Pu-Ma: The Last Emperor of the R.O.C
“History repeats itself. First as tragedy, second as farce” - Karl Marx
Those familiar with Chinese history will know of Emperor Puyi (宣統皇帝), the twelfth and last ruler of the Qing Dynasty, a regime which came to an abrupt end with the founding of the Republic of China in 1912. Puyi was just a child at that point but he later grew up and became a pawn of occupying Japanese forces who installed him as a puppet Emperor of Manchukuo (康德皇帝) in the 1934 as a way to divide China and undermine the Republic of China government. He was deposed at the end of WWII and, following the victory of the Chinese Communist Party in 1949, put on trial and imprisoned for 10 years before being ‘reformed’.
A popular analogy of some Taiwanese historians and political science professors is as follows: In the 1600s Koxinga defended the dying Han Dynasty and fought the occupation of the Qing Dynasty from a base in Taiwan. He took that base from Dutch occupying forces at Fort Zeelandia (now Tainan harbour) in 1624. In 1681 his grandson made a deal with Zheng He and conceded the western plains of Taiwan to the Qing Dynasty. In 1945, Chiang was invited by Allied forces to administer Taiwan in the wake of the end of Japanese occupation. In 1949, President Chiang Kai-shek of the Republic of China fled to Taiwan following the collapse of his forces and his defeat to Mao’s Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The Republic of China was gradually replaced by the People’s Republic of China in the international community and Taiwan became isolated. Chiang’s son, also a dictator and leader of the Kuomingdang (Chinese Nationalist Party or KMT), continued to hold out against the P.R.C but died in 1987, an event that ushered in the democratisation of Taiwan. Chiang’s Deputy Director of the First Bureau of the Presidential Office and the President’s English interpreter was a certain Ma Ying-jeou, now Chairman of the KMT and, since 2008, President of the Republic of China on Taiwan.
Some argue then that history will repeat itself, that Ma will ultimately have to concede to the PRC and usher in the PRC dynasty on Taiwan just as Koxinga’s grandson caved into the much more powerful and ascendant Qing Dynasty.
But another analogy lends itself perhaps just as well and that is of President Ma as Puyi, or Pu-Ma, the Last Emperor of the Republic of China Dynasty - a puppet of the CCP in the battle between the PRC and Japan for reclamation of the ‘ancient Chinese territories’ of Taiwan, the Spratley Islands and the Diaoyutai Islands (also known as the Senkaku Islands in Japan). Just as Puyi was installed to get Chinese to accept Japanese occupation and to divide Chinese who supported either the Republic of China or the Communist Party, history may judge President Ma as a tool of Zhongnanhai whose job it was to use Taiwan’s democracy and institutions of State to facilitate the self-annexation of Taiwan - from de facto independent polity under the name R.O.C. to something like ‘Taiwan Special Administrative Autonomous Region’ of the P.R.C. Largely manipulated behind the scenes, Ma’s job may have been to provide legal cover for backstairs intrigue between members of the CCP and KMT, out of view of the Taiwanese public and unaccountable to them.
Although Ma has been feted by the international community for bringing ‘peace and stability’ to cross-strait affairs through opening direct links and communication, including the inking of over sixteen different accords, perhaps he will be remembered most for his handling of the Senkaku Crisis of 2012, notably for the way he first allowed the ROC Coast Guard to facilitate conflict between private Chinese Nationalist associations and the Japanese Coast Guard over the islands, then tried to distract Japan from PLAN intentions by continually, and farcically, raising the non-issue of ROC sovereignty over them, and finally how he did and said nothing when the PRC used fishing and coast guard vessels to annex the islands from Japan by use of denial of entry, despite this happening a mere 200 miles off the north east coast of Taiwan.
Ma, it may be argued in the future, worked actively to facilitate PRC control of hitherto internationally recognised Japanese waters, evidence of a ‘United Front’ between Ma’s KMT and Hu’s CCP - something that many Taiwanese academics had warned many times would ultimately lead to the annexation of Taiwan into the PRC. Having annexed the Senkaku Islands, the PRC then pressured the puppet Pu-Ma to open political talks on the future of Taiwan before he left office in 2016 so as to ensure that whatever party won the next Presidential elections, they would be constrained within the ‘One China, two systems’ framework with Taiwan signed off as an SAR of the PRC. During Ma’s time as President, he pursued a policy whereby the ROC military and police would effectively be transformed into the equivalent of Puyi’s eunuchs:
No account of my childhood would be complete without mentioning the eunuchs. They waited on me when I ate, dressed and slept; they accompanied me on my walks and to my lessons; they told me stories; and had rewards and beatings from me, but they never left my presence. They were my slaves; and they were my earliest teachers.
(Torbert, Preston M (1977). The Ch’ing Imperial Household Department: A Study of Its Organization and Principal Functions, 1662–1796. Harvard University Asia Center. ISBN 978-0-674-12761-6.)
President Ma’s plan to turn the army into a purely volunteer force, his party’s continual blocking of budgets for purchase of weapons between 2000 and 2008, his increasing underfunding of the military leading to a critical lack of conflict readiness and undermining of moral, his select use of police forces to quell opposition to visits by senior Chinese leaders, his immediate downgrading of Taiwan to an ‘area of China’ and his, again farcical, insistance that the ROC still had a legitimate claim on PRC territory as the real Government of China as per the largely frozen and defunct 1947 ROC Constitution, his defence of the ROC flag in all situations except where China might object or were involved and his acceptance and deference to China in handing over control of Taiwan’s international space to the PRC may be looked upon later as evidence of Pu-Ma’s ultimate intention to ‘reunite’ China against the wishes of, and without a mandate from, a majority of the Taiwanese public.
Could it be that historians will view Pu-Ma’s job as to distract both the U.S.A and Japan and prevent them from meaningfully slowing or preventing his goal of transforming the ROC into ‘Taiwan SAR’ whilst allowing others to carry out the negotiations and settle the mechanics of how to achieve it? Was Pu-Ma the Puppet Emperor of the PRC, loyal citizen of China who saw it as his mission to oversee his father’s dying wishes that China be one day reunited and who sacrificed Taiwan’s independence and democracy, who ushered in the death of the ROC to prevent Taiwanese from establishing their own internationally recognised nation, finally free from colonial occupation?
Time will tell.