Sat, Oct 20, 2012 - Page 8 News List

Taiwan’s great cognitive divide

By J. Michael Cole 寇謐將

The elderly man approached the podium immediately after I finished delivering my talk.

“Not bad, but you’re not one of us, so you can’t truly understand our problem, or how evil the Chinese Nationalist Party [KMT] really is,” he said.

For the previous half hour, I had been addressing a crowd of 200 Taiwanese-Americans in Dallas, Texas, encouraging them to seek out allies in the pan-blue camp rather than regard it as an unchangeable, monolithic and invariably inimical entity. Well, so much for that.

I’d been warned, before delivering my talk, to expect this from some people, and frankly, I didn’t need the reminder, as this has happened on a number of occasions since I began writing about Taiwanese politics six years ago. Somehow, for reasons that are presumably cultural or genetic, Westerners are unable, we are told, to understand not only the “Asian mind,” but Asian history as well. No matter how deeply one plunges into Asia’s past, culture, language or contemporary events, and no matter how long one has lived there, it is impossible to get to the core; as if only Asiatic minds are capable of deciphering the mysteries of their race. How very, pardon the term, Chinese.

More than once in my years in Asia I’ve been served such platitudes by individuals who not only disregarded my six years as a professional journalist who watches, lives and writes about the news daily, but who themselves hadn’t set foot in Taiwan for years. It’s understandable that such individuals would react with condescension when informed that the KMT, rather than being an “evil” party, counts plenty of members that the pan-green camp can, and should, work with.

The KMT that exists in their minds is still the same party that reigned supreme over Taiwan during the Martial Law era and which was responsible for numerous atrocities. However, times have changed, and so has the KMT, which is now part of the fabric that makes Taiwan, for better or worse, what it is today.

Such a view of non-natives places expatriates perpetually on the peripheries and confines them to a largely non-participatory role in society. A “non-being” existence that prevents them from voting, even at the local level, even those who, rather than see Taiwan as a transitory place, have made it their permanent home. This attitude is not only race-based — it is racist.

My answer, coming as I do from a country that was built by immigrants, is to ask how Taiwanese would feel if told on arriving in Canada, or anywhere else for that matter, that by virtue of not being born there they could not possibly understand local politics and should therefore not involve themselves in them. Or how they would feel if I, as a Canadian, denied them the right to vote even after they had become naturalized citizens because they did not understand the Canadian mind and therefore were unable to make informed political choices. I would be called a racist, a bigot, for suggesting this, and rightly so.

However, this is a two-way problem. Not to be bested, there are some expatriates in Taiwan, or people based elsewhere who follow Taiwanese political developments, who also engage in similar bigotry. However, rather than assume, like some of the aforementioned Taiwanese do, that foreigners cannot “get” Taiwan, their intolerance lies on the other side of the spectrum: They, as members of the great enlightened white race, know best, and it is therefore their responsibility to educate the “child-like” Asiatics who do not know what is best for themselves. And when these small yellow people do not agree with them, the all-knowing expatriate or distant sage puts them in their place, usually by means of insult.

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