9. April 13, 2023
Ukraine and Taiwan in the Global Colonial, and Post-Colonial context of Imperial Wars
Timothy Snyder, bestselling author (Bloodlands, On Tyranny), historian at Yale, and prodigious “thinker,” as he humbly describes himself in the “about” section of his substack sharing his lecture series on the “Making of Modern Ukraine” (available in podcast and video) takes a step back into global European and imperial history to better understand Ukraine with his final lecture of April 9th. It struck me so hard on listening to it, all the many and varied parallels between Ukraine and Taiwan in the context of European, but also American and Chinese imperialism that I took the time to transcribe parts of his last lecture for you here and put my thoughts (including much of what I was going to continue from the last post) in dialogue with it.
I want to acknowledge and thank all of the people in Taiwan who have welcomed me and shared their thoughts with me whether they identify themselves as Chinese, Taiwanese, Taiwanese American, Chinese American, Taiwanese European, or European and whether I’ve interviewed, or shared time with them. For this post especially, historians like James Lin at the University of Washington, Yu-jie Chen, Albert Wu and Wen Liu at Academia Sinica, Brian Hioe at New Bloom, Emily Y. Wu at Ghost Island Media, Michelle Kuo of National Taiwan University, if it weren’t for the community I feel immersed in with you, I would not be writing and sharing my thinking.
Snyder’s global perspective on Ukraine gave me insights (I’m not finding in the news) into the thinking behind President Emmanuel Macron and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s recently stated positions toward Taiwan, the US and China following their 3 day visit to China and meeting with Xi Jinping. I will elaborate on this too. (Note: I will put Snyder’s words in quotes and occasionally bold them. I will put my responses in italics.)
According to Snyder, “the Russian war in Ukraine which began in 2014 and was accelerated in February 2022 with a full scale invasion is a fairly straightforward imperial war in its rhetoric and its goals.”
He then asks:
“What does Russia's imperial war against Ukraine tell us about Europe, the European imperial past and what we can say about the European and American reaction to this war on the basis of the history of empire.”
I am thinking about what China’s imperial rhetoric and goals toward Taiwan tell us about European and American reactions to this potential war on the basis of their histories of empire.
Snyder has “a clear criticism of the imperialist narrative that Ukraine doesn’t exist and more subtly, criticism of a European narrative which says that European integration was born out of the higher European wisdom that war is bad and that peace is good. If you’re from European member states you will be familiar with this because you’ve been bombarded with it since childhood. The notion that the Europeans are different and better than the Americans because they experienced World War 2 and they saw that it was bad and therefore they have now had economic cooperation and since then things have been good.
There are a couple of problems with his. One of them is that what happened is not that Europeans learned from WW2 that war is bad, that never happened. They continued fighting wars after the second world war. They kept fighting wars until they lost them. That is a critical part of the story which goes missing.
The Dutch in Indonesia, the French in Algeria, and Southeast Asia, the Portuguese and the Spanish can’t hold out in Africa. It’s basically the same story everywhere.
They keep fighting until they lose. And the wars they lose are imperial wars. The story of European integration as it’s told allows that imperial history to be pushed aside, to be occluded, to be not seen at all. And because that history is not seen at all, this leads to misanalyses and misunderstandings of contemporary political situations.”
I am thinking about what misanalyses and misunderstandings of Taiwan’s contemporary political situation have resulted from Europe, America and China’s pushing aside, occluding and not reckoning with their imperial histories as they foreground their story of engagement.
Snyder: “The other tricky thing about that story is that it suggests that once you’ve learned this lesson that war is bad, all you have to do is trade with people and everything will be good. To emphasize, the problem with that is that the European integration story with all the trade which certainly happens, (treaty of Rome and all of that), it all happens AFTER the defeat in the imperial war.
Trade may very well be a good thing, but in the actual European history, this trade project follows upon defeat in imperial war. And when you take the defeat in imperial war out of the story, you are removing something which is going to disable your analysis of the rest of contemporary events.”
Japan was defeated. Chinese Nationalist dictator Chiang Kai-shek and the KMT were defeated when he retreated to Taiwan and then a generation later, his son began the process of giving up his dream to re-take China by ending martial law. Both Japan and Taiwan successfully transitioned to democracy.
“Briefly now, I’m going to remind you of some of the high points of European empire:
1776, the great proud American independence story, that’s when the Northern hemisphere basically falls out. The Spanish will be around for a while, the Portuguese too. But 1776 is a turning point where the Western Hemisphere, where the Americas begin to fall out of the calculation. Empire is going to mean essentially, Asia and Africa.”
1776 is in the middle of the Manchu Qing dynasty in China. In 1720, the Qing conquered Tibet.
The Manchu Qing have a small presence and trading posts in Taiwan, but do not control the whole island.
“19th century, a competition for the territory that’s still left. Most famously or notoriously, the race for Africa at the end of the 19th century.”
19th century China sees the conquest of Xinjiang and the Opium wars (1840s), Sino-Japanese war (1894-5), and Hundred Days reform (1898).
In May 1895 Qing officials fled the island of Taiwan and a Republic of Formosa was briefly proclaimed by the Taiwanese people. This ended in October, when the Japanese entered Taiwan. When the Qing Dynasty sued for peace with Japan they ceded sovereignty of Taiwan in perpetuity to the Japanese with the 1895 Treaty Of Shimonoseki.
“Beginning of the 20th century we have World War 1. It is a world war, even before the Americans arrive, because of empire. It’s a world war because it’s fought with colonial soldiers from all over the world. It’s not a war of Europeans against Europeans. It’s Europeans and their colonial subjects against other Europeans and their colonial subjects which is fought in Europe.”
Early 20th century China sees The Republican Revolution when the Nationalist, KMT overthrows the Qing dynasty and establishes the Republic of China (ROC) under Sun Yat-sen in 1912.
Taiwan is Japan’s “model colony” from 1895 to WW2.
During the first decade of the ROC’s existence, the various Chinese governments typically treated Taiwan with indifference and at times referred to Taiwan as a separate country. ROC “founding father” Sun Yat-sen and eventual leader Chiang Kai-shek equated Taiwan’s situation to colonized Korea and Vietnam, and expressed support for the island’s independence from Japan.
“End of WW1, 1918, what we have is a curious situation where the land empires all manage to lose and the sea empires, the maritime empires manage to win. The British and the French manage to win. The Ottomans, the Germans, the Russians in a complicated way, by way of revolution, and the Hapsburgs all manage to lose. And as we’ve seen, in this war, Ukraine is a major prize. Ukraine is the territory that the Germans think they can use to win the war on the Western front. They turn out to be wrong. But that is what they think.
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is founded in China in 1921.
Post-WW1, the rise of the doctrine of self-determination. This means in effect that the maritime empires, the US among them, have the idea that some of the former territories in the land empires in Europe, should become independent states. National self-determination does not apply to all the world, that’s a truism. It was not about American, British or French colonies, it was about the former terrains of defeated land empires. But not all of them. Not Ukraine.
Ukraine instead passes through this incredibly complicated period in which you have white Russians, Russian restorationists of empire who are fighting for Ukraine. Poles, who in some way are fighting for Ukraine. The Leninist idea of self-determination which basically means we say that you can have self-determination, but so long as it doesn’t contradict the interests of the center, of the revolution, a kind of declarative self-determination.
Between 1928 and 1943, Communist Party leaders consistently recognized the Taiwanese as a distinct “nation” or “nationality” (minzu).
The CCP also acknowledged the “national liberation movement” on Japanese occupied Taiwan as the struggle of a “weak and small nationality” that was separate from the Chinese revolution and potentially sovereign.
Chairman Mao Zedong in a 1937 interview with American journalist Edgar Snow, says: “…we will extend them (the Koreans) our enthusiastic help in their struggle for independence. The same thing applies for Taiwan.” This position was reiterated in subsequent years by CCP luminaries like Zhou Enlai.
WW2, from the perspective of Ukraine and our perspective, is another imperial war, but this time the German aspiration for Ukraine is the absolute center. It is at the absolute center of Hitler’s plans. It is at the absolute center of the war itself. The theory behind this war is that the stronger nation should be colonizing and starving the weaker nation. That’s what always happens. Or the stronger people, the stronger race should be dominating, colonizing, starving out the weaker.
Why does this not always happen? According to Hitler it doesn’t always happen because of the Jews. That is Hitler’s version of anti-semitism. The Jews have ideas like Christianity, communism, capitalism, rule of law, contracts, you name it. And these ideas get into people’s minds and prevent them from becoming the ruthless racial warriors that nature meant them to be.
In Hitler’s view, the Jews are both softening the minds of Germans, and, this is important, they are ruling Ukrainians because the Soviet Union, according to Hitler, is a Jewish state. The Ukrainians, in Hitler’s analysis, are a colonial people. They are being ruled by one colonist, the Jews. And if you kill the Jews or get them out of the way somehow, the Ukrainians will be happy to be ruled by another colonial master. That’s Hitler’s theory.”
When WW2 in the Pacific started to turn after the Battle of Midway, Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists began to argue that after the end of the war, Taiwan should be “returned” to the Republic of China. This position found its way into the joint communique issued after the November 1943 Cairo Conference between U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt, British Prime Minster Winston Churchill, and Chiang Kai-shek, the now well-known “Cairo Declaration.”
Not to be outdone by their rivals, the CCP also reversed their position. They now started to claim that Taiwan should become part of their China. Beijing’s position became unambiguous: “Taiwan Province is China’s sacred territory. We are determined to liberate Taiwan. When and how is entirely China’s internal affair, which brooks no foreign interference whatsoever.”
I am thinking about how China’s leaders talk about conquering Taiwan and how the rest of the world save for Taiwan’s few remaining allies, has tacitly accepted, even nurtured China’s imperialist ambitions. I am thinking about how Chinese leaders mask these ambitions using the idea of the Chinese people as belonging to one race or ethnicity where you are either Chinese or foreign and there is nothing in between. This is not the case with the Taiwanese identity in Taiwan today which is not only distinct from a Chinese identity, but inclusive and welcoming.
I am thinking about how China’s leaders look at Taiwan’s people as a colonial people who are being ruled by one colonist, America, as their master (because Taiwan became a democracy). How this credit China gives to America for Taiwan’s democracy robs the Taiwanese people of the credit they deserve for their democracy and erases them as a people which then paves the way for China to become their new master. It also paves the way for China to want to kill the Americans to get them out of the way so they can take over as the rightful rulers of Taiwan and restore Taiwanese people’s mistaken identity to its rightful place as Chinese.
“In the planning of the war, the Germans intend to starve tens of millions of Soviet citizens in order to colonize the Western Soviet Union and especially Ukraine. And one of the reasons why they think this is possible is because at the time, everyone knew that there was this thing which people only recently have begun to call Holodomor, which is a famine in 1932-33. The German analysis is that the collective farms in the Soviet Union can be used to divert food in any direction. If they can be used to divert food to feed the Russians, they can also be used to divert food to feed the Ukrainians; we can use them as instruments of starvation. In fact, the Nazis are not able to starve tens of millions of people. Most of the starvation takes place in prisoner of war (POW) camps where about 3 million Soviet POWs are starved. Ukrainian soldiers who are starving in the German POW camps in 1941 refer to their experience of hunger in the Soviet Union in 1933. There are even songs which refer to both of these events. Ukraine is also a major site of the Holocaust, two of the major shooting sites are in Ukraine. And the war is largely fought in and for Ukraine.
It’s very important for present politics and for present conversations about imperialism that we know that WW2 was an imperial war. This is not some point on the margin. It’s very important to keep in mind that there was an imperial motive, an imperial geography to this war, and that there were peoples who were subject to an imperial policy.
At the end of WW2, once again the maritime empires manage to win, the British and the French manage to win, again with the help of the Americans. Germany, which is aspiring to be a much larger land empire, loses and loses very decisively. And in losing decisively their imperial war for Ukraine, the Germans begin the trend of other European empires losing imperial wars.
That is what is silenced. It is silenced that Germany’s war was an imperial war. And it’s silenced that Europeans then began to lose a series of imperial wars. And how is that silence achieved?
It’s achieved by the otherwise very attractive story of European integration. The story about how Europeans are very wise and they understand that war is bad because they’re smarter than the Americans who keep fighting wars etc.
In this story, it’s the empire that goes missing. It’s most crucially the story of the German empire which goes missing. Ukraine goes missing just as Indonesia and Algeria and Morocco and Mozambique and all the rest go missing from the story.
Russian imperialism is right now very open. It’s not very complicated. But crucial to where we are in the 21st century, is the misanalysis, the misapprehension and forgetfulness about German colonialism. And German empire. And the major thing history is good for is to create reflection about the things that one got wrong, or the things that one missed.”
At the end of WW2 in East Asia, after Japan’s defeat and retreat from China and Taiwan, the Chinese were still fighting a civil war between the Nationalist KMT party and the Chinese Communist Party. The Republic of China lasts in China until 1949 when it moves to Taiwan in defeat. In 1949, the People’s Republic of China is founded by the Chinese Communist Party led by Mao Zedong after winning the civil war against the KMT Nationalist party’s Republic of China.
I am thinking about how America continued recognizing the government of the KMT, the Republic of China government on Taiwan as the real government of all of China because that is what Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek who refused to admit defeat, wanted. How other governments around the world recognized the Republic of China government as the real government of all of China because it held that seat at the United Nations (UN) until 1971. How United Nations General Assembly Resolution 2758 “restored” the People’s Republic of China to China’s seat at the UN and “expelled” the Republic of China (Taiwan), but never addressed and to this day has not addressed the question of Taiwan having its own seat. And why that is now so difficult to address.
How it is China’s imperialist ambitions toward Taiwan that are silenced.
I am thinking about how since 1971, the formal international position of the Republic of China (Taiwan) has gone through a major decline. More than 50 states severed diplomatic relations with the government of the Republic of China by 1978 alone. Today only 13 countries, plus the Holy See have official ties with Taiwan. This contrasts with Beijing’s strengthened international position, in which the number of states recognizing the PRC increased from 47 in 1970 to 114 by 1978 alone.
I am thinking about how in 1978, The United States was the only major power that still accorded recognition to Taipei and that the only state that still exchanged ambassadors with Taiwan at that time was the Republic of Korea.
I am thinking about how and why Taiwan has gone missing.
More on that and the rest of Timothy Snyder’s lecture in the next post…
Thanks for reading A Question of Peace! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.