The Nine Nations of China: The Straits
This excerpt is part of a larger feature I wrote that was published by The Atlantic in November 2009. To read the introduction and access descriptions of the other eight “nations” of China, click here.
Territory: 160,313 km2 (2% of total)
Population: 59 million (4% of total)
Per Capita GDP: $9,432 (#1 of 9)
Exports as % of GDP: 30%
Net Trade Balance (ex-China): $51 billion deficit
The 110-mile strait separating Taiwan from China’s mainland is one of the world’s great flashpoints. So it may seem surprising that the two provinces on either side comprise a single “nation.” In fact, Fujian and Taiwan are like twins separated at birth—linked by heritage, divided by destiny. Fujian has always looked to the sea. Like the ancient Greeks, its inhabitants turned their backs on their rocky soil, venturing out to fish and trade with distant shores. They established colonies all over Southeast Asia, a far-flung network based on dialect and kinship that thrives to this day. Since such voyages were often prohibited by the emperor, the region’s mariners became skilled smugglers. Today, Fujian remains the center of a worldwide traffic in smuggled Chinese immigrants.
For centuries, Chinese seafarers largely ignored Taiwan, whose fetid rainforests seemed to harbor little more than headhunters and pirate lairs. But a major rebellion persuaded Chinese officials to annex the island in 1683. Settlers from Fujian cleared the jungle to plant rice, sugar, and tea in the fertile volcanic soil, bringing their Min dialect and their worship of Matsu, goddess of the sea. But unity with China was not to last. In 1895, a resource-hungry Japan seized Taiwan as a colony. It was returned after the World War II, only to be cut off once again by the tides of revolution. For more than a hundred years, then, Taiwan has walked a distinct path. In the process, this “Asian Tiger” — again forced to look outward — surged past the Mainland in developing a modern high-tech economy.
The Cold War is over, but the Straits remain divided, perhaps more than ever before. Recent democratic reforms have awakened a new sense of identity among the Taiwanese, many of whom desire complete independence. China has made it clear that such a move would mean a war — a conflict that could involve Taiwan’s ally, the United States. But China’s efforts to attract Taiwanese investment, to Fujian in particular, have not gone unrewarded. The Straits may be the smallest of the Nine Nations, but this region is the richest in China, and its two economies have grown increasingly intertwined. Like magnets, Fujian and Taiwan alternately attract and repel each other, pulled together by economic opportunity, pushed apart by identity and ideology. Which of these trends will prevail remains to be seen, but the answer will have a profound impact on China’s future.