by Brian Hioe

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Photo Credit: AFP

Recent Attempts to Consign Taiwanese Independence to the Dustbin of History?

IT APPEARS THAT the political spectrum is changing in Taiwan again, after the victory of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in 2016 elections. With the split which has emerged between the positions of Republic of China (ROC) independence and Taiwanese independence, perhaps we can say that with the weakening of the Chinese Nationalist Party’s (KMT) pro-unification position and the weakening of the party, we are seeing the early indications of a shift in the central dividing issue of the Taiwanese political spectrum. This would be the shift from the central dividing issue being independence versus unification to ROC independence versus Taiwanese independence.

A recent article by Ketagalan Media editor-in-chief Chieh-Ting Yeh which has seen much circulation among western commentators on Taiwanese politics in recent days would suggest that with recent political developments it is about time to drop the notion of Taiwanese independence. The thrust of the article, even if it attempted to avoid saying so explicitly, was to argue for the political position of ROC independence with the view that this was the more realistic and pragmatic consideration in the present. That is, that there is no need to shift constitutional frameworks from the “Republic of China” to a hypothetical “Republic of Taiwan”, but the “Republic of China” framework should be localized.

PhotoCreditYahooTsai’s inaugural speech was given in front of a backdrop featuring both a ROC and DPP flag, telegraphing that Tsai would hew to the ROC framework under her administration, as driving home a point Tsai reiterated in her speech declaring of victory. Photo credit: Yahoo

This largely falls in line with the political position taken by Tsai Ing-Wen and the incoming DPP administration, which has indicated that it will take a position closer to ROC position. This has been voiced in English for Tsai by J. Michael Cole in Thinking Taiwan, which is probably what we can see by reading between the lines of repeated claims that Tsai will be “surprisingly pragmatic” on the matter of cross-strait relations. This probably also the meaning of references to the “outdated voices” within the DPP who would be against the necessary measures to ensure bipartisan cooperation with the KMT. We can see in the present that the mainstream of the pan-Green camp is moving towards and consolidating around the position of ROC independence under Tsai, as reflects Tsai’s attempts to hew to a centrist line.

As we see in Yeh’s article and the positive responses to it from many English-language commentators on Taiwanese politics, many are following suit. As an explicit attack on the notion of Taiwanese independence, something not even Tsai has ventured in the present, we might examine some of the arguments made with a critical eye. Ultimately, we conclude that it may be overly hasty to consign Taiwanese independence to the dustbin of history in the name of realism.

While the distinction between ROC independence and Taiwanese independence are terms used by the Taiwanese independence camp, which uses ROC independence as a derogatory term, the distinction is still a useful one in mapping out differing political positions in the shifting political landscape in Taiwan. Namely, the question of ROC independence versus Taiwanese independence, which contains the questions of settling for de facto independence versus aiming for de jure independence and the question of Chinese versus Taiwanese ethnic and civic identification, is actually a central decision of nation-building efforts in Taiwan and a very old question. But why is ROC independence, in fact, a flawed position?

First, ROC independence is far from as pragmatic a political position as it appears on the surface. Namely, ROC independence has a way of ignoring the juridical existence of the legal codes, diplomatic relations, and institutional structures of the Republic of China which would difficult to or even impossible to localize. ROC independence also ignores the fact that the ROC framework is a point of leverage not only for the KMT to continue to exert undue influence on Taiwanese politics, but for China to do so.

jhgkujbFlag used traditionally to represent Taiwanese independence (top) and the DPP party flag (bottom). The DPP was historically the party of Taiwanese independence, but it has backed away from that in recent years, with frequent debates over whether to remove the advocacy of Taiwanese independence in the party charter.

Second, the version of Taiwanese independence attacked in an article such as Yeh’s is in fact a strawman. Even the “hardline” Taiwanese independence activists Yeh claims are outmoded in their beliefs or overly impractical in their thinking have thought about the issues Yeh raises far more seriously and pragmatically than he credits. And it may be in fact that the DPP itself, despite appearing on the surface to be drifting towards the position of ROC independence, does not wish to silence Taiwanese independence activists for its own pragmatic considerations. Taiwanese independence activists, with their dense networks with other civic organizations, have been the source for mobilizing street demonstrations and protests that promote negative opinions of the KMT. 

Lastly, there have been multiple attempts to declare Taiwanese independence dead and to do away with it. Such attempts have not succeeded, because the attempt to move beyond Taiwanese independence has remained mired in the same fundamental questions. The attempt to to leap into beyond the position of Taiwanese independence becomes in fact, only further muddling of the fundamental questions still faced by Taiwan in the present.

Taiwan’s Obscurity

TO CLAIM THAT the difference between ROC independence and Taiwanese independence is merely a matter of semantics, that Taiwanese independence is merely being overly fussy about “political correctness” or “terminology,” as Yeh claims, is ignoring something fundamental. Namely, given Taiwan’s international obscurity, it would be extremely difficult to make the rest of the world acknowledge the “Republic of China” as being just another word for “Taiwan” when Taiwan’s obscurity largely derives from its inability to dissociate itself from China.

PhotocreditTime1945 cover of Time, featuring Chiang Kai-Shek in front of the KMT emblem. Note that the KMT emblem is a component of the ROC flag. Photo credit: Time Magazine

Yeh claims that, “In today’s world where most people experience and understand Taiwan to be a country, to say that Taiwan is not a country is counter-intuitive—especially when the goal is to establish Taiwan as a country in the first place.” Yeh notes that since the Taiwanese independence movement does not call for independence from China because of Taiwan’s de facto independence from China, independence is actually independence from the ROC. Yeh comments that this is counterintuitive, because it leads to the misleading impression that Taiwan is seeking to secede from China, like Scotland seeking to secede from the UK or Tibet from China.

But we might ask, in what world is this true that “most people experience and understand Taiwan to be a country”? Surely it is not this one. A fundamental part of Taiwan’s dilemma is that it is almost entirely unknown internationally, is thought of as a small, minor country, and is thought of as largely indistinguishable from China. Why? Because of the link to China and by being overshadowed by China. For many years, the KMT attempted to depict Taiwan as unequivocally being a part of China, on the level of language, culture, and ethnicity through claims Taiwan unequivocally was the “Republic of China”. Hence Taiwan has no cultural recognition of it as being anything different than China.

A significant part of why independence movements such as the Tibetan independence movement seeking independence from China receives international support is because of the perception that Tibetans have a different culture from China. Taiwan has no such perceived cultural difference from China which would give its push for independence credibility, though it may be de facto independent of China already, where Tibet or Xinjiang or another region is not.

During the period in which the US propped up Chiang Kai-Shek to counter China it was possible to preserve the impression that Taiwan was the government-in-exile of “Free China”, seeing as memories of World War II governments-in-exile were still fresh. But with the establishment of diplomatic ties between China and America and China’s economic rise in past decades, Taiwan fell to the wayside of recognizability, because it is not known for anything culturally distinct from China. Despite attempts by the KMT to claim that Taiwan preserves something original about Chinese civilization which China has lost because of the takeover of the CCP, Taiwan cannot, of course, out-China China.

PhotoCreditWeiboAs a result of history, as we see in this map, the claimed borders of the ROC are actually larger than the present day PRC. Photo credit: Weibo

As a result, though there is some passing awareness by many that Taiwan has disputed claims over sovereignty with China, this does not mean that the world would back an attempt to assert de facto independence as the “Republic of China” because it would recognize Taiwan as not being China. Jokes about how often “Taiwan” is confused for “Thailand” because of its obscurity aside, one can never overestimate Taiwan’s obscurity or the muddled nature of how its relation to China is understood. To use a personal anecdote, I have even known Ph. D candidates from Ivy League institutions in the China Studies who enter Taiwan and get through the airport and entry process, but for the entirety of their stay seem to think Taiwan’s legal relation to China is something like Hong Kong’s relation to China as a semi-autonomous region that is still nonetheless governed by Beijing from afar.

If it so difficult to make Taiwan known as Taiwan because Taiwan is only thought of in relation to China to begin with, would it really be possible to make the Republic of China to be Taiwan just by another name?

The Realities of the ROC State Within Taiwan

WE MIGHT ALSO note that the Republic of China state is something with a juridical existence of its own. The existence of the Republic of China state has served as a point of leverage for the KMT to exert undue influence, even after democratic reforms in the 1990s, because the lingering traces of KMT power networks within different government bureaus have not been wiped away.

Proof to the contrary of the claim that the ROC state apparatus is democratized and in that way politically neutral, this can be quite dangerous in cases in which KMT power networks exist in government bureaus related to the military or policing. We see this in recent searches of civilian homes by military police, apparently in order to prevent the release of documents regarding the White Terror.

PhotoCreditWikiCommonsEmblem of the military police of the ROC. Note once the KMT emblem which is part of the logo, as also found in the ROC flag. Photo credit: WikiCommons

Further reform may serve to break up such remaining power networks, although one suspects that preservation of the ROC framework would be an impediment on reform efforts. The ROC state apparatus serves as a convenient hiding place for KMT power networks and without reform efforts that strike to the core of the ROC apparatus, these networks cannot be uprooted. It would be difficult to on the hand try to carry out such deep-rooted reforms while on the other hand seeking to preserve the fundamental structure of the ROC.

But it would also be an uphill struggle to localize the China-centric aspects of the ROC framework when it is so fundamentally integrated into the national constitution. Legal reform of the juridical codes of the ROC preserved from when it was imported from China, after all, would literally be the process of amending one country’s constitution to make it become a suitable constitution for another country.

PhotoCreditWikiCommonsThe police emblem of the ROC also features the KMT emblem as part of it. Photo credit: WikiCommons

Moreover, one anticipates challenges regarding those aspects of the ROC framework addressing questions of transitional justice, remaining ethnic tensions in Taiwan between waishengren and benshengren, or justice for indigenous peoples, if not that the ROC framework would in fact make it impossible to truly address such issues. The ROC framework inherently favors Sinocentrism and Han-centrism, given that the ROC framework was formulated out of Sun Yat-Sen’s Chinese Han nationalism.

Are these issues that Yeh would seek to dismiss as mere matters of “political correctness”, through concluding that Taiwan is already fully “democratized”? We can probably understand recent DPP backsliding on these issues in line with its desire to maintain the ROC framework.

But if such issues of justice within Taiwan are of no concern, the ROC framework also presents a fundamental challenge for Taiwan in the realm of international relations.

The ROC Framework as A Point of Leverage For China

AS STATED previously, preserving and localizing the ROC framework would permanently maintain the connection between Taiwan and China. And we do well to remember that long as it remains a principle that there is only “one China”, Taiwan’s entrance into the United Nations and other international bodies in which China is already a member would often be impossible. Taiwan could never be acknowledged by the international community because of that fact.

PhotoCreditAFPXi Jinping meeting with Ma Ying-Jeou in Singapore during November of last year. Photo credit: AFP

Through retaining and in fact institutionalizing the ROC framework, it seems that Taiwan would forever be in a state of having de facto independence but no de jure independence. This would be to permanently enshrine Taiwan in its current state of international limbo.

But China would also always have a means to infringe upon Taiwanese sovereignty through the ROC framework. The ROC framework recognizes China’s claims on Taiwan. That is, the China of the ROC framework and ROC constitution may not be the PRC, but because it does not sever the relation between Taiwan and China, it provides a vehicle for claims by China over Taiwan to continue to be made. The Ma-Xi meeting should make this very clear, with the reference to only the “One China” aspect of the 1992 Consensus’ “One China, Two Interpretations” during the meeting and the “Two Interpretations” aspect casually dropped.

Indeed, Yeh’s article suggests to resolve the relation with China by claiming “With China, develop a healthy and sustainable relationship”. Apart from the vagueness of what that means—except perhaps that the suggestion is that trade deals signed with China are the way to go, a Ma Ying-Jeou argument if there ever was one—perhaps a “healthy and sustainable relationship” would be possible one day if China were to acknowledge Taiwan’s independence and conduct normal state to state relations with Taiwan. But how would this be possible in the face of China’s continued claims over China which, moreover, have been given leverage and justification through the ROC framework?

PhotoCreditTECROA flag raising ceremony of the ROC flag held in Washington DC in 2015 to mark the new year led to the American representative office in Taiwan  expressing disapproval of the action because of its violation of One China policy. Photo credit: TECRO

If it is unlikely for the world to come to accept that the Republic of China means Taiwan, the world would almost always pay more attention to China’s claims that Taiwan is a part of it on the basis of the ROC framework, rather than on Taiwan’s claims not to be part of China on the basis of the ROC framework. In fact, as we see with the Ma-Xi meeting, one suspects that what is actually written in law about the relation of the ROC and PRC would just be ignored in favor of who has the louder voice. This would always be China. This only points to the need to sever ties with China through eliminating the ROC framework. But why are some so afraid of Taiwanese independence?

Why So Afraid of Taiwanese Independence?

MUCH OF THE attempt to get rid of Taiwanese independence as a political position is founded upon the terror of upsetting China. But apart from that this contributes to an inability to call China’s bluffs when needed, the idea is also that pro-Taiwanese independence social movements are overly disruptive of electoral politics.

In this view, social movements need to be kept in check, for fear that they will get in the way of the DPP’s ability to conduct reforms through the legislature if their actions prove politically disruptive. But where else will oversight over the DPP come from? Will not the DPP inevitably backslide, if it is not pushed? To think otherwise is to place a great deal of blind faith in the ability of electoral politics to solve each and every political problem.

This also assumes that Taiwan is a fully democratized nation and so problems of politics are best solved through electoral political means. We see this in Yeh’s piece with the assumption that Taiwan is already an electoral democracy and that this is why Taiwanese independence is no longer necessary. Did we not just see in the past year how Taiwan is not a democracy, through the ability of the KMT to push through bills such as the CSSTA by contravening democratic process? If anyone needs a reminder, the CSSTA was a bill forcibly passed by the KMT in under thirty seconds without a vote or any review of the bill, which precisely what prompted the need for such massive protests. We may have recently seen the election of the only non-KMT dominated legislature in Taiwanese history, but it is altogether quite premature to conclude that Taiwan has thus reached the finish line of full democratization.

photocreditdemocracyat4am (1)The occupied Legislative Yuan during the Sunflower Movement. Photo credit: Democracy at 4 AM

The idea would also seem to be to give up on the idea that Taiwan can push beyond the status quo of what exists now. Anything beyond this is too risky, advocates of ROC independence claim. But can Taiwan really maintain its status of de facto independence from China forever? With China on the rise, we may be facing a time limit on the amount of time Taiwan can continue to maintain its present status. Whether empty words or not, Xi Jinping has claimed in the past that he will retake Taiwan by the time his term ends in 2020.

Attacking a Strawman Representation of Taiwanese Independence?

LIKEWISE ARE Taiwanese independence advocates so irrational as claimed by Yeh and others?

Yeh’s example of a “hardline” Taiwanese independence advocate who throws around the accusation of ROC independence towards critics is Tsay Ting-Kuei, founder of the Free Taiwan Party. In this depiction, Tsay is an ultra-sectarian, whose fixation on pushing for Taiwanese independence rather than ROC independence as a matter of semantics prevents cooperation with other political forces, NPP, DPP, or otherwise.

But is this true? Notably, when interviewed about the issue, Tsay indicated that part of the push for Taiwanese independence on the part of the Free Taiwan Party was so that the DPP could be less explicit about the issue when it can be an alienating one. At the same time, it would be dangerous for the platform of Taiwanese independence to completely disappear from the political spectrum, seeing as the pro-unification forces of the KMT are still active.

PhotoCreditFreeTaiwanPartyTsay and other members of the Free Taiwan Party demonstrating against attempts by the ROC government to crackdown on passport stickers reading “Republic of Taiwan” which have become popular as a way of demonstrating Taiwan’s marginalization in international politics as a product of ROC framework. Photo credit: Free Taiwan Party

Without the call for independence from its margins, the DPP itself would under KMT pressure be pushed away from any form of independence, ROC independence or Taiwanese independence, and allow for the strengthening of the KMT’s efforts at unification. Ironically, there are some indications that elements of the DPP also take this view. Thus, the DPP itself may need Taiwanese independence advocates. Certainly, there are some DPP elements who have, with a nod and wink, suggested the need for others to push for what the DPP cannot say overtly. The DPP also finds Taiwanese independence advocates useful for conducting the critique of the KMT that they have to back away from in order to seem bipartisan and fair.

It is not that Taiwanese independence advocates are unhinged in pushing Taiwanese independence as a matter of fanaticism. Rather, this already in many cases is a form of “division of labor” between balancing more radical demands of independence and more pragmatic considerations. Few are also so irrational as to claim ROC independence is not preferable to not having any independence, period. To claim otherwise is to attack a strawman.

The Many Failed Attempts to Dismiss Taiwanese Independence

WE SEE THE means by which western commentators, heavily Americanized Taiwanese, and Taiwanese-Americans can sometimes be surprisingly disconnected from political discourse in Taiwan by how easily they think the specter of Taiwanese independence can be dispelled. To begin with, the longtime history of the Taiwanese independence movement of Taiwanese independence cannot be shrugged off so easily. This is particularly true in the post-Sunflower environment in which more and more young people explicitly endorse Taiwanese independence—a sharp shift from the years in which Taiwanese independence had largely become the domain of old people.

It may be that some think the political position of Taiwanese independence is such a marginal position that after elections it can be done away with, but that is a significant misunderstanding about how the current generation of young people who have made their entrance onto the political stage in the past several years think about politics. And in this there is little consideration of what it would mean to give up the historical meaning of Taiwanese independence and the values it has represented in Taiwan.

photocreditbrianhioe (1)Photo credit: Brian Hioe

Though it is certainly true that a majority of people identify presently with the status quo, rather than independence or unification, but it does not do to try to eliminate the position of Taiwanese independence from the political spectrum.

On the contrary, one finds the past attempts to declare Taiwanese independence dead and done away with have failed. Lee Teng-Hui’s claim of the “New Taiwanese”, of a simultaneously Chinese and Taiwanese identity, was in some sense an attempt to get beyond the question of Taiwanese independence, for example. This claim would subsequently be taken up by Ma Ying-Jeou and the KMT, with Ma justifying pro-unification views in the name of claiming to be simultaneous Taiwanese and Chinese at the same time. But while these experiments in identity have failed, Taiwanese independence persists.

Conclusion: The Question of Being “Realistic”?

BETWEEN THE argument for Taiwanese independence and the argument against it in favor of localization of the ROC framework, one finds that part of the central dividing issue is the line drawn between a more “reformist,” gradualist view of social change in pushing for localizing the existing framework and a comparatively “revolutionary” one which calls for a dramatic break from what came before through the creation of a new framework. The former is of course the ROC independence position and the latter the Taiwanese independence position.

Between reform and revolution, each serves their uses, and it is not that one is mutually exclusive to the other. The call for reform, for example, is an index as to the demand for revolution and revolution is sometimes developed out of the call for reform, rather than its opposite. But to give up the radical demand of Taiwanese independence because of the view that this is what the call to be “realistic” or “pragmatic” demands is foreclose a great deal of political possibility. To try to do away with Taiwanese independence now would be a mistake and, in fact, dangerous.

Is the position of Taiwanese independence really so unreasonable? As Taiwan’s marginalization has been accomplished on the basis of its been excluded from the international community, Taiwan is in dire need of reversing the trend by which Taiwan’s remaining allies continue to diminish year by year. Even if it is localized, the preservation of the ROC framework probably would not reverse this trend. But on the contrary, the concerted effort to overturn the ROC framework provides the possibility of wiping the slate clean and renegotiating Taiwan’s relationships with the world community.

PhotoCreditWikiCommons:EddyHuangInverted ROC flag displayed on top of the Legislative Yuan during the Sunflower Movement occupation of the building. Photo credit: WikiCommons

The challenge in such a case would be as to when an overturning of the ROC framework could be accomplished in such circumstances that the world community would, in fact, be willing to acknowledge Taiwan despite the potential risk in upsetting China. This would also have to occur at a moment when China’s position is weakened to the point that it would have to accept Taiwanese independence, because contesting it would be something in which the risks would outweigh the benefits.

Recent instability in China and growing tensions between China and the international community makes it possible that a window of opportunity may appear at some point in the next few decades. Arguably, such windows of opportunity existed in the 1990s and 2000s during the Lee Teng-Hui and Chen Shui-Bian presidencies, but were missed.

But on the other hand, to accept ROC independence as the only choice there is would be to accept the status quo, all signs to the contrary that it cannot last forever, and simply hope for the best. And that is what would be truly unrealistic to believe.