Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Talking about Taiwan's 'Chinese identity' begs the question


Interesting editorial piece in the Hong Kong Free Press, actually from 2017, but I've just come across it today. In it, Hong Kong resident Charlotte Chang eloquently describes her feelings of identifying on a deep level as Chinese, which she says is made difficult by China's attempts at intertwining Chinese cultural and ethnic identity with political identity:

Like them, I feel overwhelmingly defined by Chinese culture and history. But this pride is apparently not enough, compared with what the mainland expects from me as a new member of its monolithic nation state. Now that Hong Kong is a part of the People’s Republic, “patriotism” should be felt for China as nation and political unit; a love of China as heritage is not enough....

As it stands now, the narrow definition of “Chinese-ness” we are asked to internalize leaves no room for a differentiation between culture and politics. Reconciling this conflict—if it is at all possible—will continue to weigh on my conception of what it means to be Chinese and a Hong Kong citizen in the years to come.

This also has relevance to Taiwan. What strikes me about this is how, in a world where one can identify culturally or ethnically as Chinese without necessarily identifying with the PRC or desiring to be a part of China as a single political entity, it would be easier for Hong Kongers (and Taiwanese) who wish to do so. In Taiwan especially, they could say "I am Chinese" without the attendant political baggage that China now insists that must entail.

Few could argue with a more open, inclusive, downright liberal definition that one can affix to being Chinese. In Taiwan, it would allow those who don't want to let go of the cultural and literary traditions they value, which nevertheless come from China, to keep them without feeling pressure to desire Chinese citizenship. It would allow more breathing room for discussions on how and when Chinese and Taiwanese history have intersected, and allow for less defensiveness in discussions of uniquely Taiwanese history and culture. It allows Hong Kongers to talk about sovereignty without feeling as though they have to deny that they are Chinese (which is precisely why the PRC feels such an open definition cannot be allowed). It just gives people more options - it allows people to relate to being Chinese in a similar way to how I relate to being Armenian: there is a wealth of cultural heritage and history there, but I feel no pressure to desire citizenship in Armenia.

This is apparent in the way she relates to Taiwan, which most would appreciate:

When I visit, I can get around by speaking a language related to my native tongue, explore a history that I have a firm basis in understanding yet am not completely well-versed in, and eat food that tastes familiar yet differs from my everyday diet. In short, I can appreciate my affiliation with Taiwanese people and engage with them from a common cultural reference point while respecting our distance as separate political entities.

Yes! See how easy and drama-free this could all be, if not for the meddling of the People's Republic of China?

The PRC cannot permit this, because it suits their agenda to force Hong Kongers - and, in their mind, Taiwanese - to choose. It makes identifying as 'Chinese' a fraught business. If/when Taiwanese (and Hong Kongers) get fed up and say "fine, if being 'Chinese' means we must be a part of 'China', then I guess we aren't Chinese", they are called culture traitors or race traitors by the Chinese troll mob. Some might feel internal conflict, not wanting to give up a desired Chinese identity for political reasons. This also happens when Taiwanese who have never really felt Chinese to begin with say the same thing.

Nevertheless, I have an issue with the way Chang throws Chineseness on Taiwan, as though she gets to decide how Taiwan identifies:

Perhaps this explains why Taiwan is now so popular as a travel destination for Hong Kong visitors: as a Chinese society [emphasis mine], it does not pressure us to feel a political affinity for it, yet still offers a wealth of culturally intimate experiences.

She assumes, because Taiwan shares many cultural facets with China, most Taiwanese have ancestry in China (among other places), and their history has intersected at times, that Taiwanese de facto identify as Chinese, just as she does. This is implicit in her presumption that Taiwan is a "Chinese" society.

Frankly, I have no real problem with this particular piece or its author - generally, I like it (well, her historical claims about Chinese civilization are deeply questionable, but...whatever). But I hear this assumption about Taiwan parroted often, and it's time to challenge it.

In modern liberal thought, it is taken as a given that people can choose to identify how they like - and only the people involved can decide that. Nobody can force an identity on anybody else.

Well, the same is true for Taiwan. Only Taiwanese can decide, collectively, that they are Chinese. It cannot be decided by people in another country, no matter how similar they are ethnically or culturally (which is not as much as you'd think). It cannot be decided by a Hong Konger because "the food is familiar". It can only be decided by them.

Nobody else can force it on them. Not with appeals to ethnicity (which is a human construct - genetic markers are a real thing, but "ethnicity" is a combination of chosen identity, genetics and family history/culture that doesn't reside in our DNA), not with appeals to history (Taiwan has not been Chinese for the vast majority of its history), and not with appeals to culture (which is, again, a construct. Culture and borders often don't align and it has as much to do with identity as it does internal thinking). The only way in which any person can have an identity - whether that's Taiwanese, Chinese, American, Armenian, whatever - is if they choose it.

If, under a politically open construct, many Taiwanese decide they are Chinese, obviously they have that right. But if they don't - and I know many Taiwanese who don't, never have and never will, no matter how open the definition is - nobody can or should change that. How other people feel doesn't matter.

This is what irks me about the whole "you don't understand the relationship between Taiwan and China because you don't understand what it means to be Chinese!" line of thinking (which is not what Chang was doing in her generally good piece, I just hear it a lot). The rationalization for this is that 'being Chinese' is different, in terms of identity, from other sorts of identity (like, say, how I can identify as both Armenian and American, as well as someone whose home is Taiwan) - usually with the idea that it has some sort of stronger pull or that there are distinct ethnic or cultural boundaries to 'being Chinese' that cannot be violated. This of course is not true - not only are millions of PRC citizens 'not Chinese' under this definition, but a large chunk of Vietnam is Chinese - it's all a construct, created for political gain.

But that begs the question - forget the shaky rationale behind the assumption that 'being Chinese' is somehow different from being anything else. It's wrong, but that's not the point. The point is, when you apply it to Taiwan, you are begging the question. You are assuming from the outset that Taiwan is Chinese, and therefore all of these assumptions and suppositions you have about 'being Chinese' therefore must apply to Taiwan, and therefore one cannot argue that Taiwan is not Chinese, because of 'what it means to be Chinese', but you are the one who decided Taiwan was Chinese in the first place.

In this scenario, you are still deciding someone else's identity for them so that you can push your assumptions about that identity on them.

The reasoning is so circular, it literally hurts my head.

Why so many Westerners, in particular, buy this line of reasoning is beyond me, but I think it stems from a well-meaning, but in this particular case misguided, desire to seem respectful of other cultures. When of course it just means agreeing with Chinese political propaganda and not being respectful at all of Taiwanese culture and identity. When it comes from people who do identify as Chinese, it reeks of trying to force an identity on another group, just because you want them to be a certain way - without caring whether or not they agree. This may be well-meaning (I know a wonderful Chinese person who had to be convinced, after many conversations, that nobody but the Taiwanese can decide what the Taiwanese are) or it may be politically motivated - the only real difference is that the former group can often be convinced.

Or, in a sentence: if Taiwanese decide they are not Chinese - and generally, most identify as Taiwanese - then "what it means to be Chinese" is not relevant to Taiwan,  because Taiwan isn't Chinese.

Even if Taiwanese decide they are Chinese, they still get to define what that means to them. No outside entity can force their own definitions on Taiwan. 


Anonymous said...

"In modern liberal thought, it is taken as a given that people can choose to identify how they like..."

You do realize that some people identify as space aliens, or My Little Pony characters? Of course we have to distinguish between one's right to self-identify as whatever, and one's right to have this identity accepted by others. The right to self-identify also entails the right to exclude others, so if I say that I am an Eskimo, Eskimos should have the right to laugh at me.

Are there any "bad" identities that can be legitimately banned? For instance, suppose someone identifies as a member of the Aryan Race. In time, we may come to consider a "Chinese" identity equally toxic.

Jenna Lynn Cody said...

Well, no - frankly, I'm not talking about individuals who want to be space aliens or pretend they are Eskimo when they aren't (or white guys pretending to be indigenous Taiwanese when they aren't...), I'm talking about a collective majority decision among Taiwanese that their identity is primarily Taiwanese. It's well over the safe side of this line, Taiwan deciding that it is not Chinese (or at least not primarily Chinese), with a few hold-outs who are honestly so far removed from the zeitgeist that they aren't really key to the conversation.

I don't think anyone can reasonably argue that Westerners have the "right" to deny Taiwan its identity. When it comes to individuals we retain the right to take someone's identity seriously or not (I don't even think it's a matter of accepting or rejecting - it's all about social consequences. A white lady can run around insisting she is Black and while she can't beheld criminally accountable for that, she has earned the social consequence of the Black community not taking her seriously. This is about right, as consequences go.) But come on, we can't do that for an entire island nation.

I can't get on board with banning an identity - it's a step to far, akin to banning a book, even a horrible book. Natural social consequences are enough.