1. February 27, 2023
The "Week that Changed the World" 51 years ago with President Nixon's trip to meet with Chairman Mao in China reconsidered from Taiwan's perspective.
Happy birthday to my grandmother, Joan Bennett!
I wanted to launch my first newsletter not only in her honor, but also on the anniversary of the 1972 Joint Communiqué between the United States and China (the Shanghai Communiqué) which has more significance for the story of Taiwan and the question of peace today than most may know. Tomorrow is a meaningful anniversary in Taiwan’s history, 2-28, so I will post about it too, making this a two day, multi-part launch.
I hope to write weekly on the history behind today’s headline politics around “The Taiwan Question,” featuring Taiwan’s perspective on how the world can avoid another war in the Pacific. I will include personal insights and stories from the forthcoming documentary feature I’ve filmed in Taiwan during the two terms of their first female president, Tsai Ing-wen, of the Democratic Progressive Party.
My approach takes inspiration from that of investigative journalist, essayist and oral historian Svetlana Alexievich. In each post, I will introduce or elaborate on at least one person who is in my film or was a part of the journey of making it and offer them space to elaborate their views in their own words.
For my films, I do many more interviews than make it in the final cut in order to grasp a wide range of voices and perspectives, to depict life and times, history and policy through the experience of individuals. I do this in the hope that we may better understand our world with compassion and gain insight on how to make progress for all. Taiwan is the place that gives me the most hope for the future if we can take seriously all that it has accomplished and represents before an unnecessary and not inevitable war makes it too late.
2. Secrets Beyond Doors
To take in the 1972 Shanghai Communiqué today considering what has happened within and between the US and China over the last fifty years is to discover the gulf between the words and actions of both sides and how much they have fallen short of their own intentions and reality, particularly with concern to the truth about Taiwan.
In the Communiqué, the “Chinese side” was represented by Chairman Mao Zedong, Premier Zhou En-lai and Foreign Minister Chi Pengfei of the People’s Republic of China. The “US side” was represented by President Richard Nixon, US Secretary of State William Rogers, Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs, Dr. Henry Kissinger, and other American officials.
Not one of the signatories to the Shanghai Communiqué ever visited Taiwan or invited anyone native to Taiwan to be a part of the negotiations over their own future nor did they consult General Chiang Kaishek whose Republic of China government was ruling Taiwan at the time. In fact, Henry Kissinger who is 99 years old, still has not visited Taiwan.
What the Chinese side did not recognize in 1972 and does not admit today is what happened at the 1943 Cairo Conference, the 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty and with the formation of the United Nations in 1945. This is relevant to understanding their position in the Communiqué and today.
In 1943, during World War 2, when U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and General Chiang Kaishek met at the Cairo Conference, they agreed to allow Chiang Kaishek and his Nationalist (KMT) party troops to temporarily occupy Taiwan at the end of the war. At that time, General Chiang and the KMT of the Republic of China (ROC) government were fighting the Japanese in China and also fighting Chairman Mao Zedong and his Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in a civil war. Since 1895, Japan had occupied and ruled Taiwan as a colony, but by 1945 with its defeat in WW2, it had to retreat.
After Chiang Kaishek and his KMT troops lost the civil war to the Communists, they fled to Taiwan with almost 2 million people arriving there between 1945 and 1949. Most of the island’s inhabitants however, did not come from China and by 1972, there was a growing movement among native Taiwanese for independence from General Chiang’s occupying forces and dictatorship.
It was not until 1951 at the San Francisco Peace Treaty that Japan formally renounced sovereignty over Taiwan, but neither Chairman Mao nor General Kaishek were invited and Japan did not specify to whom it was renouncing sovereignty. Many interpret the San Francisco Peace Treaty to suggest that Taiwan’s sovereignty was left to be determined according to United Nations principles of self-determination, or that it was, at best, still undetermined.
When it came to their 1972 trip to meet with Chairman Mao, Nixon and Kissinger were focused on the question of who ruled mainland China. Chiang Kaishek still claimed to rule all of China despite Chairman Mao and his CCP declaring victory in 1949 and then in 1971 taking over the Republic of China’s seat at the United Nations. This move by the People’s Republic of China to take the China seat at the U.N. happened in no small part thanks to Kissinger’s secret July 1971 trip to China in which he secretly pledged what China wanted: that the United States would not support independence for Taiwan, and would not support “one China, one Taiwan” which would’ve made a two state solution possible at the U.N.
That Kissinger’s trip was secret and he excluded all other administration officials interested in going, means that the results are one man’s doing, a man who was consolidating power in his own hands in an authoritarian manner. At that time, the U.S. still officially favored the two-China policy vigorously defended by George H.W. Bush as US permanent representative to the United Nations.
Today, the government in Beijing likes to claim General Chiang Kaishek as one of their own, a fellow Chinese, rather than their enemy in bitter opposition in a civil war, to suggest that they were a founding member of the United Nations because Chiang Kaishek was as representative of the Republic of China. The KMT which is now one of several political parties in Taiwan’s democracy knows better. What is galling for many in Taiwan is that there was a time when Chairman Mao did not care about the island at all and was willing to let it go until he learned that General Chiang Kaishek wanted to take China back and then Mao decided he wanted Taiwan.
Most of the clandestine diplomacy surrounding Nixon and Kissinger’s 1972 trip to China involved the question of the future of Taiwan. That was the priority for Chairman Mao and Premier Zhou. America’s formal, long-standing position had been that Taiwan’s status was “undetermined” despite their financial support for General Chiang Kaishek. But without admitting it in public, the U.S. government had begun to back away from that position during Kissinger’s secret trip to Beijing in July 1971.
This set the stage for the 1972 Shanghai Communiqué in which:
“The Chinese side reaffirmed its position: the Taiwan question is the crucial question obstructing the normalization of relations between China and the United States; the Government of the People's Republic of China is the sole legal government of China; Taiwan is a province of China which has long been returned to the motherland; the liberation of Taiwan is China's internal affair in which no other country has the right to interfere; and all US forces and military installations must be withdrawn from Taiwan. The Chinese Government firmly opposes any activities which aim at the creation of "one China, one Taiwan", "one China, two governments", "two Chinas", an "independent Taiwan" or advocate that "the status of Taiwan remains to be determined”.”
“The US side declared: The United States acknowledges that all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China. The United States Government does not challenge that position. It reaffirms its interest in a peaceful settlement of the Taiwan question by the Chinese themselves. With this prospect in mind, it affirms the ultimate objective of the withdrawal of all US forces and military installations from Taiwan. In the meantime, it will progressively reduce its forces and military installations on Taiwan as the tension in the area diminishes.”
To Nixon and Kissinger, “Taiwan” meant simply Chiang Kaishek’s KMT government. But when senior State Department officials, who had been cut out of Kissinger’s negotiations, were finally allowed to see a draft, they warned that many people born on Taiwan did not agree that Taiwan was part of China. They wanted the phrase “all Chinese” taken out and replaced by just “Chinese” so that it referred to Chiang Kaishek and his KMT and not native Taiwanese.
When Kissinger went back into negotiations and tried to get the wording changed, he failed to persuade his Chinese counterparts. The Shanghai Communique, signed at the end of Nixon and Kissinger’s trip, contains the language that the Chinese side wanted and Kissinger had accepted.
As Georgetown University diplomatic historian Nancy Bernkopf Tucker concluded when transcripts of the talks were declassified: “Nixon and Kissinger wanted so intensely to realize their goal that they surrendered more than was necessary to achieve it, and the price was paid, not in the near term by the Nixon White House, but over the long term by the people of Taiwan and by U.S. diplomacy writ large…. The president and his national security advisor viewed Taiwan as expendable.”
The way in which Taiwan has evolved both despite and because of these circumstances could not have been anticipated by China, Taiwan or the United States. President Nixon and Dr. Kissinger’s 1972 trip to China has been hailed as “the week that changed the world” for ending the People’s Republic of China’s isolation from America. They claimed to give away little more than the fictitious claims to all of China by Chiang Kaishek and the KMT on Taiwan.
Defenders of the 1972 negotiations have argued that this Communiqué allowed the island of Taiwan to develop and prosper on its own for half a century. But Nixon and Kissinger assumed, without nearly enough knowledge of Taiwan, that Taiwan would become part of China and that assumption has never ceased to cause tension in the region and pain for the people of Taiwan.
The language of “The Taiwan Question” which comes from the People’s Republic of China implies that Taiwan is expendable, that it is in question. Fifty years later, Taiwan’s future cannot be questioned without including the voices of all the people of Taiwan who transformed their country from dictatorship to democracy.
It’s high time the US and China took Taiwan’s perspective into consideration, heard and respected their story and came up with another “week to change the world” with a diplomatic breakthrough bigger and better than any that have come before.
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Thank you for this eye opening and nuanced explanation of a geopolitical situation that has been misrepresented and misunderstood for far too long. I find hope in the amazing democracy that the Taiwanese have built out of years of struggle. I respect your courage in speaking truth to power and helping to spread their story and example at this time when the inspiration to defend democratic freedoms is sorely needed. Look forward to more posts.