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The Real Battle for Taiwan

3 minute read

In the long run, the battle over Taiwan may be decided not by missiles and destroyers but by words. And Beijing maintains a formidable armory of weapons in the propaganda fight. Sure, there’s plenty in the news to bicker overAmerican arms sales, ex-President Lee Teng-hui’s tourist diplomacybut this battleground is primarily historic.

Beijing will soon release a film, two TV mini-series, a full-length opera and countless books and articles about the historical conquest of Taiwan, all to fuel a sense of nationalistic indignation in its citizens. They focus mostly on events that occurred three centuries ago, when China dispatched a flotilla to grab Taiwan back from foreign (Dutch) hands. The Chinese have a term for such use of history: “shooting from shadows.”

The central figure in the propaganda battle is Zheng Chenggong, traditionally known to Westerners as Koxinga, the mentally unhinged son of a pirate, now lauded on the mainland as a “nationalist hero.” After Manchu “barbarians” breached the Great Wall to establish the Qing dynasty in the 17th century, Zheng led his coastal forces in resistance before fleeing in 1661 to Taiwan, then a scarcely populated outpost supporting some Dutch traders and a small garrison, which he defeated. Shortly after, Zheng ordered his officers to execute his own son over a love affair with a nurse; they refused, so the hero killed himself. For 22 years Zheng’s followers ruled their Taiwan redoubt independently, fighting the Qing navy until finally surrendering. Sound familiar? History began to come full circle in 1949, when Chairman Mao’s peasant army drove the Kuomintang forces of Chiang Kai-shek to Taiwan; today Chiang’s successors increasingly lean toward an existence separate from the mainland. Stay tuned.

All worthy tales need a bad guy, and it is the Dutch who are used to symbolize 21st century Washington. In the coming mainland film Hero Zheng Chenggong, the naval leader overwhelms the colonialists from Holland because, says director Wu Ziniu, “he is like Mel Gibson in Braveheart, fighting for his love of freedom.” A state-produced TV mini-series premiering in October will present the Dutch as scheming to divide China. In fact, they were ensconced in Indonesia, “with no plans for a big presence in Taiwan,” says Philip Kuhn, a Harvard historian. “They held out for a while and then said the hell with it.” That’s a piece of history unlikely to be portrayed on film. Beijing even plans to promote the film abroad. “We must let foreigners know that China’s hero is not inferior to 007,” declares Wang Gengnian, vice director of China’s Film Bureau.

Taiwan, naturally, has a different spin. Many independence activists trace the modern incarnation of their movement to Legacy, a seminal dance performance that told the story of the initial wave of Chinese emigrants that followed Zheng to Taiwan. When it opened in 1978, it was the first open celebration of Taiwan’s separate history. Far from demonizing the Dutch, Taiwan’s students now learn that they helped build schools and developed the island as a trading hub. Over in Beijing, at a special exhibition on Taiwan at the Revolutionary History Museum, the scenario goes more like this: the Dutch colonize, Zheng liberates and communism eventually triumphs. Says Xiao Yan, a 19-year-old visitor: “Taiwan will unite sooner or later, peacefully or through force.”

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