Much is being written these days about the “historic” meeting between President Ma Ying-Jeou (馬英九) and Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) that took place in Singapore on Saturday last week. For talks to be “historic,” they need to mark a fundamental change that affects the course of history. That is simply not the case here: Ma came back glowing, but empty-handed.
As a young Taiwanese, I also object to the fact that at the meeting, both Xi and Ma emphasized the ethnic connection between two sides.
Xi said: “No power can separate us, because we are closely knit kinsmen, and blood is thicker than water.”
Ma said: “We are all descendents of the Chinese people. We should cooperate together and rejuvenate the Zhonghua minzu [Chinese ethnic group, 中華民族].”
For most people born in Taiwan after the 1980s, these words are perplexing and reprehensible: We consider democracy and human rights to be far more important than vague racial bonds that should be relegated to the past. In addition, the increase in cross-strait exchanges over the past decade have shown us how different we are. Playing the “ethnic card” does not work in modern-day Taiwan.
Let me elaborate. First, we grew up after Taiwan’s momentous transition to democracy. We have gone through various election cycles since the 1990s and learned the value of public affairs. We protested over a wide variety of issues and even occupied the legislature during the Sunflower movement in March and April last year to protest the lack of transparency in the legislative process.
However, in China there is no democracy and people are not allowed to build civic organizations to enhance their well-being. Even though there are many critics of the authoritarian government, the vast majority seem to support the repressive Chinese Communist Party regime. Most people in China seem to accept the concept of “Asian values,” which claims democracy does not suit Asian societies, and they discount Taiwan’s achievement of democracy.
Second, the histories of the two sides have followed very different courses. China, located on a huge continent with a large population, has gone through its own history of imperial dynasties. Taiwan belongs to the Austronesian cultural system and since the 17th century has experienced rule by the Dutch, the Spanish, the Qing Dynasty, the Japanese and then the Republic of China.
Resorting to the notion of Zhonghua minzu and applying a Sino-centric perspective of history fails to take into account, and hence ignores, Taiwan’s unique and diverse history, which is also the reason that we protested against the revision of high-school history textbooks when the government was trying to impose such an outdated perspective.
Finally, living in the era of globalization, young people in Taiwan are eager to play an active role as members of international society. We have the passion, capacity and potential innovation to make valuable contributions to the family of nations. However, through China’s perpetual attempts to isolate Taiwan, Taiwan’s international space is limited. Young Taiwanese have lost a great number of opportunities to participate in international events and work with international institutions. We have been pushed off the world stage for too long .
So, for the young generation of Taiwanese, these “historic” talks and the cross-strait “brotherhood” are a non-starter. Instead of being held down by China’s stranglehold, we want to be ourselves, we want to treasure and celebrate our democracy, and we want to determine our own future as a free and independent country.
Po-wen Chen is a student at the London School of Economics and Political Science’s Center for the Study of Human Rights.
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