Will De-Sinification in Taiwan Succeed?
By Peter Kien-hong Yu

Will De-Sinification in Taiwan Succeed?

Feb. 15, 2017  |     |  0 comments

It has been scientifically proven that the island of Taiwan was joined to mainland China in the Late Pleistocene, until about 10,000 years ago when sea levels rose.

In April 1684, the Qing Dynasty formally annexed the western part of the island, placing Taiwan Prefecture under the jurisdiction of Fujian Province. In August 1887, the Qing government finally finished the process of upgrading the island’s administrative status to Fujian-Taiwan-Province.

It was from the late 17th century that Sinification began, given that the majority of residents were Han-Chinese.

After the Qing dynasty was defeated in the First Sino-Japanese War (1894–1895), territories including Taiwan and Penghu archipelago were ceded to the Empire of Japan by the 1895 Treaty of Shimonoseki.

After Imperial Japan was defeated in World War II, the ruling Nationalist Party of China or Kuomintang (KMT) was instrumental in the re-Sinification program in almost every aspect of life. School children learned to be proud Chinese and Mandarin Chinese was the only national language spoken in classroom.

A gradual process of asserting things non-Chinese started when a greater sense of Taiwanese-ness emerged under Lee Teng-hui, especially after the March 1996 presidential election. And, when the opposition party candidate, Chen Shui-bian became president in May 2000, the push for de-Sinification got into full swing.

Chen, as a populist, reminded his supporters that Taiwan was not an appendage of the People’s Republic of China or simply China, as if forgetting that the Republic of China can also be known as China. Textbooks were rewritten by academics, emphasizing Taiwan-centric culture and identity, as if Jinmen and Mazu counties do not exist. And state-owned corporations would be encouraged to bear the geographic term, Taiwan, as opposed to China.

When Ma Ying-jeou, a member of the KMT, became president in May 2008, he tried to reverse the de-Sinification trend. However, his administration was not able to change the tide.

On the whole, after 20 years of Lee’s and Chen’s governance, more and more university students would proudly think about themselves as Taiwanese as opposed to Chinese.

In May 2016, the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) returned to ruling power status for the second time, capturing both the presidency and the majority of seats in the Legislative Yuan.

After becoming president, Tsai Ing-wen basically relied on voters who favor One China, One Taiwan for continued support, as if forgetting that she had said in May 2000 that she is Chinese. Whenever she utters Taiwan at home and abroad, some people get excited. This means that Ma’s re-Sinification had failed, and the de-Sinification process continues undaunted, with no end in sight.

In February 2016, a senior DPP legislator Gao Jyh-peng said that Dr. Sun Yat-sen’s designation as the country’s “founding father” should be dropped. He also pledged to push for legislation to remove the legal requirement to display Sun’s portrait in public buildings. In late January 2017, Gao proposed the redesign of banknotes, replacing the images of Sun and former president Chiang Kai-shek with other figures. In early February, he said that he could accept Chiang Ching-kuo, should the people of Taiwan agree.

In the eyes of the blue-camp supporters, these developments in Taiwan and remote islands like Jinmen are unfavorable and worrisome, as they feel that the DPP will inevitably invite the wrath of conservatives, especially those in the People’s Liberation Army.

However, some key factors which still exist can somewhat deflect the de-Sinification path.

In October 2015, after some 50 years, I met my grade school teacher who is a native of Taipei County and who is in his 80s. I was very surprised to learn that he does not even speak Japanese. What this means is that, just as the Imperial Japanese during their 50 years of colonial rule did not fully succeed in converting the native Taiwanese to identify themselves as Japanese, it is very doubtful that Tsai and the others can succeed in completely wiping out Chinese culture, festivals, identity, names, etc. in Taiwan. If you remind university students that they are still members of the Chinese nation or that their ancestors can be traced back to mainland China, broadly defined, they would not hesitate to deny it.

In February 2016, a senior DPP legislator Gao Jyh-peng said that Dr. Sun Yat-sen’s designation as the country’s “founding father” should be dropped.

Second, under the influence of populism and misinformation, many university students are worried that, within their lifetimes, both sides of the Taiwan Strait will be reunified and they will be governed by Beijing. This is far from the truth. Deng Xiaoping’s formulation of One Country, Two Systems does apply to the residents of Hong Kong and Macao. However, under the socialist-oriented market economy model in the Chinese mainland since the 15th party congress, the superstructure for Taiwan and the remote islands could be One County, Three Systems, if agreed upon at the negotiation table.

Third, since the lifting of martial law in July 1987, there are more than 300 political parties in Taiwan and the remote islands, six among them ironically bear the name Communist.1 Furthermore, from January 1987 to December 2016, the total number of legal residents from the Chinese mainland in the Taiwan area is 350,309. Would they favor de-Sinification?

Fourth, the DPP lacks the political will to compete with the Communist Party of China (CPC). The DPP has been playing the role of an ostrich, burying its head in the sand, as if by doing so it can have everything.

Traditionally, Chinese heroes are usually very ambitious in taking over the Central Plains, covering modern-day Henan Province, the southern part of Hebei Province, the southern part of Shanxi Province, and the western part of Shandong Province. If they succeed, they would become the emperor under the Heaven (tian xia). During the civil war between the KMT and the CPC, the battle began from that region in June 1946.

Speaking of democracy, most people in Taiwan do not know that the Chinese mainland has already gone through four phases in practicing their style of democracy. That is to say, Beijing is able to make moves to eventually accommodate the politicians from Taiwan.

Shanghai Jiaotong University distinguished professor Lin Gang, whose book China’s Long Quest for Democracy was published in 2016, explored the feasible paths China can take in democracy. He pointed out that patience is needed in promoting high-quality democracy in the Chinese mainland. Chu Yun-han, who is a Taipei-based academic, used the verb “craft” to study the building of democracy in Taiwan.2 What I am saying is that the future is bright for both sides of the Taiwan Strait to practice Chinese-style democracy, which can be rooted in Confucian norms.

Fifth, Beijing can do another thing to attract the people of Taiwan. Speaking of the banknotes mentioned earlier, I had heard at least 10 years ago in a Taipei-based television talk show about the possibility of the Chinese mainland exchanging currency one-to-one with Taiwan. The exchange rate as of today is RMB 1 to about TWD 4.5. I am sure that if this one-to-one exchange happens, Taiwan will be flooded with RMB, as opposed to New Taiwan dollars, because each person will instantly be richer by 4.5 times. In class, I have repeatedly asked such a question: Are you willing to do that? Many, if not most, students said yes, because the economy in the last 20 years or so has been sluggish and most young people cannot save money. Without Beijing’s help over the last 37 years, Taiwan would be even worse today.

In sum, I am still quite optimistic, because geographically speaking, Taiwan and mainland China will become one entity again, as the former is slowly moving towards the latter, and Taiwan is calculated to bump into the latter in about 1.5 million years. Hence, what the famous opening lines in the part-historical, part-legend, and part-mythical novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms (AD 220–280) said is theoretically rigorous, that is, “the empire, long divided, must unite; long united, must divide.”

Politically speaking, the people of Taiwan must face reality and be pragmatic. Both sides of the Taiwan Strait should help each other out by jointly developing their economy first at home and then abroad. The unemployment issue will be dire in ten years’ time, due to the onslaught of the fourth industrial revolution, which is closely related to the third one, that is, using robots to provide services and mechanize production. In 2001, China used 3,500 industrial robots, and in 2015, the number has grown to more than 100,000. This development is alarming because we will likely see many jobless young people roaming on the streets worldwide, unless we map out a sound strategy now.


1. The sixth was legally created in early February 2017.

2. Chu Yun-han (1992). Crafting Democracy in Taiwan. Taipei: Institute of National Policy Research.

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