In the light of the recent protests by Taiwanese students and activists against a planned trade deal with China, I have found myself in the uncomfortable position of criticising the demonstrations and, in some respects, defending the KMT administration led by Ma Yingjiu.
As I am not a citizen of the PRC or the ROC, I am not involved in party politics and I have no interest in changing the situation in these countries. I am a EU citizen, and that’s the place where I want to be politically active. Therefore, when I talk about the politics of East Asia, I try to see things from different perspectives and not to side with one or the other party. Shortly, I am one of those who criticise or praise according to the concrete situation, and not out of ideological affiliation.
As I have said in my last post, I think that the widespread support the current protests have received by international media, the expat community, and a part of Taiwan’s media, are not only excessive, but also somewhat ideological. This support seems to me to be driven by a common anti-Chinese and anti-KMT sentiment, which blurs the distinction between the KMT, China, and the economic issue of free trade.
In Taiwan, this is understandable not only because of the polarising issue Taiwanese vs Chinese identity that divides the island, but also because the media reflect these divergent outlooks. For example, the China Times (中國時報, founded in 1950 by Yu Jizhong, a KMT member) and United Daily News (UDN) tend to be pro-KMT and pro-Chinese (not necessarily pro-PRC, though), while Apple Daily and Liberty Times tend to be more anti-Chinese (Apple Daily‘s founder Jimmy Lai is a notorious critic of Beijing’s communist regime).
But in international media and among expats, the general feeling is anti-KMT, anti-CCP, and anti-Chinese. The KMT is still viewed as the party that unleashed the White Terror, persecuted dissent, proclaimed martial law (lifted only in 1987) and repressed Taiwanese identity. These are all historical facts, but it is also true that the KMT gave its contribution to Taiwan’s democratisation and since the early 1990s it has accepted to compete in democratic elections with other parties. Today’s KMT is not the same as it was between the 1950s and the 1980s.
China is notoriously a complex matter, regarded sometimes as a friend, sometimes as a foe, and certainly not without reason. I would be the last one to defend one-party rule, as I am a strong supporter of pluralism, tolerance, rule of law, and freedom of expression. I can’t justify Chinese nationalism either, since I am in principle against nationalist ideologies as such.
But since we do live in democratic societies, we should be able to see things from different perspectives, and state our views without fearing of being ostracised. Unfortunately, democratic societies are not necessarily free from a certain pressure to conform oneself to fashionable views or movements.
As I have explained before, I think that storming the parliament to block a democratically elected government, isn’t at all democratic. After all, governments are not elected through opinion polls and should not be ousted by furious protesters in the middle of their term. Moreover, this government represents voters that have the right to be respected, and only elections can confirm or withdraw this popular mandate. These are the rules of the game.
As I have argued, it is mostly the anti-Chinese undertone of the protests that drew attention on them and helped it gain so much international support. The last proof of this are the demonstrations held in Hong Kong to show solidarity with Taiwanese students and activists.
If the protest was about the issue of more vs less free trade, then why should Hong Kongers demonstrate? I’ve never heard of any Hong Kongers demonstrating against free trade between the EU and China, or in support of anti-austerity movements in Europe.
There might of course be a mistrust towards free trade as such, which I do share. However, the current protest in Taiwan is much more than about economic issues, it’s about keeping China out of Taiwan. Since many Hong Kongers share the anti-Chinese sentiment of Taiwanese protesters, they are showing their solidarity to them. The message is: keep the mainlanders out, or you’ll end up like us!
It is absolutely legitimate to advocate less free trade with China; after all, the PRC is pointing missiles at Taiwan. I wouldn’t sign a deal with someone who’s threatening to shoot at me, that’s for sure.
However, there is a lot of hypocrisy here. On the one hand, Taiwanese have for years made money through China. There are Taiwanese who are totally anti-Chinese, but perhaps they are proud of Taiwan’s big brands such as Asus or Acer, which manufacture their products in China and amass their wealth on the backs of low-wage mainland workers, and maybe they also work for such a company or go on business trips to China.
As to 2010, there were over 1 million Taiwanese living on the mainland, with many more travelling there (note). It seems to me that many Taiwanese are willing to make money out of China, but at the same time they want to keep China away. If the great majority of Taiwan’s population are serious about defending their native land against Chinese aggressors, why don’t they go and protest in front of the headquarters of all the big Taiwanese companies that produce on the mainland, or why they don’t strike, or why don’t they organise themselves in order to make Taiwan’s economy independent of China’s? It seems to me they want the easy way: we want to be able to make money in China, we want to be able to travel to China, but the Chinese shouldn’t do the same here. How can that work? And is it at all fair?
On the other hand, as the KMT as been elected (and it was elected twice, in 2008 and 2012), it means that it was able to gain enough support among the population, and certainly among the aforementioned business elites with interests in China. Whether this support has meanwhile been withdrawn or not, we will see in the next elections.
But a rational discussion about how much Taiwan should be integrated into the Chinese economic sphere cannot end with the occupation of a democratically elected parliament in order to favour the opposition and topple or block the government. And, moreover, the economic issues should be considered in all their complexity and without hypocrisy. If the majority of the Taiwanese want to restructure the island’s economy in order to make it independent of China,it is their right to do so and choose the party that promises that. But there is no half way.