Where else but Taiwan Republic would a baseball hero’s nickname be ‘Minister of National Defense’, and where else but Taiwan would the democratically elected vice president now prime minister and Army frogmen heroes echo his salute?
Politicians focus on curriculum and monuments and formal national iconographies when it comes to national identity debates — these categories play a role, but national identity emerges from a complex mixture, of formal and informal, planned and accidental, low and high cultures, action and reaction. The Chinese Taipei refugees imposed a particularly odd set of values and historical memories on postwar Taiwan — meek, notebook in hand, sitting using only one-third of a chair, autocratic filial piety, loyalty to the Chiang crime family, frugality amidst their corruption, self-effacing mixed with Han Chinese imperialism and racism.
This Taiwanese baseball team, on the other hand, is modern and global, they are celebrating loudly — a natural swagger, this Team Taiwan celebrates individuality, and spontaneity — they reflect the real historical experience of peripheral, heterodox, land of refuge from many different quarters of historic Taiwan.
How to purge democratic Taiwan of this poison the Chinese brought democratically, without bloodshed — it may be that constitutional reforms and national day declarations and political summits play less role than something like a World Baseball Classic, where Taiwanese naturally call their team Team Taiwan — where Chinese Taipei is understood as the slur imposed by the Chinese Taipei KMT that it is — where Taiwanese naturally, joyously, return to their historic, authentic national identity — a land of pirates and rebels and migrants, an island nation where beliefs and practices and foodways from different immigrants get hilariously mixed together.
Depending on what ‘altitude’ you fly over news items, for most international news outlets Taiwan reinstating year-long conscription feeds into the “rising tensions-most dangerous place on earth” storyline. And for domestic Taiwan news, arguments about which party made this move necessary, whether American pressure is behind this change if this means the youth vote will shift for 2024, etc etc.
To me, this is classic President Tsai and why I am a supporter. Smart policymaking, aggravatingly careful and slow and boring, good for Taiwan’s democracy, not likely to win her praise or many votes. Kind of like her green energy policy. Legalizing gay marriage. Pension reforms. Pandemic abatement. The opposite of the kind of quick, easy-to-understand modern storytelling to rile up populist emotions.
I have no faith in the ability and resolve of the China KMT dictatorship-dominated Taiwan national security establishment, though I know if they are good at one thing, it is to use their bureaucratic skills to kill reform efforts pushed by civilian, democratically elected leaders. So we will see.
It is politically smart to give the mostly superficial domestic Taiwan press the massively raised salary of the conscripts as their headlines. Once you listen to the press conference and read the details the most encouraging facet of this new policy is the recognition that the Taiwan Ministry of National Defense requires revolutionary change and improvements – a breakthrough for the democratically elected president of Taiwan to acknowledge that former draftees felt their time and talent were not fully respected and utilized by the military, to be smart about using this year-long conscription wisely, to import training regimes (and important, doctrines and concepts) from the US and other leading democracies, to think about how the volunteer military and conscripts enhance one another. This is a difficult and important first step – future elections will determine whether the momentum to democratize and reform the Taiwan military will continue.
An additional breakthrough is in how rapidly and directly the praise came from the American embassy in Taipei – without regard for the thin skin-ness of the Chinese communists and their allies inside Taiwan and in the west. This gets me back to my earlier point that folks generally focus on the headline numbers of the NDAA and aid to Taiwan, I have been fascinated by the detailed plans on interoperability and the “software” of national security – personnel, advisors, new mentality. California and Florida National Guards heroically trained Ukrainian officers – Hawaii National Guard has been paired with the Taiwanese military, is this the model we will see with new, modern training for the conscripts and volunteers alike? And again, having seen too many bright-eyed Taiwanese patriots graduate from West Point, Annapolis, and US Air Force Academy only to file for early retirement due to a reactionary and hyper-bureaucratic Taiwan military leadership. We will see, and we hope for the best. No shortage of talent and vitality from the bottom up in a democracy such as Taiwan – the bottleneck is within Taiwan’s military leadership.
An additional thing to ponder is this paradox of Taiwan. A medium small-ish nation. An oceanic, island democracy with a history of heterodoxy and not following imperial rules. Taiwanese businesspeople are notoriously creative and flexible. Taiwanese cuisine and music and literature are hybrid and ever-changing. The parts of Taiwan dominated by the China KMT dictatorship are reactionary, uncreative, haughty, stuck in trench warfare mentality – hyper-bureaucratic, better to get fifteen stamps than five, hurry up and wait – these facets of Taiwan public life exist in a parallel universe with the vibrant, democratic, can-do democracy that grew up around this China KMT dictatorship.
So I have been wondering about creatively deconstructing how the Taiwan public health – less dominated by the China KMT dictatorship because during the martial law era this was a safe harbor for educated Taiwanese – could serve as a model for how a reformed Taiwanese military could democratize and harness the creativity and energy of this democratic nation. Taiwanese public health and healthcare were not flawless during this pandemic – yet compared to the Taiwan military, it has been far more flexible and responsive to criticism and suggestions from citizens, civilian authorities, and foreign experts. Pandemic management had features and characteristics that are warfare-like – the “enemy” was not just the virus, but foreign and domestic bad actors, fear, rumors, anxiety, and fake news. What is it about the Taiwanese public health leadership, bureaucracy and regulation, institutional culture, and how it relates to the rest of this democracy, that enabled it to successfully meet these challenges? And what lessons might the democratically elected civilian leaders of Taiwan seeking to democratize and reform the Taiwan national security establishment draw from this model? 28.12.2022
After decades of studying elections in the US, Europe, and Asia, a few observations and thoughts.
One. Never criticize/review citizens-voters. The easiest path for the losing party is to criticize the voters-citizens, and the party that falls prey to that temptation will continue to lose. Democracy is imperfect and messy, but its beauty is that what’s right and wrong is decided by citizens – full stop, end of discussion. I am unhappy with what the voters chose for the 2022 Taiwan local elections, but it is what it is. DPP leaders must examine exit polling and other data to improve their performance in future elections. This defeat is on them, not the voters.
Two. Refrain from reviewing/criticizing “the media.” Likewise, to criticize the media landscape and reporting. Taiwan’s journalism is deeply flawed – a legacy of its China KMT authoritarian era, communist infiltration, too many outlets controlled by conglomerates, and the unwillingness of media companies to pay journalists decent wages. I am not uncritical of Taiwanese and western journalists but related to the point above, the losing party will continue to lose if they focus on journalists and not themselves.
Three. I am a supporter and admirer of President Tsai. During the democratic era, out of its three elected presidents, Lee, Chen, and Tsai, Tsai has been the best national security president. For domestic affairs and electoral politics President Tsai and her team have been far less impressive – they are no match for President Chen’s insight into the mechanics of local politics, nor President Lee’s charisma and retail electioneering. In contrast, President Tsai and her team are too Taipei-centered, too reliant on a particular style of soft Taiwan soap-opera-ish online storytelling – these may be useful towards a particular subset of urban educated younger voters, but clearly not useful for nationwide local elections.
Four. Misreading past success and failure. I am astonished that after the DPP drubbings in the 2018 local elections the national party failed to radically rethink its local electioneering strategy – and in fact, I think they misread the 2020 national, presidential election victory as a sign that the DPP already overcame the previous challenge – institutional, attitudinal, structural, towards local elections. Think of this as the DPP’s version of a common fallacy by some western journalists and academics, over and misreadings of what local elections actually mean – either in the US, or Taiwan.
Five. Elections require storytelling and a narrative strategery. For the DPP this 2022 election was story-narrative free – confused, contradictory, grab bag of things from the past. It was passive, confusing, contradictory, and reactive. I am dumbfounded, for example, that they nominated the super competent and likable health minister responsible for protecting Taiwan during this pandemic, and failed to have a clear and prepared strategy to counter the predictable pan-blue/red lies about vaccines and death rates. The focus within the DPP leadership on nominees rather than a coherent story/narrative makes me wonder if the major party factions have moved on to the 2024 nomination fight.
Six. All politics is local, with some peculiar exceptions. I was taught from my very first Political “Science” class that voters do not vote on foreign affairs – voters respond to pocketbook/kitchen table issues. There are exceptions when foreign affairs bleed into domestic tranquility (American War in Vietnam, Global War on Terror and Iraq invasion ….), or when the China KMT nominated a dangerously incompetent candidate in 2020, enough so that citizens decided this is neither the kind of neighborhood nor moment in Taiwanese history to experiment with an unusual candidate. Watching the 2022 DPP election strategy, I failed to hear a consistent series of domestic, local, policy-based narratives – pandemic success could have been rebranded as a harbinger for positive healthcare reforms, success in trade talks with the US and other democracies could have been translated into a vision for transformation local manufacturing, education, R&D, very few words on the perpetual problems of low wages, particularly for young, recent graduates, housing justice for the youth and low-income population, etc, etc. Even the China threat could have been productively built into a clear, consistent web of local, domestic, and future policy visions – and yet this did not occur.
Seven. The unique characteristics of President Tsai and her team. President Tsai’s astonishing success in national security and foreign affairs is rooted in her approach to public affairs – sober, consistent, thoughtful, professorial in its sophistication and boring-ness – all characteristics that are particularly unuseful in domestic politics, particularly local elections. The nominees from DPP are super competent – but unable to control the tempo and seize the narrative. Going back to the super competent Health Minister and nominee for Taipei Dr. Chen – was he even the right nominee? A man who has never run for local offices, without a political-campaign team of his own, to run in one of the nastiest, toughest localities in Taiwan? And if he was to be the the best nominee for the moment, why did the DPP fail to put together a political-campaign team, with the same level of narrative storytelling sophistication it organized during the 2020 election?
Eight. Speed is not our friend and the dangers of over-reading specific episodes. As brave Chinese people protest the Chinese communists all over China I cautioned students from jumping to quick, self-serving conclusions. This is my sense about the 2022 Taiwan local election as well. Is this the pendulum effect? Is this voter fatigue? Are these major factions within the DPP moving onto 2024 prematurely? Are voters seeking an outlet for their frustration with the pandemic? I have noted previously that during the democratic era, President Tsai is the first Taiwanese president who – paws crossed – has maintained relatively high approval ratings and avoided a major protest during her second term. Is this changing? We do not know, but I am certainly watching closely. The simplest conclusive assertion I can share is that this election had little to do with the “cross-straits/communist China/rising tension” issue. It is possible for Taiwanese citizens to seek democratic avenues to express dissatisfaction or to teach a lesson to the ruling party, without it having to do with changing views of the Chinese Communist Party. Maybe even top election managers of the DPP could use that lesson, along with analysts and talking heads, so that we may gain a better, more informative sense of local Taiwanese politics. 29.11.2022
Taiwan Republic dispatch. No one likes losing elections, and I am hyperpartisan when it comes to Taiwanese politics. I do, however, take a world history perspective on the wins and losses — that is, what is the larger, general direction. This is why I turned off the news after last evening’s losses and read this book on Taiwanese artist Chen Cheng-po, educated by the Japanese, murdered by the invading China KMT — his mangled corpse left at Chiayi town square, family members unable to retrieve it, as a show of force for the Chinese invaders. Many of his pieces I love, his painting on Tamsui, one of my favorite northern Taiwan places, is my favorite — it populates my computer background, class slides, and phone screen savers.
It has taken centuries of struggle by Taiwanese forbearers, against enemies foreign and domestic, to get Taiwan Republic to this point of democracy and human rights — and it will be centuries more of tears and sweat to preserve and improve Taiwanese democratic statehood. Human beings always wish for an easier path, I include myself in that camp — so yes we all wish for a “final” victory, a moment when we can all breathe a sigh of relief that the Chinese in China and the Chinese in Taiwan and the western imperialist powers will all leave Taiwanese democracy alone. Not without centuries more of difficult fighting and sacrificing — of using Taiwanese art and literature, anime and manga, food and street fairs, films and documentaries, songs and poems — just as Mr. Chen did here, to put into earthly forms expressions and explanations of this Taiwanese nation that we love. For that love, he was murdered by the Chinese invaders.
Given the level of political polarization, I am proud of the relative normalness of it all — for a relatively young democracy, little violence, losers conceded, and the democratically elected president resigned as chair of her party to take responsibility. I walked around the streets of Taipei last evening, MRT and shops buzzing, citizens going about their business – they voted, some obsess over results, life goes on as it must in a democracy. We can always rely on some western imperialist press and academics to produce bad takes — local electoral victories in Taiwan as a sign of warm feelings for the Chinese communists, implications for the rising tension, etc. I suggest studying the ruling DPP’s massive defeats in the 2018 local elections and then pondering what happened in 2020 as a way to frame what is going on in Taiwan. Our Taiwanese elders fought the Chinese to have this democracy, preserving democratic sovereignty no matter who wins any particular election is the most important reason for the struggles. Without democracy and domestic peace, Taiwanese nationalism would be pointless. 27.11.2022
阿中部長凍蒜！On the boulevard that used to greet the invader-dictator and then renamed for the indigenous people 凱達格蘭大道, next to the memorial that still inexplicably honors the dictator-invader, thousands of us participated in a political rally on behalf of Taiwanese democracy — a democratic Taiwan Republic that belongs to its citizens — as President Tsai said, a Taiwan that belong to the Taiwanese, a better Taiwan for the world — free from threats and violence.
Have you ever noticed how some too-cool-for-school western reporters, academics, and talking heads find focusing on democracy and human rights corny and not “realistic/realist/adult enough”? The more clever ones will go around in wordological circles and pretend to care, and the more honest ones will just tell you a version of “might makes right” – in the end, the main idea remains, smaller nations with darker people do not get to have self-determination. Interesting too to see overlapping circles of this unwillingness to engage democracy as a core, existential subject in domestic American elite discourse – see the corporate media and chattering heads twisting themselves into knots over President Biden daring to give a speech on democracy; or the core issue of democracy and self-determination in the Russian invasion of Ukraine; likewise, the nature of Chinese imperialism and Taiwanese democracy.
Well, democracy and self-determination are verbs for Taiwanese citizens – not abstract theoretical concepts, not frameworks for which egghead academics negotiate away on their behalf. And it is a concept as many are in Taiwan, borrowed and then modified for local taste – Mickey Mouse paws wearing street bowing by politicians, a parade of too loud vehicles, traditional market sweeps, the chanting at rallies that feels like a Taiwanese-Japanese baseball game.
I stood for three hours with thousands of Taiwanese citizens primarily to thank 阿中部長 for preventing the pandemic the Chinese communists are responsible for from harming my elders. It was very moving to watch Taiwanese democracy as a way of life and an emerging national identity — to be greeted in Taiwanese as ‘The nation of Taiwan’s owners’ in front of the same building where the invader-dictators tried to wipe out Taiwanese as a language. To watch the old school Premier at the end of his speech giving ninety-degree bows three times, sincerely asking for our votes in three languages, Taiwanese, Hakka, and Mandarin. Imagine a Chinese communist, China KMT dictator, or a western imperialist doing that.
The path of decolonization and transitional justice will be crooked and difficult for Taiwan, but there is this energy in this young democracy, irreverent, nontraditional, heterodox, good-humored, and pragmatic. Nothing gave me more faith that this democracy will survive the onslaught from the Chinese communists, the China KMT, and western imperialists, than how orderly and peacefully the rallygoers left at the end — picking up their own trash, waiting for the traffic light, keeping relatively quiet to not disturb the neighborhood. Democracy and nationalism are pointless without love for their fellow citizens inside this nation — they are also pointless if the nation is filled with violence and chaos. May the Buddha bless our beloved ancestral homeland, and our hard-fought and blood-soaked democracy. 12.11.2022
Because few Taiwanese dared to go into filmmaking, TV, radio, journalism, the arts, history, and politics during the days of the China KMT occupation-dictatorship, even decades after Taiwan’s democratization the decolonization process remains stalled. Taiwanese do not have the institutions, the people, nor the vocabulary to yet fully recover their historical memory and examine their own histories. This new film about the invading China KMT’s political prisoners and white terror during the 1950s and 1960s is an attempt to reverse that tide – for Taiwanese to reclaim their memory, and to tell their own stories. It was a difficult film to watch, much tears, sometimes I just closed my eyes for minutes to shut out the pain. But I told my wife going to a theater is no less important than voting – a small, personal vote against Chinese colonialism.
The incongruities and complications of modernity and modern Taiwan are these – to walk out of a beautiful and heart-wrenching film, subtle and tastefully done, into a western-style shopping mall complex in downtown Taipei. And then, a few minutes later, on a subway, to transfer to the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial stop – the same invader-dictator who is responsible for these crimes against humanity, yet Taiwanese citizens are still forced to host a memorial in his honor. And for extra incongruity, one of the Taipei mayoral candidates claims to be Chiang’s illegitimate great-grandson. And he may actually win. None of it makes any sense, yet all of them must coexist, parallel universe-like, democratically and peacefully.
How to reclaim historical memory, tell one’s own stories, and decolonize one’s own nation peacefully and democratically? The greatest strength of this film, I thought, was complicating and humanizing all of the characters, from China KMT political prison guards to political prisoners who are from China to Taiwanese victims – without descending into moral relativism and “What a tragedy of that era ….” b.s. These are my initial thoughts – I am going to take a while to think over my notes and ponder all of this. The range of linguistic diversity, accents, and languages brought over from China to the beautiful code-switching between southern Taiwanese to Japanese to English, speaks to a level of multiculturalism and diversity inherent to Taiwan that the China KMT dictatorship tried mightily to erase. The film did a masterful job with a light touch – this is a subject and a story that’s constantly at risk of tipping over into melodrama. The China KMT crimes and the human suffering were drama enough when simply illustrated. Something about the way the film was filmed and narrated and the stories interspersed felt immersive throughout – a deep sense of sadness and anger, sadness for the needless suffering and injustice, anger that the criminals remain unrepentant and unpunished, beautiful shots of the Pacific Ocean waves and the natural beauty of the Green Island almost as momentary reprieve.
It also occurred to me that decades of China KMT brainwashing into their particular brand of neutered in service of the Chiang crime family dictatorship “Confucianism” and decades of enforced forgetting have nearly erased most of modern-day Taiwanese memory of highly educated and super strong-willed Taiwanese women leaders in its history. A history that films like this is beginning to remember.
The film’s thankless task is also President Tsai’s thankless task – tell a fair and complicated historical memory story which some will take offense for not being harsh enough; while even touching the subject is making Chinese reactionaries inside Taiwan upset. Yet these are necessary steps for the future of Taiwanese democracy and nationhood – requiring brave, selfless Taiwanese to take – to engage the pain and suffering while opening a democratic and peaceful path for national coexistence. 8.11.2022
I am not naive about semiconductors and global finance, but I think the greatest contribution Taiwan Republic offers the world (Taiwan Can Help!) is a heterodox, pragmatic, peaceful, and democratic national identity. A challenge to a world quick to violence and tempted by utopian perfectionism – bloodshed and authoritarianism in the name of orthodoxies.
I love temples. I always remind students to look up and study their ceilings. I love Taiwan’s anti-utopian, heterodox, mishmash with a gentle shrug approach to even religious lives. Yesterday I visited a temple that was basically a United Nations/Mall of America of deities, Buddhist to folk to Taoist to everything in between. One could hear imperialist academics and theologians critique how it really doesn’t make sense – but it works for Taiwan, peacefully, and largely without discussion. And it occurred to me that this kind of incoherence for now works broadly – RoCTaiwan73years.
The first temple we visited had a birthday ceremony for the resident God, with major Goddesses and Gods – again of different localities and heritage and tradition and theological origins – from other Taiwanese temples visiting to celebrate the occasion. That temple, like many in Taiwan Republic, came about during a plague/pandemic, it was built to honor the God’s work putting down the plague.
The same cultural association that organized the incongruent yet beautiful Taiwan National Day show I wrote about organized this historic Bang-Kah street fair – from temple to temple they laid out the festivities, three stages for three series of Taiwanese kids playing their music – from rock to pop to jazz to hip hop to emo? – most of which I don’t quite get. Another of these Taiwanese incongruities – the Cultural Association was started by the China KMT dictatorship during the bad old days when Chiang Kai-shek needed to pretend that his China is the real China, and that his dictatorship was the preserver and inheritor of real “Chineseness” – the characters “Chinese” was removed from the association’s name, put back during Taiwan’s reactionary retrenchment, and left alone by the pragmatic Tsai administration – though their logo emphasizes the two mandarin characters “Cultural Association” – and they are leading the charge in melding President Tsai’s compromise – RoCTaiwan73 years, democratic sovereignty, Taiwan has never been a part of the PRC. Instead of fighting over orthodoxy and symbols and names, President Tsai changes the meaning from within seeking a stable governing majority.
We listened to the band whose name is a multilingual pun on poop – I chuckled as if I was suddenly a junior high student. What struck me the most was not the music, I’m just too old to be jumping up and down, and I can’t dance, and I have a ginormous oldster chest pack – but that the concert and event is a microcosm of this emerging Taiwanese national identity – a relatively peaceful coexistence of one of Taipei’s oldest neighborhoods, full of young people, setting up a rock concert stage right in front of a temple, no way they did not make the proper offerings and asked the resident God permission to do this, and then to have their semi-ironic, sometimes profane, I wondered what the God made of this kidsnowadays concert, and no one says a peep. Imagine the kind of utopian-perfectionist orthodoxy debate and outrage in an imperialist power like America, or communist China – or maybe even Japan and Korea. My point is not that Taiwan is a harmonious utopia – far from that. Taiwanese politics is polarized, its cities tightly packed, there is for now a willingness to not debate everything endlessly – to be pragmatic, to let differences be.
As we walked around the Bang-Kah neighborhoods and temples and took notes, it occurred to me when my wife asked about a building being pre-Japan, Japanese, or China KMT, or western, that so many had likely fusion/mishmash – layers of Han immigrants, maybe with indigenous connections, trading with Fujianese and Okinawan and Japanese and Koreans and westerners, who may have seen the kind of “Ocean-foreign” buildings in other harbors and rather than borrowing the whole design, took parts, say windows while fuzing the new with geomancy and local material.
Utopianism and perfectionism and modern nationalism are impossible without bloodshed, left or right, fascist or communist, American or Chinese. Taiwan frustrates because the randomness of life and human imperfections frustrate. This emerging Taiwanese national identity is a model, an ongoing experiment with global implications: Can heterodoxy and imperfection and things not fitting and making no sense democratically and peacefully coexist as a modern nation? Past and present, religious and secular, descendants of the 1949 refugees with Taiwan independence activists, Hakkas and Minnan, indigenous and new immigrants from SE Asia, returnees from the global Taiwan diaspora, and immigrants from the world, peacefully and democratically coexisting in a nation.
This is sentimental and emotional on my part. Standing there in a historic temple’s courtyard, watching Taiwanese youths bopping up and down while doing their Texas Long Horn rock and roll hand gestures, with the temple and the resident God as the backdrop, I love this heterodox-based national identity. Live peacefully and democratically, don’t try to resolve and solve everything, and leave other people alone as much as possible. And the most endearing part of Taiwan Republic is, last evening (oldsters like me do not like standing out in the dark too close to bedtime….), my beloved Taiwanese independence rockband FireEx performed at the main stage, and the resident temple provided the Farcebook live stream. This emerging Taiwanese national identity is the most important resource to offer for Taiwan Can Help – it is a model for a different way to manage modern national identity, for a violent, angry, and troubled world. 6.11.2022
In a world full of cowards, only a few heroes emerge. Something I tell students often — when assessing actions of historical figures and others, we tend to imagine a utopian standard for ourselves — surely we would face down the Nazis, of course we would risk jail or worse when the Chinese communist tanks rolled in the streets of Beijing, we would never ponder our livelihood by ratting out friends to the China KMT dictatorship — this is not making excuses for evil acts, just a caution that while watching films and reading novels we like to transpose ourselves as the hero, in beliefs in previous lives somehow we are almost always prince and princess and never dirt poor peasants, yet in reality, most of us do not make the cut. We are not rockstars. We are average, and fallible. A more cautious, realistic, humble view of human behavior — whether in warfare or in everyday life.
All a long-ish way to pay tribute to this fallen Taiwanese hero — most of us will think and talk and feel behind our phones and keyboards, and few of us will get on a plane, pick up a gun, and kill and die for democracy. Taiwanese hero Tseng’s criticism of the Taiwan military leadership excerpted above should not get lost, either, it is nothing new – Taiwan has sent hundreds and thousands of talented young women and men abroad to study modern military doctrines, only to have them return and get chewed up by the China KMT national security apparatus. The best way to honor his memory is to take these ideas to heart and engage in difficult reforms of the Taiwan national security establishment.
This slowly emerging, complex modern Taiwanese national identity based around democratic sovereignty is another way to honor his sacrifice, and it relates to Taiwan’s pandemic slogan Taiwan Can Help. The China KMT dictatorship brought to Taiwan a contradictory identity – at once self-pitying (refugees forced to a barbarous hinterland island, dependent on American generosity and Taiwanese tolerance but unable to face this embarrassment directly ….) and arrogant (“we” are the real China, the cream of the crop, “we” brought the gold and high culture and the essence of real Chineseness to you lessers ….) One sees a microcosm of this pitiful interplay among the Taiwan national security press – the inaccurate often repeated myth that the Taiwanese defense industry would have made world-class weapons had it not been for American manipulation; one still sees the China KMT legislators at parliament asking whether foreign nations will come to Taiwan’s assistance when the Chinese communists attack.
A slow but significant transformation in democratic Taiwan, and a significant feature of this emerging Taiwanese national identity, is to normalize this democratic nation by stepping away from this self-pitying/arrogant prison brought by these outsiders. Taiwan, as any democratic must, should not focus on who will help during an invasion but must focus on what we must do to defend ourselves. Taiwan Can Help is an important democratic and universal human rights principle – we are not beggars, we are a member of a democratic community and we have a duty to help others whenever we can. This principle applies domestically, and globally. A small detail I noticed when Taiwanese Vice President Lai briefly chatted with US Vice President Harris in Honduras – VP Lai did not ask VP Harris for anything, instead, VP Lai offered Taiwan’s assistance to US-led humanitarian work in Central America. A seachange in attitude from the China KMT dictatorship days.
May the Buddha bless this Taiwanese hero and his family, and may the Buddha protect Ukraine, Taiwan Republic, America, and all democracies.
When it comes to the Taiwan Strait the actors and players, however different they are, converge on the quasi-religious, allegedly sacred principle of the “status quo.” But what does it mean, and is it that important?
President Biden and Secretary Blinken recently – and accurately – framed the status quo as no side using violence to change the de facto reality. What has been the reality? In China there is unfortunately a ‘People’s’ Republic of China with a Chinese communist dictatorship – and in Taiwan, there is a “Republic of China” that used to be a warlord Chiang dictatorship, but since the 1990s has become a stable, electoral democracy. Whatever official name one gives to the political entity exercising democratic sovereignty over Taiwan, Taiwan has never been a part of the PRC.
Is this “status quo”? Philosophically the concept of the status quo has always been a fudge, a placeholder, an illusion. World history and human behavior are always dynamic – we build monuments and write last wills and testaments all in desperate, futile attempts to pretend that there can be permanence, unchanging, but this is impossible. The “status quo” hedge was formulated in the 1970s to get to pressing business – US-communist China facing down the USSR – moving, and deferring irresolvable differences over Taiwan.
The US government has been inconsistent, and self-contradictory for decades on its own Taiwan policies. The one constant element regarding its meaning of the status quo is no war – and no military coercion to change the status quo. This is ironic given some American anti-war activists rhetorically converging with some US think tankers converging with Chinese communist propaganda about what the status quo means, and who is allegedly pushing for war.
So, if the historically accurate definition of the status quo is that “RoC/Taiwan/Make up any name it actually matters less than democratic sovereignty derived from free and fair elections in Taiwan” has never been a part of the People’s Republic of China, and Taiwan’s future must be peacefully and democratically decided by its 23 million citizens free from coercion and threats, then I cannot think of a major political party nor likely presidential candidate in Taiwan who would dare to veer far from this democracy red line. Can we say the same for American academics and think tank experts? Their relative reluctance to center democratic sovereignty is fascinating and ought to be a separate study/book.
I think a particularly bad habit pushed by the China communists and China KMT is to overload the system with character salads and mind-numbing numerical formulations – the fictional 92 consensus that’s not a consensus, the three yes and four no’s and the five musts and twelve something somethings and on and on and on. Cutting through the junk, the fundamental belief of the Chinese communists, some in the China KMT, and some in American academia are that might makes right – communist China is bigger, its status quo, which is invasion and annexation of democratic Taiwan, is the meaning of status quo. This is also why some American experts will do almost anything to avoid using the words democracy/dictatorship – ever notice that? I bet they talk about democracy plenty when it comes to domestic American politics though. As Mr. Spock would say, fascinating.
Two additional issues are usually ignored but worth thinking about. Historically, in terms of “separatists” and “splittists” – in 1949, it was Mao and the Chinese communists who added the tragic comedic word “People’s” to the Republic of China and created the reality of two Chinas – so, who split from whom? What would geopolitics have been like had Mao kept the national name and declared Chiang a bandit?
And I know this is difficult to swallow given concerted China communists and China KMT, and some US academics’ propaganda to vilify the democratically elected president of Taiwan Tsai Ing-wen. Decades from now world history will show that Tsai’s moderate, intricate domestic and foreign compromises are the last plausible opportunity for the China communists and China KMT to have a facesaving option to avoid a wasteful, unwinnable war. Yes, President Tsai has danced around RoC RoC-Taiwan RoC is Taiwan. Her red line is democracy and peace, not having or not having China in the national name – and notice, she has never, ever made pronouncements about the future. Like any good world historian and believer in democracy, she knows that that is a bad habit brought to Taiwan by Chinese authoritarians – to have the arrogance and imperiousness to leave edicts to descendants on what they may or may not do. Democracy, peace, and letting the future citizens of Taiwan democratically and peacefully choose their own path. In an era of narrow ethnonationalism (China CCP and China KMT, plus fascism all over the democratic west), Tsai’s policies are a bulwark for principled democratic values. Would be lovely to see self-styled progressives and enlightened western academics and journalists support this kind of thoughtful policy from President Tsai, both for democracy and for true peace. 29.10.2022
This emerging Taiwanese national identity — urban history and collective memories. Remarkable to have this new project, 榕錦時光生活園區-原臺北刑務所官舍, three blocks from my childhood home. As an elementary school student, I used to save the bus money to buy newspapers and walk home from my school via these alleys.
Taipei is sadly a remarkably not beautiful city — whatever it was the pre-Japanese folks had in mind, and whatever grand plans the Japanese had, the Chinese invaders brought chaos and temporary-ness — occupiers who did not plan to stay long behaved accordingly. It also occurred to me today while experiencing the present and remembering my childhood that I have watched multiple Taipeis slowly meld incompletely into one another — the elegant Japanese wooden buildings that used to be all around the neighborhood, with the one-to-two-story super ugly Chinese invader concrete buildings, with the latter-day 1990s and beyond “western-ish/glass/concrete” apartments.
My parents made a pain face a few days ago when I politely noted that all of the buildings in Taipei are designed as if they have no neighbors — as if they are not a part of a city. In my childhood 1970s Taiwan was still under a Chinese invader-junta dictatorship, and in those classrooms, I was being brainwashed about how “we” fought the Japanese and must soon take back “our” fictionalized China — while coming home to visit my Japanese-speaking maternal grandparents and aunts and uncles.
If you ask me what I make of a former Japanese prison being turned into an urban hipster shopping/restaurant/coffee place, I made a face. Not because I am above the fray anti-consumerism per see — a prison is an unhappy place, and this transformation did strike me as odd. On the other hand, as I have often argued with fellow academic historians — we cannot keep just having a cow over every single history inspired film and tee-vee shows not being as boring as many academic books — regular people have fun, and we should at least not be anti-fun. More pragmatically, for downtown Taipei land this precious/costly, this is probably the only way to preserve the site without razing the little that’s left of what the Japanese built and turning it into yet another unremarkable but highly profitable apartment. And that’s not nothing, either. And I think the folks the city subcontracted did a tasteful job, things are clearly marked, and the rebuilt restaurants and coffee shops are useful, attractive to mass consumers, and interesting enough to history buffs.
This slowly emerging democratic Taiwanese national identity — to find a reasonable national container to tolerate these contradictory currents — peacefully — none of us particularly pleased, but tolerable, functional, democratic, and not a part of China. Historians cannot resist periodizations. Do urban projects like this mean modern Taiwanese national history has moved from the Dutch, Koxinga, Manchus, Japanese, China KMT invaders, and Democracy, into the consumerist coffee house phase?