- The Washington Times - Monday, January 20, 2020

In the ’70s, many were confused as to the proper name for the capital of Communist China. The city we now know as Beijing had been variously known in the West as Peiping, Peking and finally Beijing

As the new pronunciation spread, there was some question as to how the new name should be spelled. In the midst of the attendant confusion, a Washington reporter asked a waiter while lunching at a D.C. Chinese eatery how he would spell the name of China’s capital. Without hesitation, the waiter replied, “T-A-I-P-E-I.” 

From the day Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist armies were forced off the mainland by Mao Zedong’s Red Army in 1949, both the Communists and the KMT have claimed to be the rightful rulers of China. They represent very different systems and sets of values, but in the decades since have vied for the support of their fellow Chinese wherever they are. They agree that the island of Taiwan and the mainland should reunite, but disagree as to who should run a unified China.

While Mao set about executing and starving millions of his own countrymen, Chiang’s Kuomintang (KMT) began building a society that eventually embraced free enterprise and evolved into a vibrant and even raucous democracy. Communist rulers in Beijing have vowed since 1949 that they will retake the island which they describe as a “breakaway province” by force if necessary, That has yet to happen because Taiwan has always enjoyed the support of the United States, which has let Beijing know convincingly and continually that any attack on Taiwan will be met with force though China’s current rulers appear to want a showdown sooner rather than later.

As China has developed economically and militarily, Washington and Taipei have had to tread more carefully. Until recently, both have officially accepted the concept that Taiwan is a part of China. This was easy enough for the KMT, which originated on the mainland and tends to see the island as a way-station as its leaders dream of the day they might return to a non-Communist China, and for the United States which supports Taiwan, but almost desperately wants avoid confrontation with Beijing

As Taiwan’s economy and political system matured, this concept hasn’t proved as attractive to a new generation of Chinese or to native born Taiwanese who find the idea of uniting with the mainland both unrealistic and fraught with danger.

Visiting Taipei before the 2000 elections, I was asked to look at a poll of public attitudes toward the KMT that had ruled Taiwan almost without opposition for 40 years. The party was in real trouble and being challenged by the Democratic Progressive Party or DPP, a relatively new party formed initially to promote domestic reforms, but which also believed that Taiwan is a sovereign nation and should be treated as such by Beijing and the rest of the world. The poll revealed that a majority of Taiwan’s voters, while crediting the KMT with Taiwan’s economic success and its security, believed the party had been in power too long

The next time I visited Taipei it was to attend the inauguration of the country’s first non-KMT president, Chen Shui-bian of the Democratic Progressive Party. His vice president, Annette Lu, was vocal in her opposition to the idea that Taiwan would ever agree to being governed from Beijing. “It’s ridiculous,” she said, “Why not just say that there are two Chinas … one on the mainland and one in Taiwan?” This led Beijing to describe her as “scum” and the DPP’s apparent rejection of the one China policy as “lunatic.”

I met with the DPP chairman while I was there and he compared the relationship of the Chinese on Taiwan with those on the mainland to the relationship of the people of the United States and Great Britain. “What would you think if the queen announced that Britain wanted their breakaway colony back and would resort to force if necessary to reverse the results of the American Revolution?” 

Since then, in a historic twist, Beijing has viewed the KMT, the party of the hated Chiang-Kai-shek, as a better partner than the DPP. On the island, the two parties have been competitive and traded the presidency back and forth for the last 20 years with the KMT being seen as more willing to work with Beijing and the DPP as more skeptical and desirous of true independence. 

Last month, Taiwan’s incumbent DPP President Tsai Ing-wen seemed to be in an uphill re-election until Beijing tried to intervene on behalf of its KMT opponent while the riots in Hong Kong were providing the Taiwanese a vision of the nightmare that might lie in their future if they continue to try to accommodate their Communist suiters. 

The resulting DPP landslide amounted to a clear declaration that the people of the island have a country of their own and are dedicated to keeping it not just because it’s theirs, but because it is prosperous, free and worth whatever it might cost to defend.

• David A. Keene is an editor at large for The Washington Times.

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