1979 is a very important year for both mainland China and Taiwan. After Mao’s death in 1976, Deng Xiaoping succeeded power and started his “open door” policy. One of the most important things was the establishment of diplomatic relationship with the United States on 1st Jan, 1979. Shortly after that, mainland China started a war against Vietnam, an ally of the Soviet Union, as a symbolic gesture that China was then standing for the American side of the cold war. Till 1989, this period is often referred as the “honeymoon period” of Sino-American relations. On the other hand, Taiwan somehow suffered from a bad breakup. After losing diplomatic relationships to many countries, this year’s economy in Taiwan took a big hit due to the rising oil price caused by the crisis in Iran. But Taiwan was still able to recover from it and quickly shifted its industry from low-end manufacturing to high-tech business.
Even though Taiwan kept its economy in pace in the 1980s, the balance of power was shifting. And the turning point is in the 1990s. After a decade of high growth rate, mainland China gained ground in front of all of its competitors. Chinese people were not afraid of outer world any more, instead, “Made in China” was flooding. At the same time, Taiwan implemented democracy. In those days, it was a sort of trend that if some place becomes rich, it automatically becomes democratic. Taiwan followed this route, only this time, democracy did not do them any good. Back in the 1990s, there was no YouTube, otherwise, there would be many clips of Kung Fu fighting scenes in the Taiwanese congress. Throwing shoes was really nothing unusual. And for some reason, when mainland China ditched political ideology and sought for economic growth, Taiwan started to do the opposite.
In 1996, Lee Teng-hui (李登辉) (or should I call him Iwasato Masao (岩里政男)?) became the first directly elected “president” of Taiwan. But soon he proved that voting for him was a mistake. He practically gave up all the territory outside the island that the former KMT government had claimed. He spend tons of money buying weapons to “defend Taiwan”. He more than once created tension between mainland and Taiwan, and thus caused disaster for the economy of Taiwan.
Taiwan is an island full of natural resources. But it is still a small island with only 23 million people. If Taiwan seized the opportunities at that time to get the resources from and sell the products to mainland China, I cannot believe that they would still have an annual GDP growth rate of 2%. Of course, people of Taiwan may hold different opinions. After Lee Teng-hui, they made an even bigger mistake by electing Chen Shui-bian (陈水扁) as their president, whose politic ideology was so simple, independence (or I prefer to call it isolation) of Taiwan. Although he claimed that he is all for the independence of Taiwan, he did not have the guts or power to really do anything, except adding “TAIWAN” on the front page of the Taiwanese passport. As a reaction to his frequent provocations of “independence”, the congress of China passed the Anti-Secession Law. According to this law, the People’s Liberation Army is obligated to resume control of Taiwan, in the event of a declaration of independence. Unlike the tax laws, Chinese love this law. Moreover, Chen’s many moves did not only piss off mainland China but his ally, the United States. Due to the lack of diplomatic relationship, leaders of Taiwan cannot formally visit the US. They can only make “transits” on US soil. Chen made once to New York City in 2001 when he just won the election. He wanted to make the second transit in 2006, but the Americans told him that he could only transit in Alaska. Soon after retiring, Mr. President even became Mr. Prisoner for embezzling public funding. I wonder how he was elected not once but twice as president.
A very sad thing during this period is still isolation. For many years, there were no direct postal, transportation or trade connections between mainland China and Taiwan. Can you guess who was the first person directly went from Taiwan to mainland in a commercial jet? In 1984, a commercial pilot hijacked a cargo plane in Taiwan and flew it to mainland. Therefore, the first people established a direct flight was technically a criminal. Luckily, after several decades and a lot of efforts, in 2008, direct cross-strait links were established. Now it takes only two hours to fly from Shanghai to Taipei.
Today, after more than 30 years of “open door” to the rest of the world, the economic growth of China has proved the importance of opening. Chinese people learnt their lesson during the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution that isolation is poisonous to economy, and in poor economy, people starve to death. However, politicians in Taiwan do not like this idea. The reason is simple, better being the president of a small country than governor in a large country. Of course, they only tell people that they are protecting democracy or fighting for freedom. An undeniable fact is, Korea have very similar economy structure as Taiwan. Their development level were also similar back in the 90s. But now Korea is so much richer than Taiwan, just because the Koreans do not have all those political obstacles. As a Chinese, I am well aware of the consequence of letting political ideology dominate decision making. My suggestion to people of Taiwan is, when you are hungry, better find some real food than talk about politics.
The high speed railway system is a symbol of China’s prosperity. In the latest development, there is an ambitious plan of building an undersea tunnel to connect Taiwan to mainland. It would be the longest and most difficult to build undersea tunnel worldwide. And I genuinely hope that one day it will come true. Perhaps, on that day, I will take a train to visit this island, once described in our schoolbook as the treasure island of China.