Written by Gunter Schubert.

In one of former Taiwanese politician Chao Shao-kang’s latest talk show programmes viewers could follow how NTU political science professor Chang Ya-chung fiercely criticized the KMT’s expected decision to drop its presidential candidate Hung Hsiu-chu and replace her with another KMT contender. Here was the man who the Taiwanese media, and many scholars inside and outside of Taiwan, claim to be the spiritus rector of Hung’s controversial mainland policy stance – which he certainly is – and a radical advocate of unification. I do not want to comment too much on Hung Hsiu-chu here, but I have a word to say about Chang Ya-chung as I think that the above-mentioned verdict on his political convictions hardly does justice to this public intellectual but actually distorts his ideas. Chang should be foremost called an idealist, not a die-hard ideologue who, as a second generation mainlander, is fixated on Taiwan’s ‘return to the motherland’ – no matter what it costs Taiwan.

Before I proceed I must stress that Chang Ya-chung is my friend. He is also my hsueh-chang (學長) as we had the same PhD supervisor at the University of Hamburg in the early 1990s. Since then, I have closely followed his career as an academic and political activist, and I have read most of the books that he has written, nearly all of them dedicated to promote Chang’s political thinking on the current state and the future of cross-strait relations. On many occasions, I have discussed these ideas with him, and we had ‘committed conversations’, to say the least. Therefore I believe to have a fairly good understanding of his mind-set.

To begin with, at least to my knowing there exists no written or oral statement by Chang Ya-chung in which he would have promoted unification. As a matter of fact, this question has never interested him too much. Unification, as he has posed it many times, is not an urgent matter or even a political objective to be pursued systematically over time, as ‘unification’ could only be the – uncertain – endpoint of a peaceful cross-strait relationship. All what matters to Chang is how to create and sustain such a relationship.[1] He firmly believes that cross-strait peace depends on fostering a strong Chinese identity across the Taiwan Strait, and that the legacy of the Chinese Revolution of 1911 is the common ground for China and Taiwan on which to build such an identity. Up to this point, he is pretty much in tune with official KMT ideology. A Chinese identity based on the legacy and values of the 1911 revolution, he believes, is key to solve Taiwan’s sovereignty problem as well. Taiwan, as Chang is convinced, will never become independent. He rather believes that Taiwan can preserve its legitimate interests by following the pathway of political integration. Political integration, however, is a long-term and open-ended process which is not focused on unification as its inevitable endpoint, but on a continuous process of increasing economic, social and political interaction across the Taiwan Strait to help build mutual trust. Any political arrangement that would change the status quo in cross-strait relations as a result of this process, as Chang emphasizes, must be subjected to a decision of the Taiwan people. Who does not say so in Taiwan today?

To safeguard Taiwan’s interests at the international level during this process of political integration, Chang has suggested in his early writings already that China and Taiwan should subscribe to joint representation in what he calls a ‘Third China’, an entity modelled along the lines of EU representation at the U.N. Both Beijing and Taipei should identify areas of common interest and share sovereignty with respect to those areas by cooperating in an entity which represents ‘the whole of China’. This is where Chang comes close to a distinct international identity for Taiwan though not as an independent state. He knows that there is as much resistance to his ‘Third China’ concept in both Taiwan and China. But he believes that it is his mission to promote this course and ‘sell’ the ‘Third China’ on both sides of the Taiwan Strait. And so he does since many years.

One may call all this detached from Taiwan’s reality, as so many in Taiwan do, but you can also call it noble as Chang follows his own vision of securing Taiwan’s future in a Chinese orbit that it cannot get away from in the first place. He is convinced that peace across the Taiwan Strait can only be sustained if there is a will on both sides to maintain the commitment to a unified Chinese nation, which may reclaim a unified Chinese state one day if the people of both sides choose to do so. And he firmly believes that cross-strait interaction and integration helps to build the trust necessary to foster the idea of a Chinese nation that strives for freedom, peace, and democracy for all Chinese. To sever links with China, both ideally and politically, would destroy Taiwan’s past achievements and only bring disaster to the island.

Chang Ya-chung’s alliance with Hung Hsiu-chu was a logical consequence of his political activism during the last decade. Hung was ready to push the ‘1992 consensus’ ahead and accentuate tong (common) instead of ge (different) when defining ‘one China’: Both sides should not only adhere to the ‘one China’ principle; they should also explicitly acknowledge that they do not have competing sovereignty claims (yi zhong ge biao) but rather share China’s sovereignty on a territory administered by different governments for historical reasons (yi zhong tong biao). Hung claimed that such a new approach would help Taiwan to secure a peace agreement with China, more international space and a new spirit in future talks to the benefit of long-term peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait. This is clearly in tune with Chang’s thinking (and it had been published by him long before) who counselled Hung intensively before she had her ‘presidential come-out’.

Hung Hsiu-chu, like Chang Ya-chung, insisted early on that she doesn’t care what others think of her approach to China but that she follows what she thinks is right. That is a legitimate stance for both a politician and a public intellectual though it can bring political defeat to the former and intellectual marginalisation, besides harsh defamation, to the latter. This is what happened to Hung and Chang. They will deal with it as both know that you should not go into the kitchen if you cannot stand the stove’s heat. As a matter of fact, Chang’s idealist thinking and Hung’s push for changing the ‘1992 consensus’ have no big market in today’s Taiwan. Chang Ya-chung is committed to a mission which he once compared to Sun Yat-sen’s fight for a Chinese nation at the turn of the last century during one of our conversations, whereas Hung Hsiu-chu has tried an election strategy that, because of ignoring some basic rules in Taiwan’s party politics, eventually hurt her badly. Even the Chinese government was not happy with Hung as she aroused so much resistance among Taiwan’s middle-of-the road voters who decide the outcome of any national ballot. And it must be even less happy now after the Hung Hsiu-chu imbroglio has shattered the KMT’s election perspectives to little pieces.

Chang Ya-chung will go on to fight for his ideas, even though he has told me recently that Hung’s candidacy would be Taiwan’s – and his own – last chance. In a way, his thinking seems to be anachronistic in a society where a new generation of young Taiwanese cannot understand why Taiwan should be safe and free by subscribing to the idea of a Chinese nation and sovereignty shared with the PRC. In that sense, Chang is a tragic figure who – measured by his relentless efforts as both a scholar and an activist to make his dream of a Chinese nation, including Taiwan, come true – may be called one of Taiwan’s “last Chinese”.

Gunter Schubert is Chair of Greater China Studies and Director of the European Research Center on Contemporary Taiwan (ERCCT) at the University of Tübingen. Image credit: CC by m-louis/Flickr

[1] Interested readers with little time to dig deep into Chang’s voluminous work may refer to a recently published compilation of texts which summarize his ideas quite well: Chang Ya-chung (2014): Lun tonghe (Discussing Integration), Hong Kong: China Review Academic Publishers.