Thursday, July 6, 2017

Taiwanese nationalism is not your grandfather's nationalism

The other day a classmate on my graduate program, after asking me about Taiwan and hearing my response that the opinion of a strong majority of Taiwanese leans towards considering Taiwan already independent, or at least certainly not Chinese, referred to the idea of 'nationalism' with a strongly negative connotation. He wasn't necessarily critiquing Taiwan specifically, but rather the general idea that a group wanting to form their own nation is a concept riddled with problems.

He was surprised when I replied that Taiwanese nationalism is not ethnic nationalism, and the two can't be conflated in such a reductionist way.

I certainly understood what he meant - he even brought up the old-timey concept of 'nationalism' that arose in Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, where every 'group' or ethnicity has their own little country and therefore what it means to be a country is based primarily on ethnic ties, leaving aside of course the idea that ethnicity itself is an odd and problematic construct. Basically, that often "nationalism" is considered to be inextricably linked with ethnocentrism.

I, too, have an instinctive reaction against this worldview because this view of nation-hood (and what it means to be a nation, and who should be within the borders of one or a citizen of one) are so deeply linked to my family history. The Armenians and other non-Turks were massacred not primarily because of religion (although it played a part), but because the old construct of the Ottoman Empire as a multi-ethnic, multi-territorial "empire" was washed away by the Young Turks in favor of what was then a more "modern" view of nationhood, where one nation ought to equal one ethnicity. The Armenians were not Turks, and therefore, according to this view, they had to go.

Over a million Armenians died, and I exist as a result of this sort of ethnocentric nationalism sweeping Turkey in 1915. Although I am happy I exist - not that I would know if I didn't - I am all too aware of how far off the rails this idea can go.

China takes this a step further and promotes an unrealistic view of what it means to be 'Chinese', trying to force not just the same national identity but also the same ethnic identity on, essentially, whomever it wishes. It  also tries to discredit Taiwan's case for de jure nationhood by playing to liberal perceptions of the problems of nationalism. It's no accident that they call Taiwanese nationalism 'splittism' and try to tap into the negative connotations associated with, say, voting for Brexit, ethnic regions splitting off from a larger nation and civil war. China also tries to promote the positive connotations that we associate with being stronger or 'better together' than apart. China tries to have it both ways - any desire to not be a part of China is 'splittism', and Xinjiang and Tibet are a part of China despite their people not being 'Chinese', however, Taiwan is a part of China because 'we're the same'. So people who are not Chinese are Chinese because China controls them and that's okay, but China should control Taiwan specifically because Taiwanese are, they say, Chinese and not some other kind of people.

If that's not clear or seems like it doesn't make sense, that's because it isn't and doesn't. Nothing about China's argument makes a lick of sense, in fact, but it seems to have been accepted by huge swaths of the educated world.

(Side note: although I don't generally believe in ethnic nationalism, I don't necessarily always think it's wrong for an ethnic group to want to break off a piece of territory to form its own nation, especially if mistreatment of that group is involved. Each situation is highly unique, and I can't really say one blanket solution is applicable, not being intimately familiar with the various examples of this).

So why is the lumping of Taiwanese nationalism in with the sort of nationalism popular in our grandparents' generation so inaccurate?

Simple - it's not based on ethnicity. Not really, anyway.

Some Taiwan independence activists do try to make an ethnicity-based argument for their cause, pointing, for example, to evidence that Taiwan is primarily ethnically Austronesian rather than Chinese (note: the writer of that post doesn't necessarily agree - I don't know and it doesn't matter - but the post itself is pertinent).

I think most, though, know that this is a losing proposition. Not because they're necessarily wrong about who the Taiwanese are at the DNA level, but because even if they convince the world that Taiwan is "not Chinese", they'll face the argument that ethnic nationalism has its own problems and therefore isn't necessarily something to support. It opens up a messy argument on what it means to be "ethnically Taiwanese", which opens us up to having to defend that position.

And, frankly, they know it wouldn't matter: China didn't take ethnicity into account when taking over Tibet and Xinjiang. If not the same old "we are all Chinese" blather, they'll find another argument because their goal, to them, will always justify the means by which they attain it.

It just doesn't matter much and won't work.

In any case, who are the Taiwanese? DNA testing shows a large correlation with Austronesian/SE Asian populations. But what about those who aren't - whose grandparents really did come from China and whose families haven't intermarried much with locals? Are they not Taiwanese? How about those who might have Japanese blood, or one non-Taiwanese parent? How about those who were born and raised here, whose parents aren't Taiwanese at all? If you make this argument, you leave all of them out, not to mention those of us who would like dual nationality, all to argue a point that China doesn't actually care about, and will hurt Taiwan's case to the world rather than help it, by making Taiwan independence seem like another iteration of 'ethnic nationalism'.

So if Taiwanese nationalism is not that - and I don't think it is - what is it?

You could say it's a nationalism based on Taiwan's unique history, and there is truth to that, but I don't know about you, but I'm not interested in getting into a pointless history debate with an anti-Taiwan detractor and I don't think it's a very strong argument either. Although history is on our side, who owned what in the past just isn't the way to make the case for Taiwan. It actually weakens what I think is the best argument, in fact.

Instead, Taiwanese nationalism is based on the idea that Taiwan is a nation based on two things: self-determination and shared values.

It is hard to imagine a reasonable person disagreeing with the idea that people have the right to self-determination, although we can reasonably disagree with the level at which that right manifests itself (e.g. that the citizens of a nation have that right, but that a group wishing to secede their territory from that nation may perhaps not always have it). I'd say there's a case to be made that any self-ruled territory that has an independently functioning government gains that right, and Taiwan certainly falls well within that boundary. It's even a democracy so you can't argue that a territory has been wrested away by some strongman dictator!

Therefore, as a self-governing autonomous territory that has a highly functional and democratic government, Taiwan does have the right to determine its own future. Period. This would be true even if history weren't on our side.

As for shared values, this is trickier. As much as different segments of Taiwanese society might disagree on a variety of issues, pretty much all of them except for a few ancient blowhards can agree on a few basic principles: human rights including certain freedoms, democracy and egalitarianism (okay, maybe not everyone agrees with egalitarianism in practice, but that's a global problem). However you define "shared values", though, it's clear that the values that are important in Taiwanese society are vastly different from those allowed in Chinese society. They also differ to some extent from the values even of other Asian democracies, despite greater similarities with those nations.

The good news is that this means Taiwanese nationalism doesn't suffer from having a weak or outdated argument. We're not 'splittists', 'separatists' (wanting to separate from what? When was Taiwan ever a part of the People's Republic of China that we'd be wanting to now 'split off'?) or people causing 'ethnic tensions'. Taiwan is instead a sovereign state that simply wants to access a right to globally recognized self-determination, and build their democratic nation based on shared values.

We have an optics problem, not an argument problem. There is nothing wrong with our case. I would like to think that optics problems are easier to solve.

Basically, this updated, 21st century view of nationalism - as nation-building based on shared values and the right to self-determination rather than ethnicity - is much easier for the global literati to swallow. It's an argument that humanizes Taiwan, and presents it in a modern light appropriate to its situation and values, rather than making it sound like an outdated and even dangerous throwback to the ethnocentrism and 'small European nation state' model of a few generations ago. It sounds more like something an EU supporter would say, and less like something a nutbar UKIP or Trump voter would come out with.

It's just as good news that this weakens China's "argument", such as it is. When you view Taiwanese as not ethnic nationalists, which they are indeed not in any great majority, China's case that Taiwan is a part of China because 'we are all Chinese' makes even less sense, and forces them to defend ethnic nationalism. Better yet, it forces them to defend it alongside claiming territories like Xinjiang and Tibet despite not having this connection.

It's also good news in that this view of nationalism allows - and please allow me to be selfish here - for people like me to be a part of these shared values. I can never be, and don't want to be, 'Asian' or 'Chinese' simply because I think it's weird to want to change one's race (and creepy and appropriative for a white person in any case). However, viewing Taiwan as a nation of people of shared values rather than a nation of people who were born ethnically Taiwanese with no 'outsiders' allowed makes room for people like me. Under such a model, I could be Taiwanese. Under an ethnic model, I could not.

The bad news is that many supporters of Taiwan don't seem to have made this connection. I don't mean that they don't support foreigners naturalizing (though some don't), but that they just don't think it's a big issue or something that needs to be prioritized or even necessarily changed. Some, perhaps, have not quite come to the conclusion that if Taiwan is not a country based on ethnicity but one of shared values and self-determination, that that means you kinda sorta have to let in immigrants because if you don't, you're right back at ethnic nationalism and all the problems it entails.

The other bad news is that China's been bombarding the world with a skewed perspective on what Taiwanese nationalism is, promoting whatever definition of 'nationalism' is convenient to them, and it's very hard to re-orient the perspectives of those who've bought that particular brand of snake oil.

All I can say is that we need to keep trying, and we absolutely need to stop engaging China on the points it's tempting us with, e.g. trying to argue ethnicity or history. Even if we're right - and we are - we absolutely need to not only re-shape the internal debate of Taiwanese nationalism being one of values rather than blood, which many astute friends of Taiwan are already doing, but also to point out to the international community that Taiwanese nationalism does not share the deeply problematic worldview and chauvinism of our grandparents' ethnic nationalism.

1 comment:

Paul Adams said...

Sounds very much like the civic nationalism currently at the political forefront in Scotland. Maybe that's why I feel so at home here :)