On an Island

While there will be considerable fanfare today commemorating the 15th anniversary of the British handover of Hong Kong to the PRC, it’s worth noting that this is also an important anniversary year in the history of another island.  2012 marks 350 years since Zheng Chenggong (better known outside China as ‘Koxinga’) landed on Taiwan and forced a Dutch garrison to surrender control of the island to Zheng and his family.

Zheng Chenggong was born in Nagasaki, the son of the Chinese merchant/occasional pirate Zheng Zhilong and a Japanese woman named Tagawa.  He grew up in Fujian province and spent his youth preparing to enter official service in the government of the Ming Empire [r. 1368-1644].

After the fall of Beijing and the Manchu invasion of 1644, his father threw his support behind Prince Tang, a member of the royal family and a claimant to the throne.  When the Manchu armies captured the Prince, Zheng Zhilong – ignoring the advice of his son – went over to the Qing side.  Zheng Chenggong continued his struggle against the Manchus, suffering a series of defeats which forced him across the Taiwan straits to Formosa, then under the control of the Dutch.

On April 30, 1661, Zheng Chenggong besieged the Dutch at Fort Zeelandia (near present day Tainan) with over 900 ships and 25,000 men.  The Dutch held out for almost a year, waiting for reinforcements and provisions from Batavia.  With no relief in sight and the fort parched for a lack of fresh drinking water, the Dutch governor of Formosa, Frederik Coyett finally had little choice but to surrender.

The Zheng family established a kingdom on Taiwan which lasted until 1683, when an armada led by Admiral Shi Lang, a former comrade of Zheng Chenggong, crushed a force led by Feng Xifan and Zheng’s grandson, Zheng Guoxuan. Both Feng and the youngest Zheng surrendered and were shipped off to Beijing to be enfeoffed (some of their followers were not so lucky and were instead exiled to Ili).

The Qing government then made Taiwan a prefecture of Fujian province, under whose jurisdiction the island would remain until 1887 when Taiwan became its own province. Thus 1683 marked the first time that Taiwan came under the direct administrative control of any dynasty. Even so, for much of the 18th and even 19th centuries, the island was still a rough and ready frontier of settlers, pirates, native peoples and foreign traders. (Think: “Deadwood with Chinese Characteristics. On an island.”)  It was known by Qing officials as an exotic but difficult, even dangerous, posting, and the island was never an easy place to manage.

The PRC – for obvious reasons – is adamant to refer to Zheng Chenggong’s victory as the “Recovery of Taiwan”, although there is little evidence that the mainland exercised any kind of control over the island until Shi Lang formally claimed the island on behalf of the Qing dynasty.

The excellent historian Tonio Andrade recently wrote of his frustrations getting his book Lost Colony: The Untold Story of China’s First Great Victory over the West translated and published in the PRC:

My erstwhile publisher asked whether I would acquiesce to omitting some “sensitive material” and changing some wording. It sounded like an innocuous request until I got to the details. Since Koxinga is considered a “positive figure in China,” my publisher informed me that the text would have to omit any discussion of torture by him and his soldiers. (Descriptions of Dutch atrocities were acceptable, though.) The book couldn’t refer to Koxinga as a “conqueror” or a “warlord,” and his “restoration of Taiwan” couldn’t be referred to as an invasion or an attack. Similarly, any mention of resistance by Taiwan’s aboriginal peoples (who, historical sources make clear, rose up and killed thousands of his soldiers), would also have to be excised, on the grounds that such episodes hint of “some sort of consciousness of Taiwanese independence.” The Chinese publisher said that if I refused to make such changes, the translation wouldn’t proceed. “Abridgement,” I was told, “is unavoidable.”

And so I set aside my dreams of renown and royalties and said no.

Hong Kong’s history is perhaps only slightly less contentious, seized by the British during the Opium War and expanded by the 1860 cession of Kowloon and the 1898 lease of the New Territories; the island remained – literally – a colonial thorn in the side of the PRC until 1997.

British troops first occupied the island in January 1841 and British gunboats used it as a strategic depot and logistical base for further sorties against mainland targets.  Following an initial round of peace talks which began in 1841, both negotiators ended up fired over the issue of Hong Kong.  Aisin-Gioro Min Ning, The Daoguang Emperor [r. 1820-1850], was furious at the concessions made by his representative, Qishan, including the cession of Hong Kong. British Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston was equally irate that his negotiator had failed to exact harsher conditions on the Qing Empire, calling Hong Kong “a barren rock with barely a house on it.”  (Cited in Spence, 1999) Both representatives were dismissed — Qishan just barely kept his head — and hostilities resumed.  Finally, the island was permanently ceded to Britain as one of the stipulations of the Treaty of Nanjing (1842), the first in a series of unequal treaties forced upon the Qing government by foreign powers.

Convincing the British in 1984 to give back Hong Kong was one of Deng Xiaoping’s proudest moments although he passed away before the handover was finalized on July 1, 1997.

While some of the more dire predictions for the demise of Hong Kong’s cultural and legal independence, fortunately, failed to materialize, there has been no shortage of controversy over the ham-handed manner with which Beijing seeks to boost its influence in the SAR, most recently the neutering of the South China Morning Post, once one of the best windows into China.  There are also lingering issues of identity and culture which suggest 15 years later the ‘recovery’ of Hong Kong in name, the goal of reuniting Hong Kong with the mainland is only just beginning.