In the last years of former president Chen Shui-bian’s (陳水扁) Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) administration, critics accused the government of stoking “ethnic tensions” by drawing an imaginary line between ethnic Taiwanese — those who had inhabited this land for generations — and the Chinese who arrived in Taiwan after 1945, especially after the defeat of Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) forces at the hands of the Communists.
Aside from the conscious decision by some DPP members to use the Hoklo language (commonly known as Taiwanese) in public rather than Mandarin, there were precious few incidents that could substantiate accusations that Chen and the DPP were seeking to score political points by creating an “ethnic” divide or an “us” versus “them” environment based on biology. Tensions did arise now and then, but they rarely boiled over and seldom transcended differences in political views.
Ironically, the election of the KMT’s Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) as president in March, followed by his subservient peace initiative with Beijing, threatens to turn the political differences that characterized the DPP era into a clash of “ethnicities” — albeit one more grounded in the “narcissism of small differences,” as psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud put it, than in genetic baggage.
History has shown that one should be extremely careful when using the terms “racial” and “ethnic” to describe or rationalize conflict. The concepts have time and again been exploited by groups whose real motivations have more to do with greed than “ethnic” grievances.
Despite the common reflex by specialists and journalists to paint the conflicts that devastated the Balkans in the 1990s and the numerous wars that rage across Africa in terms of “clans,” “race” and “ethnicity,” the underlying causes of most of those conflicts have either been land grabs and/or the capture of precious natural resources.
Even the Rwandan genocide of 1994, often seen as the epitome of “ethnic” conflict, had at its core elements of political maneuvering, competition over resources and thirst for power.
In fact, the Interahamwe, the perpetrators of the genocide, had to go to great lengths to depict their actions as stemming from “ethnic” conflict, using pseudoscientific criteria to distinguish Hutu from Tutsi.
Still, only through an effective and carefully planned propaganda campaign fueling “ethnic” tensions could the Interahamwe have managed to turn a large swath of the Rwandan population into cold-blooded murderers.
After the war, the Tutsi government of Rwandan President Paul Kagame would in turn use the “ethnic” card to justify its military incursions, this time into its resource-rich neighbor, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), purportedly to defend ethnic Tutsi from Hutu groups, including genocidaires who had fled there after their defeat in 1994.
The real reason for the presence of Rwandan soldiers in the DRC — though Kigali will deny this — is the natural resources that are found there, with “ethnicity” providing convenient cover.
More recently, Moscow rationalized its invasion of Georgia in similar fashion, arguing that it was protecting ethnic Russians in South Ossetia from “ethnic” Georgians.
There, too, natural resources (an oil pipeline route) played a predominant role in Moscow’s decision-making, as did geopolitics in the face of NATO encroachment on its perceived circle of influence and the deployment by the US of missile systems in its backyard.
Valid or not, the “ethnic” card was used to justify the invasion and may have played an important role in persuading Russians and their “ethnic” brethren in South Ossetia to back the war.
It is certain to make conflict resolution in that area more onerous for years to come, and the precedent set in August has ominous resonance in Ukraine, which also has a substantial ethnic Russian population.
While tensions among Taiwanese certainly haven’t reached the pitch that turns neighbor against neighbor in the manner of Rwanda or South Ossetia, there is growing potential for things to become a bit more ebullient, especially as a growing sector of society fears that the Ma administration may be making too many concessions to Beijing, or is downright capitulating.
Again, while the differences here are to a great extent political, budding demagogues on either side of the divide could be tempted to use the construct of “ethnicity” to stoke conflict.
Given the sad display of violence among DPP members last week, pitting pro-Chen elements against those who sought to distance themselves from the former president, or the physical assault on Chen by a pro-unification element earlier this year, it is not impossible to imagine that, should things continue along their current course — exacerbated by the financial downturn, another conflict accelerator — expressions of protest against Chinese could become more violent.
The presence of Chinese tourists in Taiwan also creates opportunities for lone individuals or small groups to conduct “ethnic” violence against them.
The real danger, however, lies not in “ethnic” conflict spiraling out of control in Taiwan — a problem that remains extremely unlikely — but rather in how Beijing interprets the situation and plays “ethnicity” across the Taiwan Strait, especially in the context of a China that is increasingly nationalistic, a phenomenon that, like anywhere else, feeds into notions of “ethnicity.”
Should the ubiquitous shouting matches that have come to define Taiwanese politics become more violent, Beijing could feel impelled to assist its “ethnic” kin in Taiwan — that is, the Mandarin-speaking, pro-KMT and pro-unification Taiwanese.
Chinese intervention could cover a full spectrum of activity, from retaliation against Taiwanese in China to covert action in Taiwan to military intervention, all under the guise of “restoring order” or protecting a minority.
The gap between the present situation and the scenario described above is wide, and there are few indications that we are headed in the direction of the “social chaos” so often invoked in the media. But the potential exists, and Taiwan should do its utmost to inoculate itself against the exploitation of ethnicity for political ends. That road leads only to catastrophe.
J. Michael Cole is a writer based in Taipei.
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