiwan by the government of the Republic of China (ROC) and its ruling Nationalist Party, originated in the 1930s and 1940s, within the context of anti-Japanese sentiment and war.
Within Taiwan itself, officials and elites expressed strong opposition to the act of incorporation into Japan’s empire and launched a number of rhetorical, diplomatic, and military endeavors to prevent this colonial occupation. However, some attempted to avoid colonization only by Japan and were amenable to annexation by Britain or France instead. More significantly, at the end of a two-year period in which, as stipulated by the Treaty of Shimonoseki that ended the war, all Qing subjects residing in Taiwan had the opportunity to decide if they would stay there or live in China, less than 10,000 out of roughly 2.5 million inhabitants had crossed over the Taiwan Strait. Thereafter, although both violent and non-violent resistance to the Japanese colonial regime remained a recurring feature of Taiwan’s history, it was couched in terms of preventing either encroachment into indigenous lands or the eradication of social and religious practices, and rarely if ever in the language of reunification with China. Taiwanese remained interested in China, of course, but as a source of inspiration for local cultural and political movements, an ancestral homeland to be visited, or a site for lucrative business activities. However, as the Taiwanese author, Wu Zhuoliu, highlighted with the main character in his novel, “Orphan of Asia,” many of the Taiwanese who went to China felt unwelcome there and disconnected from it.
In more historical terms, a number of scholars, including myself, have demonstrated the creation of distinctive Taiwanese identities during the years of Japanese rule. Far from following the intentions of Japanese assimilation policies, residents of Taiwan drew upon their cultural heritage, new professional and labor associations, globally circulating ideas of self-determination and participatory politics, and modern cosmopolitanism to forge new identities. They displayed their new consciousness in calls for independence from Japan, drives for voting rights and an autonomous legislature for Taiwan within the Japanese Empire, and a wide range of social and cultural behaviors, from local politics to social work to religious festivals. Some inhabitants focused on nationalism and political independence, whereas others concentrated on ethnic community within a pluralistic political entity. All of these behaviors clearly distinguished them from the Japanese settlers and the colonial government that attempted to transform them into loyal Japanese subjects. Instead, a majority of the population became Taiwanese, albeit in ways that excluded Taiwan’s indigenous peoples.
That they had not remained Chinese – at least not as people and the government in China defined that term during the early 20th century – became very clear to everyone on the scene soon after the end of World War II. Although the rhetoric of the ROC government stressed reunion and recovery, and used the term “retrocession” (guangfu) to describe Taiwan’s incorporation into its territory, government officials looked upon the Taiwanese as people who had been tainted by Japanese influence and needed to be remade as Chinese citizens.
Those Taiwanese themselves displayed genuine enthusiasm for the end of Japanese rule and the arrival of Chinese civilian and military representatives in October 1945, but quickly realized the vast distance between how they saw themselves and how they were perceived by the new governing regime. They had forged their identities in burgeoning modern metropolises and in relation to modern capitalist industries, and yet the Chinese government described them as backward. Those with roots in China had centered religious practices in their new identities to resist Japanese assimilation, and now the ROC government targeted those practices for suppression as pernicious traditions. Even though many Taiwanese learned the new national language of Chinese, as they had Japanese before, they felt no connection to the national struggles and heroes that they were now told to embrace.
All of these markers of separation were evident before 1947, when the divergence between Taiwanese and Chinese came into high relief during the 2-28 Uprising and its brutal suppression by Nationalist Chinese military forces, and the White Terror that began soon thereafter. Political opposition to the Nationalist Party and pro-independence sentiment went underground or overseas, but Taiwanese identities intensified. Although sharp divisions continued to exist between indigenous and non-indigenous populations, by the 1990s many defined “Taiwanese” to include both groups. Decades of single-party rule under martial law by Chiang Kai-shek’s regime did not effectively instill most of Taiwan’s residents with a new sense of Chinese national identity. Indeed, most of the roughly 1 million people who left China for Taiwan, and their descendants, came to identify themselves with Taiwan, not China.
The ROC nevertheless successfully continued Taiwan’s condition of political separation from China, a fact that has been in existence now for almost all of the past 126 years, and it has maintained full sovereignty for about seven decades. Chinese insistence on the idea of Taiwan as a part of China has failed to convince the roughly 23 million Taiwanese.
As Cena’s apology shows, Chinese views have been much more effective in shaping international opinion, but they do not change Taiwan’s modern history or the reality that Taiwan is a country. Individuals, countries, and companies can make their own choices about how to interact with China and its citizens, but they should do so with an accurate understanding of the underlying history.