by Brian Hioe
Photo credit: KMT
A Retreat to the Cultural Sphere by the KMT?
FOR A KMT on the defensive—seeing as for the first time in its history it no longer has control over both the legislature and the presidency at the same time—it would be that much of the KMT’s activity has been devoted to preoccupation combating the specter of “cultural Taiwanese independence” and “desinicization.” Why this preoccupation?
Perhaps it is that with its hands tied, relatively speaking, the KMT has attempted to retreat to the cultural sphere to try and rally its troops. To borrow Antonio Gramsci’s terms, this is probably in some sense a retreat to a “war of position” where the KMT attempts to recoup its losses and seek to regain influence in the cultural sphere, in a time of political losses for it which limit its ability to engage in more substantive political activity.
Photo credit: Apple Daily
Obviously, it is not that the KMT is down for the count just yet—despite its minority position in legislature, as was seen in the recent struggle to pass legislation targeting the KMT’s illicit party assets or the struggle over transitional justice legislation, the KMT still has substantial power in legislature to impede the DPP and pan-Green camp. Likewise, the KMT still has substantial financial resources and an interpersonal network across Taiwan to draw on. But the KMT perceives itself as having suffered a serious of defeats to the DPP and attempting to engage in a “cultural struggle” in the cultural sphere against the DPP is one way the KMT is seeking to to renew itself.
Attempts to Win Over Youth in the Cultural Sphere?
IT IS WELL known at this point that the KMT has particularly suffered when it comes to winning over Taiwan’s youth. Namely, the party’s pro-China policies would be too out of step for today’s generation of young Taiwanese, who overwhelmingly identify as Taiwanese and not Chinese. The KMT is increasingly perceived as a party of geriatric individuals who identify as Chinese and the party leadership’s expulsion of youth reformers who could have potentially localized the party has not helped matters.
If the KMT has in recent times attempted to mimic the actions of the DPP while it was a political opposition, or to even mime the 2014 Sunflower movement in its own political mobilizations, this is because it wants to win back Taiwanese youth. This is because the KMT party leadership seems to continue to believe that the Sunflower movement was “engineered” by the DPP from behind the scenes, as it claimed during the movement itself, and is unable to believe that it was spontaneous in nature. This only reflects the KMT’s own undemocratic nature, even after relinquishing political power during the process of Taiwanese democratization, and its refusal to have good faith in democracy. But in this way, the KMT mimics the DPP because it believes that the DPP “engineered” the Sunflower movement through the employment a set of political “techniques” and attempts to do the same in order to achieve similar results. Unsurprisingly, this has not been successful.
If today’s Taiwanese youth also overwhelmingly identify as Taiwanese and not Chinese, this is because they cultural identify as exclusively Taiwanese, even if Taiwanese identity remains primarily rooted in an open sense of civic national identity. However, the KMT also seems to be unable to understand this as a natural consequence of Taiwan not, in fact, being part of China—after all, the last time the same political entity controlled both Taiwan and mainland China at the same time was in 1895. It understands this, too, as a product of the DPP’s ploys in the cultural sphere to win over Taiwanese youth and inculcate Taiwanese youth with a sense of Taiwanese, rather than Chinese identity. So it is, then, that we can understand this preoccupation with fighting against the specter of “desinicization” and “cultural Taiwanese independence.”
The Ministry of Education occupation in August 2015. Photo credit: Brian Hioe
Likewise, even if the KMT will accuse the Tsai administration of attempting to foment independence sentiment, the Tsai administration has been evasive regarding outright political stances in favor of independence and so the KMT must accuse the Tsai administration of attempting to foment a political sense of independent identity. Consequently, the KMT must paint the DPP as somehow extremist in its actions in attempting to brainwash young people with “cultural Taiwanese independence”, seeing as the DPP is not openly asserting political Taiwanese independence. That is in part why the teaching of history textbooks for high schoolers in Taiwan is such politically charged territory, for example, as is also the case in Hong Kong.
The KMT probably also realizes that its time is running out if it does not build a support base among young people, even if its actions to date have only driven out the young people within the party, and failed to attract any new party. The KMT wishes to attempt to keep alive a sense of cultural connection between Taiwan and China, with hope that this will allow it a support base among young people.
Attempts to Revive a Chinese Sense of Identity Through Combating “Cultural Taiwanese Independence”?
BUT IN REVIEWING the transformations in Taiwanese identity across the last two decades, with the current shift towards an exclusivist sense of Taiwanese identity, this comes after a surge in the assertion of Taiwanese identity in the 1990s and 2000s. Previously, the pan-Blue camp attempted to assert the identity of the “New Taiwanese”, which was simultaneously Taiwanese and Chinese.
We can view the “New Taiwanese” identity, then, as something put forward by the pan-Blue camp as a tactical retreat in some sense. With the surge in the assertion of Taiwanese identity in the 1990s and 2000s, the pan-Blue camp was forced to concede and acknowledge that the party’s identity had a foot in Taiwan and not only in China—this being a product of previous cultural struggles between the pan-Blue and pan-Green political camps. Yet, we might note that despite the current shift towards an exclusivist sense of identity in which young people and other members of society would almost never claim to be simultaneously Taiwanese and Chinese but only Taiwanese—but few would deny that Chinese cultural influence has been a major one on Taiwanese identity or deny that China had any influence in Taiwanese identity. Thus, inveighing against the specter of “cultural Taiwanese independence” is already to miss something integral about Taiwanese identity in the present regarding how a non-Chinese, Taiwanese sense of identity conceives of its relation to China.
KMT chairwoman Hung Hsiu-Chu. Photo credit: WikiCommons
Thus, the notion of claiming to be simultaneously Taiwanese and Chinese has become a conservative claim, firmly within the discourse of pan-Blue camp. This is in part why the notion is no longer effective and why this no longer has traction within the party itself. However, seeing as this claim was only made because of a retreat in stances by the pan-Blue camp, we might note that the pan-Blue sense of identity generally still takes it for granted that the Taiwanese identity is reducible to the Chinese identity, Taiwanese identity being a subset of what consist of Chinese identity—even if this sometimes goes with the claim that Taiwan has preserved the quintessential national essence of China in a way that China has not, because of China becoming ruled by godless communists, destroying thousands of years of history through the Cultural Revolution or what have you.
And further flexibility on the matter of identity seems unlikely at this point when the KMT is currently led by pro-unification diehards as Hung Hsiu-Chu. With the KMT leadership currently seeing its defeat to the DPP as a result of the party having lost sight of party fundamentals and only having return to such fundamentals in order to rise again, the KMT then sees its current task in the cultural sphere as to deconstruct Taiwanese identity—to combat the DPP’s efforts at “desinicization” and to demonstrate the essential link between Taiwanese and Chinese culture or, perhaps more to the point, to demonstrate the reducibility of the former to the latter. Then, it assumes that it will by matter of course, regain the youth support it has lost—a rather idealist notion, if there ever was one. Nonetheless, the whole notion of a return to KMT party fundamentals as Sun Yat-Sen’s Three Principles of the People as rejuvenating the party has been quite voluntarist in nature from the beginning.
But this would just be part of the broader process of the KMT further burying itself in a hole politically, seeing as this comes out of a near total failure to read the cultural zeitgeist of present Taiwanese society. So, then, will the marginalization of the KMT only continue where the cultural front is considered.