Democracy and Taiwan's Identity

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Wednesday December 23, by Jerome F. Keating Ph.D.

In less than a month, Taiwanese will be going to the polls to democratically elect both a new president and new members of the Legislative Yuan. As they prepare to make the important choice in those who will rule their nation over the next four years, there are questions they must ask. What makes their nation, a nation? What brings the people together?

The concepts of nationhood and national identity in today's world have been strongly influenced by the writings of Benedict Anderson, a historian who was born in 1936 in Kunming, China and this month passed away in Batu, Indonesia.

Anderson's most popular and widely read book, Imagined Communities, Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism introduced that very phrase "imagined communities" to explain how citizens can jointly forge and socially construct communities even though they might never actually meet those community members in their day-to-day lives.

For Taiwanese, Anderson's words are to the point. Their challenge is to establish a national identity from the diverse historical background of their members. Many of these citizens have links back to the Japanese colonial era and have a totally different history from those that came after the China's Civil War.

Yet somewhere in this past diversity in addition to their different experiences in suffering through Martial Law and the White Terror eras, they must find a shared uniqueness for an imagined community. That shared uniqueness can be found in their recent democracy, when the public began to elect Taiwan's legislature in 1992 and Taiwan's president in 1996.

In democratic experience, Taiwanese are not the first. They can look to the US, which had its own experience with democracy though on a larger scale.

Initially a majority of Americans came from English colonies, and shared common European cultural roots and values going back as far as the early Greek and Roman Empires. However they soon had to incorporate new waves of immigration with ethnic roots different than those of Europe; they had to put aside being British or European --or whatever else-- to be American. T

his experience had to be expanded to eventually take in all races, creeds and colors where the national identity would always be grounded in a democratic community, a community where all would merge in a metaphoric melting pot or better yet a vegetable stew.

For Anderson, a different key modern factor that has contributed to shaping the image of a nation has been that of the media, which by being able to reach the masses played a separate role in defining a modern nation and identity.

However, with democracies, it is not just important to have media, but to have free media, along with a governmental transparency that allows the media to report on those who rule. Such free media demand the examination and questioning of elected rulers. Taiwanese can contrast this with the one-party state on the other side of the Taiwan Strait.

Ironically there remain a few in Taiwan that still seem to long for a regressive return to that non-democratic one-party state in China. In exploring the motivation for this return, these few must anticipate that in China they will have the privilege of being at the top of the food chain of that one-party state as they once had been atop the food chain in Taiwan's one-party state. They would never want to join the masses of poor in the lower echelons.

There is a double irony here; these regressive few lost the Chinese Civil War, but they still ironically feel they deserve to enter the privileged ranks of the winners of that conflict.

Another separate factor that Taiwanese must explore and be aware of is the reality of their nation's size in contrast with other countries. Most people in Taiwan and the world don't realize that their imagined community encompasses a mid-sized democratic nation. In population it is larger than approximately 75 per cent of the world's nations and in GDP and economic trading power it ranks in the top 75-80th percentile.

In both population and in GDP purchasing power parity, Taiwan and Australia are nearly equal. This is to the point. It would be absurd for any outsiders to even think of trying to pressure the imagined community of a country like Australia to give in to the whims of a larger country like that of China yet those same outsiders have little hesitation in wanting to pressure Taiwan's imagined community to kowtow to China's demands.

All these are factors that make this election important to Taiwanese as they seek to both choose their leaders and to hold on to their sense of identity.

A final factor that Anderson found in the emergence of modern nations is that of the dismantling of hierarchies. In the Western world this can be seen for example in surrendering the divine right of kings that led to democracies and republics. As China does not have a democracy and free press, the people there still do not realize that their hierarchies have not been dismantled.

True, the dynastic rulers of the Qing Dynasty have been overthrown, but after a long period of warlords and then a civil war between two Leninist parties, China is still under the rule of the hierarchy of a one party state. However this time it is now run by privileged oligarchs instead of a royal family. As one author put it, the "Bling Dynasty" has simply replaced the Qing Dynasty.

For Taiwan, the role of democracy is crucial to the identity of its imagined community. Members can argue over its origins and who gets credit of their hard-won democracy but they have to respect it.

The imagined community of Taiwan's democracy does not include China. A few Taiwanese might have a pipe dream of somehow regaining the borders of China but it is unlikely Taiwanese would want to go and die to defend those borders if China again went to war with India or Vietnam.

Similarly, Taiwanese might sympathize but they do not have a mental affinity with those in Tibet, Xinjiang, Hong Kong and even Beijing. The affinity and imagined community that Taiwanese have is for those within the borders of Taiwan who share the right to determine who is to lead their imagined community.