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Taiwan’s Cultural Reservoir

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China Power

Taiwan’s Cultural Reservoir

Taiwan’s Culture Ministry plans to upgrade the nation’s cultural soft power. But will it keep its uniqueness?

Since assuming office, Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou has placed a premium on economic and cultural dialogues with Beijing. This strategy has hitherto allowed Taipei to forestall negotiations on sensitive political issues. While the objectives of the economic talks are relatively clear, the same can’t be said about cultural dialogues. The motivations and implications of the latter are far more ambiguous.

To be sure, Beijing is increasing pressure on Taipei to enter into political negotiations. Yet President Ma has indicated that his administration will not enter into political negotiations with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) until certain preconditions in China are met. In the interim, Ma insisted that economic and cultural dialogues will remain the primary foci of cross-Strait exchanges. An important unanswered question looming over this process is the extent to which these cultural dialogues remain apolitical in nature.

Following the Chinese Civil War, the Nationalist Party (KMT) and CCP constructed competing narratives of Chinese history in an attempt to both legitimize their respective regimes as well as gain support from abroad. These historical narratives were dominated by transcendent political leaders such as Sun Yat-sen, Mao Zedong, and Chiang Kai-shek. Even though both states embraced Sun as the father of Modern China, each state accused the other of failing to properly implement his vision and honor his legacy.

Now, over 60 years since Chiang Kai-shek fled China, there has been a gradual shift in the propagated Chinese rhetoric toward the “Great Generalissimo.” A general re-evaluation of pre-Communist China has been under way for over two decades among Chinese intellectuals. Ostensibly, such attitudinal changes couldn’t have occurred prior to Deng Xiaoping’s decision to “open and reform”China. Yet, it appears that as the tempo of cross-Strait exchanges accelerates under President Ma Ying-jeou, the CCP has grown increasingly willing to reconsider and reevaluate the past. In 2009, the People’s Republic of China sponsored an official film to celebrate its sixtieth anniversary. Jianguo Daye [The Founding of a Republic] portrayed Chiang Kai-shek and Kuomintang military officers in a far more nuanced and positive light than was previously possible.

A gradual rehabilitation of Chiang Kai-shek may make sense for Beijing, particularly in light of the CCP’s short-to-medium range goals in Taiwan. The party needs to slowly modify the Chinese public's perceptions and collective historical memory of the KMT. This strategy should theoretically give Beijing greater flexibility in its negotiations with Taipei, particularly during an era in which an anxious CCP recognizes the power of an increasingly nationalistic populace. Moving too quickly may stoke the ire of the Chinese citizenry, which could sharply turn upon a government that fails to bring its “renegade province”under Chinese control.

The current KMT government has chosen to reemphasize certain aspects of the two states’“Chinese” cultural and historical heritage. This was particularly evident during the celebrations for the 100th anniversary of the Wuchang Uprising and the subsequent founding of the Republic of China.

Before the Ma government came into power, it was difficult for both the Taiwanese and Chinese governments to jointly revisit these “national” cultural icons, political figures, and transformative events in modern Chinese history. Such efforts would have broached sensitive political issues and crossed certain lines for both the Chinese Communist Party and Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

In Taiwan, during the Lee Teng-hui and Chen Shui-bian years, there was a strong shift toward bentuhua [localization], an official recognition of a unique Taiwan-centric national identity. The policy was interpreted as a reaction against the ethnocentric policies of the KMT and deemed more representative of the nation’s indigenous local cultures, its unique historical experiences under Dutch and Japanese rule, and more recently, the significant social-political changes that occurred since 1949. After coming into power, the DPP attempted to purge Taiwan of many of the symbols of the Chiang family's iron-fisted rule. Within this context the CCP wouldn’t have been able to base cultural exchanges on a shared tropes of “Chinese”history and culture.

Yang Tianshi, a prominent Chiang Kai-shek scholar at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing, noted that “Chiang has been downgraded from man to devil in Taiwan, but upgraded from devil to man in China.” Chinese citizens have slowly come to recognize that Chiang was not nearly as evil as characterized by the CCP. Like many other prominent political leaders in 20th century Chinese history, his legacy is mixed.

China's most famous blogger, Han Han, also referred to China’s problematic relationship with Chiang in a recent interview with the Financial Times. The young writer lamented that much of what he learned in school was propaganda. “We were taught anti-Japanese sentiment. We learned from the textbooks that the Communist party was great, that it defeated the Japanese. But when we grew up, we found out it was actually the Guomindang [KMT] who fought the war against the Japanese…So then you feel the gap between the textbooks and the truth.”

Although the history of the Sino-Japanese conflict is in fact far more complex, Han Han's remark is nevertheless a reminder that the CCP needs to tread carefully when reconstructing the official state narrative on Chiang Kai-shek. Any state-sponsored historical revisionism could unintentionally lay the groundwork for an alternative political narrative, one that could potentially challenge the absolute control of the Communist leadership.

At the same time, Beijing has repeatedly made it clear that it would prefer to help keep the KMT in power. The CCP and KMT may believe that the “rehabilitation” of Chiang Kai-shek might lend greater legitimacy to the Ma administration: recognizing the historic achievements of Chiang Kai-shek and his party in China might further paint the KMT in a positive light and also make cross-Strait relations more manageable for the CCP and by extension the Chinese public. However, it could become a divisive issue in Taiwan, where Chiang’s legacy remains a sensitive and controversial topic in the post-martial law era. The Taiwanese public is moreover largely anxious about policies that perceivably push Taiwan too quickly into China's orbit. The Ma government has consequently come under fire for its cross-Strait agenda.

As a struggle for a new narrative across the Taiwan Strait develops, it remains unclear what kind of collective narrative will emerge – if ever. Ostensibly, the KMT and the CCP are engaging in a mutual game of soft power politics that is moving beyond cultural exchanges. Indeed, the stated primary aim of the soon-to-be established Ministry of Culture in Taiwan is to “upgrade and cultivate the nation’s cultural soft power.” Its newly appointed minister, Lung Ying-tai, compared Taiwan’s rich culture to a “big reservoir.” Lung said that in order for the “water of the best quality” to be channeled to the people, “there needs to be a water pipe.” If Ma views the gradual Chinese rehabilitation of the “Great Generalissimo” as one such water pipe, then the challenge which lies ahead for his administration is to reconstruct and disseminate this narrative without peripheralizing Taiwan’s unique history and identity. The Ma government will need to tread carefully and manage the flow of this new cross-Strait narrative without depleting the rich cultural “reservoir”in Taiwan.

L.C. Russell Hsiao is a senior research fellow at the Project 2049 Institute in Washington. Julia Famularo is a research affiliate at the Project 2049 Institute and a doctoral candidate in modern East Asian political history at Georgetown University.