china taiwan

Taiwan Independence versus ROC Independence

(source: Wikipedia)

On March 22 J. Michael Cole published an interesting piece about Taiwan independence vs Republic of China independence. I usually disagree with Cole’s opinions, but not this time. Cole is a great investigative journalist and political analyst, however his point of view is often biased and more similar to that of a political activist than to that of a journalist. 


In his article about the independence issue Cole explained something that I have been arguing for quite some time. In a nutshell, it is not true that the Guomindang is pro-Beijing (in the sense that it supports unification with the People’s Republic of China) while the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) is in favour of Taiwan’s independence. Both the Guomindang and the DPP oppose unification with Communist China. But while for the Guomindang independence means that the Republic of China is an independent sovereign state, the DPP holds that Taiwan is an independent nation. Cole rightly argues that both camps fundamentally oppose Beijing’s unification policies with Taiwan. He borrows the terms taidu (Taiwan independence) and huadu (ROC independence) to define, respectively, the standpoint of the Pan-Green and of the Pan-Blue camp.

Interestingly enough, some Taiwan-based bloggers such as Michael Turton have criticised Cole’s analysis. Over the past few years I have discovered that Taiwan’s English-speaking (or English-writing) blogosphere has almost unanimously adopted an unreflected and irrational concept of Taiwanese nationalism as its guiding principle. It is impossible to have a normal and relaxed debate with many Taiwan-based bloggers or with Taiwanese who support the idea of a Taiwanese national identity, because they firmly believe in the existence of nation-states. An honest debate presupposes that one can explore different points of view, and many people are just not willing to do that. 

Taiwan independence and ROC independence are – for all practical purposes – one and the same thing as long as the Communist government in Beijing does not collapse or repel its infamous anti-secession law. Why am I saying this?

The Republic of China (ROC) administers Taiwan and outlying islands, so de facto this area has an independent government. What we may call “the Taiwan consensus” should be based on the common enemy: the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). So, no matter if one feels Taiwanese, Hakka, Eurasian, Chinese, Christian, Taiwanese-American etc – every citizen of the ROC lives in a democratic and independent state which will defend itself from attempts by the CCP to annex it. The question of what should happen with the ROC would be relevant only if the Communist regime in mainland China collapses or democratises (but since democracy is not in the CCP’s DNA, that is unlikely to happen). 



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However, many people disagree with this statement and reject a “Taiwan consensus”. They argue that the ROC is a “foreign colonial government”, that Taiwan is not part of China etc. Such notions are based on a naive concept of nationalism.

First of all, what is a nation? Many scholars and thinkers have tried to explain this concept, but they always fail because – to put it simply – nations do not exist. Nations are constructed by people who theorize their existence. I shall now examine four examples to illustrate my point: Germany, Korea, the United States and Taiwan itself.

The first unitary German state was founded in 1871 – prior to that date there were a myriad of German states. So, if Germany existed before unification, it existed only in people’s imagination. The German state founded in 1871 did not comprise Austria, although there was a pan-Germanic movement advocating that Austria should be part of the German Reich (see for example Julie Thorpe: Pan-Gemanism and the Austrofascist State, 1933-38). Austria was annexed by the German Reich in 1938 and a referendum confirmed the annexation. 

After the Second World War, the German Reich was dismembered. Parts of East Germany (Prussia and other Eastern provinces) were ceded to Poland; middle Germany became a separate state (The German Democratic Republic under a Communist regime), West Germany, too, became a sovereign state (The Federal Republic of Germany). In 1989 there were therefore three “German states”. There was also a significant German-speaking population in Switzerland. 

As we all now, Germany was “reunified” in 1989. Now, why was it reunified? And why was Austria not included? Linguistically, culturally and economically Austria is more similar to South Germany than South Germany is to Northeast Germany. Moreover, let us not forget that in 1989 West Germany already had a large immigrant population from Southern Europe, Asia, Turkey etc. This immigration constantly changed the culture and ethnic composition of West German society, while East Germany had not received any significant immigration prior to reunification. So, why is Germany a country? The truth is: there is just no objective criterion to define it. Each German federal state could be considered a separate country or a part of it (just like Austria and the German-speaking part of Switzerland).

Let us now examine Korea. There are two Korean states. It is funny how public opinion in many countries supports Korean reunification (as it had supported German reunification). But North and South Korea have been separated for so long. Why should they be reunified? Why do North and South Korea belong together, while Taiwan and mainland China do not?

Some will argue that the answer lies in the “feeling” of the people. The Koreans want reunification, the Taiwanese do not. But how can a people unanimously want something and share exactly the same identity? The history of independence referendums shows the contradiction of “national feelings”. 

Let’s consider last year’s Scottish independence referendum. To the question: “Should Scotland be an independent country?”, 55.30% answered “no” and 44.70% answered “yes”. So what does this referendum actually tell us about the “Sottish identity”? It just tells us a simple fact: identity is not collective. Identity is an individual issue that does not fit into nationalistic and simplistic patterns. 2,001,926 Scottish people feel they belong to the UK, while 1,617,989 feel they do not. A lot of time and money has been wasted to reach this conclusion. This year it is the UK’s turn to vote whether to stay in the EU or not, whether the UK is more or less European. And some Scottish politicians have announced that if the UK votes to leave the EU, Scotland will hold another independence referendum. Canada’s Quebec province held two independence referendums, one in 1980 and another one in 1995:  in the first one 59% voted to remain part of Canada, while the second referendum was even more ambiguous, 50% voted against independence. But even if 20% vote no and 80% vote yes, you will never satisfy everyone, because identity is not objective, collective or immutable. 

The United States is another interesting case. I have heard supporters of Taiwan independence claim that the American war of independence against British rule is a good example of why Taiwan should be independent. The American colonists, they say, were ethnically and linguistically “English” or “British”, but they felt “American”, so they wanted to have their own nation.

Unfortunately, this interpretation is wrong. The American colonists did feel English. In fact, they broke away from Britain because they felt too English to accept to be treated like second-class citizens. As John Philip Reid has explained: 

The [American] colonists began the controversy with the mother country because they feared losing English rights, and they declared independence only after being convinced that English rights would be lost or drastically curtailed should they remain within the British Empire (John Phillip Reid: Constitutional History of the American Revolution, 2003, p. 5).  


Writing in the 19th century, American historian John Fiske argued that even a few years before the war of independence, 

[n]o American had as yet felt any desire to terminate the political connection with England. Even those who most thoroughly condemned the measures of the government did not consider the case hopeless, but believed that in one way or another a peaceful solution was still attainable. For a long time this attitude was sincerely and patiently maintained. Even Washington, when he came to take command of the army at Cambridge, after the battle of Bunker Hill, had not made up his mind that the object of the war was to be the independence of the colonies. In the same month of July, 1775, Jefferson said expressly, “We have not raised armies with designs of separating from Great Britain and establishing independent states. Necessity has not yet driven us into that desperate measure.” The Declaration of Independence was at last brought about only with difficulty and after prolonged discussion. Our great-great-grandfathers looked upon themselves as Englishmen, and felt proud of their connection with England. Their determination to resist arbitrary measures was at first in no way associated in their minds with disaffection toward the mother-country (John Fiske: The American Revolution, 1891, Chapter II).   


Ulysses S. Grant, the 18th President of the United States (1869–77) and Commanding General of the United States Army during the American Civil War, in his memoirs written in 1885 still called England “the mother country”:

England’s course towards the United States during the rebellion [i.d. the secession of the Southern states] exasperated the people of this country very much against the mother country. I regretted it. England and the United States are natural allies, and should be the best of friends. They speak one language, and are related by blood and other ties. We together, or even either separately, are better qualified than any other people to establish commerce between all the nationalities of the world (Ulysses S. Grant. Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant, 1885, Conclusion). 


At that time, the people of the United States were still predominantly of British stock, and they were well aware of that. 

If that is so, why did the American colonies break away from Britain? And why did the federal government in Washington prevent the Southern states from seceding? If nationalism had been the root of the American war of independence, then the Confederate States that seceded from the Union in 1861 would have had the right of “self-determination”. 

Abraham Lincoln explained very clearly the difference between the two wars. In 1775, the thirteen colonies revolted against a tyrannical government which denied the free colonists of America their birthrights as Englishmen. In 1861, the Southern states seceded because they did not accept the outcome of the presidential election. Lincoln’s argument was that as long as the citizens are given the same rights, secession is tantamount to anarchy and chaos. 

Let us now return to Taiwan. Except for the aborigines, the great majority of the people living in Taiwan have moved there from mainland China. They either drove away the natives or assimilated them through intermarriage. There are three main groups of Han Chinese in Taiwan – the Hoklo, the Hakka and the so-called “mainlanders” (waishengren, lit. “people born outside of [Taiwan] province”). The last group came after the Second World War. The others were already in Taiwan prior to 1945. Both the Hoklo and the Hakka exist as ethnic-linguistic groups in mainland China. The culture and language of the Hoklo – the majority of Taiwan’s Han Chinese population – are very similar to those of Fujian province. 

So, how can Taiwan be called a nation? The Hoklo, the Hakka, the “mainlanders” and the aborigines are all different from each other. Moreover, there is a constant flux of foreign nationals changing the culture and ethnic composition of Taiwan. If one believes in the concept of nationalism, then why should the aborigines not be independent from the Han Chinese? Why shouldn’t Kinmen – located so far away from Taiwan – be independent or be handed over to the PRC? Or why should the mainlanders and the Hakka share the same state with the Hoklo? Why shouldn’t, for instance, the aborigines have their own state, with their own language and customs? 

There are states in the world which are very small, for example the Principality of Monaco, Liechtenstein, or San Marino. Kinmen has a population of around 128,000, while San Marino’s is only 31,000. Geographically Kinmen is closer to Fujian province than to Taiwan, and it was not ceded to Japan under the Treaty of Shimonoseki. Therefore Kinmen has been part of the ROC since 1912 (Philip Briggs: Making American Foreign Policy, 1994, pp. 74-75). The aborigines amount to about half a million people.

If we really think that “national feelings” should lead to state-building, then why don’t we hold independence referendums wherever there is a community that’s culturally, religiously or ethnically different from another, or whose members simply “feel” they want to be independent?

My point is that this whole discussion about Taiwanese identity and independence is irrelevant. The real question is: do the people who hold a ROC ID want to be ruled by the Communist Party? It doesn’t matter whether one feels Taiwanese, Chinese, aborigine or Western – the ROC is a democratic state, and the most important thing is to defend each person’s individual rights, not to look for an impossible collective identity. What the people in the ROC should really care about is to unite for the common cause of opposing the Communist Party vehemently and with all political, economic and military means at their disposal. “Identity” – whether national, sexual, religious or social – is unrelated to state-building. 
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