Fear not the cross-strait culture war

By J. Michael Cole 寇謐將  / 

Thu, Mar 22, 2012 - Page 8

Much has been made in recent years of an apparent campaign by elements on both sides of the Taiwan Strait to convince Taiwanese that they share a common culture, ethnicity and history with Chinese. This emphasis is without doubt part of the multifaceted effort by Beijing — an effort that also has political, military and economic angles — to unify Taiwan with China. However, culture is the weapon in Beijing’s arsenal that is the least likely to succeed.

A good number of Taiwanese and their supporters recoiled when President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), once he was safely ensconced in office, began waxing lyrical about the “shared ancestry” of Taiwanese and Chinese, or hurt sensitivities when he harped on about a so-called “Chinese culture with Taiwanese characteristics.” Similar apprehensions arose when his administration, and its counterparts in China, began encouraging cooperation in all matters cultural, from the movie industry to linguistics.

Suddenly, Taiwanese culture and identity seemed to be under assault, dwarfed by the weight of 1.3 billion Chinese who, we can only deduce from Beijing’s propagandistic line on such matters, all share a homogenous “Han” culture. Some of the deformities that have arisen from such a stubborn adherence to a cultural “one China” include “Chinese Taipei” and, as one often encounters in the opening paragraph of reporting by (state-controlled) Chinese media, “China’s Taiwan,” as if repeating a lie often enough would somehow transmute that into truth.

There is no doubt that China has far greater resources to support its cultural industry and that Taiwan’s proximity, added to shared linguistic attributes, makes it especially vulnerable to a “cultural invasion.” That being said, greater cultural contact need not necessarily translate, and oftentimes will not, into the uncritical and total assimilation of foreign ideas — let alone serve as an instrument by which to change a people’s identity.

Those who argue that Chinese culture — movies, dance troupes, literature, music and so on — poses a fundamental threat to Taiwan’s sense of self fail to fully appreciate the resilience and adaptivity of Taiwanese identity. Taiwan’s long history is a unique laboratory of a people picking up foreign influences (including Dutch, French, Japanese, American and, yes, Chinese) and indigenizing them, while rejecting an array of others. Why things would be different when that outside influence is Chinese cannot but stem from a failure to appreciate the continuity that has characterized the development of Taiwan’s distinct consciousness. Not only that, but it treats Taiwanese as half-wits or empty vessels incapable of making their own choices about who they are. This is condescending and will not stand.

Unsatisfied with seeing Chinese culture as a dangerous external object — some kind of Trojan horse, with Chinese characteristics — some pundits are now seeing danger in the discourse of some Taiwanese who, after decades of isolation, have come into increasing contact with Chinese. The danger, someone told me recently, is that Taiwanese are starting to say: “I like the Chinese, they are a lot like us.” Of course they are, but note the they and us.

This situation is rather analogous to, say, the experiences of this author growing up in Quebec, under the shadow of an Anglophone Canada and, to the south, the mother of all cultural giants, the US. Try as it might to limit North American cultural influences in the French-speaking enclave, government officials in Quebec City could not, unless they had resorted to force, have prevented me and other youths from watching US TV, reading English books and listening to US music. And where did we go when the long Canadian winters became unbearable? Down south, to bask in the sun and US culture. Which country did I look to when, for a brief while before I destroyed my right arm with tendonitis, I entertained dreams of a career in professional baseball? Again, the US.

At no time, though, did such influences, or my liking Americans, alter or somehow undermine my self-identification as a Quebecer and Canadian. In fact, the reverse is probably truer, with exposure bringing into sharper contrast the differences, however small, which existed between us.

The same applies to Quebec’s “special ties” with France, a former colonial presence, which reached their height (or low, depending on who you’re asking) when former French president Charles de Gaulle made his famous “Vive le Quebec libre!” remark from a balcony in Montreal in 1967. To this day, many French will refer to people in Quebec as les petits cousins (the young cousins) in a way that manages to summon both friendliness and condescension (this nevertheless is a major improvement on references to Canadians by US pundits in the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003 as “retarded cousins”).

All this is to say that shared languages and cultural elements, or even periods of colonization, will not alter a people’s sense of identity, however hard governments try to turn back the clock. Young Canadians today can dote all they want on Harry Potter or Brad Pitt or Justin Timberlake, and Quebecers can share a certain affinity with La Peste, Bardot or Hallyday, but this in no way changes who they are. Unless one looks at Taiwanese from the pedestal of superiority, the same applies to the 23 million inhabitants of the nation.

As with many other aspects of the relationship, time is on Taiwan’s side, and China, debilitated as it is from increasingly untenable systemic contradictions, will likely collapse, or democratize, or become embroiled in a regional war, well before cultural engineering can be imposed on enough generations of Taiwanese to convince them that they are Chinese.

Just look at how well served the Chinese (not to mention their colonial subjects) have been by more than half a century of imposed Sinicization in Tibet. As the Chinese author Wang Lixiong (王力雄) showed us in his reporting, even those Tibetans who are “fortunate” enough to be sent to Beijing to receive an education (or re-education) and be taught, one may suppose, everything about the greatness of Chinese culture, will more often than not return to their homeland even more convinced of their own distinct cultures than they were prior to making the journey.

What ought to make us pause amid efforts by bigoted Chinese and Taiwanese officials to conjure up an all-encompassing “Chinese culture” is Chinese investment in the cultural sector in Taiwan. The more dependent Taiwan becomes on Chinese money, the narrower will its margin to maneuver become in terms of its ability to explore and say certain things, either as the result of direct intervention by the Chinese side, or from self-censorship on this side. Creative freedom, rather than identity, is what’s at risk.

Another, and not unrelated, aspect of this is the neutralization of the news industry in Taiwan, which has its precedents in what has happened in Hong Kong. Increasingly, news media are focusing on economics, sports and “soft” social events, rather than the problematic and oftentimes controversial politics. Rather than add fuel by reporting on these subjects, media are encouraged to look elsewhere, to the opiates of GDP growth or Jeremy Lin’s (林書豪) exploits on foreign basketball courts.

As with the film industry, cross-strait investment is having an impact on journalistic freedom, with critical reportage on, say, human rights in China, or Taiwanese independence, being turned unfashionable and inconvenient for the “rational” actors who want to make money. Look at which media outlets are hiring, where the money is: Bloomberg, the Financial Times, &c.

Taiwan does need to be protected from nefarious Chinese influences, whatever the form they may take. Identifying the area where prophylactics or pushback are needed is a good place to start to avoid wasting energy and resources.

J. Michael Cole is deputy news editor at the Taipei Times.