It’s a matter of face.
Despite China’s warning of serious consequences, U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi arrived in Taiwan on Tuesday, becoming the highest-ranking American official in 25 years to visit the island, which China claims is a part of its country.
What is China to do? It cannot possibly back down, as that would mean losing face. It’s a terribly serious social dilemma if you understand the importance of face in Chinese culture.
Face, or “mianzi” in Chinese, is an understanding of respect and honor. Disrespectful actions will cause someone to lose face, a major social faux pas in China. Face amounts to dignity. Now China is in a position of saving face to keep the respect of its citizens and its world image.
China had warned that its military would not sit idly by if Pelosi went ahead with the trip. China’s Defense Ministry said Tuesday that it will conduct a series of targeted military operations in response to Pelosi’s visit. Overnight, the tension between China and the United States multiplied with Pelosi’s move.
The unexpected trip by Pelosi’s delegation has dominated conversation in Chinese American circles for days. Some worry that the age-old concept of face may lead to unnecessary bloodshed.
“It’s of premier importance in China to maintain your face,” said Englewood Cliffs resident Bill Woo, 45, who has lived and worked in both China and Taiwan. He is an American-born Chinese — or ABC — with family roots in Taiwan, China and Hong Kong.
“Asians will believe certain messages are an insult to your face. In America, if it hasn’t been said, then it’s not implied,” Woo said, explaining that Americans are much more direct in their communications, while Chinese may take gestures as insults.
“Face always convinces people they are doing the right thing,” said Montville resident Margaret Lam, 81, who identifies as Chinese and is an immigrant from Hong Kong. Trying to save face has meant the loss of relationships and misunderstandings, she noted.
At issue is Taiwan’s sovereignty. China claims Taiwan as part of its country, but Taiwan claims it is independent. The United States officially recognizes mainland China while maintaining relations with Taiwan.
China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement about Pelosi’s visit immediately after she landed in Taiwan:
“In disregard of China’s strong opposition and serious representations, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi visited China’s Taiwan region. This is a serious violation of the one-China principle and the provisions of the three China-U.S. joint communiqués. It has a severe impact on the political foundation of China-U.S. relations, and seriously infringes upon China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. It gravely undermines peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait, and sends a seriously wrong signal to the separatist forces for “Taiwan independence.”
Taiwan’s independence has been challenged since the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949, when the losing Nationalist Party retreated to the island. China, or the People’s Republic of China, views Taiwan, just 125 miles off its southeastern coast, as a breakaway province.
Taiwan, the Republic of China, was established when the Nationalists and about 2 million followers retreated to what was then the island of Formosa in 1949. The island was already inhabited by local Taiwanese who had migrated from the Fujian province of China some 400 years earlier, as well as by aborigines.
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In recent years, the rhetoric of “one China” gained steam. Chinese President Xi Jinping said last year that reunification with the island must be fulfilled, while Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen vowed that her government will not bow to pressure.
The tension is akin to the Russia-Ukraine situation. If war is to ensue, the island of 23 million will face off against a country of 1.4 billion. The United States does not recognize Taiwan as a nation, but it has a military presence in Okinawa, Japan, to keep an eye on peace in the region. The U.S. has long had a policy of “strategic ambiguity” toward its democratic partner in Taiwan, providing arms but stopping short of promising to defend it against invasion.
The ambiguity even bleeds into how the U.S. classifies people from Taiwan on its own shores. Because some consider themselves Chinese and others Taiwanese — and the Census Bureau doesn’t differentiate — estimates range from 195,000 all the way to 697,000, according to a September 2021 Pew Research report.
Woo, who owns several small businesses throughout New Jersey, supports the status quo of strategic ambiguity. China and Taiwan have existed for more than 70 years operating separately.
“Why stir the pot?” Woo asked.
Pelosi’s visit could cause a crisis in Asia. China will react militarily, Woo predicts, noting that seeing Russia’s attack on Ukraine may have emboldened China’s resolve.
But unlike Ukraine, Americans do not have the same level of sympathy for the cause of Taiwanese independence. People in the U.S. are race-sensitive, and Eastern Europeans are genetically closer to white Americans, Woo said.
Lam, who is a philanthropist supporting New Jersey Chinese causes, thinks that Taiwan is part of China. People of Taiwan for the most part migrated from China, with the exception of the aboriginals, she said.
“Their ancestors are Chinese,” Lam said. “It really hurts me. It’s like separating family.”
Lam founded the New Jersey Chinese Festival in 1989 with the goal of uniting all Chinese, from Taiwan, China, Hong Kong and beyond.
The China-Taiwan relationship is a complicated one, Woo said. Once you lose face, you can’t back down, he said, adding that Pelosi should have given the visit more thought.
Tuesday on Twitter, Pelosi defiantly challenged China with her statement.
“Our delegation’s visit to Taiwan honors America’s unwavering commitment to supporting Taiwan’s vibrant Democracy. Our discussions with Taiwan leadership reaffirm our support for our partner & promote our shared interests, including advancing a free & open Indo-Pacific region,” the tweet read.
Whether or not Pelosi understands the concept of face in Chinese culture, her statement is a direct “I dare you” challenge to Chinese Communist Party officials.
Now we’ll see just to what lengths China will go to salvage its face. Expect the unexpected as the Chinese have patience and will play the long game.
Mary Chao is a columnist who covers Asian American issues and real estate. Email her at mchao@NorthJersey.com
It’s a matter of face.