As many of this blog’s readers know, I was born in Taiwan but raised in the United States. I am a bit ashamed to admit this, but it wasn’t until college that I began to get a real sense of what being Taiwanese meant – the culture, the history, the customs. Sadly, it wasn’t until I started doing research on technology companies that I got a sense of the importance of Taiwan in the global economy.
And it wasn’t until even more recently that I got a real sense of Taiwanese politics. Taiwan is basically split between two parties, the Kuomintang (KMT) – the party of Chiang Kai-shek – and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).
Technically, if one were to classify the two parties in Western terms, the KMT would count as the “conservative/right-wing” party and the DPP would be the “liberal/left-wing” party. But, while this difference is real, the main issue that divides the two parties is their stance on Taiwanese “independence”.
The reason I put “independence” in quotes is because the subject is a very nuanced one. Currently, Taiwan is in a state of de facto independence. Although neither China nor the United States will go so far as to say it openly, there is fairly wide acceptance that the Taiwanese government is “sovereign” in the sense that its democratic government rules Taiwan without any real question. The “independence” that divides the KMT and the DPP, however, goes beyond this independent-even-though-nobody-will-say-it status quo. It’s the question of whether or not Taiwan is truly a separate political and cultural entity from China altogether. And, because of the KMT’s origins in China, the KMT is the party which most favors reconciliation with China and greater integration, while the DPP favors stronger terms of independence.
And, while I have many problems with the DPP’s positions and base of support, I am completely opposed to the KMT party line for four main reasons:
- The government of Mainland China is a repressive regime with little regard for human rights. The only way I can even begin to understand why people would think that Taiwan would be better off as a part of China is if they didn’t pay attention to the news: Tibet, Tiananmen Square, Uighur Muslims, silencing of political protest, disregard for the health of their own people and trading partners, excessive pollution, support for genocide, the list goes on and on. Yes, plenty of other countries have their fair share of human rights issues, and it’s a perfectly valid point to say that Taiwan at various stages of its past had similar problems which they eventually solved, but that doesn’t change the fact that the Chinese government today is less desirable than an open, democratic one, and anyone who thinks that Taiwan ought to subject itself to such a rule either has no clear idea what the Chinese government has been up to or has something against Taiwanese freedom.
- A not-very-similar society and culture is hardly a reason for Taiwan to belong to China. To say that Taiwan ought to reunite with China because of strong cultural ties would be the same as arguing that the United States and India should be colonies of Great Britain. Yes, they speak the same language (although there are many in Taiwan who prefer Taiwanese or Japanese), and some of the same pop music is played in both countries (Asian pop superstar Jay Chou is from Taiwan), but that’s hardly a decent reason to just surrender one’s national identity and government to someone else, especially when the cultures (e.g. phrases, foreign influences, even the writing of characters) have several big differences.
- The KMT has a murderous history which the people of Taiwan should want to distance themselves from. This will piss off many KMT, but Chiang Kai-Shek was a contemptible man who butchered his own people and let them starve while he enriched himself. When the Chinese people turned against him and sided with Mao Zedong’s Communists, instead of learning from his mistakes, Chiang repeated them on the island of Taiwan, installing a brutal military rule. The KMT seized all available property and, during the infamous 2-28 incident, butchered political dissidents and native Taiwanese. For years, they suppressed the local culture/dialect, demanding instead that students be educated as if they were mainlanders (Chiang’s plan all along was to re-take the mainland). That the KMT wants to look backwards on these “good old days” strikes me as a somewhat ridiculous basis for foreign policy (not to mention the irony of the party of Chiang Kai-Shek wanting to negotiate “surrender” with the party of Mao Zedong).
- The best way to improve Taiwanese economic growth is in achieving independence. KMT supporters oftentimes float the idea that the Taiwanese economy depends on tighter integration with China. While this is certainly true, there is nothing which says that more trade and immigration between China and Taiwan has to mean that Taiwan becomes a part of China. France and Germany have more or less completely free trade and immigration, yet you would be hard-pressed to find a Frenchman who thinks that France should be made a part of Germany. On the contrary, because of Taiwan’s dependence on trade, the issue of independence is especially important. How do you trade or do business when no countries recognize your laws or authority? How do you flourish when few will grant visas to your businesspeople? When your customers find it difficult to travel into your country? Or when pressure by China can cause your telephone area codes to suddenly change?
The DPP, in my opinion, is a backwards party content to play class and identity politics (fomenting racial/cultural backlash against the mainland and the wealthier, more cosmopolitan base of the KMT), argue over trivial things like the official flag of the country (one such example is to the left) and whether or not the map of Taiwan should be depicted with North-South on the vertical or the horizontal axis (to de-emphasize their location next to China), and play to narrow-minded anti-trade/anti-immigration isolationists.
But, despite all of this, I believe that the issue of the hour for Taiwan is independence. And I believe that, because of Taiwan’s relative strength and China’s focus today on economic growth and integration with the global political community, the time for pushing independence is now. Maybe, later, when the need for independence is less and when (hopefully) China becomes more democratic and open, the dialogue and the priorities might change. But, until then, I see the DPP representing the lesser of two evils.