Michael Goldfarb asked: “What is a nation in the 21st century?” in the New York Times on Oct. 27 and that is a question relevant to Taiwanese.
Whether we are talking solely about the here and now, or the idea of nationality in an even larger, universal sense, can be considered, but for sure this question, whether local or global, exclusive or all-embracing, lingers in the Taiwanese mind.
Goldfarb considered the Kurdish, Catalan, Scottish, and British sense of nationality in his article.
All of these identities have been subject to fluctuating, changing dynamics over the years. He did not mention Taiwan, an oversight.
The independence movements in the first three nations are particularly pertinent for Taiwan, and for that matter we could look at Britain and the EU, as related to Taiwan and China, which are considered below.
Goldfarb considers that there is a “new” sort of national identity in the 21st century, largely based on the end of the 20th century when “the challenge to the existing idea of nationhood began with the end of communism” and the breakup of Yugoslavia, but he does not explain this any further.
This opinion seems somewhat mistaken.
When the Soviet Union yielded 15 new nations, and Yugoslavia seven, they became independent nations in ways that were not dramatically different from other claims to independence seen in the past. In other words, they announced their own independence, created the legal agenda and then became sovereign states.
Just like that, they were liberated and self-governing — there was not some other factor that intervened.
The same thing is brewing with the nationalities previously mentioned, and possibly, in Taiwan.
So where does Taiwan stand and what is its status? Is it “really” a nation or not?
If you asked a Kurd, Catalan or even a Scot about their nationality, they would say: “Of course. We are a proud sovereign people, with a unique culture, history and identity, and an independence in world affairs.”
No doubt any Taiwanese would say the same, but the doubters would nevertheless intrude: Fine, but are you really independent in the world?
Then things begin to cloud — the Kurds, Catalans, Scots and Taiwanese would be forced to say: “Well, not in the customary sense in terms of international affairs and world law.”
East Timor, Palau and the Czech Republic on the other hand, can all say: “Yes, it’s positively true. We are independent nations in the world,” and indeed they are.
In this respect a declaration of independence is the key to achieving this goal and such a declaration is legally binding in a strong sense.
Whether Catalonia, Kurdistan or even Scotland go this far remains to be seen. (Catalonia has taken a dramatic turn, although its apparent declaration of independence has not yielded fruit and remains unsettled.)
This of course is not an easy question for Taiwan, for the threat of war with China stands in the way, as is true for both Catalonia and Kurdistan, but to cut to the chase, a declaration of independence is exactly what Taiwan needs.
This is the only route to freedom, to liberation.
Claims that a referendum on Taiwan independence could yield a final result are not accurate. Such a referendum would not do the job — a fact that has been shown in Catalonia and Kurdistan, where referendums have made no true difference, and even in Scotland, which rejected independence.
I am not an ardent Taiwan independence activist: I am more of a unification activist, but it cannot be denied that the majority of Taiwanese clearly appear to be leaning in this direction and hoping for this outcome.
There is only one way that Taiwan can actually achieve this goal — by way of the government, with President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) at its head.
Only a government announcement and the creation of a legal framework in terms of global law would actually achieve independence — exactly what Catalonia has attempted.
Taiwan has never done anything like this.
The ultimate responsibility for this miserable fiasco rests with former dictator Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) and his failure to achieve independence after Taiwan lost its seat at the UN, but let us not focus on Chiang. We must focus on Tsai, and her own negligence in making progress in this direction.
Tsai adheres to de facto independence and maintaining thet “status quo” — a spineless approach to cross-strait relations that has done nothing to advance Taiwan’s interests in the international arena, to say nothing of true freedom and self-reliance for Taiwanese.
Tsai’s talk of a “new model” of cross-strait relations might be useful in its way, but it does not break any new ground. This will have to change, although admittedly an actual declaration of independence might still be a distant possibility.
In terms of new thinking, and as far-reaching and impractical as it might sound, it could be worth thinking about the creation of a “borderless” world in which all of these considerations and conflicts would not even be required or need to be addressed.
This would include entities such as the EU as well as a similar unifying body in Asia.
An Asian Union would be a reasonably practical approach and the hope would be that this would be an environment in which borders are removed (such as the EU’s Schengen area).
Something like a “world passport” would take the place of all the separate documents that are now required to travel, and prove identity and nationality.
However, most nations are unlikely to go along with the idea of dissolving their borders. A lot more negotiation would be needed before we could get anywhere near this idea, but it still seems positive in important ways.
This option would solve a lot of problems and allow Taiwan to be involved in global affairs as an essentially independent nation, although the final question of actual independence might still not be answered.
Scotland has shown it would not be against the idea after it voted to remain in a happy union with England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Kurdistan seems to be a bit different.
The Kurdish seem to have a stronger sense of independence in which they are separate and truly autonomous, not a piece of Turkey or a slice of Iraq.
Taiwan strikes me as somewhat similar to Catalonia.
Catalonia is a potential nation within another nation, with which it has very close economic, political, cultural and linguistic ties.
Indeed, there are many against independence in the region because they feel that Catalonia is Spanish, and that Spain in turn encompasses, girds, demarcates and circumscribes Catalonia.
The same goes for Taiwan.
That is, Taiwan really is Chinese in significant respects, culturally, linguistically and even economically, but not so much politically.
Though many people would not agree (they would indeed strongly disagree), the fact that China ceded Taiwan to Japan in 1895 seems to indicate that Taiwan was once part of China.
No, not the People’s Republic of China, but that is what “China” is today and therefore it can be essentially connected to the China that was in existence in the 19th century.
In spite of its proximity, it does not seem likely that China could, as happened in Spain, legally annul a move toward Taiwan independence or issue arrest warrants for Taiwanese leaders, so the door could still be open for Taiwan.
This proximity could also be helpful in other ways: With an EU-like conglomeration with China and other nations in Asia, there is the possibility of Taiwan unifying with China (with a good deal of independent power, it would be hoped) in the borderless world suggested.
Goldfarb points out that about 500 years ago a Polish nobleman was asked about his national identity.
“I am of the Polish nation, of Lithuanian citizenship, of the Ruthenian people and of Jewish origin,” he said.
This is the sort of borderless world referred to and akin to a Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations thesis — but we should dismiss the clash and focus on what could be positive.
Huntington said that a resident of Rome could define himself as Roman, Italian, Catholic, Christian, European and Western. This accumulation could be seen as a very positive binding covenant in one’s identity, opening new worlds of possibility and connection.
The time is now. Decisions need to be made.
Step up Taiwan, make your voice heard in the world.
A new and exciting selfhood, both associated and particular, awaits.
David Pendery is an associate professor at National Taipei University of Business.
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