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Some misconceptions about Taiwan

Summary:
I often see misconceptions about Taiwan: 1. People sometimes suggest that the majority of the population is native Taiwanese, and that a small group of “Chinese” who came over after the 1949 communist revolution ruled over this Taiwanese majority for decades. 2. People sometimes suggest that Taiwan claims to be an independent country, but China won’t recognize that claim. Neither assertion is true. Let’s start with the term ‘Chinese’. This could be defined in several ways. One definition is “residents of China”. By that definition, all Taiwanese residents are technically Chinese, as both China and Taiwan technically regard Taiwan as being part of China. At least that’s their official position. But most people around the world, both Chinese and non-Chinese, use the term

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I often see misconceptions about Taiwan:

1. People sometimes suggest that the majority of the population is native Taiwanese, and that a small group of “Chinese” who came over after the 1949 communist revolution ruled over this Taiwanese majority for decades.

2. People sometimes suggest that Taiwan claims to be an independent country, but China won’t recognize that claim.

Neither assertion is true.

Let’s start with the term ‘Chinese’. This could be defined in several ways. One definition is “residents of China”. By that definition, all Taiwanese residents are technically Chinese, as both China and Taiwan technically regard Taiwan as being part of China. At least that’s their official position.

But most people around the world, both Chinese and non-Chinese, use the term ‘Chinese’ in a different way. The term generally refers to an ethnic group called the “Han”. Thus people contrast “Chinese” residents of Malaysia with Malay or Indian residents of Malaysia. Or they contrast “Chinese” with “Tibetan” or “Uyghar” residents of the PRC. In everyday speech, “Chinese” generally means Han.

Using this definition, Taiwan is more “Chinese” than the PRC. Taiwan is over 95% Han, whereas the mainland is about 91% Han. Only a tiny portion of Taiwanese are native people.  As an analogy, East and West Germany were separate countries, but both places were mostly German. Residents of both North and South Korea are Korean. If there is an argument for Taiwanese independence, it should not be based on the myth that the “native Taiwanese” are somehow ruled over by “Chinese”. That would be as absurd as saying “Fujianese” people are ruled over by the Chinese.

On the second point, the Taiwanese constitution says there is only one China, and it includes both Taiwan and the mainland. (Also Mongolia, BTW, which is a rather silly claim.)

I’m a pragmatist, and thus I’m perfectly happy with the current arrangement. Taiwan is much richer and freer than the mainland, so it’s no surprise that they don’t want to unify at the moment. It would be a horrific mistake for the PRC to suddenly force the issue with an invasion. But it also makes sense to view re-unification as a long run goal, to be achieved peacefully after the mainland has achieved levels of prosperity and freedom that are roughly on par with Taiwan. Just as East and West Germany eventually reunified peacefully, and North and South Korea will likely eventually unify peacefully.

Maintaining the aspiration of eventual reunification will have the advantage of minimizing the risk of a ruinous war, which might be triggered by a rash decision of Taiwan to declare independence.

PS. Of course you can make the argument that Taiwanese are now a separate ethnic group, having lived apart for so long. But in that case you must make the same argument about Korea, which split in two at almost exactly the same time. Koreans have lived under vastly different conditions, even more different than the two groups of Han Chinese. And yet I see very few people denying that both North and South Koreans are indeed “Korean”.


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Scott Sumner
Scott B. Sumner is Research Fellow at the Independent Institute, the Director of the Program on Monetary Policy at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and an economist who teaches at Bentley University in Waltham, Massachusetts. His economics blog, The Money Illusion, popularized the idea of nominal GDP targeting, which says that the Fed should target nominal GDP—i.e., real GDP growth plus the rate of inflation—to better "induce the correct level of business investment".

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