During the portion of his Double Ten National Day address that focused on cross-strait relations, President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) turned to ethnicity to play down the differences between the two countries.
“The people on the two sides of the Taiwan Strait are ethnic Chinese — descendants of the legendary emperors Yan and Huang,” Ma said.
While many would dispute this contention, emphasizing ethnicity and ancestry as a means to encourage reconciliation or, conversely, foster alienation misses the point completely. The reason is simple: The longstanding conflict across the Taiwan Strait has nothing to do with ethnicity and lies instead in the political, ideological and imaginary spheres.
History is replete with examples of leaders who used ethnicity to stoke nationalistic fervor, often with devastating consequences. When it comes to Taiwan, this device has two fundamental flaws that make it unsuited as an element of political discourse.
The first is the exclusionary nature of nations built on race or ethnicity. In an increasingly mobile world, genetics have lost relevance in terms of buttressing one’s nationality. Consequently, nationality is no longer predicated on ethnicity, but rather on one’s association to a land or people. That is why the concept of “foreign,” a term often used in Taiwan, has an entirely different, and in many cases irrelevant, connotation in multi-ethnic countries such as the US, Canada or the UK. That is why immigrant societies — and Taiwan is such a society — embrace peoples of all backgrounds as participants in the national experiment. That is why a person of Haitian background, for example, could serve as the representative of Queen Elizabeth in Canada, or why a man with Kenyan ancestry can sit in the White House.
This leads us to the second flaw in the argument of ethnicity as a determinant of nationality: Nations, in contrast to countries, exist in the head and transcend geography. As such, genetic variance or similarity has absolutely no bearing on the state of relations between two groups of people. Far more relevant are social mores developed over time, the systems of governance chosen through social experimentation, as well as the shared ideational components that tie a people together.
Ma, like his Beijing counterparts, can rely all he wants on the idea of shared ethnicity to glue his amorphous empire together, but this will never change the fact that at the end of the day, groups of people that are victims of repression — such as Tibetans, Uighurs, Aborigines and, yes, Taiwanese — are in that situation because of concepts that have no relation to ethnicity. In other words, whether they are “Han Chinese” or not, or agree that they are “descendants of the legendary emperors Yan and Huang,” is inconsequential, as either way they will be repressed and prevented from living their lives in a manner that fully reflects their identity.
There is no denying that Taiwan and China have much in common, including overlapping periods of history, cultural elements, language, writing systems and so on, all of which are the result of geographical proximity. That said, the formative experiences of the two peoples, the “social genes,” have been wildly divergent for decades, if not centuries. That, in part, stems from the fact that Taiwan is an island nation, which, though less than 200km from the continent, not only creates a physical barrier to external influence, but also imposes its own idiosyncratic identity.