Ccru Cybernetic culture research unit
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One or Many Chinas?

Much attention has been devoted to the political, diplomatic, economic, and even military aspects of the 'One China' principle. It is natural enough - given the practical gravity of the issues involved - that purely conceptual considerations have not been prioritized. Nevertheless, the 'One China' debate is - at least implicitly - philosophical in nature, since it orbits the abstract and elusive concept of unity. In this respect the experience of Western philosophy, although apparently detached from the intricacies of the 'One China' discussion, has a considerable - and perhaps surprising - relevance to some of its key dilemmas.

Since the dawn of Western philosophy the meaning and status of unity has been a central preoccupation. According to the ancient Greek philosopher Parmenides, and to his disciple Plato, the true nature of reality was indivisible and unchanging. In contrast, the multiple and the transient were dismissed and denigrated as mere appearances; deceptions derived from the body and the senses. The tendency of these thinkers was to idealize unity as a supreme and eternal being above and beyond the many, the origin of - and ultimate sovereign over - the world. This intellectual trend was consolidated by the neoplatonic philosopher Plotinus, whose relation to 'The One' crystallized into an uncompromising mystical devotion. When further reinforced by the doctrinal commitments of Judeo-Christian and Islamic monotheism over the course of the following centuries this deification of unity hardened into a fundamental cultural orthodoxy.

An important current in modern European philosophy has called into question the long established privilege of unity. In the final years of the Nineteenth Century Friedrich Nietzsche announced a 'revaluation of all values,' seeking to overthrow the entire tradition descended from Plato and the Church. In the late Twentieth Century this philosophical revolution was re-invigorated by the collaborative work of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, which combined arguments from philosophy, mathematics, sociology, and economics to criticize the hierarchical power of 'The One.'

According to Deleuze & Guattari the philosophical conception of unity is not original, but is derived from the organizational model provided by the state. It is no coincidence from this perspective that Plato's most celebrated work (The Republic) is dedicated to the description of an ideal state. When the state unites diverse groups, peoples, interests, and territories, it does so by subordinating them to an over-arching authority. It thus identifies itself with the whole, but also as something additional to - above or beyond - the whole. Its implicit ambition is to both represent and stand above its population. This ambivalence, of a whole that is simultaneously higher than - or superior to - its parts, is intrinsic to the prevailing concept of unity. 'The One' only describes completeness by producing hierarchy and centralization.

Whilst in certain respects philosophically abstract, this conception of unity has obviously played an extremely prominent role in the 'One China' debate. It is particularly well exemplified by the formulation, recently endorsed by Egypt, of "One China with Beijing as its capital," in which the unity of China is immediately referred to a central political authority. Beijing's own version of the principle, naturally enough, insists that unity be conceived in this way, asserting that "the government of the People's Republic of China is the sole legal government of China."

It is inevitable that such formulations will feed democratic suspicions, since they imply that assimilation into a greater unity presupposes subordination to a non-accountable higher power. The apparent concession involved in the PRC's favored 'One China, two systems' version of the principle does little to assuage such doubts. As the example of Hong Kong demonstrates, the diversity of systems cannot provide a secure basis for popular freedoms when this diversity is itself enveloped under a central authority that completely suppresses the democratic sovereignty of 'its regions.' At best such diversity survives precariously, at worst it serves as a mere mask for oppression.

Given this context it is understandable that ROC negotiators have tended to seek refuge in merely preliminary (and ultimately evasive) formulations, whose model is the 'One China with each side having its own interpretation' position: the '1992 consensus' which is embraced precisely for its lack of definition. A more radical disillusionment with the version of Chinese unity on offer leads to a more-or-less explicit abandonment of the entire One China concept, such as that exemplified by Lee Teng-hui's suggestions: "two Chinas" or "One-China, one Taiwan."

It can thus be seen that mainland bullying - expressed by an adherence to a highly authoritarian version of the 'One China' formula, and associated sabre-rattling - results almost inevitably in an increasingly obfuscatory or even pro-independence response from ROC negotiators. However natural this response might be, its practical consequence - as even the DPP has come to recognize - is the breakdown of cross-straits communication, causing great uncertainty and damage to both sides.

Need any possible 'One China principle' lead to such deadlock? Drawing upon strains of anti-hierarchical thought drawn from both Eastern and Western sources - both Lao-tse and Spinoza are prominent influences - Deleuze & Guattari point to a quite different type of unity to that favored by authoritarian states. They note that systems of relatively 'flat' or non-hierarchized intercommunication provide an alternative model of unity: that of an integrated network. The most important characteristic of any such system is that its unity neither stands above, nor enters into conflict with, the freedom and diversity of its parts. 'A' network, population, or economy is no less One because it is Many: its multiplicity and singularity exactly coincide.

In 'the Age of Networks' the systems that succeed and proliferate are characterized by tightly integrated but decentralized commercial, communicative, and administrative webs. Trends towards economic deregulation, globalization, and the explosive growth of wireless telecommunications and the World Wide Web have produced an environment in which rigidly monolithic institutions, whether governmental or corporate, prove ever more fundamentally dysfunctional. Downsizing, decentralization, and 'bottom-up' dynamics have become the watch-words of postmodern political, economic, and business reform.

Real Chinese unity cannot be conjured by ideological pronouncements - however imaginative or obstinate - but is in fact the product of densely meshed interconnection, interchange, and intercommunication. This process of unification though multiple connections has its own irresistable momentum, as beneath the crust of political stand-off a myriad of small business enterprizes, joint ventures, and individual initiatives promote trade, travel, and cultural exchanges. It is in this way that a non-oppressive cohesion - or integration without subordination - builds its own model: producing the future of a free and diverse One China from the bottom-up.