Last week, Taiwan’s Control Yuan, an investigatory and oversight branch of government, censured government agencies for using the name “Taiwan” in official documents rather than the country’s formal title, the “Republic of China” (R.O.C.). Lest we mistake the Control Yuan for a mere stickler for formalities, Ger Yeong-kuang, a pro-Kuomintang (KMT) member of the Control Yuan, explained the measure’s logic in frank terms: “The incorrect use of designations for our country and for mainland China not only deviates from [the government’s] policy… but also confuses the public’s perception of national identity.”
The KMT’s quibble with the use of “Taiwan,” the name by which the country is largely referred to both at home and abroad, is only the latest attempt by the party to moor the island’s burgeoning sense of independent Taiwanese identity to an ancestral Chinese one. Recently, the Ministry of Education announced changes to high-school textbooks that emphasize Taiwan’s historical connection to the mainland. This led one Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) lawmaker to accuse the Ma administration with attempting to “de-Taiwanize” high school textbooks.
For his part, President Ma Ying-jeou has personally contributed to this de-Taiwanizing. Despite campaigning on his Taiwanese heritage, Ma often refers to Taiwan as belonging to a greater ethnic Chinese nation (Zhonghua minzu). He’s also the first leader of Taiwan since Chiang Kai-Shek to commemorate the Yellow Emperor—the mythical progenitor of the Han race—using the occasion to declaim on the Taiwanese people’s Chinese lineage.
As the pro-unification party, the KMT is bound to use its current stint in power to reinforce Taiwan’s connection to the mainland. No matter that the narrative of “One China, two interpretations” suffers from a growing disjuncture with reality: according to the Election Study Center at National Chengchi University, over 57 percent of the public, a clear majority, identify themselves as Taiwanese today (less than ten percent identify themselves as only “Chinese”). Eighty percent of the public view Taiwan and China as different countries. And, given the choice without fearing retribution from the mainland, 80 percent would also choose independence.
In theory, fostering an independent national consciousness is in both the KMT and Taiwan’s interest. With China’s rise continuing apace and the cross-strait standoff unresolved, possibly even regressing, Beijing may soon be able to issue a credible military threat against the island and impose reunification on its own terms. One recent report by Taiwan’s defense ministry estimates that China will have the capacity to launch an effective assault on Taiwan by 2020. Reflecting on this grim state of affairs, Richard Bush, the former chairman of the American Institute in Taiwan, worried that this unmistakable asymmetry may allow China to “intimidate Taiwan into submission” without firing a shot.
But where traditional deterrence fails, the Taiwanese leadership can fall back on alternative means of discouraging a Chinese assault. In other words, it could guarantee a protracted and costly conflict if Chinese forces were to invade. And maintaining a fierce sense of national solidarity in defiance of external coercion is certainly the most effective way to do that.
The potential hazards of a hostile occupation—Taiwanese protesters dying under PLA fire, freedom fighters waging guerrilla campaigns from house to house, and the international backlash that these images would set off—would very likely restrain Beijing from moving its threats beyond words. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) derided the foreign adventurism that landed the U.S. in Iraq, gleefully denoting the event as a milestone on America’s decline. It is unlikely to risk its own quagmire, especially while development and stability at home remains fragile.
A strong Taiwanese identity thus allows the country’s leadership to call China’s bluff. It is an electoral leaven—an insurance policy, if you will—against China’s inevitable military and economic dominance, one that will also strengthen Taiwan’s hand at the bargaining table. Political scientist Robert Putnam famously argued states involved in international negotiations play a “two-level game,” whereby they must simultaneously negotiate with international partners and domestic constituencies. Here democratically elected leaders have the notable advantage of being able to use domestic constraints to extract international concessions. That is, they can creditably claim at the negotiation table that “their hands are tied”—and have poll data to back it up—helping them win concessions where they otherwise could not. A fickle electorate, like an independent-minded Taiwanese public, thus can yield important benefits.
To be sure, a few textbook revisions and an ode to the Yellow Emperor will not reverse the Taiwanese public’s already strong sense of nationhood. But the KMT’s effort to chip away at Taiwan’s vibrant independent identity is much like throwing away your best cards.
Of course the KMT is not acting according to strategic sensibility, rather it is acting out of political paranoia. For it rightfully fears that its ability to mobilize the electorate towards its pro-business agenda of rapprochement through economic and trade cooperation is quickly slipping away. Indeed, President Ma Ying-jeou, whose approval rating lingers in the single-digits these day, is reeling from voter backlash over signature cross-straight engagement from his first term and stalled progress on future plans. One recent survey indicates more than half of the public feels recent bilateral agreements with the mainland are unequally benefiting China.
The economic woes that have accumulated over the years—stagnant unemployment and rising income inequality—are surely fueling voters’ ire, but at its core is a signal distrust of relinquishing the type of agency that allows a country to determine its future. Sixty years as an independent polity has had the predictable effect of creating an independent sense of shared destiny. Soon nearly all of the Taiwanese public will have been born on the island, and with the exception of Taiwanese businessmen who shuttle to and fro none will share an immediate connections to the mainland. This is the natural trajectory of most overseas settler colonies—a lineage that includes the United States during the 18th century and the Latin American republics during the 19th, and of which Taiwan is merely a peculiar 21st century case.
Without reinventing itself, the KMT’s only option is to contrive and propagate to the public a renewed sense of common belonging with the mainland. It will not likely succeed—though it may very well drone the public into submission. Unlike previous breakaway republics, Taiwan’s former imperial homeland looms near and will powerfully shape Taiwan’s future by sheer force of its size. How Taiwan manages relations with the mainland will be central to the island’s future. The KMT’s strategy of priming the population for reintegration is one approach. But if the KMT does succeed in neutralizing the island’s independent spirit, it will also surrender Taiwan’s most valuable bargaining chip.
Lorand C. Laskai is a freelance writer and recent graduate of Swarthmore College. He lives in Tainan, Taiwan.