Constructivist Errors in Taiwan-China Analysis: a Case Study

I just read “A Constructivist Take on the Strait” by Max Tsung-Chi Yu. The information on Taiwanese internal politics with regard to China and of the various nations’ stances towards growing Chinese power was interesting and informative. What I disliked was the explicitly intersubjective analysis of the “One China, different interpretations” declaration. Intersubjectivity and notions of mutually constructed non-objective reality are intrinsically phenomenological nonsense, thus irretrivably corrupting any theory thence derived. (And despite the superficially warm and fuzzy happy hippie overtones in which phenomenology and its offspring postmodernism and constructivism usually present today, let’s not forget where it came from and what it was invented to support, and what it could easily be turned to again in the future, with very little if any theoretical modification from its present form.)

What, exactly, does he say? Let’s look at his own words:

But how we can better explain and formulate a security policy toward China using a constructivist approach?

The answer lies in the social interactions and cultural norms that shape common identities, while the interests of the state can facilitate intersubjective (or shared) understandings conducive to the improving of cross-strait relations.

For instance, Beijing and Taipei are now on a conciliatory path because of shared understandings — such as the “one China, different interpretations” policy, the premise that cross-strait peace requires China to desist with its military threats and Taiwan not pushing toward independence.

Constructivist Errors

In short, he says that China-Taiwan relations have improved because, in a show of empowerment, people in both countries are constructing a new reality and a new concept of China through their social interactions, as embodied in the “One China, different interpretations” policy.

This requires thinking that reality is something socially constructed, first of all, which I obviously don’t. And it requires believing that these social contacts are the driving force behind policy set by the elites, rather than policy being the driving force behind the social contacts.

Despite cromulent wishing, ordinary people are not quite yet embiggened

The emphasis on “social interactions that shape common identities” as the putative basis for the present improved Chinese-Taiwanese relations is derived from an ongoing and well-meaning but misguided effort to de-institutionalize the concept of power, which crops up across the postmodernist spectrum. Present postmodernists are engaged in a self-delusional attempt to democratize the conception of “power” into something “done” by ordinary people (those who are “empowered,” anyway, a killer pomo buzzword), rather than as the acts of distant institutions of the elite which are beyond the individual’s purview. (This is, incidentally, an idea that postmodernist thought appropriates from liberalism, as part of its general klepto-philosophic program.) They cannot stomach the idea that our fate, both as individuals and as a society, is largely determined by forces beyond our control, so they imagine (or construct, if you prefer) a reality in which that is not the case. Granted, it’s not exactly a happy thought, that some faraway leader who I’ve never even met could push me into a war tomorrow, but because it is unpleasant does not make it untrue.

The most cursory reading of history shows this to be the case. If not, are we to believe instead that the ordinary people of, say, Germany in 1938 just really, really hated Poles, on a personal level? that ordinary Japanese of 1941 really despised the United States? and a hundred thousand other similar examples? Of course not. Ordinary people don’t care for war until they are whipped into a fervor by a very small group of leaders, who can, in many cases, guide them to whatever path they choose. Unpleasant? Sure, but we must confront that, rather than bury our heads in the sands of Pollyanna optimism and pretend as though we as individuals have some kind of power that we only wish for.

… and the real power-brokers just don’t care much about “cultural identity”

The idea that mainland Chinese and Taiwanese relations are built, somehow, upon the mutual construction of an intersubjective identity is absurd, not to mention incredibly naive. (It is “absurd” philosophically, derived from the inherent nonsense of phenomenology, for reasons that must wait until another day to be elaborated. The short version, omitting many details, is that an objective reality exists apart from our perceptions of it, at least until a repeatable experiment demonstrates otherwise, and failure to notice that is a serious illness called “schizophrenia.” cf. Karl Popper.)

Sure, Taiwan and China share an ethnic heritage and a language and a culture, but these are relatively minor factors. International relations are generally determined mainly by power and money, at times by pragmatic cooperation for mutual benefit, and yes, even by altruism occasionally. Identity is not nearly as important a factor as the constructivists would have it. When PRC and ROC diplomats meet, are they talking about trade and guns and money, or are they exchanging sweet and sour chicken recipes and reciting Tao Qian?

All else the same, two groups from the same cultural background will prefer one another, but all else is certainly not the same in the case of China and Taiwan. Just look at US-UK economic relations over the entire postwar period: despite close security ties which are undoubtedly culturally rooted (i.e. the US and UK may not like each other all that much, but they like each other much better than either likes anyone else), economic cooperation has been far less apparent — the UK needed a humiliating IMF bailout in 1976. where was the USA? — and the “Special Relationship” has looked rather frayed on more than one occasion, not the least of which is the currently waning public support in Britain for the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.

English School Explanation

So, we’ve deconstructed the deconstruction. Now we are left with the more positive task of providing an alternate, and better, explanation for the present state of Taiwanese-Chinese relations.

As a point of fact, both the PRC and ROC governments have endorsed the “One China, different interpretations” policy. As another point of fact, there has been a notable détente in cross-strait relations, with increased trade and tourism and decreased (though remaining) military provocation.

Realists and liberals

Realists would argue that the PRC, being fully aware of the United States’ vast investment in and concominant commitment to the defense of Taiwan, agreed to this policy as a face-saving way to avoid a costly and possibly unwinnable war with the United States… at least for now. In the meantime, the PRC is happy to trade with Taiwan and make some cash with which to patiently build up its military might. Taiwan, for its part, is obviously aware that it would be largely destroyed in any US-China conflict, so it has agreed to “One China” as a general self-preservation measure. Unsure of the United States’ long-term commitment to it, it trades to accumulate its own power, so as to hopefully become enough of a potential military problem that China will judge itself better off trading than fighting at some point in the future.

Liberals characterize the situation more simply, as one of mutual benefit; they have both realized that they are better off trading than fighting. Nonetheless, they must save face. The “One China” charade is simply a face-saving measure to preserve a semblance of national pride. (Marxists might add, “… while the elites of both countries rake in profits behind the scenes.”)

Liberal Realism, or, the English School

I think they’re both right. The best explanation is a fusion of the liberal and realist positions. The realists go too far in assuming that international relations is a zero-sum game, while the liberals fail to appreciate the anarchic and power-hungry aspect of things. Liberals are too optimistic and realists are too pessimistic.

China, or at least a large faction of its leadership, definitely still wants Taiwan. They would probably take it today if they thought they could get away with it, but they know they can’t. So they will settle for making lots of money from Taiwanese trade in the meantime, while they figure out what to do (or, who will be in charge.) In time, this conciliatory but transient harmony could congeal into a more permanent arrangement, maybe, as more and more of the power elites in both countries realize that the benefits of cooperation outweigh fighting (but, though likely, it will not necessarily do so.)

Note that the ordinary people are largely irrelevant in this analysis, not because I am just a very mean person and don’t like democracy, but as a de facto statement of reality rather than choosing candy-coated empowering wishful thinking. The ordinary people can usually be brought around to whatever the elites decide.

This is, in my opinion, a far more compelling and realistic analysis than positing the metaphysical mutual co-construction of some entirely new aspect of Chinese reality through social interaction and discourse. Mainland Chinese like making money. Taiwanese like making money. The mainland would love to take over Taiwan and use their resources to make even more money, but they are externally constrained (by the US) from doing so for the forseeable future, so they aren’t. Being self-interested as well as not intrinsically warlike, and indeed sharing a common cultural bond (though it not be the major factor), they gradually soften their position, bit by bit, and engage in trade as part of a general normalization of relations. No magical thinking required.

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