Publication: China Brief Volume: 5 Issue: 1

In a series of fiery speeches during the last two weeks of the campaign, Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian turned the December 11th legislative elections into a referendum on “Taiwan subjectivity” (Taiwan zhutixing). This concept is significantly more abstract than “Taiwan independence” and more philosophical than “Taiwan-centered consciousness.” In 1996, historian Chang Yen-hsien — now the curator of the National Archives — articulated the ultimate goal of democratization as putting an end to Taiwan’s role as perennially some other country’s peripheral territory. As a frontier outpost of the Manchu Qing empire, as a rice basket for Imperial Japan, and then as the last bastion of the Kuomintang’s (KMT’s) Republic of China (ROC), Taiwan could never act as an autonomous subject on the world stage. Its people could never manage their own affairs or realize their own destiny with the natural dignity that comes from autonomous self-direction. Throughout history, Chang argued, Taiwan has been peripheralized and belittled. But through democratization, the Taiwanese people can seize control of their destiny and deny Beijing’s efforts to annex Taiwan to the People’s Republic of China (PRC). They can achieve the subjectivity and self-direction to which all peoples everywhere aspire.

To one degree or another, most Taiwanese evidently do consider Taiwan to be a distinctive country, and reject Beijing’s demand that the island become a Chinese Special Administrative Region. But the results of December’s elections suggest rather strikingly that most Taiwanese do not yet share the activists’ goal of risking the current de facto autonomy to achieve a radical Taiwan subjectivity. When campaigning for Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) candidates in late November and early December, President Chen promised repeatedly that, if given a legislative majority, he would implement such cardinal components of the subjectivity movement as a new constitution, a de-Sinified high school curriculum, and name changes for state-owned enterprises (replacing “China” with “Taiwan”). Stressing such themes had apparently helped Chen win re-election in March 2004 with just over 50% of the vote. This time, however, the president could only convince about 39% of voters to cast their ballots for Green candidates, as voter turnout also sharply declined. Why did Chen’s strategy fail?

First, local interests combined with the strange nature of Taiwan’s single-ballot multi-member electoral districts makes candidate selection a game of chance as much as a science. Chen seized the opportunity presented by last month’s campaign to issue a series of emotional appeals for voters to suspend their local concerns and prioritize the subjectivity agenda. The voters responded with indifference, apparently because most do not consider Green efforts to realize Taiwan subjectivity to be sufficient motivation to vote against KMT or even People’s First Party (PFP) candidates adept at providing local service. Many voters apparently also cling to a residual identification with “China” (though not the PRC) which the subjectivity activists have not yet been able to shake. The movement leaves these voters either cold or, in some cases, actively alarmed.

The subjectivity activists are loath to admit it, but the fact is that their radical de-Sinification agenda — while popular in some quarters — alienates large numbers of Taiwan citizens. The activists acknowledge that de-Sinification unsettles Mainlanders, but argue that Mainlanders have it coming to them as payback for their previous domination over Taiwan society. To be sure, Mainlanders are welcomed to “become Taiwanese” by accepting Taiwan-centered consciousness. Few Greens argue that Mainlanders should be driven from the island, let alone subjected to a violent ethnic cleansing. But they insist that Mainlanders must reject China as the primary focus of their loyalty and identity. This would be an extremely wrenching, difficult thing for most Mainlanders to do, and to those who merely followed the KMT to Taiwan and never personally participated in repression, it seems profoundly unfair. Mainlander liberals ask why a truly multicultural democratic Taiwan cannot be built on the basis of the principles of tolerance, diversity, and pluralism? “Can’t we also share in the credit for — and fully enjoy — Taiwan’s democratization?” they want to know. Not all Mainlanders are arrogant authoritarians, they note; Mainlanders, in fact, suffered alongside the Taiwanese at the hands of Chiang Kai-shek and (to a lesser degree) Chiang Ching-kuo.

The Taiwanese subjectivity activists respond that Mainlanders have alienated themselves from Taiwan’s democracy by refusing to accept Chen Shui-bian’s election to the presidency in 2000, and his re-election in 2004. “We tried repeatedly to cooperate with them,” one activist insisted at a Taipei conference following the legislative elections. “But they refused. What are we supposed to do?” Given the demonstrably anti-democratic behavior of Mainlander leaders such as James Soong and Lien Chan (ethnically Taiwanese but born in China), it can be difficult to counter the subjectivity activists’ assertion that Mainlanders as a group must bear the onus of being the uncooperative party. Even in the realm of culture, another activist argued, “They still peripheralize us, especially in literature and the arts. They’re still loyal to China. So just exactly what should we do to accommodate them?”

But the residual loyalty of the Mainlanders is not the subjectivity activists’ greatest problem. In poll after poll, a large proportion of ethnic Taiwanese also identify themselves as “both Taiwanese and Chinese.” It is true that more people today identify themselves as exclusively Taiwanese than, say, ten years ago, but it seems likely that this identification is predicated on the notion that the “China” pollsters ask about refers to the PRC. If “China” were explicitly broadened to indicate all of Chinese culture, dating back thousands of years, then many more Taiwanese (and certainly most Mainlanders) would be able to say — and would want to say — that “I am both Taiwanese and Chinese.”

For this reason, when leaders of the de-Sinification movement call for a sharp reduction in the hours of Chinese literature taught in high schools, or for the names of such pillars of Taiwan’s economy and style of life as China Airlines to be changed, not a few moderate Taiwanese start to squirm. The subjectivity activists dismiss such uneasiness as the product of false consciousness, and say that the solution is actually even more uncompromising efforts to reverse decades of KMT brainwashing, which have wrongly convinced Taiwanese that they are Chinese. In this way, the subjectivity activists paradoxically imitate the Leninism of their former KMT enemies: a vanguard party or movement must transform the people. What the activists should do instead, both from a practical and a moral point of view, is to affirm the validity of the Taiwanese moderates’ and Mainlanders’ Chinese identity, while seeking very carefully to redefine “Chinese” as something other than either the PRC’s odious authoritarian culture or the similar culture of the old KMT. Simply to survive the institutional changes likely to result in Taiwan having single-member electoral districts by 2008 will require the Green parties and their intellectual supporters to find a way to claim some of the legacy of “China” for themselves, rather than continuing to attack “China” mercilessly.

Though the PFP remains obstreperous—and, partly as a result, was the big loser in December’s elections—the KMT has already moved a long way in the direction of affirming a Taiwanese identity, and this trend will likely continue after Lien Chan’s long-overdue retirement in 2005. Most visibly, KMT Vice Chairman Ma Ying-jeou, the Mainlander mayor of Taipei, has spent long years studying the Taiwanese language and in other ways has earnestly cultivated a Taiwanese identity. Ma’s reward is enormous popular appeal. DPP and TSU leaders would do well to take a page from Ma’s book and begin cultivating a Chinese side to their identity, not for the purpose of placating Beijing, but instead for achieving domestic social harmony (and perhaps Green electoral success) in 2008.

Subjectivity activists could start by embracing a “China” that is much older, richer, and more humane than the narrow-minded and chauvinistic PRC or the former ROC. They could redirect their movement in such a way that Taiwanese would be free to draw upon a broad Chinese heritage for the purpose of constructing a completely new, de-peripheralized Taiwan that is yet also Chinese in key respects, and therefore significantly more tolerant, inclusive, and cosmopolitan. The purpose would be more than strategic, lying low to lick the wounds of electoral defeat. The purpose would be to revise the subjectivity project fundamentally so as to compromise with people who still have a partly Chinese identity. Making such a change would ensure Taiwan’s continued status as a model of Asian democratization. Not making such a change would risk social turmoil and disorder—as well as the subjectivity movement’s ultimate failure.