Almost two weeks ago, Philippine Coast Guard personnel strafed a Taiwanese vessel fishing for bluefin tuna with machine gun fire after it had crossed into disputed waters, killing Taiwanese fisherman Hung Shih-cheng (洪石成).
Political talk show hosts have been so angry that they have resorted to foul language, while pundits have called for military forces to be deployed to the area to fight. The government set a deadline for an apology from the Philippine government and imposed a freeze on the hiring of Filipino workers.
Fired up by all this hate speech, some markets and shops have put up signs stating that Filipinos will not be served, and there have been reports of people spitting at Filipinos, cursing them and even resorting to violence. People from the pan-blue and pan-green camps have set aside differences, banding together to take aim at the Philippines and appeal to national sentiment.
The most important aspect of nationalism is to set boundaries, draw a line to separate friends from foe, and think of the two sides as inherently complete and internally homogeneous communities, while at the same time ignoring the similarities between the two sides and their internal differences and contradictions. As a result, we have forgotten that the Filipino workers in Taiwan are not the Philippine coast guard personnel that opened fire, or the Philippine government, just as not every Taiwanese supports the policies of their government.
We also seems to have forgotten that Taiwan and the Philippines are very similar: Both countries have corrupt governments, a huge wealth gap and working conditions that force their citizens to find work abroad.
There is also a lot of similarity between Taiwanese fishermen and Filipino migrant workers. To be able to catch the highly prized bluefin tuna, Taiwanese fishermen risk crossing the nation’s fishing boundaries and being attacked by the Philippine Coast Guard. Filipinos travel to other countries to make money and be able to care for their families back home, despite having to live with racial prejudice and exploitation. National borders are both absurd and violent, and fishermen and migrant workers crossing these borders are all people leading hard lives.
Nationalism has the force to unite all Taiwanese, as if uniting in anger against an outside enemy is all that is needed to put all domestic troubles aside and let the president go on as before regardless of how low his approval rating is. Therefore, it is okay to tear down the Huaguang Community (華光社區) in Taipei, the controversial Miramar Resort Hotel in Taitung County can open its doors and maybe the operations of Yoho Beach Resort in Kenting could also be deemed legal.
Why not also let the construction of the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant in Gongliao District (貢寮), New Taipei City (新北市), continue, let the government’s proposal for a nuclear referendum pass the third reading and let the Council of Labor Affairs bring laid-off workers to court and force them to repay loans given years ago?
In the end, those pundits, talk show hosts and politicians who are spoiling for a fight will still be visiting those upscale restaurants where they can continue eating bluefin tuna. Who cares how hard someone had to work for them to be able to put that slice of raw tuna on their plates, or about the ecological cost? And who cares about those foreign workers who have to suffer prejudice, exploitation or violence at work, markets or when shopping? One can only wonder who stands to gain from this kind of nationalism.
Jiang Ho-ching is a research assistant in the sociology department of National Taiwan University.
Translated by Perry Svensson