by Ferran Pérez Mena

English /// Español
Photo Credit: Kippelboy/WikiCommons/CC
Brian Hioe

The following piece was originally posted in Spanish on Yuanfang Magazine on September 21st. Spanish-language translations of New Bloom pieces by Ferran Pérez Mena are posted on Yuanfang Magazine monthly, this is the first piece from Yuanfang Magazine translated into English by New Bloom.

DURING THE past few years, the conflict between China and Taiwan has resonated more frequently than one would think in Catalan media, which has historically been ignorant of anything that occurs in Asia—except with regards to some news items about China. It is important to note that the attention given by Catalan media to this conflict is in part because of the more or less accurate perception that recent political developments related to the disputed international status of Taiwan are similar to what Catalonia has experienced in the past decade. The aim of this article is therefore to analyze the similarities and differences between the political projects of “independence” in Taiwan and Catalonia.

The Construction of Taiwanese and Catalan Identity in the Last Ten Years

ALTHOUGH THE construction of Catalan and Taiwanese identity has played a fundamental role in the articulation of independence and nationalist movements in Taiwan and Catalan, these processes have been marked by unique political experiences resulting from different historical contexts.

On the one hand, in order to understand the emergence of Taiwanese identity, one must be acquainted with the historical development of Taiwan during the 20th century. One can say that four fundamental events have contributed to the creation of Taiwanese identity: The experience of Japanese colonization, the arrival of the KMT to Taiwan following their defeat in the Chinese Civil War in 1949, the first presidency of Chen Shui-Bian beginning in 2000 as the first electoral victory of the DPP and the first electoral victory of an opposition party in Taiwanese history, and the Sunflower Movement in 2014. As I understand it, the latter two events were crucial in the solidification and spread of Taiwanese identity among a generation of young Taiwanese.

The electoral triumph of the DPP in 2000 paved the way for educational and and cultural reforms which promoted a sense of Taiwanese identity constituted of a postcolonial understanding of the island’s history, and socio-economic values guided by a liberal conception of the island’s society and economy. This has contributed to the emergence of what some have termed, “Taiwanese civic nationalism.” Within the Sinosphere, “Taiwanese civic nationalism” has come to refer to a powerful ideological and identity demarcation intended to separate Communist China from liberal Taiwan.

This civic nationalist conception of society has also served to establish foundations for a new political, economic, and cultural structure in which the young Taiwanese who participated in the 2014 Sunflower Movement were socialized from an early age. The flourishing of Taiwanese identity among the young is a paradigmatic case of how an imagined identity can be created through cultural and educational reforms from state institutions. In the case of Taiwanese identity, the generational factor is crucial. According to a study published by the Taiwan National Security Survey, 70% of those below 29 years of age feel that they are only “Taiwanese.” Previous generations, whose political and educational socialization was a product of the historical context in which the KMT was the hegemonic party and promoted pro-China narratives, tended to identify themselves as both “Chinese and Taiwanese” or only as “Chinese”. Thus, it can be said that the Chen Shui-Bian administration planted the seeds that later blossomed in the Sunflower Movement in 2014. The movement was born out of the disenchantment of young people with the Ma administration’s pursuing policies that sought closer ties with China, as well as lack of economic expectations. The Sunflower Movement was crucial to the spread of Taiwanese identity among the young, not only strengthening the narrative between the four events previously mentioned, but also favoring the crystallization of liberal values among the young.

On the other hand, it can be said that a certain essentialist Catalan identity has always been latent in Catalonia, although this conception of identity is maintained by a minority of Catalans with strong roots in the land. Unlike Taiwanese identity, it would be unfair to understand the upsurge of Catalan identity in recent years as the result of a hegemonic cultural identity led by Catalan cultural elites. While it is true that large Catalan media and a section of Catalan elites have exploited Catalan independence and identity to benefit their class interests by amplifying the excesses of the central government, new Catalan identity has a large popular component that overlaps with elitist escapism. This is what has led Catalan identity to have become a horizontal form of identity that groups individuals of different socioeconomic backgrounds and origins together, such as children who are immigrants from Andalusia or Extremadura, which will ultimately be what decides the future of Catalonia.

In recent years, like Taiwanese identity, Catalan identity has contributed to the emergence of a certain “Catalan civic nationalism.” Demonstrations held in Barcelona in recent years are a manifestation of this fact. But unlike the difference in Taiwanese civic nationalism founded on liberal values more or less accepted by the Taiwanese public as counterposed to socialism with Chinese characteristics, in Catalonia, the ideological demarcations that comprise this nationalism are still disputed. However, an internal battle can be observed between two antagonistic forces—the “patriotic” neoliberalism of a section of the Catalan elite that fears being publicly accused of corruption if they jump off of the train of Catalan independence too early, seeing as participation in the cause of Catalan independence masks their internal corruption and they would shamed publicly in the newspapers if they did not participate in this process—and a popular social movement that debates the construction of a Danish-style social democracy on the periphery of southern Europe or an anti-capitalist project led by the Popular Unity Candidacy, whose popular acceptance is a mystery beyond 10 seats obtained in the last elections held in 2015 for the Catalonian parliament.

The popular component of new Catalan identity has been constituted by great economic pragmatism that grew out of the context of the permanent social and economic crisis in which popular classes and the business sector of small and medium-sized enterprises which have seen their expectations of the future siphoned away by the central government which only benefits its relatives by way of the logic of capitalism. This explains the rise of sentiments of independence among those who had never previously expressed such views. Consequently, while there is a large generational factor to the rise of Taiwanese identity and the aim to acquire de jure independence, Catalan identity and the will to create an independent Catalan state has a large inter-class component that is a product of regime crisis.

Another fundamental aspect of Catalan identity is its construction around an ideal of “good governance” that would hypothetically occur if Catalan were to become an independent republic. For many Catalans that wish for an independent state, independence signifies a substantive improvement to the current model of government of the People’s Party. A large number of Catalans believe that the possibility of “good governance” in Catalan” would help Catalan to jump from the periphery of the European capitalist regional system to its heart, becoming a state “blessed” by a modernity that never reached Spain.

Yet one of the key differences between Taiwanese identity and Catalan identity is that the former is more or less a stable form of identity, as there already exists a certain consensus among Taiwanese about what it means to be Taiwanese. Contrastingly, Catalan identity is volatile because it is still the process of gestation and identity contestation. Its current inter-class and horizontal nature could become vertical once Catalonia becomes an independent state, thus reconfiguring the meaning of what it means to be Catalan.

The Role of the International Factor in Catalonia and Taiwan

A CRUCIAL ELEMENT that Catalonia and Taiwan share is their dependence on external forces that have the power to validate or deny their political projects. While Taiwanese are aware of how this “international” factor has contributed to Taiwan continuing to enjoy its autonomous international status despite only being recognized by 21 states—the vast majority being small states in Central America, Africa and some Pacific islands—an element of Catalan independence is not consciousness of how powerful the “international” factor can be.

Taiwan’s survival as an autonomous political territory in the East Asian region should be understood as the result of contingent elements following the country’s acceptance of a US-led liberal socio-economic world order, and America’s special will to support Taiwan’s international status, to the maintenance of it was linked after the signing of the Taiwan Relations Act in 1979 in the context of the Cold War. The United States was to protect Taiwan in the event that the People’s Republic of China attacked or invaded Taiwan. Since the Cold War up until the present, US interests in the East Asian region have been instrumental to the maintenance of Taiwan’s autonomy. Without the direct support of a great military power as America, it is a question as to whether Taiwan would still enjoy its autonomous status today.

In the case of Catalonia, the success of realizing a future Catalan Republic will also depend on the international factor. This is not surprising, because historically, the fate of Hispanic peoples has been intrinsically linked to the designs of foreign powers. When transformations have occurred in constituent bases, the international factor has allied with Hispanic elites to disrupt any structural changes that would benefit the Hispanic popular classes. Two clear examples are the disastrous results of the Spanish Civil War, in which foreign powers abandoned the Republic to Franco’s coup, and the Spanish transition in which the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party was supported by foreign powers in order to prevent the rise of the Communist Party of Spain at a critical juncture in the history of Spain.

One of the unknowns regarding the possible independence of Catalonia is its viability as an autonomous state on the periphery of Europe. If the Catalans decide to build a social democratic project along the lines of the Danish model, to what extent is such a project feasible on the periphery of Europe given the characteristics of the current European political project? If Catalonia wants to become an independent state in southern Europe, it will have to contend with an adverse international factor from which difficult to overcome contradictions will emerge. For example, the desire of a large majority of Catalans to remain within the European Union—whose nature is to dispossess national and popular sovereignty—would clash head-on with the interests of a newly proclaimed Catalan Republic. This differs from Taiwan, seeing as backing by the powerhouse of the United States served as a life support system when confronted by China. Catalonia does not have a “godfather” that could allow for a smooth transition to de jure recognition of its autonomy.

Despite the similarities and differences between Catalonia and Taiwan, it is evident that both will have to deal with contradictions and challenges linked to the domestic, regional, and global contexts within which they are situated. Ultimately, for the results of the political projects aimed at “independence” in Taiwan and Catalonia to become clear will take some time.

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