President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) is in full electioneering mode, focusing on the issue of national identity and saying in Chinese, “I am Taiwanese.”
One can imagine his soul shrieking as he uttered those words, but when he said it in English he chose not to use the word “Formosan” or the word that came into common usage in the 1960s, “Taiwanese.”
Instead he declared himself to be an “R.O.C.er,” an invented phrase that is neither here nor there, a play on Republic of China (ROC), which could also be pronounced like “rocker.”
For those in the know, the idea is that he is a citizen of the ROC, but for outsiders it just looks like a harmless pun.
For Beijing, his master, the phrase indicates his adherence to the concept of “one China” and essentially says that he really belongs to China.
Ma was born in Hong Kong, but few people from Hong Kong would respond in this way to their current circumstances.
The former British colony was “returned” by the UK government to China, but the vast majority still consider themselves to be “Hong Kong people” (香港人).
Taiwan has got absolutely nothing to do with China. We do not belong to China. It is a matter of preference whether you call yourself Taiwanese, or some ill-defined, wishy-washy definition of “Chinese.”
The real question is where the small minority who consider themselves to be “Chinese” get off accusing people who say they are Taiwanese of “mincing words over ethnicity.”
There are people out there who think they are really smart, who believe that this distinction is not really all that important, imagining themselves to be something in-between, or simultaneously Chinese and Taiwanese.
This is simply not the case. Whether you call yourself Chinese or Taiwanese is of huge significance in an international sense.
On March 11, 1972, an article by the journalist Milton Viorst titled “Has Anyone Asked the Taiwanese?” appeared in the Washington Post.
In the article, the author asked then-US president Richard Nixon on what basis he claimed in the Shanghai Communique that “all Chinese people” on both sides of the Taiwan Strait had agreed that there was only one China and that Taiwan was a part of China.
This question pointed to the different perspectives of Taiwanese and Chinese and their understanding of national identification.
John Holdridge, who was present at the drafting of the communique, said that the Americans had used the phrase “all Chinese people,” and not “all people,” in recognition of the fact that there were those in Taiwan who neither counted themselves as Chinese nor agreed that Taiwan was a part of China.
The incontrovertible facts of the matter are that neither of the two “Taiwanese” presidents, Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) and Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁), agreed that Taiwan was part of China and that “Chinese” Ma accepts the “one China” principle and that Taiwan is a part of China.
Internationally, it has already been established that “Taiwanese” is distinct from “Chinese,” and for Taiwanese to refer to themselves as such, or indeed to be referred to by others in that way, should feel right and natural.
If Ma still feels a bit uncomfortable with the term, I hope that the next time he shows his face in public with Premier Wu Den-yih (吳敦義), the two of them will hold hands and declare, “We’re a pair of R.O.C.ers.”
James Wang is a media commentator.