Lee Teng-hui Speaks on Taiwan Identity and More!

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Saturday April 06, by Jerome F. Keating Ph.D.

Taiwan's former president, Lee Teng-hui, raised some eyebrows when he recently gave the first of a series of lectures celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy (TFD). In his presentation, Lee stated that among the many challenges that Taiwan currently faces, a major one is the unresolved business and haunting specter of Taiwan's divided identity. Divided identity? Some would be tempted to dismiss Lee's thoughts (he is retired and aging) as passe, the thoughts of one who is "out of touch" with today's society on Taiwan. That would make a simple and facile explanation for his words except for one thing.

That one thing is that Lee's talk came close on the heels of an intriguing new book edited by Peter Chow, National Identity and Economic Interest: Taiwan's competing options and their implications for regional stability (Palgrave, Macmillan, 2012). This book echoes concern for identity and presents a wide variety of scholarly articles that address this very issue. At focus is the crucial question of whether Taiwan's identity has been or will be affected by cross-strait economics. So was Lee thinking of that? Or did Lee have something else in mind?

Whether or not Lee had had a chance to read this book is open to question since it came out just at the end of 2012. But certainly the confluence of both book and the timing of Lee's talk force one to take a second look at the whole issue of identity and Lee's purpose. Taiwan's democracy can be said to be doing well for a democracy that is less than two decades old, and its sense of Taiwanese identity is growing. Polls like that of National Chengchi University's on the issue of Unification vs. Independence support the thought that its citizens see themselves more and more as Taiwanese and not Chinese even if they have a Chinese ethnic background. There is among citizens less and less a desire for unification with China, and it is clear from these and other polls that this sense of national identity linked to Taiwan is taking precedent over any sense of ethnic heritage. So what other purpose might Lee have in bringing up the topic?

When Lee spoke of identity, he purposely separated it from ethnic heritage. He made it a point to emphasize that Taiwan is a nation of immigrants, and while a majority may be from China, Lee totally avoided any use of the phrase "Zhonghua minzu." Here, he was clearly distancing himself and perhaps even taking a swipe at Taiwan's current president Ma Ying-jeou who in contrast, tries to insert that phrase into almost any talk he gives where the topic of nationalism occurs. That phrase is also ironically the same phrase used by leaders in the country on the other side of the Strait, when they speak of Taiwan.

Following this anti-ethnic bent, Lee spoke of the need for strong leadership and again presented either a challenge to or an indirect criticism of Ma's weak leadership for the past five years. Lee reiterated how Taiwan needs a strong leader in the future. This leader must be able to focus primarily on protecting against anti-democracy elements and Chinese authoritarianism. He/she must help the people break out of the past "ethnic boxes" and focus only on Taiwan.

Lee's words continued to contrast with Ma's words and performance; Ma frequently defends the "1992 consensus" and claims support from the fact that the 1947 Constitution preserves, shall we say, "the fantasy" that the Republic of China one day ruling China. For Lee Taiwan's leader and the 23 million people of Taiwan should focus first on Taiwan and only Taiwan especially as regards identity and democracy. But what then about the economy? Performance issues cannot avoid matters of the economy, yet Lee avoided direct reference to Taiwan's lagging economy--a failed promised arena of Ma with his opening to China. And though Ma's performance ratings have consistently been at an all time low since his re-election and his 6-3-3 economic promise is its own specter lingering in the wings, Lee still avoided that.

Lee's focus remained on democracy; and in this he also purposely avoided speaking of political parties, even the small Taiwan Solidarity Union (TSU) of which he is seen as the spiritual leader. Instead, he called for less party wrangling with a renewed focus on Taiwan. Lee's talk provided no quick answers but he set the sine qua non framework for the future. He could be said to have given Ma a veiled or not too veiled warning to change his ways; he could also be seen as saying, "You have three years remaining, the choice is yours."

Despite Lee's simple focus on democracy, however, Lee could not cover everything. For even in a fully democratic Taiwan one point still remains to be decided on in the future. How to tell the story of the past? Even if Taiwanese see themselves as Taiwanese, and agree on their identity there is still one unresolved point. They still have not reached agreement on how to tell the collective history of their national identity. They will still need new writers and new thought to bring together and express the collective memory of this nation. Here Lee had no suggestions.

Then there is also the matter that identity is not static; it is a matter in process. The development and changes in Taiwan's identity over the past century bear this out. But even here, Lee may find his bases covered. For if Taiwan can maintain its democracy, whatever identity it has or develops in the future will be an identity that it freely chooses. It will not be an identity imposed by outsiders rather it will be Taiwanese who determine it. I am sure Lee would have no objection to that.