Beijing’s wrath finds little echo in Taiwan
By Mure Dickie
Published: February 9 2006 00:22 | Last updated: February 9 2006 00:22

When Japan’s foreign minister suggested recently that Taiwan’s high educational standards were a positive legacy of Tokyo’s 1895-1945 colonial rule, the reaction from China was fast and furious.

Japanese control over the island “made Taiwan people suffer enslavement”, thundered a Beijing official as Chinese internet users flooded chatrooms to denounce what they saw as foreign minister Taro Aso’s attempt to justify Japan’s imperialism.

Such passions found little echo in Taiwan, however, where the public and government appeared largely untroubled by Mr Aso’s remarks. James Huang, Taiwanese foreign minister, offered the mildest of rebukes, suggesting Tokyo should avoid “creating controversy”.

The sharply contrasting reactions from Taipei and Beijing highlight a gulf in historical perceptions that lies near the heart of one of the world’s most complex and potentially dangerous political faultlines.

Many in Taiwan are unmoved by expressions of anger towards Japan from Chinese officials and a mainland public that feels Tokyo has not made amends for its imperial past.

Frank Lin, a Taipei insurance company representative whose parents went to an elite teacher training school set up by the Japanese, says there is no denying the colonialists created a “very good” educational foundation for Taiwan.

“The mainland reaction is too extreme,” says Mr Lin, 63. “It is an expression of nationalism – and nationalism and reality are different things.”

Evidence of enthusiasm for things Japanese is easy to find in Taiwan. Many elderly Taiwanese express nostalgia for the more orderly days of the colonial period. Japanese imports and food are highly popular with consumers of all ages.

China’s Tsingtao Brewery has even used kimono-clad actors singing Japanese songs to promote its beer in Taiwan – a strategy that would be seen as arrant treachery on the mainland, where memories remain fresh of the death and destruction caused by Japan’s brutal 1931-45 invasion.

But Tokyo played a very different role in Taiwan, which it wrested from weak Chinese control after victory in the 1895 Sino-Japanese war. In the following half century, Japanese governors laid many of the foundations of a modern economy in Taiwan, raising literacy levels, building essential infrastructure and establishing modern agriculture.

That is not to say Taiwanese uniformly approve of Japanese colonialism. Few are unaware of the violence used by imperial forces to suppress challenges to their control, especially from Taiwan’s aboriginal population.

Under Japanese rule, Taiwanese suffered economic and political discrimination: opportunities for higher education, for example, were largely limited to relatively safe studies such as medicine or agricultural science.

The colonial development of Taiwan was also clearly intended to make it a subordinate part of the Japanese economy. “The Japanese increased literacy rates and built agriculture . . . [but] they did this for their own purposes,” says Mr Lin.

Such nuanced views have little appeal for Beijing, which denounced Mr Aso’s claim to take the credit for Taiwanese education success as “overtly glorifying” an “evil aspect of the Japanese militaristic invasion”.

The vehemence of the Chinese reaction reflects in part a determination to play down differences in experiences between the Communist mainland and the democratic island over which it claims sovereignty.

But Beijing’s line also aims to paper over a key reason why many Taiwanese feel relatively positive towards Japanese colonial control: their belief that rule by Chinese from the mainland was worse.

Many older Taiwanese contrast the discipline and order of Japanese colonialists with the arrogance and unpredictability of the troops and officials of the Chinese Kuomintang government that took control of the island following Tokyo’s 1945 surrender.

Bloody suppression of dissent followed the resumption of Chinese rule and, when KMT leaders fled to Taiwan in 1949, they brought a whole ruling class of mainlanders who often looked down on the locals.

“You can say that Taiwanese saw the Japanese as dogs; but at least a dog will protect your property . . . a pig just makes a mess,” says one Taipei resident. “Many older people have good feelings towards the Japanese but not towards mainlanders.”

Such sentiment fuels desires for formal Taiwanese independence, which Beijing says would be cause for war. But China’s military threat against Taiwan makes many on the island feel more sympathetic towards Japan.

The mildness of the Taiwanese reaction to Mr Aso’s comments reflects a sense that Japan is a potential protector against mainland aggression, says Philip Yang, a political scientist at National Taiwan University.

Such feelings were strengthened last year when Tokyo agreed with Washington that peace in the Taiwan Strait was a shared security goal. “It’s easy for a lot of people in Taiwan to feel that Japan is on our side in saying no to Chinese oppression or the China threat,” Prof Yang says.

The article is here.