For a few days it proudly flew, nudged between Syria and Tajikistan, amid rows of national flags festooning London’s Regent Street as the city prepares for the Olympics. Suddenly, for reasons unknown, but easily guessed at, it was pulled down, leaving a sad gap in the otherwise festive display of global fraternity.
Granted, the Republic of China (ROC) flag is for many people not a national flag but rather a symbol of a regime that imposed itself on Taiwan after World War II, one that, furthermore, unleashed decades of repression on its people. And yet, despite all the hardships, it now stands as the most readily recognizable symbol of nationhood for all Taiwanese.
Yes, it was first woven as the symbol of a political party in China; and yes, it officially stands for the ROC, but over the years, through the long process of democratization and national consolidation, both the ROC and the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) have become part of the fabric that makes Taiwan what it is today. For people outside Asia who know little about this region’s convoluted history, nothing more immediately distinguishes Taiwan from the People’s Republic of China (PRC) than the ROC flag.
The reaction among Taiwanese worldwide to the removal of the flag on Regent Street testifies to the strength of that symbol. Hours after it was taken down, online social networks and blogs exploded with “before and after” pictures of the street, accompanied by expressions of anger and indignation. Thousands of people — mostly young Taiwanese — mobilized, providing contact information about the civic organization that is responsible for the site, writing letters and visiting the location to take pictures of themselves holding the flag.
With very few exceptions, all referred to the flag as standing for Taiwan, not the KMT or the ROC, and reaffirmed their pride in being Taiwanese, which confirms the view that the once-exogenous flag has been rehabilitated into an indigenous one. Though it took over Taiwan, the ROC has since been absorbed by it, resulting in a symbiotic relationship that continually redefines itself and gives Taiwan its identity.
The strong reaction among Taiwanese, though prompted by disheartening political realities, is encouraging. For one, it debunks the claim that young Taiwanese today are apolitical and cannot be bothered with the future of their homeland. It shows us that on fundamental issues of justice, young Taiwanese will not sit idly by. It also tells us that despite their busy lives (several of those who mobilized are graduate students scattered all over the world), they know who they are and will not countenance anyone telling them otherwise.
One young Taiwanese living in the US could not have put it more bluntly, saying: “Fuck that de facto shit,” referring to Taiwan’s sovereign status.
Another offshoot of this incident is that it demonstrates yet again that despite currently stable relations in the Taiwan Strait, the 23 million Taiwanese continue to live under a shadow that prevents them from exercising their rights as citizens of the world. China’s “goodwill” and “peaceful” cross-strait relations remain contingent on Beijing seeing no true expression of Taiwanese statehood, irrespective of the venue. It has since been confirmed that the flag incident on Regent Street was the result of complaints by Chinese representatives, accentuating China’s refusal to acknowledge the existence of Taiwanese as a people.