As Taiwanese prepare to vote in the Jan. 11 presidential and legislative elections, the raison d’etre, scope and focus of their democratic nation’s “imagined community” is again on the horizon. To gain a full perspective, they need to review this imagined community from both its macro and micro standpoints.
On the macro side, they must first examine the big picture — that is, how they and their nation are part and parcel of the whole human race. Here, research on human origins and migration patterns continue to point to the dominant “out of Africa” theory.
An Oct. 28 article in Nature magazine suggested that the roots of present-day Homo sapiens (not the Neanderthals) can be genetically traced back to the wetlands region of northern Botswana. This research surprisingly ties present-day humans to a woman who lived in that region about 200,000 years ago.
Then — 60,000 years ago — progressive waves of migrants traveled from Africa to the Middle East, Asia Minor, Asia and Europe. By 50,000 years ago, some had migrated through lower Asia down to Australia, while others had gone west, entering northern Europe 40,000 years ago.
It was only 15,000 years ago that additional groups crossed the Bering Strait and entered the Americas. It could be said that by the time that the agricultural revolution took place 12,000 years ago, the human race had settled in the same general regions where humans live today.
However, this research also exposes multiple unsaid ironies such as the slave trade. Slavery occurred throughout history, but when the seafaring nations of Europe traded with people in the African “motherland” — from the 16th to 19th centuries — it was taken to a new level.
From there, Europeans traded and purchased 10 to 12 million slaves whom they shipped and resold for greater profit in the Americas. At that time, they also traveled to Asia, its “Spice Islands” and Taiwan.
Another irony is the diversity of humans. Humans might share a common point of origin, but as they migrated and formed new communities, more than 6,500 spoken languages and 4,200 religions were generated.
“Ideologies separate us. Dreams and anguish bring us together,” Romanian-French playwright Eugene Ionesco said.
These words express the complexity of past migrations, even as they point to how a global home is constructed.
To understand how the micro reality of today’s imagined community in Taiwan fits in with the vastness of this macro history, Taiwanese must contrast their own micro-status with that of their “frogs in a well” [or close-minded] neighbors on the other side of the Taiwan Strait.
In China, people strive for a “Chinese unity” by asserting that the Yellow Emperor (Huangdi, 黃帝; born circa 2704 BC) is the common ancestor of all Han Chinese.
This micro position held by China means nothing to democratic Taiwanese. While some Chinese glory in the Yellow Emperor, Taiwanese know that most of them also share DNA with Aborigines of Taiwan. Moreover, Aboriginal ancestors were setting out to spread their Lapita culture across what would become the Austronesian world just when Huangdi was allegedly being born into the world.
Fast forward along these two contrasting micro perspectives, from 2704 BC to the 1600s.
Taiwan would feel the colonial presence of the seafaring Dutch in 1624 and the Spanish in 1626. At that time in Europe, the 1648 Peace of Westphalia was setting the stage for the shaping and identifying of modern-day nation states.
On the continent, the Manchus had just begun to expand their kingdom. Starting in 1644, they conquered lands and brought the inhabitants — the Han Chinese, the Tibetans, the Mongolians, etc. — under the control of the Manchu Qing Dynasty.
In pursuit of China’s fleeing Ming loyalists, the Manchus crossed the Taiwan Strait in 1683 and took control of the western half of Taiwan.
These events happened a mere 350 years ago in the long history of humans.
In 1895, Japan defeated the Manchus and took advantage of them in the Treaty of Shimonoseki. This made Japan the first nation to control and rule over the whole island of Taiwan. All of those living on Taiwan became members of the Japanese Empire.
The Manchus had given Japan more than they actually owned, but that was never told to the Aborigines of eastern Taiwan, who also became part of Japan’s empire.
On the continent, the Manchus had, by 1911, lost control of “China.” In 1921 — less than 100 years ago — the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was formed.
After these “communist” newcomers won the Chinese Civil War in 1949, they began to create their own imagined community, a one-party communist state.
Subsequently, China and the CCP’s imagined community would muddle their way through the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution — killing 30 million Chinese in the process. This was their imagined community — but not Taiwan’s.
Taiwan’s imagined community had its own struggles after the 1952 San Francisco Peace Treaty. Although the treaty officially ended World War II, it left Taiwan in “political purgatory.” To this day, the victorious US remains “undecided” on the status of Taiwan.
On-again, off-again support from the US throughout the Cold War led to Taiwan suffering through the White Terror and martial law imposed by the fleeing Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) diaspora.
Taiwanese eventually won the right to self-determination and elected not only their legislators, but also their president in 1996 — just 23 years ago.
This full-fledged democracy makes up Taiwan’s current imagined community and this is what the Jan. 11 elections are all about.
The imagined community of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is completely different. As an authoritarian, one-party state with hegemonic ambitions in Asia, it has not even been able to fulfill its past promise of democracy for Hong Kong by 2017.
These macro and micro perspectives are important and can help Taiwanese sift through all the rhetoric to find their true identity, as well as to see how laughable it is for the PRC to make the claim that “we are all Chinese.”
They can also see how absurd it is when the CCP rulers of the PRC spout such memes as “Taiwan is an inalienable part of the motherland” and “Taiwan has been a part of China since time immemorial.”
Taiwanese — in knowing the reality of their Austronesian past, as well as understanding the centuries of colonialization — can understand “the why” of their struggle for democracy.
As Ionesco said: “Ideologies separate us. Dreams and anguish bring us together.”
From macro and micro perspectives, Taiwanese understand how they fit into today’s world. They do share a common humanity of dreams and anguish with the Chinese, but also with every other human on the planet.
In their ideological differences and their history, Taiwanese comprehend why Taiwan is Taiwan — and China is China.
This is what democratic elections are all about and why they are so important. The choice is quite simple. Taiwanese can vote for a leader like President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), who has protected the nation’s democracy, as well as refused to recognize the fabricated “1992 consensus,” or they can vote for a person like Kaohsiung Mayor Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜), the Chinese Nationalist Party’s (KMT) presidential candidate, who deals in changing vagaries and makes grandiose promises with little substance to back them up.
Han is proving to be more talk than action. He had promised that he would make Kaohsiung rich, but he never stayed long enough to deliver on that promise. Instead, he quickly jumped ship to run in the presidential race, where he has again promised to make everyone rich, with little to back that up.
Did Han figure that if people were foolish enough to accept an empty promise once, they would do it again? What could Han and the PRC offer that has not already been offered and rejected in the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement?
There is no question that the PRC is stuck in its brutal ideology. Its reaction to the Hong Kong protests proves that. All of Han’s glib talk — his smoke and mirrors — are not going to change that.
Taiwanese should ask Han to deliver on his first promise before he is considered for anything else.
Jerome Keating is a writer based in Taipei.
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