If you’ve ever been to the mainland and said something that could be remotely construed as implying Taiwan isn’t part of China, you’ve probably been called on it. I’ve had two separate people tell me a nearly identical story that sounds something like this:
Chinese 1: What countries have you been to?
Foreigner: Japan, Korea, Thailand…
Chinese 1: Thailand isn’t a country. It belongs to China!
Foreigner: Um, what?
Chinese 2: 她说泰国。不是台湾 (She said Thailand. Not Taiwan.)
Chinese 1: Oh, sorry. Hehe.
People taking something so personally that has no obvious effect on their lives is usually a bit jarring for foreigners. Often when I talk about this with Chinese friends, they’ll say something like, “Well how would you feel if Hawaii tried to become independent?”
They tend to be surprised when I say I couldn’t care less if Hawaii becomes independent…or Puerto Rico…or Texas for that matter.
After four years I’m still trying to figure out exactly why normal Chinese care so much about their sovereignty over the island. Like many cultural differences of opinion, it’d be easy to chalk this up to China’s education system and call it a day. The emphasis on Taiwan is indeed huge in Chinese schools, media, and official rhetoric. It certainly plays a very big role, but to say it’s the only reason would be like saying Americans care about freedom and liberty because they’re educated to.
I would argue that stability and territorial integrity are the core Chinese values – values which are complementary. Much like freedom and liberty to Americans. I think the Hawaii analogy illustrates the opposing ideals between the countries well.
I can’t speak to other countries, but America is defined by its political system more than anything else. It’s more of a concept than a geographical location. There was certainly history on the land before the United States was established, but “America” was effectively born on July 4th, 1776 in the eyes of most Americans. 99.2% of the current population is non-native and the freedoms the political system gave are what are credited for the country’s success. Geography has never been especially important. The country expanded west for 150 years and even today it enjoys land far more abundant than it needs.
So if Hawaii wanted to secede, the national government would certainly care, but you’d have a hard time getting individual Americans too upset about it. Sure we see Hawaiians as every bit American as we are, but we don’t feel any deep historical or ethnic ties. At the end of the day, if they’re not happy being part of our system, they’re free to show themselves the door.
China however, is nothing without history, geography and ethnicity. It’s seen political systems come and go – some of which lasted longer than the entire span of United States history. And land has always been critically important. With little arable land compared to the massive population, geography is something you cling to for dear life. It’s still common to meet families in the countryside who’ve been tied to the same patch of land for hundreds of years and generations as far back as they can remember.
Chinese haven’t had the luxury of being able to just pack up and head west if circumstances shifted beyond their liking. They hold on to their land or die trying.
In the past 200 years, Americans have endured exactly four years of significant upheaval at home. It would be hard to put such an exact number on China, but it’s safe to say the years of unrest outnumber the years of peace. And if you look back at the big scheme of history, land was always shifting hands violently between Chinese. Then in the past two centuries it was often stolen violently by foreigners.
Hence, the complementary values of territorial integrity and stability. In spite of his enormous failures, Mao is still very revered for being able to unite the whole of China and usher an era of relative peace (Cultural Revolution aside). But Taiwan was the one that got away. The historical umbilical cord was cut and an imperialist western power provided the scissors.
Chinese also have a strong tie to the island since “Chinese” is an ethnicity more than a nationality. If I, a white man, were born in China and raised by Chinese parents to be 100% linguistically and culturally Chinese, I would still never actually be considered Chinese. But an ethnically Chinese man born and raised in Pittsburg could come over and be considered by many as a compatriot that’s just been on a long trip. I spoke with a Chinese friend once who said she could bear Tibet being separate from China, since it’s completely different culturally and ethnically. But she just can’t accept the idea of Taiwan separating.
So a foreigner telling a Chinese that Taiwan isn’t part of China would be like someone coming to America and telling locals that they’re not allowed to criticize their political leaders. Chinese education, very influential yes, but you’ll meet plenty of very intelligent, non-brainwashed Chinese who share the same defensiveness on Taiwan.