At the beginning of a new era, most normal countries have to formulate a new vision for the future. In this “country” called Taiwan, not only is a new national vision needed, but a vision for a new nation — and it is not about fireworks and raising flags.
Last year, President Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) administration replaced the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) as the governing party, while also gaining a majority in the legislature for the first time; the public has high expectations.
The Tsai administration faces considerable challenges. Success or failure will depend on whether Taiwan is able to shake off the shackles of history and carve out a new and dignified future for itself.
Tsai is a cautious operator who seeks to bolster Taiwan’s international standing by maintaining the “status quo” while striking a balance in the tug-of-war between the US and China. Enterprising Taiwanese businesses know that “maintaining the status quo” means falling behind. A business that simply aims to maintain its current position will stagnate — let alone an entire country.
Maintaining the “status quo” is simultaneously a protective amulet and a curse for Taiwan. Taiwan does not belong to China, therefore maintaining the “status quo” runs counter to Beijing’s wishes since, by default, it implies the continuation of Taiwan’s democracy and freedom. The significance and value of maintaining this freedom is a no-brainer for Taiwanese, but the only way the roots of democracy and liberty can be strengthened is for Taiwan to become a bona fide, normal country.
For Taiwan to be recognized as a normal country, there are objective conditions that must be met and these are centered around legal realities. It is not a question of emotion or logic. The subjective judgement that Taiwan is a good country is irrelevant. There exists a blind spot in cultural discourse in Taiwan, which reflects the level of thinking and self-awareness of Taiwanese toward their island as a nation.
The crux of the problem still lies in the different ways Taiwanese choose to identify themselves. In 1949, Chinese exiles from the remnants of the Republic of China (ROC) fled to Taiwan. Those fellow travelers, who still identified with the ROC — in particular many KMT members — ignored the fact that the nation Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) used to lead no longer existed and clung on to the idea of the “Republic of China on Taiwan.”
Although the majority of Taiwanese — even those who came to Taiwan after 1949 — recognized that Taiwan is not part of China, the confusing ROC national identity continued to exist. It was therefore by no means inevitable that the election of Taiwan’s first directly elected president, Lee Teng-hui (李登輝), in 1996 would establish a new national sovereign identity. The conservative and improvised nature of Taiwan’s democratization process lacked structure and impetus, which meant that it was impossible to build a national civic consciousness that was essential to the foundation of a new country.
Taiwan has yet to cast off its old self and, through civic consciousness, establish a new national identity. It is not simply a question of economics, but also of culture: There must be a spiritual as well material substance to Taiwan’s new identity.
Tsai needs to infuse her administration with a reformist zeal to build a new Taiwan. Her administration needs to think not just in terms of social transformation, but also of rebuilding the country. Having been through the partial reform of the Lee era and the setbacks of former president Chen Shui-bian’s (陳水扁) reformist administration, Tsai’s government has been given the momentous task of finishing the job.
Lee Min-yung is a poet.
Translated by Edward Jones
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