Prominent political philosopher Michael Walzer defines a nation as “a historic community, connected to a meaningful place, enacting and revising a way of life, aiming at political or cultural self-determination.”
People in Taiwan share different national identities and historical experiences. The Election Study Center of National Chengchi University has tracked core political attitudes in the nation since 1992. Regarding national identity, as of June last year, 60.4 percent of those polled regarded themselves as “Taiwanese,” 32.7 percent as “both Taiwanese and Chinese” and 3.5 percent as “Chinese.” This contrasts with public opinion in 1996, when about 49.3 percent identified as “both Taiwanese and Chinese,” 24.1 percent as “Taiwanese” and 17.6 percent as “Chinese.”
On the other hand, for political status, as of June last year, 58.8 percent supported the “status quo” for now or indefinitely, 23.8 percent backed eventual or immediate independence and 10.2 percent opted for eventual or immediate “unification.” In 1996, 45.8 percent supported the “status quo,” 22 percent eventual or immediate unification and 13.6 percent eventual or immediate independence. The data reflect the development of a Taiwanese identity and a rising sentiment leaning toward independence.
How the ruling Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) views itself and what vision it has for the nation’s future deserve analysis. Article 1 of the KMT party charter states: “The Chinese Nationalist Party is a democratic, just and innovative political party for all the people.” Article 2 delineates some of the party’s main objectives: “Bring about ethnic integration, unite the people, revive Chinese culture, practice democratic and constitutional government, oppose communism, oppose separatism and champion the interests of the Chinese nation.”
Underlying the party’s efforts are the teachings of Sun Yat-sen (孫逸仙), including the precept that “the world is a commonwealth shared by all,” and the Three Principles of the People — nationalism, democracy and the people’s livelihood — upon which he founded the Republic of China (ROC).
It is because the KMT fails to address Taiwan’s long-standing divisions over identity and political status that many Taiwanese have become skeptical about the party’s policies.
In his 2011 Double Ten National Day address, President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) said that residents of Taiwan “have come to identify solidly with their nation — the Republic of China — and the ROC Constitution has long served as the bedrock of a society-wide consensus.”
This idealistic view, while perhaps prevalent among the KMT’s elite, is problematic because it risks losing touch with mainstream society, where identity with “Taiwan” has come to supersede identity with the “Republic of China.”
Most fundamentally, the 1947 Constitution — originally drafted by the KMT in China — continues to leave the ROC’s jurisdiction unresolved. However, the ROC has already merged with Taiwan, and it is Taiwan that has provided the ROC with actual roots, people and sovereignty.
Support for the KMT has waned because for the sake of expedience it has chosen a vague and winding path in cross-strait relations. Under a precondition of cross-strait peace, Taiwan has two options: Work with Beijing to pursue eventual “unification,” or resist “unification” and maintain the “status quo.”
Indeed, the KMT is fundamentally opposed to communism and separatism, but Ma’s policies have achieved contradictory effects.
The administration rests the nation’s hopes on China’s uncertain goodwill, but Taiwan’s diminishing leverage will only weaken its position in future negotiations.
The KMT nominally accepts the “one China” principle under the so-called “1992 consensus,” but the framework of “no unification, no independence and no use of force” works to make Taiwan’s de facto independence perpetual. The nation has attained recognition in international organizations such as the WHO’s World Health Assembly and the International Civil Aviation Organization, while the recent flag-raising at the Twin Oaks estate in Washington also demonstrates sovereignty.
So, is Taiwan a part of China, or a sovereign, independent nation? Perhaps for fear that it would become a minority party, the KMT lacks the courage to take clear stands on basic issues. It claims to oppose independence, but does not clearly support unification either.
Taiwan needs a foundation upon which to transcend divisions and build consensus. Such a foundation for identity requires an inner sense of belonging and needs to be built through dialogue. Ethnic and political differences will not magically disappear. Nor for political purposes will different groups blend and just become one and the same. In Taiwan, groups holding dissimilar positions often deny the legitimacy of the discourse of others or simply ignore their existence. We cannot expect different groups in society to accept a unilateral identity or impose one on the public as a foundation for social and political unity.
Regardless of where our forebears come from or when they came to Taiwan, we are all Taiwanese who work and strive for this land.
Individuals will continue to live together while maintaining their identities and beliefs. We may not be able to eliminate our differences, but we can respect them. Only by respecting those differences can society build a pluralistic consensus through open and robust debate.
Alfred Tsai is studying economics and political science at Columbia University.
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