Thu, Feb 01, 2007 - Page 8 News List

Taiwan's global identity is critical

By Arthur Waldron 林霨

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 (台灣人) -- no matter how "Chinese" they may feel. Even if they trace all their ancestry to Chiang Kai-shek's (蔣介石) hometown of Fenghua in Zhejiang Province, they are "Taiwanese" in the eyes of the Chinese. I suspect they would see the island with new eyes when they return home.

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.

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