Wednesday, February 9, 2022

Is Taiwan independence a mainstream position? It depends on how you define independence.


There's a visual metaphor in here somewhere about doors and corners.

"Most Taiwanese don't want independence, they want the status quo," I was told recently.

Well, that's half a lie: someone did say that to me not long ago, but I can usually claim that as there's always someone saying it. 

I'm never sure how to respond. I size up the person who's made the pronouncement, sitting proudly like they cracked the Mystery Spy Key Ring code and try to figure out how exactly they came to hold that opinion. 

Is it because they read the popular but frequently-misinterpreted polling on this issue from NCCU, ignoring the poll on the same site regarding identity? Possibly. Then it's time to take a leisurely drive through what does the status quo mean, though? and when people answer, how are they defining independence? 

Is it because they think that Taiwan's current official name, "The Republic of China", confers a Chineseness on Taiwan which cannot be cast off without changing it? That leads to questions about why, exactly, this name persists. Do most Taiwanese want it? We have no idea; I'm not sure anyone has ever asked directly. Or does it continue to exist because China has threatened to start a war if Taiwan does so, and most people would simply prefer to avoid that? 

Is it because they think Taiwan doesn't have independence now? But if that's true, then what does it need independence from? The People's Republic of China, or the Republic of China? If the former, Taiwan already has it. If the latter, then it's very easy to confuse people abroad who hear "Taiwan independence" and think "from the PRC".

Perhaps it's because they believe independence is a thing which must be proactively declared. Why must it, though? If "independence" means "independence from China (the one everyone recognizes)", then Taiwan has it. What's to declare? If it means ending the ROC system on Taiwan, I'm all for it -- but that's a different thing, and doesn't have to be bound up with extant independence from the PRC. 

However, plenty of people seem to believe these are one and the same, or perhaps they don't think about the difference. They issue forth their opinions on "independence" as if they are the master of that word. As if nobody else's concept of what that word might mean matters: they decide it must mean independence from the PRC or ROC or both, that it is a thing which must be declared, that it cannot be a thing Taiwan has now. That it means just what they choose it to mean -- neither more nor less. They don't question who is to be master of that word.

And of course, if anyone disagrees, it must be because they don't understand -- it could not possibly be a difference in how one conceptualizes what it means to be "independent".

Now that I've thoroughly plagiarized Lewis Carroll, I do question who is to be master of the words "Taiwan independence". Let's start with the idea that it means sovereignty from the PRC.

President Tsai has done a great deal of work to bring the concept of "Taiwan independence" into the mainstream. Under her leadership, it's become a term that means sovereignty: Taiwan as its own country, regardless of the name, independent from the PRC. More recently, she didn't reference the ROC at all in her New Year's speech.

This is exactly what she says: Taiwan is an independent country, and it's name is the Republic of China. There's no need to declare independence

If you define independence this way -- the sovereignty Taiwan already enjoys -- then it is indeed a mainstream position. Tsai was democratically elected and remains more popular than most Taiwanese leaders who've served as long as she has; clearly these pronouncements have not hurt her. 

And I fail to see, in any reasonable mode of thinking, how such pronouncements could be considered anything other than a pro-independence position.

We also know it's a mainstream position because there's polling to prove it


It’s noteworthy that an impressive majority – almost 75 percent – continue to believe that Taiwan is already an independent country called the Republic of China. [Emphasis mine].


Supporting this is a recent MyFormosa poll, which asked respondents what they considered to be the necessary conditions for independence, a huge majority responded that Taiwan already meets those criteria, the status quo suffices to meet them, and there's no need to change the name of the country (that's the yellow bar). The green bar are the people who think at a Republic of Taiwan must be established before Taiwan can be called independent.

It seems Tsai has not only pinpointed a mainstream position, she has changed what it means for Taiwan to consider itself independent. This is not just in terms of what voters think, but her own party (this isn't a position I could see the DPP of Chen Shui-bian taking, but it's where they are now.)

This makes sense: if one defines "Taiwanese independence" as something palatable, acceptable, normal even -- something that doesn't require a big change or a provocation -- then it becomes those very things. Palatable, acceptable, normal, unprovocative. Mainstream. 

It also captures the essence of what most people understand independence to mean internationally: that Taiwan independence means independence from the country they understand to be China. 

Suddenly Taiwan independence isn't a thing that doesn't exist, which some renegade province wants to make happen. It's not a change: it's something Taiwan already has which it merely wishes to keep.

It also allows for the bridging of some very deep cleavages. Yes, this means making nice with huadu (華獨 or "independence as the ROC") people whom one may not like, or fully agree with. It means accepting that some allies might still talk about the status quo, and being annoyed by that won't change it.

It means working with folks whom one might not trust: I hear a lot of huadu isn't actually a pro-independence viewpoint and yes, I wonder as well how committed they really are to keeping Taiwan sovereign and free. 

However, I'd rather work with them and turn that bloc of people who don't want to be part of the PRC into a force that can, y'know, keep Taiwan from being part of the PRC, not sit around hurling insults at people with whom I actually have common ground.

You might spit back "but the ROC question can't be left until later!" but reader, it literally can.

In other words, naming and coalescing the key view of the vast majority of Taiwanese -- that they want sovereignty and do not want to be part of the People's Republic of China regardless of other disagreements -- is genius. 

This is especially true given that there are still people who don't want unification but do maintain some Chinese cultural identity (although most prioritize Taiwanese identity -- and that does matter, as it means there's room for growth and change).

That may seem overly optimistic, but as most Taiwanese identify solely as Taiwanese, but a huge percentage of those want to "maintain the status quo", there seems to be a lot of maneuverability in terms of what the status quo means. 

It doesn't mean those who want formal independence and those who want to keep the status quo (which is effectively independence) are the same -- they're not. But it does mean they can work together. It would require quite a lot of public discourse, but it's possible. That's how it is when you're trying to bridge deep cleavages.

So, let's look at the other side.

If, on the other hand, one insists that "Taiwanese independence" can only mean one thing, and that concept must include a move away from the Republic of China -- that independence from the country most people consider "China" is insufficient -- then it's a much longer journey to popular support. If you demand that a word that can have many meanings can only be defined with its radical meaning, then you're relegating the concept it embodies to the edges of discourse, away from the mainstream.

It's also divisive rather than inclusive: we all agree that Taiwan is sovereign from the PRC and we don't want that to change is an umbrella that can fit all sorts of people. We must end the ROC colonial system too might be my personal view (in fact, it is), but it excludes people who might help and confuses those who don't follow these issues closely.

Does doing that help Taiwan? I don't think so, but it sure does help China. They want the world to believe independence doesn't exist yet, and the very idea is just the fever dream of some fringe splittists. I'd rather accept that every person is their own unique soap opera of ideas, as long as enough of them can work together to keep Taiwan free. 

Insisting that Taiwan is not independent (even though it is independent from the PRC) merely reinforces that view. For anyone who doesn't follow Taiwanese politics, the end result is usually confusion: isn't Taiwan already not a part of China? No, because the ROC is also China? Then Taiwan's not independent, better not rock the boat and support a change. That feels like separatism and the news makes that word sound negative. And I don't want a war. Better that Taiwan not become independent.

Where's the good in alienating a chunk of the electorate that agrees Taiwan should not be a part of the PRC, confusing people abroad who aren't aware of these conceptual differences, and giving the whole notion of Taiwanese independence a negative connotation?

Personally, I think it's smarter to court allies where one can and create a position that the mainstream can comfortably hold. If they already do, and a leader's job is merely to find that extant mainstream and give it a name, then all the better. 

Internationally, this means clarifying for all the people who have-listen to the news that Taiwan is, indeed, already independent from that country they call China. It's sovereign, and it's okay to just call it Taiwan. All they want is to keep what they have. 

This makes it harder to oppose or fear, and makes it difficult for international media to make it sound more provocative than it is. Perhaps it will lead to fewer moves likely to anger China and more talk of democratic, self-governing Taiwan.

That is, less fear of what Taiwan might declare and more discourse about what Taiwan already is.

Locally, this means working with the "status quo" crowd, even those who fear a move away from ROC names and norms. But it also means pointing out, whenever possible, that the ROC still contains concepts of Chinese governance that are inappropriate for Taiwan. It means normalizing the mainstream position that Taiwan is not and should never be a part of the PRC, while pushing for an end to the ROC colonial framework. They're both important, but they're not the same thing and can be accomplished on different timelines.

Note that word -- governance. Not culture. It's much easier to convince someone to change a set of laws than tell them how they should define their culture. Culture is non-static and how people define and relate to it are ever-evolving too: this is an issue that will solve itself, given room to breathe.

Such a view can sit quite comfortably alongside the NCCU poll that says again and again that Taiwanese prefer "the status quo". That poll asks nothing about what people mean when they discuss these concepts.

I accept that one poll cannot do everything -- adding questions addressing these issues would create all sorts of methodological hurdles -- and am happy to see there's now other information out there. I'd like to see even more in the future: we could begin to address some of this confusion if there were more research into what people mean when they say "independence".

In the meantime, here's a challenge: instead of talking about independence like everyone agrees on what it means, define your terms. Independence from what? Be clear: are you talking about ending the ROC conceptual, constitutional and juridicial framework in Taiwan, or are you talking about sovereignty from the PRC? Are you ignoring the distinction entirely and assuming they are one and the same? Don't. 

Perhaps, if that actually happened, we could all stop shouting from our respective corners, each using our own definitions of independence and assuming the other side shares them -- each pretending to be masters of our little word-kingdoms.

And then, perhaps, we could actually get somewhere.

No comments: