What you need to know
There are several viewpoints on what 'Taiwanese independence' truly means. Unless you're in the CCP.
The Chinese government, and its internet users, have recently worked tirelessly to denounce and boycott any momentum towards Taiwanese independence.
From the group of (to paraphrase Beijing’s terminology) “pro-Taiwan independence artists” such as Chou Tzuyu (TZUYU, 周子瑜), Ruby Lin (林心如), and Vivian Sung (宋芸樺), to President Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) visit to the “pro-Taiwan independence enterprise” of 85C Bakery Café in California, China has spared no effort to sanction these so-called pro-independence individuals and organizations.
China’s response may be shocking to many people, who scratch their heads in bewilderment wondering how, exactly, Beijing has determined that any of these people or café chains are in favor of an independent Taiwan.
In order to ease the pressures from Beijing on Taiwanese enterprises and businessmen, Sean Lien (連勝文) of the Kuomintang (KMT) specifically released a statement calling for calm with China, explaining that 85C Bakery Cafe “had no specific political involvement or preference.” While he was at it, he also took a swipe at Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and those who do, in fact, advocate for Taiwanese independence, saying they were responsible for provoking Beijing to react.
Beijing responded by heavily criticizing the DPP. But why have non-political artists and enterprises, who have not acted in support of independence, been caught up in the aftermath?
I believe the more important questions should be: Why do these artists and enterprises with no specific political stance, position, or even involvement in political activities, get labeled as being pro-independence in the first place? How did the term “pro-independence” even come about? Could this simply be a case of mistaken identity on the part of China’s government and citizens?
The answer to this question is very simple: Beijing retains the final say on who gets labeled as being pro-Taiwanese independence. Our actual identities are of mere secondary importance.
Beijing retains the final say on who gets labeled as being pro-Taiwanese independence. Our actual identities are of mere secondary importance.
The onetime fear of China rising out of East Asia as a political, economic and military super power came true many years ago. Taiwan, residing just across the Taiwan Strait, has naturally been influenced by China. Therefore, in the face of Taiwan’s international position and the changes to its domestic politics, Taiwan must continue to consider the weight of the China factor.
Taiwanese independence is a prudent example. The opinions of most Taiwanese politicians and civilians on Taiwanese independence are mostly related to the debate between the terms “Republic of China (ROC)” and “Taiwan.” This means Taiwanese independence is seen as overthrowing the ROC establishment and inaugurating the Republic of Taiwan.
However, if we include the China factor, Taiwanese independence is no longer only a domestic dispute within Taiwan – it also represents inherent conflicts within cross-Strait relations.
In order to understand changes to the very concept of Taiwanese independence, this article will briefly review its complex and multifaceted history. It will also explain how Taiwan's values of upholding freedom and democracy are inclusive of all political views and national identities. In addition, it will detail how these values are being challenged by the authoritarian government just across the Strait.
After the war, there were several different notions of what Taiwan independence really meant. Some thought Taiwanese independence consisted of the process of establishing the Republic of Taiwan in order to replace the ROC. Some said it meant recognizing the ROC as a sovereign state, an independent country with a claim to the island of Taiwan. Others said true Taiwanese independence meant a complete separation from any sort of “One China” concept.
There is a lot to unpack here – we will explore how concepts of Taiwanese independence developed in chronological order to highlight similarities and differences between the past (when Taiwan was ruled under martial law) and the present (Taiwan’s democratic transition and the rise of the People’s Republic of China, or PRC). On a basic level, we can divide views on Taiwanese into three categories: the past, the present, and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) definition of Taiwanese independence.
Past Taiwanese independence: Ethnic nationalism and early liberalism
Later, when the government suppressed all Taiwanese independence movements on the island, most activists had to set up overseas bases, mostly in places such as the United States and Japan, in order to operate or develop underground organizations. Years later, those movements published pivotal works and important documents, such as “Modern History of Taiwanese in 400 Years” by Su Beng (史明) in 1962 along with Peng Ming-min (彭明敏), Hsieh Tsung-min (謝聰敏), and Wei Ting-chao's (魏廷朝) “A Declaration of Formosan Self-salvation” published in 1964.
During this period, Taiwanese independence served as a rebellion against foreign rulers, a liberation movement against colonialism in order to realize a “Taiwanese Taiwan,” and a means to pursue a progressive social revolution striving for true freedom and democracy.
However, during the period of the Tangwai movement, Taiwanese independence became a symbol for anti-authoritarianism, the pursuit of democracy and the renunciation of ethnic nationalism. In Taiwanese society, the movement not only gradually advocated the “Taiwanese” concepts of self-awareness, freedom, democracy, and human rights, but it also supported the pioneers who sacrificed themselves and were imprisoned or killed for advocating freedom and democracy, such as in the 1979 Formosa Magazine incident, the 1981 Chen Wen-chen (陳文成) incident, and the 1989 Cheng Nan-jung (鄭南榕) incident.
After the lifting of martial law, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) was formed and quickly became the main political party supporting Taiwanese independence. In the 1991 National Convention, the DPP stated their goal of building “a sovereign independent Republic of Taiwan” (also known as the Taiwan Independence Clause).
Throughout the period of authoritarian rule and up until the lifting of martial law, Taiwanese independence was a way to localize and democratize Taiwan politics. The manifestation of its ideology appeared mainly through a combination of ethnic nationalism and liberalism.
Present Taiwanese independence: Civic nationalism and progressive values
As Taiwan evolved into a democracy, the values of freedom, equality and human rights spread across the country. Democracy integrated into all systems and lifestyles, giving rise to a new generation of society which was not restricted by the ideology of one-party rule. This group of youngsters has used its freedom of speech to remind the government of its presence in the Wild Strawberry Movement (2008), the anti-eminent domain Dapu Incident in Miaoli (2010), the Anti-Media Monopoly Movement (2012), Citizen 1985 (2013), and the Sunflower Movement (2014).
As political scientist Wu Rui-ren (吳叡人), pointed out: “They are less concerned with the appearance of the country (the country name), but more with its content: Is Taiwan a free, pluralistic, open, fair and just, democratic society; does it have endless ability for cultural creativity, a rich and beautiful natural ecological environment, with an open and progressive international perspective, sustainable economic development, where generation after generation can live, love and learn until the end of time?”
Wu called this bottom-up, independent pluralistic society “Taiwan Centric Progressive Nativism.”
Throughout this period, the astronomical rise of China’s political, economic, and military power has indirectly influenced the transformation, at least in essence, of the Taiwanese independence Movement. Some scholars have mentioned that the original provincial and ethnic disputes in Taiwanese society have gradually declined, making way for debates on national identity.
Democracy integrated into all systems and lifestyles, giving rise to a new generation of society which was not restricted by the ideology of one-party rule.
Taiwanese people often have conflicts between their personal and cultural identity, along with their economic interests: the age-old problem of having your cake and eating it, too.
In other words, the fundamental question for the discussion of identity and reunification has changed from whether a person is a native or a foreigner to whether a person is Chinese or Taiwanese, and whether that recognition will be affected or influenced by economic incentives from China.
The addition of the China factor has made Taiwanese independence change from the original provincial confrontations into a conflict between national identity and economic interests.
Even though China’s political and economic strength has managed to gain support from some politicians and businessmen in Taiwan, the 2014 Sunflower Movement proved that there are other possibilities. In this current era of China’s rise, young people are involved in social movements rather than being attracted by Chinese nationalism. They have also opposed developmentalism, capitalist globalization and political dictatorship, instead attaching more importance to progressive and native concepts such as liberal democracy, human rights, procedural justice, generational justice and local culture.
The ideology of Taiwanese independence in this period, gradually changed from the ethnic nationalist views of the last generation to the nativist coexistence of Civic Nationalism and Progressive Values.
The CCP definition of ‘Taiwanese independence’
Whether it is Taiwanese independence defined through ancestry and culture in the early days (Old Taiwanese independence) or one that is defined by the present political system (a so-called natural independence), both essentially consist of highly localized and democratized politics and social movements with Taiwan at the heart of the picture. But the focus of resistance for each, and their respective positions on the ideological spectrum, are not the same.
With that said, the Chinese government and its people are unconcerned with making such distinctions between the two types of Taiwanese independence mentioned above. To them, any opposition to or disapproval of cross-Strait reunification, including maintaining the status quo, will not be tolerated.
According to Article 2 of China’s Anti-Secession Law: “There is only one China in the world. Both the mainland and Taiwan belong to one China. China's sovereignty and territorial integrity brook no division.” According to Article 4: “Accomplishing the great task of reunifying the motherland is the sacred duty of all Chinese people, the Taiwan compatriots included.”
From this law, we can see that the question for China has never been whether they want reunification. Instead, the question is how to achieve reunification: will it be a peaceful reunification, reunification through force, or another case of ‘one country, two systems?’
The Chinese government is not simply passively opposed to Taiwan’s independence. It is actively reducing Taiwan’s ability to be an independent and autonomous political entity.
The Chinese government's criteria for Taiwanese independence can be thought of as having a broad base, that is, any default claim, such as “the national sovereignty of Taiwan’s authorities,” “Taiwan as an independent political entity,” or even “not expressing support for reunification” by any one person may easily be extended in scope and defined as being pro-Taiwanese independence. After all, each of these claims hints at the fact that the two sides are separate.
Therefore, we will end up with the problem where everyone in Taiwan is seen as being pro-Taiwanese independence. This has led to the strange idea where “all Taiwanese are pro-independence” (Fupian Chen 陳佳宏, 2006).
If we try to look at the situation from China’s standpoint, supporting Taiwanese independence is no longer only a “three-pronged attack,” much like those that wanted to overthrow the ROC during authoritarian rule. Instead, it also includes all individuals and groups that do not support or oppose cross-Strait reunification.
Dual-track struggles: Independence vs. reunification, democracy vs. illiberalism
There is a growing trend of artists and enterprises being “identified” as pro-independence. This shows that as long as individuals or organizations highlight or bring attention to the fact that the Taiwan authorities are only independent of China in a de facto manner – including photos with the Taiwan flag, meeting with politicians, or even saying that the favorite country is Taiwan – then China will not wait until those individuals publicly claim de jure independence. Instead, they will automatically label him or her as a pro-Taiwanese independence activist.
In Taiwan, there are many different points of view regarding independence and reunification. This just goes to show the inclusive nature and characteristics of this pluralistic, liberal and democratic society, where political differences, disputes and even conflicts are the norm.
We will end up with the problem where everyone in Taiwan is seen by China as being pro-Taiwanese independence.
A democratic system is the only type of society where – through long-term mutual understanding, communication and deliberation – the pros and cons of any situation can move society towards a level of consensus. Democracy is not perfect and can often seem chaotic and inefficient. However, it allows all parties within the system to share their opinions and offers room for meaningful dialogue.
The China factor, however, slams the door to this room shut. It does not allow for possibilities other than reunification. Regardless of which type of independence Taiwan’s leaders support (past or present Taiwanese independence) or whether or not they maintain the ROC moniker in Taiwan, it is impossible to change the fact that one may be identified as a pro-Taiwanese Independence activist.
The only way to meet Chinese standards is to advocate cross-Strait reunification, say that you are Chinese, and say that “China is my motherland.” No other opinion can be discussed. Whatever China says is final.
China is using nationalist political ideals and neoliberalist economic principles to constrict Taiwan’s domestic discussion space about the future of cross-Strait relations. The dispute between reunification and independence dispute may seem like a confrontation between Taiwan and Chinese nationalism. However, is it no more complex than an all-out attack on a free and democratic society by an authoritarian government.
Translator: Zeke Li
Editor: Nick Aspinwall (@Nick1Aspinwall)
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