Beijing sees culture as a weapon

By J. Michael Cole 寇謐將  / 

Fri, Mar 05, 2010 - Page 8

Addressing the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) on Wednesday, Jia Qinglin (賈慶林), the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) No. 4 official and chairman of the CPPCC national committee, reaffirmed his government’s commitment to the “peaceful” development of cross-strait relations.

“We will constantly increase contacts with political parties, organizations, social groups, influential figures from all walks of life and the general public in Taiwan,” he told the more than 2,000 delegates at the Great Hall of the People.

Then came a comment that should make us pause both for the strategy that it highlights as for the lack of understanding of Taiwan that it elicits: “All this [growing exchanges] greatly enhanced the acceptance of the Chinese nation and Chinese culture by our Taiwan[ese] compatriots.”

Chinese officials have made no secret of the fact that they see Chinese culture as a weapon by which to persuade Taiwanese to agree to annexation. After many years of seeing Taiwan allegedly “drift” from its Chinese cultural heritage — efforts that accelerated during the administration of former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) — Beijing is now seizing the opportunity created by the presidency of Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) to impose a Chinese cultural template on Taiwan. Given the Chinese Nationalist Party’s (KMT) acquiescence in this endeavor, and Ma’s repeated references to Chinese culture, the situation is somewhat reminiscent of Taiwan during the era of White Terror, when symbols of Taiwaneseness, including the language, were barred from the media and Chinese — as opposed to Taiwanese — history was taught in the nation’s schools.

As contact between the two sides accelerates and the creative industries cross-pollinate (this will likely be mostly one way, given China’s greater financial resources and censorship at home), the assault on Taiwanese consciousness through cultural means will only intensify. By dint of repetition and subtle changes here and there (on television, in schoolbooks and academic forums), the Chinese plan could succeed in eroding Taiwanese cultural identity — at least to a certain extent.

Other countries with a powerful neighbor, such as Canada vis-a-vis the US, have often raised the specter of a culture threat, mostly through the flooding of their domestic markets by films, music, literature and McDonald’s. Under such circumstances, however, if there is a threat, it is an indirect one in that no conscious effort is being made by Washington to shape minds through cultural bombardment.

In Taiwan’s case, however, it has become rather clear that cultural influence is no mere collateral — it is, in fact, the tip of a missile aimed straight at the heart.

This effort at cultural transformation to achieve political objectives, however, is of limited effectiveness and will be less likely to achieve its ultimate aims if the strategy becomes too transparent (external factors, such as the Chinese military threat, will also undermine such a strategy).

Comments such as those by Jia, to the effect that cross-strait exchanges highlight “the acceptance of the Chinese nation and Chinese culture by ... Taiwan[ese] compatriots,” underscore the political elements of China’s cultural strategy and are an example of the transparency that could throw Beijing’s plans off track. That is so because of the false assumptions that buttress those efforts.

The willingness of Taiwanese to engage in more discussions with Chinese, to watch Chinese movies, attend Chinese art expositions (or gaze at pandas) is simply natural curiosity. By no means does this signify, however, that by doing so Taiwanese accept the so-called Chinese nation — by which Beijing means “one China” — or see it as their culture. Quebecers, for example, may show a great deal of interest in a French troupe performing in Quebec City (or Hollywood movies, for that matter), but this does not mean that they “accept” France, or the US, as the seat of their culture.

A better analogy, perhaps, would be that of a Palestinian interested in learning more about Israelis living across the fence by attending discussion groups involving the two people. However high his interest might be, it remains purely academic and under no circumstances would it imply the acceptance that Palestinian land belongs to some Greater Israel.

If Beijing subscribes to the belief that interest in seeing things Chinese means acceptance of its dominion over Taiwan, it is in for a very unpleasant surprise.

Slips like that made by Jia on Wednesday are not infrequent and should serve as a warning to Taiwanese that for Beijing, nothing is sacred, or off limit, in its pursuit of unification.

J. Michael Cole is an editor at the Taipei Times.