Former president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) raised some eyebrows when he recently gave the first in a series of lectures celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy (TFD).
In his presentation, Lee said that among the many challenges the nation faces, a major one is the unresolved business and haunting specter of Taiwan’s divided identity.
Divided identity? Some would be tempted to dismiss Lee’s thoughts (he is retired and aging) as passe, the thoughts of one who is “out of touch” with today’s society.
That would make a simple and facile explanation for his words, except for one thing: Lee’s talk came close on the heels of an intriguing new book edited by Peter Chow, National Identity and Economic Interest: Taiwan’s competing options and their implications for regional stability.
The book echoes concern for identity and presents a wide variety of academic articles that address the issue. The focus of the book is the question of whether the nation’s identity has been, or will be, affected by cross-strait economics. So was Lee thinking of this, or did he have something else in mind?
Whether Lee had had a chance to read this book is open to question since it just came out at the end of last year. However, the confluence of the book and the timing of Lee’s talk force one to take a second look at the issue of identity and Lee’s intentions.
The nation’s democracy is doing well for a democracy that is less than two decades old, and the sense of Taiwanese identity is growing. Polls, such as that of National Chengchi University’s on the issue of unification versus independence, support the thought that citizens increasingly see themselves as Taiwanese and not Chinese, even if they have a Chinese ethnic background.
There is among Taiwan’s population less of a desire for unification with China and it is clear from polls that this sense of Taiwanese national identity is taking precedent over any sense of ethnic heritage.
So what other purpose might Lee have in bringing up the topic?
When Lee spoke of identity, he purposely separated it from ethnic heritage. He made a point to emphasize that Taiwan is a nation of immigrants, and while a majority may be from China, Lee avoided using the phrase Zhonghua minzu (中華民族) (Chinese ethnic group).
Here, he was clearly distancing himself from, and perhaps even taking a swipe at, President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) who, in contrast, tries to insert that phrase into almost any talk he gives on the topic of nationalism. The phrase is also, ironically, the same phrase used by leaders in China when they speak of Taiwan.
Following this anti-ethnic bent, Lee spoke of the need for strong leadership and again presented either a challenge to, or an indirect criticism of, Ma’s weak leadership for the past five years.
Lee said that Taiwan needs a strong leader capable of focusing on protecting against anti-democratic elements and Chinese authoritarianism. He added that this leader must help Taiwanese break out of the past “ethnic boxes” and focus only on the nation.
Lee’s words continued to contrast with Ma’s words and actions; Ma frequently defends the so-called “1992 consensus” and claims support in the 1947 Constitution preserving, shall we say “the fantasy,” that the Republic of China will one day rule China.
For Lee, the nation’s leader and the 23 million people of Taiwan should focus first and foremost on the nation, especially in regard to identity and democracy. However, what then of the economy?
Performance issues cannot avoid matters of the economy, yet Lee avoided direct reference to Taiwan’s lagging economy — a failed promised arena of Ma with his opening to China.
Although Ma’s performance ratings have consistently been at an all-time low since his re-election, and his “6-3-3” economic campaign pledge is its own specter lingering in the wings, Lee still avoided mentioning it.
Lee’s focus remained on democracy; and in this he also purposely avoided speaking of political parties, even the small Taiwan Solidarity Union, of which he is seen as the spiritual leader.
Instead, he called for less party wrangling with a renewed focus on Taiwan.
Lee’s talk provided no quick answers, but he set the sine qua non framework for the future.
He could be said to have given Ma a veiled, or not too veiled, warning to change his ways; he could also be seen as saying: “You have three years remaining, the choice is yours.”
However, despite Lee’s simple focus on democracy, he could not cover everything. For even in a fully democratic Taiwan one point still remains to be decided on in the future. How to tell the story of the past?
Even if Taiwanese see themselves as Taiwanese and agree on their identity, there is still one unresolved point: They still have not reached an agreement on how to tell the collective history of their national identity. They still need new writers and new thought to bring together, and express the collective memory of this nation. On this point Lee had no suggestions.
Then there is also the matter that identity is not static; it is a matter in process.
The development and changes in Taiwan’s identity over the past century bear this out. However, even here, Lee may find his bases covered. For if Taiwan can maintain its democracy, whatever identity it has or develops in the future will be an identity that it freely chooses. It will not be an identity imposed by outsiders. Rather it will be Taiwanese who determine it.
I am sure Lee would have no objection to that.
Jerome Keating is a writer based in Taipei.