TAIWAN EARTHQUAKE AND CHINA’S HEGEMONIC POLITICS  

Ching-chih Chen

Shortly after the 7.6-magnitude earthquake hit Taiwan on the morning of September 21, people in the international community hoped that the catastrophe in Taiwan had provided China a golden opportunity to demonstrate its magnanimity to Taiwan and to win the minds and hearts of the Taiwanese. These people pointed to the much-improved relations between Turkey and Greece after Greece had extended unconditional assistance to Turkey’s August earthquake rescue and relief. Indeed, within hours of the Taiwan quake China’s President Jiang Zemin expressed his sadness over the Taiwan calamity and offered all possible assistance. Jiang’s goodwill gesture, however, turned out to be too good to be true. China’s subsequent deeds did not match Jiang’s words.

As usual for China, politics quickly took command. It was most unfortunate that Beijing decided to set no exception even at a time when the Taiwanese were sparing no efforts to rescue victims buried under the rubble of collapsed buildings. The following is just a list of selected outrageous reactions of China to the Taiwan earthquake:

1. China’s political meddling at the UN led to the delayed sending of a UN relief mission to Taiwan.

2. China informed Taiwan that Beijing’s prior approval was required for any United Nation assistance.

3. The Chinese Red Cross Society asked Red Cross branches of other countries to consult with it before they decided to offer assistance to quake-stricken Taiwan.

4. China’s Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan took advantage of an opportunity during a UN meeting on September 22 to promote China’s position that Taiwan is a part of China by expressing gratitude for international humanitarian aid " on behalf of the Taiwan people."

5. Beijing refused to grant the Russian earthquake relief mission en route to Taiwan to pass through the Chinese airspace. Forced to make a lengthy detour over Siberia, the Russian team’s arrival in Taiwan was delayed for 12 hours.

6. On September 27, Jiang Zemin renewed threats to take Taiwan by force in a speech he delivered to US business leaders attending the Fortune Forum in Shanghai.

In response to China’s actions, there was widespread Taiwanese anger with China’s slowing international efforts to help Taiwanese victims. An editorial of the CHINA TIMES of Taiwan lashed out at Beijing. "The Chinese Communist regime is so stupid," the newspaper said. "Instead of seizing the opportunity to win the goodwill of Taiwanese, it gained antagonism with irritating political language." A TAIPEI TIMES editorial of September 25 went even further. It stated "Beijing’s grotesque attempts to gain political capital out of the suffering of Taiwanese are an outrage that will not easily be forgotten or forgiven."

Taiwan’s official criticism was just as blunt. Foreign Minister Jason Hu said on September 24 that China is pursuing its own political agenda by taking advantage of Taiwan’s disaster and characterized the action as "a robbery committed during a fire." "Their behavior has violated international humanitarian principles," said Hu.

Presumably due to the Chinese politically motivated response to the Taiwan earthquake, Taiwan has refused to accept any Chinese offer of assistance except the $100,000 for earthquake relief. The Taiwanese Americans in the US were likewise very critical of Beijing’s politics-take-command approach toward a killer earthquake that killed more than 2,300 people, and injured more than 8,700. They started letter campaigns criticizing the American Red Cross, for example, for its kowtowing to China’s demand.

Do the Chinese understand what the international humanitarian principles are? Even if they do, the Chinese are so conditioned politically that they have failed to see what they have done have only further contributed to Taiwan against China. The massive earthquake, therefore, has figuratively widened the Taiwan Strait separating Taiwan and China due to Beijing’s failure to act in an internationally accepted way. To the Taiwanese, all the Chinese talks about Taiwanese and Chinese being "bond by flesh and blood" are pure propaganda. And indeed, Beijing is reported to have ordered the state-controlled media, including the Hong Kong-based SOUTH CHINA MORNING POST, to write commentaries emphasizing the common blood tie between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait.

No one should be surprised by Beijing’s lack of concern for the internationally accepted humanitarian principles. For more than two thousand years from the time of Ch’in Shih-huang-ti, China’s first emperor, the Chinese have been very much conditioned to accept the word of the emperors and dictators. The Chinese Communist dictatorship has further contributed to this authoritarianism of China. The improper and inappropriate Chinese response to the Taiwan quake has been institutionalized.3 Jiang Zemin and his comrades at the top of the communist hierarchy have apparently decreed and set the rule. Whatever the occasion, China will and must insist on the "one China" policy, i.e. the PRC is China and that Taiwan is a breakaway province of China. Such inflexibility and rigidity on the part of the Chinese decision-makers thus cast a shadow on the way the Chinese reacted to Taiwan earthquake. It is this same top-down decision-making process that has contributed to China’s being consistently on the wrong side of history and behind in its effort to catch up with the industrial democratic nations of the world since the mid-19th century.

The earthquake incident also lay bare the contrast between Taiwan and China in more ways than one. The Chinese leaders are gravely concerned about the Chinese national pride. There was no appeal for international assistance when the great earthquake hit Tangshan in early 1976 and resulted in lose of about 250,000 Chinese lives. The "proud" Chinese leaders believed in self-reliance. They have not changed much, have they? Do the Chinese leaders really care about their own people? They appear to care more for their national pride. In contrast, the Taiwanese truly welcomed and appreciated the international assistance offered by more than 20 nations, including even Russia! The medecins sans frontiere (Doctors without Borders), which recently won the 1999 Nobel Prize for Peace, also sent a team of doctors to help earthquake victims deal with their psychological problems. There most likely would have been more nations extending assistance to Taiwan if not for China’s inappropriate interference.

There is another difference in the way of disaster management between China and Taiwan. In China, everything is state initiated and managed. There is virtually no private initiative if not approved by the authoritarian state. Even the Chinese Red Cross takes order from Beijing. In contrast, the Taiwanese have demonstrated their vitality and initiative in their response to the killer quake and its aftermath. There is much voluntarism. The Tsu-chi Charitable Foundation, headed by a Buddhist nun, is praised and admired for its work and efficiency. Taiwan’s Red Cross is a non-government organization, NGO. In the last decade, it is through this Red Cross that Taiwan has contributed about $50 millions to China’s disaster relief. What has China done for Taiwan? A meager $100,000 for Taiwan earthquake relief and a lot of improper political pressure during Taiwan’s time of misfortune.

China has been condemning hegemonies in international relations. Shouldn’t Beijing reflect on its own hegemonic politics and behavior toward Taiwan, particularly at a time of tragedy? The traditional Chinese political culture distinguishes the kingly way (wang-tao) from the hegemonic way (pao-tao). The kingly way is the way of the wise and benevolent king. It is by far the preferred way. It is the way that wins and attracts people from afar. Instead of the kingly and humanitarian way, Beijing resorted to the hegemonic way. "China will never become a leading nation in the modern world by bullying Taiwan and exploiting her tragedy...," wrote Annette Lu in her half-page advertisement that appeared in the NEW YORK TIMES and the WASHINGTON POST on October 1.