Public need way to set a national identity

By Kengchi Goah 吳耿志  / 

Fri, May 30, 2014 - Page 8

China planted an oil rig in disputed waters in the South China Sea that Vietnam also claims. Vietnamese, infuriated by perceived Chinese arrogance, trashed dozens of Taiwanese investment operations in Ho Chi Min City and other Vietnamese business centers. The Taiwanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs rushed to produce stickers saying: “I am from Taiwan,” in Vietnamese and English, giving them to Taiwanese businesses operating in the country.

There is a lot of room left to the imagination with that apparently simple sentence: “I am from Taiwan.” An affirmative interpretation might be: “I am from Taiwan. I am Chinese.” A negative understanding could be: “I am from Taiwan. I am confused.”

From a semantic point of view, “I am from Taiwan” only states the where, the geographical root, not the who, the identity. A negative, or renunciative, form of proclamation may be: “I am from Taiwan. I am not Chinese,” or: “I am from Taiwan. I am not a cook.”

“I am from Taiwan” does not provide clarity in identifying an entity. As such, it cannot shield any resident of the nation from being misidentified. “I am from Taiwan” also hints of a suppressed longing for citizenry by the proclamation of genuine identity in a negative form — “I am not Chinese.”

On the other side of the coin, the somewhat timid declaration subtly hides the resistance of a fading number of the nation’s residents to cleave their emotional attachment to the China of a bygone era. The pull of such ties is understandable. However, the ambiguity embedded in these anachronistic links to a bygone era invite ethnic strife, as can be seen by events in Ukraine, Syria and many other places.

Identity plays an essential part in a person’s self-worth. That is why many adults who were adopted as infants eventually seek their biological parents, since living without knowing the whereabouts of their birth-parents was suffocating them.

Perhaps the ministry might consider recalling the sticker and issue one that says: “I am not Chinese.”

Yes, it would touch some nerves and Taipei most likely would not do it. However, not doing so simply means the financial losses Taiwanese businesspeople sustained were self-inflicted.

Kengchi Goah is a senior research fellow at the Taiwan Public Policy Council in the US.