In a letter to Johnny Neihu's Mailbag (Jan. 20, page 8), Sam Small correctly refers to the lack of a strongly felt Taiwanese "identity." He is correct inasmuch as learning more about Taiwan's history and culture -- as opposed to the various invented, official versions of "5,000 years of Chinese culture" imposed by the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and the Chinese Communist Party -- would be desirable.
Historically, however, identity creates and expresses itself through loyalty to political institutions: once to a monarch, today more usually to a particular elected legislature.
Thus, US and Canadian "cultures" are not all that distinct. Certainly they are less different than Cantonese culture is from that of Beijing.
The defining legal difference, even though some Americans can pass for Canadian and vice versa, is that our two countries have different Constitutions and look to different legislatures. We are two distinct sovereign peoples not least because our institutions are different.
Until the time of the Civil War, many Americans believed that Canada should join the US. We made several botched invasions. Now that idea seems to have disappeared.
When it comes to China and places China claims, however, the world has a tendency to forget the institutional criteria for legitimate nationhood that apply elsewhere, and fall for the idea that "China" has some mysterious cultural unity of a type that no other country possesses. This is simply not so.
For Taiwanese to start trying to cook up an "identity" along such lines makes no sense. They already have an identity -- and above all they already have the institutions to express it.
However pro-China the views of some candidates in Taiwan's coming presidential election may be, they probably all share the ambition to be the elected president of what the Constitution defines as the "Republic of China" and not the first chief executive of the Taiwan Special Administrative Region of the People's Republic of China (which is not, in any case, an elected post).
So, domestically, a Taiwanese "identity" already exists, since everyone is competing within the same framework for the same jobs, recognizing the same parliament, laws, courts, and so on.
Furthermore, let anyone from Taiwan go to China, and they will be labeled a Taiwanren (
What Taiwan lacks today is a functional international identity.
If the US and other countries had insisted on Taipei remaining in the international system when they recognized China, a functional international identity could have been preserved, as it should have been. Washington and other countries went too far, believing that Taiwan was simply a client state that would cave in, thus solving the problem.
Chiang Kai-shek must be blamed for refusing any compromise that would have allowed Taiwan to share the same sky with China, as must the US for not pursuing a compromise more vigorously.
Had such a compromise been made, however, the KMT might not have decided to follow Sun Yat-sen (孫逸仙), end "tutelage" and introduce democracy. Internally, Taiwan might have become unstable. But had democracy been introduced, then a functional state would have come into existence -- a rather odd one, to be sure, but one that managed.
Initially, China saw the "Republic of China" as a threat to the Communist dictatorship and wanted it stamped out. Washington expunged the term even from ostensibly empirical publications, referring to, oddly, "the people on Taiwan" -- choosing the preposition carefully to avoid suggesting that Taiwanese were somehow "of" Taiwan, or that Taiwan was "of" them (for more of these verbal contortions, see the entry for Taiwan in the online CIA "Factbook").
Sadly and most unjustly, the fact is that until Beijing decides to lift its absolute refusal to acknowledge the reality and legitimacy of what is, in fact, an independent, sovereign and democratic Taiwan constitutionally known as the "Republic of China," that state will continue to exist in an enforced limbo.
There is nothing that the Taiwanese can do to change that. They simply do not have the power, and the world, for various reasons, is against them.
Until a time when Taiwan's statehood is generally accepted, its people can certainly continue to build their common identity by electing officials who will have to work together, however they may dislike doing so. They can still make their island a model of good government while keeping a military strong enough to deter Beijing. They can also cultivate all sorts of substantial relationships around the world -- and in China.
Then they can wait for the time when new possibilities will arise, which they will.
The danger for Taiwan is impatience: the search for a quick fix or deal, such as the US sought and reached in the 1970s, with -- as is now clear -- such baleful consequences.
Obviously strengthening an understanding of what it means to be Taiwanese, of Taiwan's uniqueness, is very important. But what the country needs above all is a recognized international status that does it justice. As long as China insists on vetoing that, Taiwanese can only cultivate their own garden, improve their country, traveling and trading in a sort of semi-official twilight, and wait.
Time is on Taiwan's side. Elections for president and legislators in Taiwan are likely permanent. But the unelected politburo that rules China will almost certainly disappear before long. Then, if not before, Taiwan will get international justice as well.
Arthur Waldron is Lauder Professor of International Relations at the University of Pennsylvania and vice president of the International Assessment and Strategy Center in Washington.
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