What you need to know
It’s important to check the political reality before falling victim to emotion when it comes to discussing issues of independence.
It was when I moved to Barcelona for college that I first encountered Catalan nationalism and its narratives. Until then, in the neighboring region of Aragón, I had only been exposed to occasional outbursts of its counter narrative, Spanish nationalism.
Later on, when I moved to China, I learned that both the Chinese government and the people held similar views towards Taiwan. And finally, when I landed in Taiwan, I realized that cross-Strait relations dominated political discourse, dividing the island into two opinions, as well as two colors. This journey across different regions and cultures has allowed me to observe both sides of the two territorial disputes. What I have learned, too, is that establishing parallelisms between them is more complicated than it seems.
Nowadays, secessionism is spreading rapidly in Catalonia, and Taiwan is reacting with unprecedented sympathy. Articles both in English and Chinese have been shared on Facebook via popular media platforms. Taiwanese scholars and activists expressed their opinions on the subject, mostly criticizing the Spanish central Government, or displayed their support by showing the Catalan flag on their Facebook profiles. The question is, where does this support come from? Do the China-Taiwan and the Spain-Catalonia conflicts share so many similarities that mutual identification can occur naturally?
The main similarity in these two cases is the use of the word “independence” to express their ultimate political goal. The same word resonates in the streets and triggers emotions in Taiwan and in Catalonia, even though it translates into different political ambitions; while one part of the Catalan population aspires to achieve full political independence, part of Taiwanese society wants its “actual” independence to be recognized internationally, and fears greatly its potential. The similar emotional resonance of this buzzword, however, has enabled political slogans to echo back and forth across the two regions.
Despite this similar response to the word “independence,” the two cases have little in common. In fact, it would be far-fetched to compare Taiwan to Catalonia and, above anything, to compare Spain to China.
First of all, because at national and regional level, Spain and Catalonia are democracies where the population elects their representatives through elections held every four years. Political values, too, are almost identical. In the history of Spain’s young democracy (its Constitution was signed in 1978), Catalan political parties have been an influential agent, forming coalitions and enabling national governments. Such was the case in 1996, where the Catalan conservative party Convergence and Union (CiU) supported the right-wing party People’s Party PP to form a central government.
Second, Taiwan and Catalonia find themselves in completely different political contexts. Despite China’s claims, Taiwan nowadays is de facto independent, with its own political system, its own government, and its own army, whereas Catalonia is officially one of the 17 Autonomous Regions in which Spain is divided. This in no way implies that Catalonia has no political independence. Within Spain, Catalonia enjoys broad self-government, virtually controlling the region’s justice, health and education. Still, Catalan politics exert a great influence at national level (their parties are represented in the Spanish Parliament). Taiwan’s political influence over China, on the contrary, is far smaller, and the presence of either the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) or the Chinese Nationalist Party (Kuomintang or KMT) in the People’s National Congress is simply inconceivable.
Third, not only identity, but also the economic ties with Spain play a significant role in the secessionist agenda in Catalonia. Catalonia indeed has its own cultural traits and Catalan is not only an official language in the region, but a necessary requirement to hold any public position in the autonomous region. Beyond this, however, we find that economic relations with Spain are often used as an argument in favor of independence. Catalonia’s contribution to the Spanish economy accounts for up to 20 percent of the country’s GDP, and many Catalans are convinced that they would be better off having full control over that wealth. Cultural and political arguments are crucial in this scenario, but economy and wealth distribution is of no lesser importance.
Fourth, Spanish and Catalan politics are remarkably diverse at all levels, especially in the past few years, far in excess of Taiwan and China’s political arenas. Even if different political tendencies are defended inside the Chinese Communist Party, the fact is that only one party has been ruling China for the past 68 years. Across the Taiwan Strait, only two parties have taken turns ruling the island since the establishment of a democratic system. In Spain, however, the arrival of new political parties like Podemos or Ciudadanos, and the Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP) in Catalonia, for instance, has distributed power more evenly and has created new political dynamics. At national level, no party obtained an absolute majority in the last two national elections, and no government was formed for 10 months. In Catalonia, Carles Puigdemont, a former member of the conservative Convergencia Democratica de Catalunya, since reconstituted as the Catalan European Democratic Party (PDeCAT), became president of the Generalitat de Catalunya —the Catalan government — in 2016. He relied on the (perhaps surprising) support of the left wing, nationalist CUP. Spanish nationalist parties, Catalan nationalist parties, and even non-nationalist parties thus present a very diverse political scenario in Spain.
In Spain, contrary to the case of Taiwan and China, labels like “left wing,” “right wing” or “center” still prevail, with different approaches to Catalan nationalism and the issue of Catalonia’s secession. Given the complexity of Spanish politics in the past few years, it is difficult to find similarities in Taiwan or China, and their example offers limited value when trying to understand Catalonia’s pursuit of independence or Spain’s response to this issue.
Finally, in Spain this diversity has reached the streets and the media, where multiple opinions can be heard inside and outside Catalonia. In the region itself, many prefer to remain part of Spain, while others prefer to break ties. In Spain, many dismiss any political claim coming from Catalonia, while many others understand Catalonia’s claims for more self-government and admit that profound political reforms must be undertaken in order to find a way out. Two phenomena, nevertheless, should not be overlooked: First, that the current government’s unwillingness to establish a dialogue with the Catalan institutions has made thousands of Catalans consider the idea of secession for the first time; and second, that in the rest of Spain there is also an increasing number of people who believe that Catalans should be given the right to decide their future in a referendum, even if they do not agree with their claims for independence. In other words, the central government’s approach to this issue does not necessarily match that of the population, who has expressed freely their discontent as tensions escalated (more so in Catalonia, for obvious reasons). This is particularly relevant if we turn our heads to China, where the same narrative regarding Taiwan is heard at all levels with no room for dissent, or even to Taiwan, where pro-independence politicians and activists tend to choose their words carefully when addressing the island-nation’s claims for independence.
This analysis would have been considered valid and complete before Oct. 1, or if the Spanish government would have not responded with such brutality to the celebration of the referendum in Catalonia. The reaction of the ruling party has brought back painful memories of Franco’s dictatorship, sparking outrage among the Catalan population, shame and discontent among a big part of the Spanish population, and sympathy around the world.
Since nationalism is connected to the head as much as it is connected to the heart, the images of the riot police using force against civilians at polling stations have stirred a deep feeling of sympathy in politically sensitive places like Taiwan. As a result, people across the island-nation have expressed their support to the Catalan people and their claims for secession. But this emotional connection, strong though it may be, does not mean Taiwan and Catalonia’s political visions are.
Editor: David Green