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Asia-Pacific

We Are Taiwanese, We Are Chinese

Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian waves to journalists before departing for Rome. (Photo: Sam Yeh / AFP-Getty Images)

It was a big weekend for President Chen Shui-bian of Taiwan, who returned Saturday from the funeral of Pope John Paul II, the first president from Taiwan to set foot in Europe. It was a diplomatic victory he’ll have little time to savor, however, as he came home to profound discord over a series of events that have again begged the question that must eventually determine the island’s future: Is Taiwan Chinese?

It has been two weeks since a mass of protesters descended on Taipei in response to China’s controversial “anti-secession law,” which promises war should Taiwan declare independence. Next-day newspapers bearing the potentially inflated figure of “1,000,000,” declared it the biggest rally in Taiwan’s history. The organizers, along with international media, billed the event as a kind of coming out party for a Taiwan newly united in the face of China’s latest threat.

Two days later, however, Vice President Annette Lu of Taiwan admitted that the rally had mostly been a highly organized, government-sponsored event in which the majority of the capitol’s populace — most of whom favor eventual unification with China — had refused to participate. “At a time of hardship for the nation, residents of Taipei city were hiding from the protest and people had to be mobilized and brought in from other towns and counties,” Lu said.

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Remarkably, it was also two days after the rally that leaders of Taiwan’s Nationalist Party, known in Chinese as the Kuomingtang (K.M.T.), returned to the mainland for the first time since Mao Zedong booted the party out so as to make room for the People’s Republic of China. During their visit, leaders of the K.M.T., who support eventual unification with the mainland, signed a 10-point agreement with Chinese officials and described the trip as a peace-seeking mission. The ruling Democratic Progressive Party preferred to call it a “trip of surrender.” As Chen returned from the Vatican, the question of whether K.M.T. leaders would be charged with treason continued to be front-page news, sharing space with the K.M.T.’s decision to boycott legislative meetings until the charges are dropped.

It all adds up to an extremely tense and critical time for Taiwan, which, despite small victories like Chen’s trip to the Vatican, finds itself increasingly isolated in the face of the China’s explosive rise. As China continues to demand that Taiwan be recognized as domestic property, most experts agree that the island, which houses East Asia’s most stable democracy, will soon have to surrender to the geopolitical laws of gravity or commit itself, once and for all, to a determined trajectory, one that holds some hope of complete sovereignty. For the people of Taiwan it is potentially a life and death dilemma increasingly framed in terms of personal identity.

Identity Crisis

“You want to know what’s wrong with Taiwan,” asks Ken Yang, a Taipei resident whose ancestors emigrated from the mainland’s Fujien province in the 19th century. “We still don’t know if we are Taiwanese or Chinese.” At 36, with a comfortable job at an international electronics company, Yang seems a bit awed, even horrified by how much of his life revolves around this question. “This identity problem is so important,” he says. “Think of yourself, if you know who you are then you feel confidence. Right now, how am I going to tell my daughter and son about this? I don’t want to talk about it. When they ask whether they are Taiwanese or Chinese I won’t know the answer.”

Yang, like most Taiwanese, traces the kernel of his conflict back to the late 1980’s, when Chiang Ching-kuo, Chiang Kai-shek’s son and successor, lifted martial law. It was a time of profound social upheaval. In 1986, Taiwanese dissidents had organized the Democratic Progressive Party (D.P.P.), the island’s first opposition party. By 1989, the D.P.P. had enough parliamentary seats to propose new legislation.

A few years later, in 1991, Lee Tung-hui, Taiwan’s first native-born president, announced a formal end to civil war with the communists. For Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait, the event was more violent than the war itself, which for decades had existed only as a kind of ideology. Those clinging to the increasingly ephemeral notion that China remained a single entity to which all descendants of Han (the dominant Chinese ethnicity) belonged, suddenly realized just how ephemeral that notion became.

For those who had fled China with Chiang Kai-shek in 1949, Taiwan’s connection to the mainland became a kind of internal affair, a matter of personal definition and thus agonizing uncertainty (even though Taiwan’s constitution still defines the island as the Republic of China, true heir to all things truly Chinese, including the mainland).

For others, Lee’s truce was simply the first in a series of necessary cuts that would eventually slice all artificial ties with the mainland, freeing Taiwan to chart its own course and solidify its own identity — some new and surely democratic mix of the island’s aboriginal, Japanese and Chinese heritage. In the somewhat artificial heat of the burgeoning democracy, the D.P.P. sought the fastest route to the largest constituency, which often simply meant defining itself as something very different from the K.M.T. In other words, something very different from the Chinese.

In recalling the evolution of his own identity, Charles Chou, a Taiwanese businessman and 8th generation decedent of Fujien immigrants, put it this way. “I am not Chinese, certainly not. Certainly I am Taiwanese. Okay? You see, back to our education. From six or seven years old in primary school, the teacher told us you are Chinese. So we are Chinese. But maybe 15 years ago, something was changing. It was the liberation of the Taiwanese. We found out we are Taiwanese. That we are not Chinese.”

One or the Other

Formerly outlawed by the K.M.T., Minnanyu, the native language of the Fujien province, became a kind of unofficial passport, the easiest way to distinguish between those Chinese who had been on the island for hundreds of years and those who came with Chiang Kai-shek — “outsiders” as the first group called them.

Taxi drivers began refusing rides to those who could not speak Minnanyu. Audiences demanded to hear Minnanyu on TV and radio. Come election time, the D.P.P. blasted the language through loud speakers, the very sound became the party’s most definitive platform. At the same time, aboriginal groups, whose ancestors had lived on Taiwan for over 25,000 years, spoke up, eager to argue that of all Taiwanese, only they could honestly reject any and all ties to China.

The island quickly came to the realization that to democratize is first of all to divide. Newspapers, previously numbered and censored, proliferated at alarming rates, a fatal cancer to the K.M.T.’s carefully controlled consensus. As Yang recalled: “In the beginning newspapers were only allowed to have three pages. But now they were that thick, just like in America. Previously everybody was consistent. We knew we were going to recover the mainland and everybody had the same goal. But we started to wonder, what are our values? What is the consensus shared by all the people living in Taiwan, not just Taiwanese or mainlander?”

It was the end of one myth and the beginning of many. Practically overnight, Taiwan was embroiled in a custody battle in which one side sought to claim the island’s soul as a strictly Chinese commodity while the other attempted to define it as something entirely different, even if no one could say exactly what that was. Today around 45 percent of the island’s population considers itself exclusively “Taiwanese.” Another 45 percent claims some slightly varying mix, either “Chinese and Taiwanese” or “Taiwanese and Chinese.” The exclusively “Chinese” have been shrinking steadily over the last decade and now account for only 10 percent of the population.

The trend makes sense to Melissa Brown, a Stanford anthropologist who argues that democratization and regime change have the power to move and mold identities. In a recent book — titled, appropriately enough, “Is Taiwan Chinese?” — Brown argues that Taiwan’s shifting identity is what most frightens mainlanders, who’s idea of ethnology is, as one mainland ethnologist put it, to “tell them what they are and after a while they get used to it.”

“See, the thing about identities is that they do change,” Brown said in a recent interview. “The Chinese government is not used to not being able to tell people who they are. In Taiwan they are dealing with people who are well educated enough and savvy enough to question them.” Modern Taiwanese identity, Brown says, is the slowly solidifying product of various galvanizing events, beginning, perhaps, with a series of violent purges that began when Taiwan was passed from Japan to Chiang Kai-shek after World War II. Though estimates very, some say as many as 25,000 locals were killed before Chiang felt sufficiently secure. “It said to Taiwanese that they were not Chinese,” Brown says.

Still, it is almost impossible to say how much of Taiwan’s identity shift is actually due to fundamental changes in character and how much of it is due to superficial changes in lingo. The word China, after all, is now almost entirely defined as a communist country, one that routinely promises to bathe Taiwan in the blood of anyone who claims anything but a strictly Chinese identity. No surprise, perhaps, that many Taiwanese, having now experienced the freedom of democracy, are less and less inclined to classify themselves accordingly.

Consider, for example, how Chou distinguishes between his two choices: “The Chinese, they have a very long history, 5,000 years and a lot of bad habits. You know that. Like under the table. Almost everyone takes under the table in China. Of course, Taiwanese culture is part of … well not part of, actually it is quite different … well I cannot say quite different … a little bit different than the Fujien culture, the culture of my ancestors. Some traditions changed just because the land is different. In my opinion, China is China, Taiwan is Taiwan, and most of the Chinese are still under the control of the communists.”

Remove the equivocations and you have a Taiwanese identity comprised almost entirely of not being Chinese — in as much as Chinese means being corrupt and ruled by communists.

For George Tsai, a renowned political scientist in Taiwan, it only confirms suspicions that a truly distinctive Taiwanese identity is fiction writ large by politicians who then manipulate it for political gain. “Go back to the bottom line,” Tsai says. “Do you know why the Taiwanese government would like to set that kind of barrier between the two sides? You have to have that kind of barrier because the two societies are too homogenous, too identical. Without that barrier then unification would become the only solution.”

Why Not Both?

Tsai, whose parent’s came over with Chiang Kai-shek, is unabashed about his identity. “I am Chinese. I’m proud of being Chinese. I am Chinese living in Taiwan,” he says.

It should be remembered, however, that when Tsai swears fealty to China, as he frequently does, he speaks of a civilization, not an existing country. “There are other great civilizations but only Chinese civilization continues from 5,000 years on down,” he said. “The Egyptians today have no right to feel proud of the pharaoh. They are different people now. But we Chinese, we inherit the same civilization. I think we are unique. We are different. Otherwise we would have disintegrated a long time ago.”

While Tsai will admit that something new is developing in Taiwan, something that deserves to be nourished and celebrated, what infuriates him is any attempt to define Taiwanese as necessarily non-Chinese. “I don’t disagree with a strong sense of Taiwanese consciousness. But the government has to build up that consciousness in the sense of Chinese antagonism. Otherwise the consciousness cannot be built in a hurry, in a short amount of time,” Tsai says.

In 1996, Tsai spoke at a national development conference broadcast on both sides of the strait. He argued that although the People’s Republic currently represents China it does not equate China. It is just another dynasty in China’s long history. He went on to say that the Taiwanese have as much an obligation to China’s future as those living on the mainland.

A few days after the conference, the minister of the mainland’s Taiwan Affairs Office invited Tsai to Beijing. As Tsai remembers it, “He said: ‘George, if what you said in the conference were to become a consensus among all the parties in Taiwan than the relationship between the two sides would be totally different. We understand you won’t accept our ideology and our system. But we can strongly feel that kind of emotional attachment to Chinese civilization.’”

Of course, in Taiwan, where whole stacks of newsprint are dedicated to the proposition that every day in the shadow of the People’s Republic brings a new reason to hate China, such a consensus is a pipedream. A fact made evident to Tsai when, on the flight back to Taiwan, he picked up a newspaper in which then President Lee presented his latest approach to cross-strait relations: “Whatever the other sides doesn’t like. That is what we will do.”

For his part, Tsai views an exclusive Taiwanese identity as a tragedy, the loss a tremendous opportunity, perhaps Taiwan’s only shot at immortality. “We can polish Chinese civilization,” Tsai says. “We can upgrade Chinese culture to a new stage here. That is the kind of contribution we make for Chinese future. We are different. We are democratic. That is something that is totally new in Chinese civilizations. We can make our compatriots on the other side wonder ‘Why? We are all Chinese. We can be better.’”

But as Tsai admits, his notion requires that Chinese leaders recognize that Taiwan is indeed democratic (and furthermore that it is China that ought to be unifying with Taiwan and not vice-versa). Moreover, it means that the people of Taiwan must make room for both sides of their remarkable heritage. It is difficult to say which outcome is less likely in the present environment, with Taiwan’s political parties staking claims to mutually exclusive national identities and China tying its own hands with the “anti-secession” law. Any kind of slow-going syntheses seems equally impossible.

In that respect, the present situation bears a remarkable resemblance to one that existed in the 1940’s when Taiwan became the Republic of China after 50 years under Japanese rule. As Chiang sought to enforce a strict Chinese identity, the Taiwanese balked seeing it as too closely linked to Chiang’s corrupt, authoritarian regime.

Just inside the front door of the Taipei museum where the resulting purges are remembered, a wall bears the following, single-sentence prologue: “Confused identity produces tragedy on the island.”

 


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