One of President Tsai’s greatest accomplishments is to fashion a democratic and inclusive Taiwanese national identity – convincing her party to tolerate and even grudgingly embrace RoC iconographies, while opening a democracy-to-defend -Taiwan’s path for supporters of the China KMT and/or RoC. Taiwan is not immune from the dark forces of polarization and mindless populism/utopianism. Tsai’s formulation is a solid governing majority – no one’s entirely satisfied, but good enough for at least three-quarters of this diverse citizenry. And Tsai has managed to do so by leading, summarizing, channeling, and shaping, while listening, responding, understanding where her diverse nation’s citizens are at, and meeting them halfway. A good lesson for autocrats in Moscow and Beijing, and imperialists in DC and NY and beyond: with national identity, a soft touch is more effective than harsh, autocratic edicts. And threats of violence almost always create the opposite effect.
For authoritarian Leninist parties like the China KMT and Chinese Communist Party, and for some western imperialists, national identity and nationalism flow in one direction – top down. Autocrats in the CCP, China KMT, and America complain similarly about books and educators “brainwashing” wayward children reflecting this autocratic mindset. As a history teacher, I’ve always noticed this naivete – autocrats giving formal education, textbooks, and long-suffering teachers way too much credit.
In reality, national identity and nationalism are the results of complex, multidirectional, contradictory forces, often resulting from unintended consequences. When Taiwan became a colony of Japan in 1895 the Japanese did not intend to provoke modern Taiwanese identity – yet they did. When Taiwan was occupied by the China KMT in 1945 the Chinese autocrats did not intend for the Taiwanese to see themselves as different from the invaders – yet they did. Latter-day China KMT, Chinese Communist Party, or DC imperialists did not intend for citizens of Taiwan to see themselves as members of a national community – however defined – apart from the People’s Republic of China, yet this occurred. Far from a top-down model – the pattern is that the harder an autocratic power pushes, whether the Japanese, China KMT, or Chinese communists, the more likely the masses to resist and move in the opposite direction.
This is why even though I am an academic historian, schooled in international relations and world history, I have never agreed with the premise that Taiwan’s status must be history-based, or international law based. National identity and historical memory are not determined by anyone outside power, or authority, or premised on a top-down approach. Decades of Chinese communist genocide against Tibet and East Turkestan will not erase the national identity of those occupied nations. Decades of China KMT brainwashing against the Taiwanese have been equally ineffective. This, by the way, go a long way in explaining why the Soviet-sponsored government of Afghanistan or the US-sponsored governments of Vietnam and Afghanistan melted on contact with the enemy, whereas Ukraine’s democratic government held – a resilient nationalism is one that’s bottom-up, organic, native to the place and people.
Which gets us to this year’s RoC National Day logo. I have written previously about President Tsai’s 2021 National Day speech, and the domestic and international consensus she fashioned regarding what Taiwan’s “status quo” means now. This year’s logo is a deepening of this process. The color and design move farther away from the stodgy China KMT Leninist party-state conceptions. In Mandarin, “You and I together, let’s defend our soil and protect our nation.” A simple statement of democratic sovereignty. Some will fuss that the formal national name RoC did not appear, but that’s the point isn’t it – Tsai and Lee’s efforts have been to fashion a stable domestic compromise – Taiwan, Taiwan RoC, RoC Taiwan, RoC – a democratic, diverse nation where citizens may define “our nation” from that list, with “NOT PRC” as the boundary of this Taiwan status quo. And in English for a global audience, Taiwan’s slow rebranding of itself – ever so slowly disentangling itself from China/Chinese “renegade province/breakaway province ….” nonsense.
Leaders lead, and citizens often do not follow. In this President Tsai has an even deeper understanding than President Lee. So China KMT and other extremists complaining about brainwashing notwithstanding, I think President Tsai understands the complexities of Taiwanese national identities after the Pacific War. Those here before 1945, those who came 1945-1949, those who fled in 1949, and those who arrived later. Indigenous and Hakkas, different regions of Taiwan, social classes and professions, etc. To engineer an inclusive national narrative reflecting these groups and minimize their conflicting memories and share in their democratic present-future. To have this vision accepted by the great powers, the US, Japan, and the EU. Tsai needs to maneuver adroitly and with pragmatism coupled with simple, important principles. This contrasts with the self-inflicted dilemma of the China KMT, wherein its successive chairs are outflanked by loud extremists regarding surrendering to the PRC. Whereas Tsai has managed to pull her party into a remarkable embrace of RoC, its flag, its national day, and its military. And as a part of this process, Taiwanese citizens and their democratically elected national government are creating a national identity and historical memory based on democratic sovereignty. 9.9.2022
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