Chinese Taboos

There are somethings which are better left out of any polite conversation with your Chinese colleagues. Politics isn’t necessarily one of them, unless you mention one of the two T words – Tibet and Taiwan. Both these issues hit at the very heart of Chinese identity. Modern China is in fact smaller in size than in the time of the last imperial dynasty – the Qing, mainly due to the independence of Mongolia – or more accurately outer Mongolia (directions being given from the Chinese side of the Great Wall), and land that was also lost to the Soviet Union at the same time. There remain disputes over relatively small areas of land, most notably the Spratley Islands, claimed by a handful of countries, and Arunachal Pradesh, currently under Indian rule. The relative size of these disputed regions bares no resemblance to the feelings which they arouse – perhaps not unlike the British view of the Falkland Islands.

Oddly the “question” (as the Chinese call it) of both Taiwan and Tibet is largely answered. Formal policy from Taipei (capital of Taiwan) is that Taiwan is a part of China – and consequently Taiwan, (the Republic of China) also lays claim to the Spratley Islands and Arunachal Pradesh. There is no disagreement from Beijing or Taipei on what is known as the One China Principle. The principle states that there is only one China, and both the mainland and Taiwan are part of it. Disagreement comes only as to who is the legitimate government of China.

Likewise, official policy of the Dalai Lama is that Tibet is a part of China, and in what he refers to as the “Third Way” the Dalai Lama has sought to break the impasse of the two alternatives – an Independent Tibet and Tibet as an undistinguishable part of Chinese territory – by advocating a Tibet within China but with some genuine autonomy. In this regard the One Country Two Systems approach taken with Hong Kong may suggest what the Dalai Lama has in mind.

Despite the official positions of those who lay challenge to Beijings absolute sovereignty over Taiwan and Tibet not being the cries for independence many assume, there are, nonetheless, vocal groups who are asking for just that. Such a call is implicit in the name of the Free Tibet movement, whilst politicians on the island of Taiwan have demanded independence as part of election campaigns – although the calls are less evident if elected to office.

Unless you agree that Taiwan is an inalienable part of China and that the Beijing government is the legitimate government of all China, then this subject should be considered taboo. Similarly, unless you agree that Tibet is an inalienable part of China and that the Beijing government is the legitimate government of all China, including Tibet, then avoid discussing this issue. Your ‘unorthodox’ views will be less than welcome, and more likely than not will receive an unusually strong rebuttal, scorn and ridicule. I’m not suggesting that there is absolutely nobody in China who disagrees with Chinas stance on these issues, but by and large a nationalistic view is held by the huge majority, and in general the very best you can hope for is to embarrass the person you are talking to. Offending or insulting them has a high level of probability.

But why such sensitivity? One could equally ask why the British hold the Falklands as dearly as they do (though I suspect there is a wider difference of opinion when it comes to the British public’s views on the islands). For sure, there is an element of national pride. But for China there is also the historical context where for just over a hundred years China was at the mercy of foreign powers all taking bits of territory – including Britain’s attempt to take Tibet into its sphere of influence. The period is known to the Chinese (and every Chinese school child) as the Century of Humiliation. Undoubtedly this adds an extra dimension to these issues, with the Chinese blaming themselves for the tragedy – China was weak, and therefore to blame for being exploited by the colonial powers. Today’s response to any suggestion, let alone attempt, to divide China may be an overcompensation for past failings, but the feeling of determination to maintain the integrity of China really can’t be overstated.

Your political views may mean you have a different point of view, but unless you hold them so strongly that you are prepared to have your business relationships destroyed, it really is better to give the subject a wide berth.

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