The election of a new Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) chair last month has reignited the debate about the definitions of being Taiwanese and being Chinese, and the tenuous relationship between the two concepts.
In his communication with Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping (習近平), newly elected KMT Chairman Eric Chu (朱立倫) vocally reinforced his “anti-Taiwan independence” stance, and declared his commitment to “finding common ground and respecting [Taiwan’s and China’s] differences.”
While Chu’s exchange with Xi unsurprisingly invited criticism from the pan-green camp, which saw it as kowtowing to authoritarian Beijing, it was consistent with his previous statements.
During the second KMT chairperson debate, Chu said the fight against the Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) “cultural Taiwanese independence” was a priority for the party, and emphasized the need for the KMT to defend the Republic of China (ROC). Nevertheless, it is important to consider that this fawning attitude toward the increasingly aggressive and assertive People’s Republic of China (PRC) largely contradicts the original ideas of the ROC that Chu said he wants to safeguard.
Why does the contemporary KMT, as self-proclaimed upholders of the ROC, resort to pandering to a hard-fisted autocrat with lifetime tenure? How can the party put up an audaciously perfunctory front in light of the explicit abuse of the rights of Chinese?
The KMT’s actions seem to point to their perception of both the ROC and Taiwan as a “Ship of Theseus.” Theseus owned a vessel built entirely of wood. Every time a piece of the ship needed replacing, it was replaced with a metal part. This went on for a few years until eventually it was made entirely of metal. If an object has had all of its components replaced, can it remain the same object? Is the fully rebuilt ship of Theseus still the same vessel? I say it cannot.
The KMT needs to re-evaluate its understanding of the new, democratized ROC, and create a new identity for itself in this novel context. The KMT needs to teach itself new tricks, although this would be no easy feat under the leadership of the moderate Chu.
Since the Xinhai Revolution 110 years ago, the path of the ROC’s political development demonstrates that the concept has taken on different meanings. Following democratization and the ongoing consolidation of Taiwanese identity, as well as two peaceful presidential turnover elections — an important threshold for political scientists studying democratic resilience — the character of our polity has clearly shifted from an exogenous to an endogenous one. In other words, the raison d’etre of the ROC no longer stems exclusively from its relation to the PRC.
These changes affected not only the ROC, but also the party that fervently seeks to defend it. Some contenders said that the KMT broke with the ROC orthodoxy during Lee Teng-hui’s (李登輝) presidency, and argue that the KMT today is no longer the KMT of the past.
The older generation of party members often talk about the quest for “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” This kind of homesickness is understandable. Our nation’s history is intricate and diverse. We have experienced the governance of different eras and different nationalities.
However, the pursuit of closer ties with the PRC becomes a truly myopic vision if it ignores the trajectory of political development across the Taiwan Strait. Chinese society did not become fossilized following the KMT’s defeat in the Chinese Civil War and the party’s retreat to Taiwan. China developed in many dimensions at an unprecedented rate, and the ramifications of closer cross-strait ties would be much different today than even a decade ago — and likely produce suboptimal outcomes for Taiwanese.
The PRC today stands in opposition to virtually all ideological predilections that fueled the Xinhai Revolution, whose 110th anniversary is tomorrow, and the subsequent establishment of the ROC.
Let us not forget that Sun Yat-sen (孫中山), deemed the “Father of the Nation,” led the Second Revolution against Yuan Shikai’s (袁世凱) authoritarian Beiyang Government. Let us not forget that one of the guiding principles of the ROC has been “five ethnicities under one union.”
No state betrays the fight against authoritarianism and the principles of inclusion to a greater extent than the PRC. The oppression of Tibetans and Uighurs in East Turkestan has long been the reality across the Strait. In September last year, a crackdown on education in Mongolia marked another betrayal of collective cultural rights of minorities living in the PRC.
The events in Inner Mongolia garnered a broad-ranging international response, including the formation of a cross-party Parliamentary Alliance in Support of Inner Mongolia in the Japanese Diet, led by the former minister of internal affairs and communication Sanae Takaichi.
The ROC was established to overthrow the despotic government of the Qing dynasty and plan for the welfare of the people. The rule of “Chairman Xi” in the PRC, defined by his totalitarian leanings and suppression of individual and collective rights, stands in direct opposition to the ROC’s fundamental principles. Consequently, is the prospect of greater cooperation with the PRC not a blatant betrayal of the concept of the ROC? To become a viable player in global politics, the ROC cannot remain aloof in light of the growing differences on both sides of the Strait. The proactive stance of Japan provides a solid example.
Instead of reducing the ROC to a ship of Theseus, the KMT could transform itself and build a better, modern ship — one that embraces our democratic society, and where it could become a responsible opposition party for the new era, writing the next chapter of Taiwan’s story.
It is vital for the ROC to have a viable opposition party. However, it remains imperative that the party work in the best interest of Taiwanese, instead of idly hoping for a rejuvenation of long expired relations.
Chen Kuan-ting is chief executive officer of the Taiwan Nextgen Foundation and a former staff member at the National Security Council.
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