Thu, Feb 12, 2015 - Page 8

Taiwan’s postcolonial myth

John Lim’s (林泉忠) article about Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je’s (柯文哲) comments on colonization and advancement stands as a good example of how political correctness — for example, conformity to dominant, mainstream and largely unchallenged political ‘truisms’ transmitted through education and media — can result in a misdirected debate built upon a false premise (“All aboard the colonial merry-go-round ride,” Feb. 10, page 8). In this case, the false premise would be Lim implying that Taiwan has somehow entered a “postcolonial” era.

The basic definition of colonialism is fairly simple and uncontroversial. It is “the policy or practice of acquiring full or partial political control over another country, occupying it with settlers, and exploiting it economically.”

However, it seems that so few academics, and even fewer politicians or members of the media, are capable of or willing to use a label that I suspect they consider to be confrontational and provocative.

Much in the same way many academics still cannot bring themselves to define the 38 years of brutal martial law in Taiwan as “dictatorial” or “a dictatorship,” so too we see a failure to understand the control of Taiwan by the Republic of China (ROC) as colonial. Instead the word “colonial” is only used to describe the Japanese era of administration between 1895 and 1945.

Although Lim appropriately puts the words “returned” and “retroceded” into quotes, this in itself is a half-measure designed to indicate a slight disagreement with an ROC-centric narrative of Taiwan’s history.

While it is an acknowledgement of the politically correct nature of this narrative, it does little to challenge it. Instead, Lim ends up implying that post-1945 Taiwan is somehow “postcolonial” because Taiwanese can now vote as “masters of their own destiny.”

This ignores that, ultimately, all votes are still votes for ROC institutions under and an ROC constitution. All votes, by definition, further legitimize and reify the ROC’s colonial existence in Taiwan.

Yet the historical record is quite clear in this regard. Taiwan’s history from 1624 to present day has been marked by 391 years of constant colonization and a succession of colonial administrations. From the Europeans to the Qing Dynasty to the Japanese and then the ROC, Taiwan’s original inhabitants have watched as full or partial control of Taiwan has been acquired, as policy and by practice, by other nations, who have then occupied parts of it with settlers in order to exploit it economically.

The ROC’s existence in Taiwan today is still by definition colonial, and especially so when President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) insists that his nation legally encompasses the entire territory currently administered by the also colonial People’s Republic of China government.

Taiwan is not a “postcolonial” society and it will not be until the ROC has either been displaced by an entirely indigenous polity, or the ROC legally relinquishes any claim to represent China, regardless of how this impinges upon the sensitivities of those who are politically, economically, or emotionally invested in the foundational and national myths of the ROC.

This is not to say a pragmatic accommodation with colonialism is untenable, but at least have the courage to stand by that accommodation and face the issues it raises, not least the need to question received historical narratives that seek to absent or render its agency invisible.

Colonialism, and its darker brother, imperialism, are by no means edifices of the past. The US’ occupation of Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, is an ongoing act of colonialism. Indeed, the US itself formed as a colonial state.

The occupation of Palestine by the state of Israel is also a project in colonialism. The UK notionally and physically retains small colonial holdings around the world. China’s occupation of Tibet and East Turkestan is colonial in practice and imperial in nature. There are many more examples to be found.

The purpose of academic study is to examine an issue as scientifically as possible. That task is only hindered when the political climate is such that academics either feel compelled to self-censor or are unaware of how their own perspectives have been shaped by forces that would prefer to remain unnamed and unexamined.

As the anniversary of the 228 Massacre approaches, this would be a good time for Lim to examine whether he might benefit from decolonizing his own perspectives and models of academic enquiry.

Ben Goren