Letter from Asia: Taiwan and China: Struggle over identity

Copyright The International Herald Tribune
By Howard W. French
FRIDAY, MAY 27, 2005
TAIPEI Something rare happened in recent weeks with the unprecedented back-to-back visits to China of two of Taiwan’s most prominent opposition politicians.
Suddenly China, which has often shown all the subtlety of a jackhammer operator in its approach toward Taiwan, which it regards as a renegade province, is serving up a dish sprinkled with carrots.
With an unrelenting focus on shared history and culture, from tributes to Sun Yat-sen, the father of Chinese republicanism and the sole political ancestor claimed by elites in both countries, visits by James Soong and Lien Chan to their ancestral homelands, exchanges of calligraphy and other appeals to common roots, Beijing was smartly upping its game.
What the Chinese leadership of Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao seems to be grasping is the increasingly central role of identity in the dispute between Taiwan and China across the tense and heavily armed divide of the Taiwan Strait.
For all its new astuteness, however, China may not yet have taken the full measure of the cultural challenges it faces if it wishes to attract Taiwan back into its political orbit, or to simply absorb it, without the use of force.
Quite distinct from the independentist rhetoric of President Chen Shui-bian and his ruling Democratic Progressive Party, a fast emerging sense of Taiwanese identity, one that is increasingly distinct from Chinese identity, is making this country a moving target for Beijing.
Except for a tiny aboriginal minority, well over 90 percent of Taiwanese trace their ancestry to China. But only roughly 15 percent of the population came to this island after 1949, the start of the Communist era. In cultural terms, this minority, many of them followers of the nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek, known here as “mainlanders,” still identifies closely with the motherland. To a large degree, today the rest of the population sees itself simply as Taiwanese.
Among this population, for whom Taiwan’s separate identity is already a settled matter, impatience with Beijing’s insistence on reunification, and indeed with the perennial debate over Taiwan’s status, can be heard wherever one turns here.
“Why does my country’s status rank as an issue in the eyes of the world?” asked Dienfang Chou, a 33-year-old academic in the eastern town of Hualien. “For Taiwanese, this seems like some kind of discrimination.”
Even more despairingly, from the perspective of Beijing, as time goes by, this still relatively new phenomenon of national identity formation is even spreading among the children and grandchildren of the mainlanders, hence the urgency for China of finding ways of emphasizing common culture.
“Culturally, I still identify with China, and it is very hard for me to think of cutting off those ties,” said Arthur Ding, a research fellow in international relations at Chengchi University in Taipei. “My son, though, identifies with Taiwan.”
Given this movement, the inescapable conclusion is that China’s appeals to a common past, however tactically innovative, are woefully inadequate. Taiwanese democracy and openness have made this society an increasingly forward-looking place.
It is common for countries to fixate on particular neighbors. Indians increasingly complain, for example, that India’s obsessive focus on Pakistan, a poorer, slower-growing authoritarian country, holds their democracy back, preventing it from being as forward looking as it should.
Taiwan and China each serve the other in unique and vital ways that drive their relationship, as a sort of heirloom mirror. For Chinese, the island’s continued autonomy is a reminder of their country’s so-called century of humiliation, the violent dismemberment, lawlessness, exploitation by foreign powers and decadence brought to an end by Communist rule. In short, taking control of Taiwan, which Chinese ritually insist has always been “theirs” – typically disregarding all historical evidence to the contrary – is a matter of dignity.
Each glance at China, meanwhile, is a way for Taiwanese to measure their country’s startling progress since their democratization began with the lifting of martial law in 1987. Some Taiwanese say that if China were as rich and as free a society as the United States, their country’s separate status would be drained of most of its meaning; indeed, many here would clamor for unification.
Others insist, though, that Taiwanese identity goes well beyond essentially political questions like these. Asked how they felt about the mainland, ordinary Taiwanese, from taxi drivers to waitresses to office workers, said they felt little in common with the people or way of life there.
“Wan quan bu iyang!,” meaning completely different, exclaimed one man who had visited China and returned almost shocked. For him, the most important differences were in orderliness, public behavior and a Confucian sense of manners and respect for others. Most would say the erosion of virtues like these, which the man said he found missing in China, took place not in some distant, foreign-dominated past, but under Communist rule.
Other Taiwanese went further still, warning that China’s plans to allow more of its citizens to visit the island as tourists, intended as a good-will gesture and lift to the Taiwanese economy, could even backfire for these reasons, reinforcing a sense of difference rather than forging a deeper bond between the two peoples.
Whatever their feelings about popular mores next door, Taiwanese are united across political lines in their disdain for China’s heavy-handed authoritarianism, weak rule of law, official corruption on a vast scale and yawning gap between rich and poor.
“The fact is, the mainland’s economy is not as good as Taiwan’s yet,” said Chen Kongli, a professor at the Taiwan Research Institute at Xiamen University, in China. “And they think the political democracy is not as advanced on the mainland as in Taiwan. These are the two things the Taiwanese people are most proud of, their economy and their democracy.
“But the world is changing and China’s economy is growing fast, and our political development is making progress, too.”
David W.F. Huang, vice chairman of Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council, said: “In 50 years’ time, people may change perspective, but only if China genuinely changes, if China becomes a true democracy, which means at least that it should tolerate a difference of opinion, like Canada, which gives Quebec a choice, so long as it respects certain procedures. The problem is that China will not do that.”
In 50 years, though, assuming the peace can hold that long, Taiwanese identity, still in its infancy now, will have sunk far deeper roots. Can Beijing wait?

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