Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Identity, DIsmissiveness, and the Status Quo (with update)

Update: Michael Turton has a reaction to my reaction of his reaction to Cole's post, but I think there's been a misunderstanding of what I mean:

I'm not saying Cole and Goren are saying SQSs don't exist. I'm saying that SQSs are something of a cohesive group, even if they are not organized and as of yet have no 'name' or label. And that they are, in fact, a force for Beijing to contend with (as Cole suggests) because China has this idea that they will roll over and accept unification when, in fact, that is (mostly) not the case. They're, if anything, a bigger difficulty for China as their numbers are far greater than straight-up independence supporters.

I also disagree, but didn't say it clearly before, that I don't see a discussion or labeling of them an attempt by some Nationalist svengali to 'divide' the independence movement. This identifying as an SQS, even without a name, and differentiating oneself from independence supporters is coming from the people themselves, not by some shadowy external force. There are differences, and while deep down they generally want the same thing - Taiwanese independence - they themselves are the ones who purposely do not identify with the pro-independence groups (mostly as a reaction to the overly-nativist talk of yore, which I am happy to see both the DPP and NPP disavowing). I was quite interested to read these past few days two competing accounts of the notion of "huadu" - one from J. Michael Cole positing that it's a strong secondary force in Taiwanese politics that Beijing will have to contend with, and another by Michael Turton and Ben Goren that it's not a thing - that it's a somewhat dismissive label concocted by more strongly pro-independence sources to describe a "weak-willed" sort of person who believes in maintaining the status quo as the only form of independence feasible for Taiwan right now.

Being a non-scholar, I'm sure nobody is particularly interested in what I have to say, but I'll say it anyway: seems to me they're both right.

Where Turton and Goren are correct is in noting that "huadu" is not an organized force. It is not a self-created label by a group of people who are organized in any way. It is not a form of self-identification, but rather has recently been used to describe a diverse range of beliefs that can be a way of "being Taiwanese" but is not a predictor of how a person will vote, necessarily. They're also right in that "huadu" supporters don't necessarily tend to side with the KMT or PFP - or if they do there's no data to support it at present as polls asking about identification don't provide enough to offer such insights. I also agree that using "huadu" as a label to describe pro-status-quo supporters isn't quite appropriate, aside from the label's derisive history, many don't identify as Chinese and quite a few would be happy to live in a hypothetical Republic of Taiwan, not necessarily an independent Republic of China, were such an opportunity to become feasible.

Where, however, it seems to me - again in my totally non-scientific observation - that they are wrong is in dismissing it as existing at all simply because it is not an organized or semi-organized political force or a self-identifying label. They may not be as cohesive as the staunchly pro-independence or Chinese nationalist types, but there is an element of cohesion to them. And just because "huadu" doesn't describe them well, or isn't an appropriate term to use for them, doesn't mean they don't exist.

This group DOES exist. It's not that organized because it encompasses a very wide range of people with diverse beliefs, but it's real and it's powerful. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that a strong majority of Taiwanese fall into this group. Furthermore, while I generally identify with the more strongly pro-democracy Third Force - the Sunflowers, the New Power Party, the TSU if they'd jettison all the nativist talk etc. - one thing that turns me off to some rhetoric from that faction is the dismissiveness with which many of them treat pro-status-quo supporters. I may be strongly pro-independence, but I can't deny the pragmatism of the status-quo supporters, which I'll call SQSs simply because they don't have a name and I don't want to have to type as much.

The reason I say SQSs are real is that I hear very similar refrains so often among my friends (well, some of my friends - most tend to be more ardently pro-independence), acquaintances and students that follow this line of thinking. "Independence isn't realistic right now. Of course I'd like an independent Taiwan, but if it means war, where we are now is acceptable. Taiwan is already independent! We're not Chinese and we won't become Chinese, so we've already won! Of course I don't want to be annexed by China but I'll do anything to avoid war."

I don't see how one can deny that such a belief exists when it is just so common. And when the refrains are so similar, I don't see how I could agree that there isn't some element of cohesion, some similar thought process, binding SQSs together. Perhaps they all watch the same news broadcasts and read the same articles and thinkpieces, but even if that's where they get their talking points (and don't judge - we all do to a degree), that also constitutes a form of cohesion.

While I agree that SQSs are not necessarily KMT supporters - or at least we have no good way of knowing whether they are or not - I have to say the majority I've met (and again they are also a majority of the people I've met) do tend to have voted for the KMT until very recently. They, in my observation, tend to be light blue, identify with the local Taiwan KMT, and often are 'native Taiwanese' (I find this term problematic, but...) who vote blue because they're Hakka or aboriginal, not Hoklo, or they are Hoklo but their parents were teachers, police officers or other types of civil servant and therefore feel the KMT has treated them well and earned their support. They're aware that the KMT hasn't treated everyone well, but don't dwell on it (even if perhaps they should). Or, they just know the local KMT representative personally and therefore vote for him or her. They are often light blue because they're the children and grandchildren of the KMT diaspora, believe the DPP has been to nativist and anti-them in its rhetoric (and perhaps in the past this was true), but don't identify as Chinese no matter what Grandpa says.

The vast majority seem to have voted for Ma, perhaps even twice, but either didn't vote or switched to Tsai in the latest election. Quite a few voted for Ke Wen-zhe in Taipei, or didn't vote. They would have supported a candidate like Ding Shou-zhong in the Taipei mayoral election, but were never given the chance. A small number aren't anti-KMT per se, but voted for Chen hoping for the impossible, were disappointed, and have since switched back to the KMT. Many identify as 'non-political' or 'non-partisan' and simply choose who they feel is the best candidate.

What they do have in common, regardless of who they support, seems to be - again in my observation - that they identify as Taiwanese. Turton and Goren are right about that. Many fell away from their light-blue KMT support because of the Ma administration's attempts to Sinicize and ROC-ify (that's some smooth writin') Taiwan.

Though that is not always true - I've met exactly three who say they identify as Chinese, but can't accept unification right now, and are waiting for the Chinese government to reform. Interestingly, the international media and quite a few 'China scholars' hold the entirely false belief that this group makes up the majority of Taiwanese SQSs. They don't. They exist, but they're not terribly common anymore. One of these three thinks Taiwan and China should eventually unify and doesn't understand Taiwanese identity at all. Oddly, he's young - this is not a common opinion among Taiwanese youth. One believes in the ROC and is accepting of unification if it's good for business. One says she 'doesn't want to give up' her right to the cultural history of China. She sees herself as the cultural product of Confucius and Lao Tzu, the Chinese classics, Chinese arts and imperial history. She feels that identifying as Taiwanese means giving up what she sees as her cultural heritage. While I don't entirely agree, I can understand her sentiment and anyway, as someone who isn't Taiwanese, my opinion on that doesn't matter much.

These folks may exist - and I hope my three real-life examples reveal an undercurrent of identity in Taiwan rather than simply being three anecdotes - but for the vast majority of SQSs, scratching the surface just a bit will reveal a pro-independence supporter (Cole is right about this). And Turton and Goren are not wrong that being an SQS can be a way of being Taiwanese. It can even be a way of rationalizing voting for the KMT while identifying as Taiwanese!

They haven't organized yet, and they don't self-identify necessarily, but that doesn't mean they won't or they couldn't. I could absolutely envision a political force, called something like the Status Quo Party - or as that's not particularly inspiring, perhaps the Cross-Strait Peace Party - starting up and capturing a surprising number of votes from those who are currently disgusted with the KMT, can't quite forgive the DPP for its former Hoklo nativism, and think the student activists (New Power and the Sunflowers) go a bit too far or push a bit too hard for their tastes. It would probably include a number of Taiwanese-identifying non-Hoklo people (I could see such a party having a great deal of Hakka support), light-blue-Taiwan-KMT voters who can't bring themselves to vote for the KMT any longer, a few children-and-grandchildren-of-waishengren/KMT diaspora who perhaps started out identifying as Chinese but as new generations are born are shifting their views, a few  we voted for Chen Shui-bian because we thought he could deliver the impossible but he was a disappointment" non-partisans, quite a few businesspeople who are horrified by the KMT but think the status quo is good for business. Perhaps a few of the weaker New Power Party supporters who will show up for street protests but thought occupations of government buildings went a bit too far, too, although that group tends to be ideologically cohesive enough that I'm not confident of this.

And with this belief so prevalent and common among so many groups who otherwise identify differently - whether they're Hakka, aborigine, Chinese nationalists disgusted with the KMT, Hoklo Taiwan-KMT light blues who are even more disgusted with the KMT, A-bian "we wanted change but all we got was corruption" burnouts, nativist-rhetoric-hating grandchildren of the diaspora, businesspeople who just want the best deal, or Taiwanese-identifying pragmatists - I'd go so far as to say it's dangerous to pretend they are "not a thing". If anything, they are the thing, it's the one glue that holds together a very large majority of Taiwanese, and the group that consistently wins elections. I think it's been proven you can't win a presidential election on pro-unification or pro-independence-ASAP rhetoric alone. You have to follow the SQS crowd, at least for now (I still hold out for one-day President Freddy Lim or President Lin Fei-fan). SQSs are the kingmakers. Tsai Ying-wen grasped this, and she won. It would be wise not to ignore them.

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