Beijing and Taipei don't think it is. Why does the rest of the world?
- By Isaac Stone FishIsaac Stone Fish is FP's Asia editor. A Mandarin speaker, he lived in China for seven years before moving to Washington, D.C. His articles have also appeared in the New York Times, the Economist, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times, and he has appeared as a commentator on MSNBC, the BBC, NPR, Al Jazeera, and PRI, among others.
The World Bank sometimes calls it “Taiwan District.” The International Monetary Fund prefers the declarative “Taiwan Province of China.” The International Olympic Committee calls it “Chinese Taipei.” Taipei calls it “the Republic of China.” Washington just calls it “Taiwan” and hopes no one asks any follow-up questions. Beijing often stubbornly calls it “Taiwan province,” perhaps hoping that repeating that phrase will make it true. But one phrase seems to exist solely in newspapers and magazines across the English-speaking world: “renegade province.” Many articles about Taiwan’s upcoming Jan. 16 presidential election — an election that could have a major effect on the self-governing island’s relationship with China and the United States — rely on the phrase “renegade province” to describe Beijing’s views of Taiwan.
That is a mistake. Ever since Gen. Chiang Kai-shek fled mainland China in 1949, the status of the midsize island of Taiwan has been an open question. But one thing it most certainly isn’t is a “renegade province.” And yet, the term persists. Beijing has “never renounced the use of force to bring the island of 23 million people, which it calls a renegade province, back under its control,” Reuters stated in early January, while the Wall Street Journal wrote in late December 2015, “Beijing sees the island as a renegade province but Washington is obliged by U.S. law to help defend it.” The Washington Post, the Associated Press, the Los Angeles Times, Time, and Bloomberg, among other news outlets, have all employed the term recently. (Ashamedly, I’ve used it in this article here.)
But that term is almost nonexistent in China, either in an English or a Chinese incarnation. “We never used the English term ‘renegade province,’” Shen Dingli, the deputy dean of Fudan University’s Institute of International Studies, told me. “This is a term coined by Westerners.” Maochun Yu, a Chinese scholar in the United States, concurs. “I have never heard any mainland official designating Taiwan as a renegade province,” he said.
The Chinese don’t use the term for the simple reason that they don’t consider Taiwan a renegade province. They consider it a province pretending that it’s independent — not unlike the protagonist of Ambrose Bierce’s 1890 short story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” who daydreams at the gallows that he will be saved, while the noose slowly tightens around his neck.
Most Chinese references to Taiwan refer to it as a province, plain and simple. Chinese state media will often add quotation marks around examples of Taiwan exercising democracy, as if to belittle it. “The controversy over the ‘election’ is unceasing,” sneered one December 2015 China News article about Taiwan’s upcoming presidential election. A Jan. 5 article published on the news portal China.com stated that the “Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) ‘candidate’ for ‘president,’ Tsai Ing-wen, is leading in the polls by more than 20 percent.”
Meanwhile, instead of “president,” Chinese state media will often use the term ‘”leader.” (During the November meeting of Chinese President Xi Jinping and Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou, the first time the leaders of the governments on both sides of the Taiwan Strait had met since 1949, they referred to each other as “mister.”) And instead of government, Chinese often use the term “authorities.” Baike, a Chinese website resembling Wikipedia, has a page titled “Taiwanese Authorities,” which it defines as “the administrative department currently controlling China’s Taiwan District.” When they’re feeling polite, sometimes they’ll just refer to Taiwan as an island.
Unsurprisingly, the Taiwanese don’t call themselves or consider themselves a renegade province either. “How could you call us a renegade province?” Lyushun Shen, the representative of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office in the United States, asked me rhetorically. Yes, he admitted, China is much bigger: by land “266 times larger, by population 58 times larger, but as a market for American goods, only four to five times larger,” Shen, who with his position functions as the de facto Taiwanese ambassador to the United States, told me. “Can you call us a small, tiny, dinky, remote renegade province?” he said. “We are too big to ignore.” So what does Taiwan consider itself? “A sovereign state,” he said proudly.
Those who support Taiwan’s self-determination don’t like the term either. “‘Renegade’ suggests that it was completely part of China and just decided to up and leave,” said Perry Link, a longtime China scholar and human rights advocate. The mainland Chinese government “fully annexed Taiwan in 1887 and ruled it until 1895, when the Japanese took over; it ruled Taiwan from 1945 to 1949” — the years between the end of the second Sino-Japanese War and the Communists defeat of the Nationalists, Link said. “I think most Westerners see Taiwan as a long-standing part of China,” but it has been fully ruled by the mainland for only roughly a dozen years, Link added.
In the field of international diplomacy, it gets even more complicated. “We prefer Chinese Taipei,” Shen said. “We don’t like it, but we live with it.” One bright side of Chinese Taipei: the spelling. Mainland Chinese use a system for transcribing Chinese words into English letters called Pinyin, while Taiwan uses a system called Wade-Giles. “Taipei” is the Taiwanese spelling; Beijing prefers “Taibei,” the Pinyin version. Chinese Taipei is certainly less clumsy than the IMF’s preferred phrase. Consider the following sentence, from a June 2015 IMF paper: “Only a few European economies and Korea and Taiwan Province of China reached high-income status during 1970-2010.” It’s unappealing and inaccurate verbal gymnastics — describing Taiwan as what Beijing wants it to be, instead of what it is.
The other bright side to the compromise inherent in the name Chinese Taipei is that Taiwan gets to participate in these international organizations at all. Most important international organizations, following Beijing’s lead, relegate Taiwan to “observer” status or refuse it the ability to participate at all.
That Beijing and Taipei sit in the same international organizations at all is partially a result of relations that have warmed considerably since Ma took office in 2008, and that are better than at any time since 1949. That’s reflected in the language Beijing has used to refer to Taiwan over the decades. Because both sides care about their legitimacy, in the early days “each demonized the other side as not legitimate,” Shen Dingli, of Fudan University, said. “They called us gongfei, or Communist bandits, and we called them jiangfeibang, Chiang’s Bandit Clique.” (Trust me: It sounds meaner in Chinese.) Chinese state media frequently used to drop in the word wei, which means illegitimate or false, as in the phrase, “Taiwan’s illegitimate president.” But now “we want to win the hearts of Taiwan,” said Shen. “That’s why we don’t call them renegade.”
It’s unclear when the phrase “renegade province” in reference to Taiwan first materialized in English. The earliest I was able to find came from a 1973 article in Encounter, a literary magazine co-founded by American journalist Irving Kristol (a publication that, in an almost certainly unrelated historical quirk, was later revealed to have received covert funding from the CIA). The sentence, in full, is: “In short, the Eastern sense of history, which embraces centuries not puny little years, has clearly consigned the military conquest of Taiwan to limbo and is aiming at a gradual peaceful absorption of the renegade province.” Usage didn’t take off until the early 1980s: The New York Times first used it in 1982, according to its website, and the search engine LexisNexis shows dozens of results for the rest of that decade.
One of the few people to use the term “renegade province” in Chinese is Kuo Kuan-ying, who in 2009 was fired from his job as a Taiwanese diplomat in China after writing a series of articles critical of Taiwan, including one that claimed Taiwan “is only a renegade province of China.” (Google “Taiwan” and “renegade province” in Chinese, and most of the first results are Chinese media covering that particular story.) Much of the rest of the Chinese stories are the Chinese websites of Western media outlets, like Reuters and the Financial Times.
In late December, Beijing warned of “complex changes” in Taiwan in 2016. Indeed, the complicated swirl that this year could bring may include Taipei’s angering Beijing by keeping its distance. Hopefully, it will also bring an end to the phrase “renegade province.”
Photo credit: Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images