At 100, Taiwan's government faces uncertain future

October 7, 2011 - 4:10 AM
Taiwan Centenary Challenge

FILE - In this Oct. 10, 1996 file photo, tens of thousands of performers and guests attend the Republic of China's National Day celebrations in Taipei. Spurned by the international community, ignored in the land of its founding, and ridiculed by many of its own people, the Republic of China celebrates the 100th anniversary of its birth Monday, trying to stave off extinction. (AP Photo/Chang Liang-yi, File)

TAIPEI, Taiwan (AP) — Spurned by the international community, ignored in the land of its founding, and ridiculed by many of its own people, the Republic of China celebrates the 100th anniversary of its birth Monday, trying to stave off extinction.

It seems a tall order for a regime that was born out of the ashes of China's last imperial dynasty and once ruled over the Chinese mainland. For the past 62 years it has been confined to the offshore island of Taiwan.

The Republic of China's longtime antagonist is the People's Republic of China in Beijing, which ever since Mao Zedong's Communists defeated Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalists in 1949, has been committed to bringing Taiwan under its control.

Nobody expects the island of 23 million people to be subsumed into China in the near-term, but deepening economic ties are drawing Taiwan ever deeper into the orbit of its much larger neighbor.

"In the long term the existence of the Republic of China is under threat," said China specialist Yitzhak Shichor of Israel's University of Haifa. "China is becoming more and more powerful and Taiwan's dependence on it is increasing."

So far most of the interaction between the two has been economic. Since taking office 3 1/2 years ago, Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou has shepherded a series of commercial agreements aimed at linking Taiwan's high-tech economy to China's lucrative markets.

One payoff has been the lowest level of tension across the 100-mile- (160-mile-) wide Taiwan Strait since Chiang Kai-shek's desperate retreat from the mainland in 1949.

The policy has come under strong criticism from the Taiwanese opposition, which sees it as a step toward political integration with China. Ma denies that, but he has been vague about the end goal of his China policy, prompting speculation that he has accepted that union with the mainland may be inevitable at some point.

His government is marking the centenary of the Republic of China not on the actual date of its founding — Jan 1. 1912 — but 2 1/2 months earlier, on the 100th anniversary of an attack launched by rebels associated with revolutionary leader Sun Yat-sen on a Qing dynasty garrison in the central Chinese city of Wuhan.

The attack set the stage for the end of some 2,000 years of Chinese imperial history and raised hopes that China could emerge from a century and a half of national humiliation it had endured at the hands of foreign powers.

Public interest in the centenary is lukewarm. While most Taiwanese don't want to come under China's control, they also don't see the events of 100 years ago as particularly relevant to their future. The media have barely acknowledged a series of heavily promoted government events in the run-up to Monday's ceremonies, and the big day looks likely to pass with a minimum of fanfare — no more, at any rate, than in other years.

Leading the ranks of the disinterested is the opposition, which remembers with horror the martial law dictatorship that Chiang brought from the mainland — it persisted until 1987 — and associates it directly with the Republic of China.

The opposition's main constituents are descendants of people who migrated from the mainland in the 17th and 18th centuries. Many of them reject any association with China in favor a culturally and politically distinct Taiwan.

"The Republic of China was forced on the Taiwanese people when the Nationalist Party came to Taiwan in 1949," says 41-year-old businessman Kuo Yen-chen of suburban Taipei.

Kuo doesn't think Taiwan will be annexed by China unless Beijing uses force. "The majority of Taiwanese do not want to become part of China," he says, "but the two will become even closer due to globalization."

A major stumbling block to integration is differing political systems: Taiwan has evolved into a democracy, and its people fear losing their hard-won freedoms under China, which remains a one-party state that crushes most calls for political change.

"Taiwan has become a leader in the Chinese world in aspects of freedom, democracy and openness," Ma said last December. "Its achievements have been recognized by the international community and it can serve as a role model for all of Asia."

Even among Ma's ruling Nationalists, many of whom trace their roots to those who fled in 1949, there is no unanimity on Taiwan's future. Most want to continue Taiwan's de facto independence indefinitely, while a small minority favor absorption by China, perhaps with a special status similar to Hong Kong's.

Taking part in Monday's ceremony will be representatives of Taipei's tiny diplomatic corps, whose size is emblematic of the government's continuing struggle with international legitimacy. Once recognized by major powers including the United States and Japan, it now boasts only 23 diplomatic allies, mostly small and impoverished countries in Latin America and the Pacific. By contrast China is recognized by more than 170.

The United States, once Taiwan's staunchest supporter, decided against selling advanced jet fighters to the island territory last month, a reflection of China's growing influence.

The rush to recognize Beijing underscores China's rise and Taiwan's relative decline. While still a major force in information technology, Taiwan is no longer the economic or political force it once was.

All this provides a validation of sorts for Chinese historians, who are virtually unanimous in declaring the Republic of China a relic of the past.

"All the academics in the mainland who study Republic of China history believe that the ROC started in 1912 and ended in 1949," said historian Chen Hongmin of Zhejiang University in Hangzhou. "After the foundation of the People's Republic of China, the ROC ceased to exist."

___

Associated Press writer Debby Wu in Taipei and researcher Yu Bing in Beijing contributed to this story.