Shaking Off Taiwan's Stockholm Experience

  Previous  |  Next  

Sunday April 6, by Jerome F. Keating Ph.D.

The phrase Stockholm syndrome is often used to identify various situations where people who have been physically and/or psychologically held captive by others can in that time come to take on many of the values and beliefs of their captors. This happens both to individuals and groups. Taiwan as an island nation that now is a democracy has certainly seen its share of such captive colonial situations in the past. From the Dutch and Spanish periods on through Zheng Cheng-gong's (Koxinga's) fleeing Ming, the Manchu Qing, the Japanese and finally a last fleeing group, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), different generations of Taiwanese have suffered under various forms of "colonial captivity." But despite that, the remarkable thing is that the Taiwanese have proved resilient not only in eventually shaking each off but also in finally achieving both a unique Taiwanese identity as well as a vibrant democracy. The recent Sunflower Movement has proven to be the final step in that process.

How do the Sunflowers represent the ending the island's Stockholm syndrome? Examine Taiwan's most recent developments. Though the KMT's one-party state was technically abandoned in 1987, Taiwan only got its first full taste of realistic democracy in 1992, when the KMT Legislators who had had an unchallenged iron rice bowl since 1947 were finally forced to retire and the people could freely elect their replacements. That was the first step in the final beginning of the end.

The next step came in 1996 when the people were given the right to freely elect their president. From then on things began to develop more rapidly, and surprisingly in 2000, due to a split in the KMT ranks, an opposition candidate was elected president. One might have thought at that time that the Taiwanese had finally thrown off the Stockholm syndrome of those who had inflicted 40 years of White Terror and Martial Law on them, but it was not so. Elements, myths and vestiges of the Syndrome remained.

One of the lingering myths was that the KMT was the only party that could really handle the economic situation between Taiwan and the world and so in 2008, when Taiwan's economy was faltering, Ma Ying-jeou was easily elected with his infamous 6-3-3 pledge.

The myth that only the KMT had the needed economic savvy had some factual reasons to support it. First the KMT had killed off and/or imprisoned many of the educated Taiwanese leadership from 2-28 on and second they used the "stolen state assets" to educate many of their own party cohorts abroad with the promise of guaranteed government positions when they came back. This gave them a distinct advantage of education and experience for the future. Look through the ranks of current KMT stalwarts and you will see that most got their doctorates pre 1992 and with state support.

Another distinctive advantage of the KMT was that it ran a one-party state; they controlled the media and education systems to bolster their case and image. With this control, they could easily hide their mistakes and miscalculations of the past as well as embellish their accomplishments. Hearing only one interpretation of the story, many "captive" Taiwanese came to have positive feelings toward the people who had put them through 40 years of pain and torture and accept some of their values". An additional element of the Stockholm syndrome is the erroneous "equation that a lack of present abuse is seen as an act of kindness instead of something normal opposed to something that should never have happened in the past.

The election of Ma Ying-jeou ironically proved to be the final tipping point in Taiwan's shaking off its Stockholm syndrome. Ma was first elected president in 2008 by a large majority; he supposedly was going to put together a savvy economic team to master the world situation of the time, and he allegedly stood for a clean anti-corruption government. The coming years helped remove these scales from the blinded Taiwanese eyes.

Ma chose Vincent Siew as his Vice-president (VP) and if anyone allegedly could master the economic threats it would be Siew. But four years of Siew as VP proved to be futile. The KMT faced a whole different situation than the past when they could not only control the media to hide mistakes, and embellish success, but when they also could readily imprison dissenting and critical views. The KMT also did not have the past aid from the United States (US). The myth of their economic prowess was being shattered, and as it broke, so did Ma's image. His incompetence began to be evident. Corruption also became evident as key figures in his administration proved guilty of abuses.

The current Sunflower generation is a whole different generation in Taiwan history. They began elementary school when the Consensus of 1996 and free elections of the President were in force. These students may not be that schooled in Taiwan's past history of the White Terror and Martial Law, but they do know what democracy and free elections are. Listening to the people is a cornerstone of such and they easily recognized that though Ma Ying-jeou could talk the talk, he did not walk the walk. Their current creative artwork in critical posters and derogatory sayings about Ma is clear evidence that they are free of any illusions about him and the KMT. They uphold the values of democracy and have no empathy with Taiwan's "past captors."

Looking at actions and not words, the students have been able to consistently call a spade a spade. They have quickly seen through both Ma's and the KMT's promises and anti-corruption image. When the notorious former gangster and pro-unification Chang An-le (aka the White Wolf) came out to endorse Ma's cross-strait pact, he also tried to chastise the students. Chang told them they were not being good obedient Chinese. The student's answer was swift and to the point. They retorted. "Of course we are not. We are Taiwanese." The Taiwanese had shaken off the last vestiges of the Stockholm syndrome.