Resisting reunification

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How do you parse this headline?

"Resisting reunification by force to get Taiwan nowhere: mainland spokesperson" (Xinhua, 5/25/17)

Now read the first sentence of the article:

A Chinese mainland spokesperson warned Thursday that the Taiwan administration's attempt to resist reunification by the use of force will get the island nowhere.

Is that what you thought it meant?

But wait!  Even after reading the first sentence, is the intent of the title unambiguously clear?

And is the intent of the first sentence itself unmistakable?

Even after reading through the article to the last sentence, one may still be left wondering whence comes the application of force with regard to reunification:

The spokesperson made the remarks when asked to comment on an ongoing military drill in Taiwan, which has simulated a mainland attack.

This kind of hyperwaffling rhetoric is mind-numbing.


  1. Philip Taylor said,

    May 25, 2017 @ 7:09 am

    I have to confess, I fail to see the problem. I mentally re-cast "Resisting reunification by force to get Taiwan nowhere: mainland spokesperson" as "A mainland spokesman stated that Taiwan would achieve nothing if it were to attempt to use force in an attempt to resist re-unification". Is this not what was meant, and what are the problems in interpreting what reads to me as a normal example of a newspaper headline ?

  2. Dick Margulis said,

    May 25, 2017 @ 7:19 am

    @Philip: Here's the ambiguity. Is it "(resist reunification) by force" or "resist (reunification by force)? That doesn't seem to be resolved anywhere. And it's possible the writer, trying to stay out of prison, intended the ambiguity.

  3. Philip Taylor said,

    May 25, 2017 @ 7:23 am

    Ah, thank you Dick, all is now clear. The potential meaning "re-unification by force" never entered my mind, but I am politically rather naïve … I suppose that the Tibet analogue should have entered my mind, but I am somewhat embarrassed to admit that it did not.

  4. Saurs said,

    May 25, 2017 @ 7:27 am

    Part of the explanation, surely, is that the headline and the service that wrote it, being state propaganda, is in service of Chinese political aims. "Resistance by force" is euphemism for "asserting autonomy against an imperial foe." "Resistance" suggests illegitimate or irrational action, "re-unification" makes the subservience seem almost inevitable, and "by force" sounds aggressive rather than defensive, spin that seems especially audacious because the "force" being referenced, a simulation, is all theatre, anyway.

  5. Saurs said,

    May 25, 2017 @ 7:30 am

    No, the "reunification" is not the thing being characterized as using "force." According to the very brief link, Taiwanese actions are "antagonistic" and fly in the face of Chinese "peace"-bringing.

  6. RachelP said,

    May 25, 2017 @ 7:31 am

    The problem is that it is unclear whether the force is applied to the reunification, or to the resisting. It could be that there is an attempt at reunification by force, and they are being warned that resisting it will get nowhere. Or the reunification is threatened or underway, and they are attempting to resist by force. As someone with a woeful ignorance of the subject, I agree with Victor that the first sentence of the article does not actually clarify this.

  7. Jin Defang said,

    May 25, 2017 @ 7:34 am

    I agree with Saurs. But keyed in on "re"unification. This is the PRC's word-trap, dutifully repeated by media even on the probably rare occasions they know the "re" is not in the Chinese,
    The intent of the "re" is to give the unknowing the impression that Taiwan was once part of the PRC. As is the too-often-seen "breakaway province." As I imagine all on this list know, TW was a province of Qing/Manchu China, and that for slightly less than ten years. China's doing the same thing here as it does with "the one-China policy," which Beijing defines in a way that the US and Japan don't.

  8. Joshua K. said,

    May 25, 2017 @ 7:55 am

    I think the meaning is understandable but it takes some context. Acting "by force" is typically considered a negative thing. Thus, the mainland spokesperson might apply that characterization to Taiwan's activities, but would not refer to the PRC as acting by force. Hence, the headline would be better rewritten as "Using force to resist reunification will get Taiwan nowhere: mainland spokesperson."

  9. Jin Defang said,

    May 25, 2017 @ 7:59 am

    the meaning might best be simplified as "resistance is futile." Therefore, surrender now.

  10. Ellen K. said,

    May 25, 2017 @ 8:48 am

    My rewording of my first impression: A spokesperson for the People's Republic of China says that Taiwan won't get anywhere by using force to resist unification.

    Though upon thinking about it enough to reword it, I realized it could be the reunification that's by force, not the resistance. Which at first seemed more the more likely meaning, except that it's unlikely they would say that.

    That ambiguity is also in the first sentence of the article. Except, since that sentence expresses the force as something that's already happened, one can look at which side has used force to see what's meant. Maybe. Depending on interpretations of reality.

  11. Ellen K. said,

    May 25, 2017 @ 10:01 am

    P.S. I didn't even think about unification vs. reunification until reading the other comments, though I notice I did use the word without the "re".

  12. Christian Weisgerber said,

    May 25, 2017 @ 10:36 am

    My interpretation is that the intended meaning is "(resisting reunification) by force" since the alternative would sound too aggressive. Surely the PRC is not openly threatening to invade Taiwan?

    Maybe I'm overly naïve, but I doubt that the ambiguity is intended. It is a very common writing problem that the author thinks their text is totally clear and unambiguous when it is everything but. Hanlon's razor applies.

    Lastly, I would like to congratulate the PRC for its success in making the West now defend a Two-China policy, because the actual conservative point of view would be that there is of course only one China, that its sole legal government is on Taiwan, and that the mainland is (temporarily) occupied by communist insurgents.

  13. Arthur Waldron said,

    May 25, 2017 @ 10:41 am

    All official US documents have been premised on peaceful means although PTC has never affirmed this as well. In the third communique the US seized on a Chinese statement that her fundamental policy is peaceful allowing us to cut off arms. But if fundamental is jibenshang that is like French en principe I.e it opens the way for an exception

    I ahrrr the head means all resistance is futile Why now? Tsai is very smart. She is the first TOC president to utter the word "deterrence" in public Previous US administrations have intentionally kept Taiwan weak by selling random thins we would not want for high prices thus keeping open Beijings military option while seeming to follow the TRA. What has changed? First attack by PRC has become thinkable to former scoffers; second Taiwan herself is repairing the damage of the MA years andMOST IMPORTANTLY Japan has realized Taiwan is key to her security. China knows that Japan is not to be trifled with. US itself now firmer is no longer the key. The emerging Taipei Tokyo Tokyo US is going to be a problem. We no longer want China to get Taiwan and Tokyo agrees completely. Remember Japan does not steal her technology they have their technology and it is very good indeed. ANW

  14. Bruce said,

    May 25, 2017 @ 10:45 am

    Even if "by force" were referring to the resistance …

    How can you use military means / force to resist a peaceful reunification? A couple of Chinese diplomats sail across the Taiwan Strait, treaties in hand, and their sailboat gets gunned down by Taiwanese destroyers?

    I read it more as "when our amphibious landing craft come ashore to reunify you, do not fight back".

  15. Gregory Kusnick said,

    May 25, 2017 @ 11:04 am

    If resistance (forcible or otherwise) will get you nowhere, surely that implies (superior) force on the part of the reunifiers. So "reunification by force" is part of the subtext regardless of how you parse it.

  16. BZ said,

    May 25, 2017 @ 12:12 pm

    I think the reason the headline doesn't work is that "by force" has a very specific meaning in English. It means doing something without the other party's permission, against their will. If you are resisting something the "force" is coming from the other direction by definition. You cannot resist with the other party's permission, so "by force" makes no sense here. And, although "the use of force" can have other meanings, in context of resistance the same implications rule it out. What they probably want to say is "violently resist".

  17. Philip Taylor said,

    May 25, 2017 @ 12:35 pm

    And yet, BZ, "to resist by force" is recognised (for example) by the California Military and Veterans Code 2015 : "143. Whenever the Governor is satisfied that rebellion, insurrection, tumult or riot exists in any part of the state, or that the execution of civil or criminal process has been forcibly resisted by bodies of persons, or that any conspiracy or combination exists to resist by force the execution of process …"

  18. Ralph Hickok said,

    May 25, 2017 @ 12:57 pm

    Like Philip Taylor. I had no problem understanding it correctly and didn't even see the ambiguity until it was pointed out.

  19. Brandon Seah said,

    May 25, 2017 @ 2:46 pm

    But the whole point of resisting reunification is precisely to go nowhere, and maintain the status quo….

  20. Adrian Morgan said,

    May 25, 2017 @ 6:04 pm

    No interpretation other than "using force to resist reunification" occured to me. I had to read the comments to see "resisting forceful reunification" as possible. Perhaps one factor influencing me is that, particularly in a headline, "unification by force" seems clumsy and apt for substitution.

    Wondering if Victor expected this to be something that would split people 50/50, or for some reason expected most people to go for the "wrong" interpretation.

  21. Victor Mair said,

    May 25, 2017 @ 6:07 pm

    I expected that most people wouldn't know which way to go. 25% one way, 25% the other way, and 50% confused.

  22. J K said,

    May 25, 2017 @ 6:44 pm

    In case anyone was wondering the original is 台湾当局的“以武拒统”是没有出路的

  23. J.W. Brewer said,

    May 25, 2017 @ 7:16 pm

    One problem may be that the best strategy for [resisting [reunification by force]] may involve, even if only as one element of a broader approach, resisting it by force? But using the full wording [resisting [unification by force] by force] is perhaps unlikely to make people feel that the situation has been clarified.

    Although consider this vintage headline from 1955 (during what wikipedia calls the "First Taiwan Strait Crisis"): "U. S. MIGHT CITED; Dulles Warns Communist China U.S. Will Meet Force With Force But No Precise Stand Is Given on Offshore Isles by Secretary"

  24. Bloix said,

    May 25, 2017 @ 8:16 pm

    There's a rule of Headlinese that outlaws headlines that are actual sentences. If you replace the "to" in the headline with "will," which is the word used in the article, there's no possibility of confusion. But that would make the headline before the colon an honest-to-god sentence, which is not allowed.

  25. Ralph Hickok said,

    May 25, 2017 @ 8:58 pm

    It seems to me that “Resisting reunification by force will get Taiwan nowhere: mainland spokesperson” is just as likely to be misinterpreted as the original. Why do think it's clearer?

  26. John Swindle said,

    May 25, 2017 @ 10:58 pm

    The Chinese original cited by J.K. above makes it clearer. They're talking about the futility of armed resistance against unification. As others have said, though, the threat of forceful annexation is easy enough to see between the lines.

  27. RP said,

    May 26, 2017 @ 5:32 am

    I agree that the term "reunification" has different connotations and is more positive. I don't think it is necessarily wrong to speak about "the reunification of China" though (as opposed to "the reunification of the PRC", which would be wrong).

    The territory of East Germany had never belonged to the Federal Republic, but I wouldn't object to someone saying "German reunification" – and in fact that's the title of Wikipedia's article on the subject.

  28. Eidolon said,

    May 31, 2017 @ 4:23 pm

    @RP "unification" is usually an euphemism for empire building, and in all cases where it involves military action, is precisely that. German unification – that is to say, the formation of the modern state of Germany back in the 19th century – was accomplished through force and was a clear case of Prussian imperialism. What made German reunification more positive was that it was accomplished through peaceful and voluntary means – the Federal Republic annexed East Germany through mutual treaties and an accession vote on the side of the Volkskammer and the West German Bundestag. There were people who opposed the process on both sides and one could argue that for these people, it was an act of West German imperialism, but the majority won out and history attends the victors.

    The nature of Chinese reunification is, however, quite different. Just like Germany, China was originally unified through military force, and similar to Germany, the division between China and Taiwan was also the result of military force – in this case, Qing China's defeat in the Sino-Japanese War, and subsequently the Republic of China's defeat in the Chinese Civil War, which kept Taiwan out of Communist hands. But unlike the case of East Germany, Taiwan has no desire for reunification and Taiwanese voters would not choose to be annexed by the PRC. Thus, any reunification would involve the use of coercion, likely a combination of economic and military force. This makes the situation quite different from that of Germany reunification.

    But I suppose one man's "reunification" is just another man's "annexation"; in Germany's case, only a minority in saw it as "annexation". In Taiwan's case, the majority see it as "annexation." Had that not been the case, I expect that "reunification" would be the word choice and rhetorical standard on both sides, and we'd only hear about "annexation" in minority dissident views.

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