Chinese imperialism and Taiwan: An Austrian perspective

Xi Jinping and Hitler appear to have read from the same empire-building playbook

Xi Jinping (CCTV 1 screenshot)

Xi Jinping (CCTV 1 screenshot)

As someone who has both Austrian and Taiwanese heritage, there are similarities I have noticed between Adolf Hitler's attempts to unify Austria with Germany and Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Chairman Xi Jinping's (習近平) efforts to incorporate Taiwan into China's sovereign territory.

Austria, my country of birth, is one of the easternmost abodes of German speaking-people and considers itself both part of eastern and western Europe. Its population is ethnically linked to Italy, Germany, and Hungary, as well as the Slavic countries.

In the 1930s, Hitler’s pressure campaign to “reunify” Austria with the German Reich proclaimed that all “Germans” should “once again” live in one strong and powerful country, despite this never having really been the case, to begin with. This would lead to a golden age, with “all Germans” finally reunited under the credo: “Ein volk, ein reich, ein führer” (one nation, one empire, one leader).

Xi announced in his 2019 New Year address the “wounds of history” can only be healed by bringing Taiwan “back” into a union with the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Apparently, Xi has forgotten that Taiwan has never been part of the PRC, and has not been part of China in any form for most of the last 125 years. Do his words not sound eerily familiar?

Both German nationalism in the 30s and Chinese nationalism today offer a vision of protection and prosperity for the dominant ethnic group at the price of democracy, freedom, and sovereignty for weaker neighbors and minorities.

Looking at the propaganda deployed in both cases, one discovers some chillingly parallel themes. Xi often talks about the “century of humiliation” referring to the period between 1842 and 1949, when he claims China was dominated by Western and Japanese gunboat diplomacy, invasion and occupation. The nazis, on the other hand, spoke of the “humiliation of Versailles”, a historical injustice that needed to be avenged.

Chinese reich

Both regimes propagate national rejuvenation as a means to erase the shame of the past, and the reunification of all German and Chinese as a precondition for this rejuvenation to occur. “Reunification”, Xi claimed in January 2019, is “an inevitable requirement for the great rejuvenation of the Chinese people.”

Similarly, Hitler saw Austrian independence as hindering the construction of a “really great reich.” It is a common theme amongst revisionist totalitarian regimes to propagate a sentiment of national entitlement and exceptionalism.

By using the words “national rejuvenation” it is implied there was a time when the Chinese nation’s position in the world was “in line to its natural status.” Now, after a “century of humiliation,” it is the natural right of the Chinese to return to a position of dominance.

This argument has another deeply revisionist aspect: In this “glorious past” the nation of Taiwan was part of China. Thus, in order to regain former glory, it must “return” to it.

This trick aims at one of humanity’s darkest instincts — the belief that because of history, nationality, origin, or ethnicity, one is entitled to a certain position in the world. Any government will promise its people wealth and security, but to propagate “national rejuvenation,” which implies exclusivity and hard-power dominance, is a far more dangerous sentiment.

CCP propaganda on Taiwan has pushed another narrative: Taiwan is part of the “Chinese family.”

In his January 2019 speech in Beijing to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the “Message to Compatriots in Taiwan,” Xi announced that “people on both sides of the strait belong to one family, and cross-strait issues are a family issue, so they should be resolved by family members.” By classifying the diverse people of Taiwan as belonging to the same family, Xi is reintroducing the concept of “blood” to international politics.

History of appeasement

“Common blood belongs in a common reich” is a famous line in Hitler’s book “Mein Kampf.” The entire campaign preceding the Anschluss ("connection" or annexation of Austria) revolved around this key concept.

Hitler’s propaganda machine in the 30s successfully convinced the Germans, the world and many Austrians that his aim was merely the “reunification of all German people.” Before the post-occupation sham referendum on the Anschluss the slogan “reach out for each other’s hand you Germanians, from the Danube to the Rhein” could be read on propaganda posters put up all across the city of Vienna.

The Nazis wanted to portray an image of unity between Austria and Germany — political unity based on the idea of belonging to the same volk (people). Austria wasn’t a sovereign nation invaded by an authoritarian regime, but a lost people finally returning home.

The great powers of the time bought the story and appeased Hitler. Meanwhile, he exploited the National Bank’s vast gold reserves and Austria’s oil fields to build his war machine.

Both the idea of German blood and a Chinese family are constructs by authoritarian regimes to legitimize political suppression and imperialist expansionism. In his Beijing speech to celebrate the 70th anniversary of CCP rule, Xi stressed that “unity is iron and steel; unity is a source of strength” — but unity of what?

Let us focus on this idea of a “Chinese family.” While it sounds much friendlier than Hitler’s “common blood” or “Germanians reaching for each other’s hand,” it essentially suggests the same thing.

Nationality and identity are a question of origin, which is defined not by yourself but by an outside power. Being classified as Chinese by the Chinese predestines a people to submit to CCP rule.

Blood brothers

Not only does the CCP assume Taiwan’s identity, but also its allegiance to the party. Both the CCP and the nazis have successfully linked their gruesome ideologies to national identity using it to justify a one-party dictatorship. State and party become inseparable.

“Chinese family” also implies some form of homogeneity. The reality appears to be quite the opposite.

China’s two largest regions, Xinjiang and Tibet were conquered, or “reunified” in CCP speak, in the 18th and 20th centuries. Interestingly, the two territories had not realized they were part of the family until after they were invaded by Chinese troops.

Maybe they were too ignorant to discover their predestination and needed an invading army to show them their place in the family. The point here is this: by classifying populations and sovereign territories as being part of the "Chinese family,” the CCP is patronizing people who might not feel Chinese, let alone identify with the regime’s authoritarian ideology.

Instead of propagating ethnic superiority of the Han Chinese over the other ethnic groups (as Hitler did with the "Arian race”), the term "Chinese family” simply subjugates the same into a constructed nation dominated by the Han Chinese.

Another propaganda tool from the authoritarian playbook is the creation of inevitabilities. After Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) won January’s election in a landslide to secure a second term, Chinese state media put out a statement saying: “this temporary counter-current is just a bubble under the tide of the times.”

Chairman Xi followed by insisting that Taiwanese independence is an “adverse current from history and is a dead end.” Hitler thought that destiny was on his side too. In his infamous first Vienna speech on the Heldenplatz he declared that it was “destiny” that let him "return” his homeland to the German reich.

Both treat their expansionist ambitions as the inevitable restoration of something that has always existed, exists in the present moment, and should exist forever. As if the "Chinese family was an immortal entity waiting for the right time to re-enter the world stage in glory.

Untouched by CCP

As if the German reich was a mystical force that one could simply “return” a piece of land to. Such revisionist determinism uses a falsified history to justify a supposedly inevitable future.

The Taiwanese are generations away from identifying with what the CCP is now calling “Chinese.” Taiwan has a rich Polynesian aboriginal culture, a Dutch, Spanish, and Japanese colonial past, and has preserved traditional Fukien and Hakka culture by protecting it from the Cultural Revolution.

Its people have maintained a way of life completely separate from and untouched by the CCP. Yes, the tides of history are moving, but not in the direction the CCP envisages.

There is one key difference between Austria in the 30s and Taiwan today. Whereas many Austrians were cheering when they formally "re-joined” Germany, the Taiwanese abandoned the idea of belonging to a “Chinese family” long ago.

A poll in May showed that two-thirds of Taiwanese now identify as “only Taiwanese.” In addition, 28 percent identified as both Chinese and Taiwanese, and merely 6 percent as “just Chinese.”

Compare this to Austria in 1938, a country in crisis. Having lost about 80 percent of the former Habsburg territories, Austrians were desperately searching for an identity to cling onto, along with a remedy for their economic misery. The Taiwanese, however, are now a confident people with a flourishing market economy, a healthy public discourse, and a capable military at its back.

Taiwan is overcoming its totalitarian history, while the CCP still believes that its skewed version of the past determines the future. It is living in a fantasy world, desperately holding on to a sloppily constructed castle in the sky: the supposedly "inevitable" and "immortal" Chinese nation.

Arthur Krön is a student of economic history at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He grew up in a Taiwanese-Austrian household and is interested in nationalism, state-building and the future of democracy.

This article was first published in the Austrian Economics Center blog.