What is the ROC?

I had a very thought-provoking discussion last night with my wife about the ROC.  Mrs. Garlic tends to think about the big issues like sovereignty and national identity much more than I do, and she has the gift of being able to put her own opinions aside in order to think clearly and fairly about what all sides are saying.  This post (and many other posts on this blog) owes a very large intellectual debt to her.

The ROC’s current official position is the 1992 consensus, “One China, each side with its own interpretation” (一個中國,各自表述; yi ge zhongguo, ge zi biaoshu).  The PRC, of course, holds that One China means the PRC.  That’s pretty straightforward.  Taiwan’s position, that One China means the ROC, is much more complex and murky.  What is the ROC?

There are three clearly distinct ROCs.[1] First, there is the ROC that the PRC believes in.  This ROC governed[2] China from 1911 to 1949, when it was defeated in the Chinese Civil War by the PRC.  As a result of that defeat, the ROC lost its claim to be the legitimate government of China and ceased to exist as a legitimate force.  The ROC was noted for corruption and ineffective governance.  Ideologically, it was a mishmash of liberal ideals, fascist and feudal practices, and an inability to shed the Confucian intellectual heritage.  It is best seen as a historical transitory regime between the old imperial system and the new PRC.  The current government on Taiwan is a leftover remnant fighting a rearguard action against the inevitable unification of China.  Its status is similar to Zheng Chenggong’s (Koxinga) Southern Ming or Liu Bei’s regime in the early Three Kingdoms period.  Zheng and Liu claimed to be extending and protecting the Ming and Han Dynasties, respectively, but historians do not recognize their regimes as part of those dynasties.  Rather, they are local strongmen who carved out a local area of support and tried to set up an independent kingdom.  Both failed, and their regimes were eventually annexed back into the rest of China.  Likewise, the current regime in Taiwan is just another example of a regime that tries to justify its separation from the legitimate government of China with some grand and preposterous claims to legitimacy.  In fact, you can see how ridiculous these claims are by noting that the ROC sometimes claims to be the real government of China, while at other times claiming sovereignty for just the 23 million people on Taiwan.   Sensible people can just ignore these claims, in the same way that most Americans ignored claims from the Soviet bloc that the Soviets, not the Americans, practiced “true democracy.”

In the context of the 1992 consensus, viewing the ROC as this ROC is tantamount to simply One China, without the rest of the statement.  If the ROC is a historical entity that ceased to have any meaningful existence in 1949, then the only realistic and reasonable China is the PRC.  Very few people in Taiwan take this view of the ROC.[3]

The second ROC is the ROC of Chiang Kai-shek and Chiang Ching-kuo.  This ROC is the legitimate government of all of China, although China is still divided and remains to be unified.  In this view, the ROC has a glorious history, having overthrown the Qing Dynasty in 1911, unified China with the Northern Expedition in 1927, and resisted Japanese incursions during the War against Japanese Aggression of 1937-45.  Unfortunately, the communists took advantage of that last struggle to develop their own strength, and they were able to occupy and hold most of the territory of China in the ensuing years.  However, the ROC remains the legitimate government of China.  Its ideology, based on the liberalism of Sun Yat-sen, is far more suitable to the modern world than the socialism of the Maoist government or the authoritarianism of the post-1978 PRC.  Yes, the ROC had a period of authoritarian government, but that was a necessary and unfortunate expediency.  The long-term goal has always been a liberal democracy.  The PRC, in contrast, has an explicitly authoritarian ideology.

Chinese nationalism is at the core of this ROC.  Indeed, China has the first claim of allegiance; the ROC has only the second claim.  This vision of the ROC fits quite easily into the 1992 consensus.  In effect, it is an agreement to simply continue the Chinese Civil War, but with less violent forms of competition.  Indeed, as the PRC sheds its socialism, there is less and less need to vigorously struggle against it.  What is left of the PRC is not all that different from the ROC of thirty years ago.  Believers in this ROC often find they are more likely to be allied with the PRC by the One China principal (against people who either reject One China or adhere to the third vision of the ROC) than they are divided by the Each Side With Its Own Interpretation clause.

I don’t have any concrete numbers on how many people in Taiwan adhere to this vision of the ROC, but I don’t think there are very many.  I would guess about 5-10%.  However, they have disproportionate influence because so many of these people have prominent positions in the media, military, academia, bureaucracy, and the KMT party machinery.

The third ROC is the most complex.  This is the ROC on Taiwan developed by President Lee Teng-hui in the 1990s.[4] This ROC is a state based on the 23 million people living on Taiwan.  It is fully sovereign and independent, and it therefore has full rights to determine its own future.   Moreover, this ROC is a liberal democracy, and its sovereignty does not merely belong to its 23 million citizens in some abstract sense, sovereignty is actually exercised and controlled by the citizenry through the mechanisms of liberal democracy.  However, this ROC is NOT tantamount to Taiwan independence.  It is a Chinese state, albeit with a very complicated history.

Where does this ROC come from?  To put it simply, the ROC is a synthesis between two strands of history, one originating in China and the other in Taiwan.  Neither of these strands is dominant; both are important and should be respected.

In the Taiwan-based strand, most people in Taiwan emigrated from China sometime between the mid-17th century and the end of the 19th century.  Taiwan was an unruly frontier area of China, often ignored and neglected by the center.  However, Taiwan was still part of China, and the Qing Dynasty did provide some level of governance.  Following the Sino-Japanese War, Taiwan was ceded to Japan and spent the next 50 years as a Japanese colony.  The Japanese heritage developed during the colonial era is an important part of the ROC on Taiwan’s identity.  If many people in Taiwan speak a smattering of Japanese, enjoy sashimi, or look to Japan for new cultural trends, this is not because Taiwanese have some kind of false consciousness or a twisted and confused sense of identity, but because they absorbed and internalized many elements of Japanese-ness during the colonial identity.  There is nothing wrong with this.

While Taiwan integrated some elements from Japan, it remained culturally Chinese, even through the colonial period, and most Taiwanese welcomed the new ROC government in 1945.  However, the KMT proved to be more corrupt and less competent than the Japanese had been, and tensions between the Taiwanese populace and the newly arrived KMT broke out into outright clashes in 1947.  The next few decades were marked by suppression of Taiwanese aspirations, though Taiwanese were allowed nearly complete autonomy in local politics.  They also had quite a bit of freedom in economic affairs, and the stability provided by the national government allowed Taiwan to produce its economic miracle.

Taiwan’s transformation to a liberal democracy began with CCK’s policy of Taiwanization in the early 1970s, and the KMT gradually relaxed its authoritarian grip while allowing more and more native Taiwanese into the centers of power.  This transformation was completed with the first direct presidential election in 1996.  With the old restrictions removed, native Taiwanese naturally occupied most of the positions of power.  On the other hand, mainlanders were not shut out, and many of them continued to wield considerable amounts of power.  It was a KMT-led, gradual transformation, and it produced a liberal democracy without the bloodshed and/or civil war that many countries experience.

In this narrative, many features unique to Taiwan are important to defining the ROC.  The Japanese era, the white terror, Mainlander/Native Taiwanese tension, the economic miracle, and the democratic transition are all integral parts of the ROC on Taiwan.  However, in addition to this Taiwanese heritage, the ROC on Taiwan also has an equally important Chinese heritage.

The ROC on Taiwan shares the glorious ROC history of the second vision, including Sun Yat-sen’s intellectual foundation, the triumphant struggle against the Japanese in WWII, and, more generally, the broader Chinese history and culture.  The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Tang Dynasty landscape paintings, and the Great Wall of China all belong to the ROC on Taiwan’s historical and cultural heritages.

Moreover, while the Native Taiwanese side of the postwar political struggles is part of the story, so is the Mainlander side.  The Mainlanders, many of whom were simple soldiers, came to Taiwan almost by accident.  They made the best of things, but many of them led difficult lives in impoverished military villages.  Mainlanders also suffered, perhaps even more than native Taiwanese, during the White Terror, and they had to deal with the pressure of being surrounded by an often antagonistic population who spoke strange dialects.

The ROC on Taiwan, thus, has an integrationist history.  All of these strands belong, and all are important.  The ROC is Chinese, but it is also Taiwanese.  Or maybe it is Taiwanese, but it is also Chinese.

What is the relationship of the ROC on Taiwan to China?  I think this is best encapsulated by the idea of the Special State to State relationship that Lee introduced in 1998.  This idea was, of course, met with a firestorm of criticism, and it was broadly interpreted as a step toward outright independence.  That may have been Lee’s intent.  However, I’m guessing that when Lee sold the policy to the rest of the KMT, he had to stress the “Special Relationship” rather than the “State to State Relationship.”  The Special relationship indicates that the ROC is still Chinese, if not exactly part of the PRC.  There are deep and undeniable connections between the two regimes.  They share a common history.  Whatever the future holds, it is nearly unfathomable to think that Taiwan’s future will not somehow be related to China’s.  This may be political union, war, economic cooperation, economic de-facto colonization, or something else, but China will almost inevitably be the most important influence on Taiwan.  Taiwan cannot (and does not want to, in this vision) simply go its own way.  Moreover, in this vision of the ROC, China is affected by Taiwan as well.  The ROC’s successful practice of a liberal democracy is significant for China.  One of the 1990s slogans was Managing Greater Taiwan, Building a New Chinese Culture (經營大台灣,建立新中原, jingying da Taiwan, jianli xin zhongyuan).  In this view, the society being constructed in Taiwan was an example for the rest of China, and this example was simply too powerful for China to ignore.  Likewise, the current wave of Taiwanese businesses and white-collar workers in China is helping to transform China into a place more amenable to Taiwan and Taiwanese values.

In terms of the 1992 consensus, the ROC on Taiwan is an uneasy fit, though not an impossible one.  The ROC is happy to acknowledge its Chinese heritage, but it is not shy to remind the PRC that it also has another, uniquely Taiwanese, heritage.  One China is possible, but it has to be something short of inevitable.  Liberal democracy is crucial to the ROC, and sovereignty is indisputably exercised by the 23 million people living in that regime.  They can voluntarily choose to unify with China, but they cannot be coerced to do so against their will.  If China wants them to accept unification, it has to be a more attractive partner.  Most people who believe in this ROC probably believe that Taiwan will eventually unify with China (and that this is a good thing), but they expect that both sides will have input on the terms over a long period of negotiations during which the PRC will continue to experience its own internal transformations.  They do not want the PRC to dictate the terms of unification.  They certainly do not anticipate outright annexation in the immediate future.  Indeed, one type of unification possible within this vision is simply to have two governments share a common China, with each exercising control over one part of that territory and both claiming a common destiny.

In this vision of the ROC, “each with its own interpretation” is perhaps more important than “One China.”  The ROC on Taiwan insists on its right to make its own decisions about who it is and what its future will be.   This flexibility makes the One China clause palatable.  If the PRC insists on imposing its definition of One China, which the ROC does not share, then the whole deal is off.  The 1992 consensus will become politically unviable in Taiwan.

The ROC still claims the loyalty of a very large percentage[5] of the population on Taiwan, and I believe that most of those people think of the ROC in terms close to what I am describing as the ROC on Taiwan.  Most of them would probably be aghast at the idea that they are followers of Lee Teng-hui, but focusing on the individual misses the point.  The ROC on Taiwan idea was developed by the KMT, not solely by Lee.  Whatever Lee’s personal preferences were, he had to (and did) articulate a vision that most of his party could support.  Some party members split off and formed the New Party, but most party members and supporters stayed with Lee.  I think Lee strayed too far from his party with the Special State to State Relationship, but only because everyone immediately forgot the “Special” part of that formula.

I will not make a judgment on the wisdom of the 1992 consensus, but I think it is currently a viable position for the KMT to hold.  In other words, the KMT can espouse this position and be electorally viable.  It may even be a vote winner.  However, it is a very fragile position.  It depends critically on the fungibility of the ROC.  The PRC can accept that Taiwan claims that China means the ROC because its understanding of the ROC is very nonthreatening.  Taiwan can accept One China because that acceptance comes with the caveat that Taiwan also gets to insist on the ROC and the ROC implies that the meaning of both China and Taiwan is still up for negotiation.  There is also a small but vocal group that believes in the second vision of the ROC.  These people make the 1992 consensus look stronger than it is.  They give the PRC the impression that Taiwanese can accept One China without reservations while also reassuring the ROC on Taiwan believers that the ROC is a viable and respected entity.

We are starting to hear rumblings that could eventually tear the 1992 consensus apart.  China has thus far refused to concede any space to the ROC, while within Taiwan, supporters of the second vision complain that the government still pays too much attention to the local history and politics and not enough attention to China.  President Ma and other KMT (elected) leaders seem to understand that the 1992 consensus is only electorally viable if the ROC is the ROC on Taiwan.  The complaints come primarily from people who don’t need the support of broad swaths of the electorate.  To me, these people are shortsighted, because if they force Ma and the KMT to move away from “each with its own interpretation” and toward “One China,” Ma and the KMT will cease to hold power in short order.

If the DPP retakes power, the 1992 consensus and the ROC itself may face challenges.  While there are many in the DPP who are comfortable with the ROC on Taiwan vision, this is a generally more of a final line in the sand, a position beyond which they cannot retreat after they have conceded their more preferred solutions.  There are also many who dislike the entire notion of the ROC.  At best, it is an uncomfortable shell that must be maintained until favorable conditions allow them to discard it entirely in favor of a fully independent Taiwan.

[1] There are other variations on these three, but I think these are the big, distinct ones.

[2] Note the use of the past tense.

[3] Perhaps I should say that very few people who believe Taiwan is Chinese accept this vision of the ROC.  Many Taiwan Independence supporters would be entirely comfortable with this vision.

[4] I do not know if Lee personally still believes in this ROC, or indeed if he ever did.  However, this is how I understand the vision that was fully articulated during his presidency.

[5] This is intentionally fuzzy.  If you insist on numbers, let’s say somewhere between 25% and 65%.

Tags: , , , ,

8 Responses to “What is the ROC?”

  1. Michael Turton Says:

    Bingswantou, you need to condense and submit this somewhere. Great work.

  2. frozengarlic Says:


  3. Islander Says:

    Bingswantou = frozen garlic.

    Great post. This belongs in an editorial somewhere. My only comment is on what you wrote about Koxinga failed “and their regimes were eventually annexed back into the rest of China.”

    Koxinga’s Taiwan was not originally part of China. The Dutch were the first to colonize Taiwan. The Spanish were second though they were pushed out of Taiwan by the Dutch after only a few years of colonization. Koxinga was a half Chinese/half Japanese pirate. When he defeated the Dutch, it’s not even clear the Ming Dynasty officially annexed Taiwan. When the Qing Dynasty defeated Koxinga’s son, Taiwan was not annexed “back” into the rest of China. It was simply annexed.

  4. frozengarlic Says:

    How could I have missed the madarinized version of my English derived name from the Chinese characters that sound like the Taiwanese words? I feel so stupid!

    Islander, you are certainly correct on your details. However, I don’t think the ROC on Taiwan discourse is quite so concerned about this kind of precision. The insistence on those points rightfully belongs to the fourth discourse, the one on Taiwan independence. I thought about including that one in this post for the sake of completeness but decided against it for several reasons. The Taiwan independence people are not really a party to the 1992 consensus, which is the organizing theme of this essay. Also, their view of the ROC is not that different from the PRC’s. Where they differ is on the meaning of Taiwan (which your comment addresses). However, that is an entirely different (and much more difficult) essay.

  5. richard Says:

    this is an awesome post, is really great, i enjoyed reading it!
    i agree with Michael, worth publishing !

  6. Lavai Says:

    One omission in this essay is the stand(s) Taiwan’s indigenous peoples hold, which could be completely different version(s) from what you described!

    I knew not a few aboriginal intellectuals simply view the ROC as a foreign ruler like Japanese, Dutch, Spanish, or other colonial regime. Yes, the aborigines are a minority less than 2% in Taiwan, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have legitimacy of making a claim of the country. Hence, even a footnote which notes you leave out some part of opinion/ discourse is worth of putting when you revise or write something close to a historical narration. Or it becomes just confusion when you mention about “native Taiwanese.”

  7. Andrew B Says:

    I guess this comment is 5 years late. But this page was linked to FG’s most recent post dated 7/21/2015. I think it’s a great post, but I want to offer a possible clarification as to what “intent” LTH meant when he stated his “special state to state” theory. In the video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y_J0M16KFVk (around 1 hour 13 minute mark) LTH said himself, the reason he told the German Newspaper his State to State theory was to pull the rug out from under Jiang Zeming. Per LTH’s own words: The Wang-Koo summit occurred in 1993 with many subsequent meetings. In 1998, Wang and Koo met in Shanghai with a promise to meet again in 1999. Per LTH, the meeting was originally scheduled to occur in April 1999, but for unknown reasons, China informed Taiwan they were postponing the meeting to the end of April 1999. Then they informed Taiwan that they were again postponing, this time to the end of October 1999. LTH surmised that Jiang Zeming was planning on holding China’s 50th anniversary on October 1st. There in front of all foreign dignitaries he would proclaim to the world that China and Taiwan were planning on holding talks later in the month (ie the end of October 1999) and characterize them as political union talks. LTH felt this would bias the world into believing that Taiwan and China were going to join, undoubtedly under PRC rule and much to Taiwan’s disadvantage. So LTH decided to pull the rug out from Jiang Zeming first and give his State-to-State in July 1999, thereby preempting Jiang Zeming. Per LTH, it was a political maneuver to ensure the survival of Taiwan and maintain a better bargaining position for Taiwan.

    • frozengarlic Says:

      Very interesting, though I would have thought there was a much less dramatic (and risky) way of preemptively dodging the impression that unification was inevitable. I wonder if this story is merely a rationalization for a step that LTH always wanted to take.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: