I have been told numerous times that it is not my place to talk about Taiwanese independence. But this isn’t Weibo or Renren. This is Taiwan and I can freely discuss my views on Taiwanese self-determination without being afraid of having a visa or job in the morning.
In Taiwan, the same movement for self-determination continues to grow among younger demographics and as time goes on, it is anyone’s guess as to whether a Republic of Taiwan can be realized.
What is certain, however, is that the KMT (Kuomintang/國民黨) might not recover its former monopoly on power in Taiwan. In the 2016 election, the DPP (Democratic Progressive Party) under Tsai Ing-wen, won 56%, against the KMT’s 31%. To give some grounding on that victory, the KMT had controlled Taiwan under martial law from 1949 to 1987 with its authoritarian government. Fast forward nearly 30 years, and the KMT is becoming less relevant to most young voters and they are in serious need of reinventing their message and appeal to young voters.
I don’t want you to think I am fully supportive of the DPP either. The KMT might be dinosaurs, but the DPP is hardly much of a step up. Tsai Ing-wen’s 2016 campaign promised so much and delivered so little. Sure, same-sex marriage amendments got through, but what else has her administration really done? Not a lot and I fear they won’t do much in the near future either.
Their irrelevancy is being born out of their stance with building closer ties to China at the cost Taiwanese self-determination. There are moderates in the KMT but their parties stance is built upon the long lost ideology of retaking the mainland.
I don’t have an issue at all with building bridges between Taiwan and China, but the relationship will always be one-sided for China. One small indicator of this lopsided relationship was when former president of Taiwan, Ma Ying-jeou’s met Chinese president, Xi Jinping in Singapore in 2015. Ma’s image was broadcasted in China, with an omission.
Even when meeting with the now former president Ma – someone who was there to build ties and was supportive of unification somewhere down the line – there was still censorship of ‘his Taiwan/ROC’. But the KMT has bigger problems at home than being accepted by the PRC.
1. The past might be forgiven, but it won’t be forgotten
It is hard for the KMT to shake off their former authoritarian past. After getting to Taiwan first after the Japanese left, the KMT made the island their home when they lost the Chinese Civil War in 1949. The subsequent White Terror (白色恐怖) ensued after the 228 incident and martial law lasted for 38 years, which saw 140,000 imprisoned and between 3,000-4,000 people executed.
Locals were restricted in what they could do and the newly arrived KMT (外省人) took over important positions in society. Taiwanese (臺語) was replaced with Mandarin (國語). The KMT attempted to stamp out the Taiwanese identity which had been born of so many influences in the past and today, there is a revival of that identity.
Some of Chiang Kai-shek’s statues have already been removed and there is still discussing as to whether or not the former dictator should still have a statue in the Chiang Kai-shek memorial hall where a massive statue of him still sits in the middle of Taipei.
To me, no matter what way the KMT tries to spin it, they belong to an institution that caused great pain and strife in Taiwan and China for that matter. Their politics is the politics of dead men and women and those today who continue to propel the ideology of unification and a ‘Chinese’ identity might not have much appeal in the coming decades when their grassroots die off and what is left are the sons and daughters of party members and party voters, which leads me to my second point.
2. The KMT needs to reinvent itself or a new unification party needs to emerge
Having a legacy like the KMT is a problem. How they might reinvent themselves is simply beyond me. It might be the case that the current younger generation might change their mindset towards China if the country falls into economic disarray. It might also be the case that as Taiwanese become older, they will become more conservative in their views, and might fall in line with the notion that practicality and pragmatism is more important than their identity.
Hell, a lot of the former leaders of the Sun Flower movement which saw students occupy the Legislative Yuan in 2014 are now in China. They once protested against a trade deal with China that they saw as creating dependency and might weaken Taiwan’s position in the world.
There are over 1 million working Taiwanese in China and those ties will not be easily broken by anyone. The KMT could latch onto those people and their influence and perhaps keep themselves in power.
If the KMT wants to keep relevant, it could completely give way for a new party that doesn’t hold onto the same baggage. From Hou Hsiao-hsien’s masterpiece “A City of Sadness/悲情城市”, Julie Wu’s “The Third Son” and even the video game “Detention/返校” also showcase what affect the KMT has had on Taiwanese society and that image and association isn’t going away for the younger generation.
But even then, a reiteration of the KMT in a new suit won’t change anything. If the KMT tries to reinvent themselves or breakdown to allow a new and similar party to grow, they would only be rehashing a message that fewer and fewer people want to hear.
3. Kowtowing to China is dangerous for Taiwan’s democracy and freedoms
If you want to see a good example of what China has in store for China, look to Hong Kong. Their political system is dominated by China. There is no real democracy in Hong Kong, except a facade. Only candidates approved by China can run and only a select number of citizens can vote for those approved candidates. The system is rigged for an outcome that is best for Beijing, but not for the overall sentiment of the people.
Taiwan would find itself self-censoring in the future if it allows itself to become economic dependent on China. Just like the Causeway Booksellers, Li Ming-che, a pro-democracy activist, was arrested in China and jailed for state subversion in a kangaroo court case.
Such cases in HK and of Taiwanese citizens in China showcase that Beijing doesn’t care about Taiwanese freedoms and democracy, but rather unification at any cost. The KMT in many ways hopes that over time, China will become more transparent and that business and law will allow Taiwan to integrate into China. Their hopes in my opinion are misplaced. Sure, there are more Chinese and Taiwanese than ever before interacting and visiting each other’s country, but on the grander scale of things, the plan from China is to use trade and tourism as a carrot and stick.
An example of this was when president Tsai Ing-wen refused to publicly acknowledge the 1992 consensus that Taiwan is Chinese, but not the PRC China. In response, Beijing cut the number of Chinese tourist in Taiwan in half as a way of punishing Tsai’s administration. It was just a pity that tourism grew instead of shrinking in that period and showed that Taiwan is capable of growing without China.
The issue of independence
I support Taiwanese independence for the simple fact that Taiwan is not China. Sure, culturally Taiwan is very much Chinese, but there is certainly a divergence in how China and Taiwan have developed in terms of their economy, society and culture since 1895 (when Taiwan became a Japanese model colony).
There is even debate about whether or not Taiwan was even Chinese territory in the past. It wasn’t until 1875 that most of Taiwan was colonized and an attempt to open up the mountainous regions, or in layman’s terms “most of Taiwan”. Up until 1875, the Qing had little to no influence on the island outside of collecting the odd tax and being worried about pirates and local uprisings. Taiwan to them, was nothing more than a backwater island that was more trouble than it was worth.
That changed in 1875 with the advent of foreign powers invading and placing harsh treaties on China. For the sake of protecting themselves from a base that could be set on Taiwan by foreign powers (Sino-Franco war seen France attempt invasion), the island was finally opened.
The attitudes up until 1875 was that most of Taiwan was outside of Qing influence, as stated below from Lung-chih Chang’s research on “Qing Debates on Territorialization of AboriginalTaiwan in the Nineteenth Century.”
“The direct contact between foreigners and the natives in the aboriginal
territory during the Rover incident was indicative of new challenge to Qing
frontier management with the opening of Taiwan’s treaty ports in the early 1860s.
In their replies to Le Gendre’s request for crossing the aboriginal boundary, Qing
top civil and military officials in Taiwan Liu Mingden and Wu Dating reiterated
the quarantine doctrine:”
“The raw aborigines are beyond the imperial domain and the realm of our civilization. The foreigners are advised to observe the boundary policy and not to venture into the forbidden aboriginal territory.”
The island was mostly cultivated by the Japanese and later by the KMT. In other words, Taiwan, as an entire island, was not an entity until 1875.
I am not without my own bias. Being Irish, I can kind of relate to the situation in Taiwan. A lot of Taiwanese will say they aren’t Chinese, but with the economic and military might of China, there is no future in independence. I disagree because Ireland was able to gain independence despite Britain being both an economic and military powerhouse. Sure, the circumstances are different and it is apples and oranges, but it is the the notion that China’s economy and military being the only factors in Taiwanese independence that riles me up.
The KMT is going nowhere and there are enough people in Taiwan to keep the idea of a mainland and Taiwan, rather than a China and Taiwan, alive. However, the KMT is going slowly into a state of being irrelevant and they will always be treated with economic benefits from China, but not an equal partnership.
The DPP might be a good alternative to the KMT, but their party and mindset also needs to change. I don’t associate the DPP with pro-independence because frankly, I don’t think they have it in them to actually go ahead with it. They might do it in the future, but I would hold out for a different political party in the future being able to do it.