Either Western journalists do not have the most basic understanding of Taiwan, or they think it is too complex to explain to their readers. That is my conclusion after having read the latest article about Taiwan which fails completely to dig beneath the surface and get any more nuanced than describing a battle between absolute independence and absolute unification.
This article by Associated Press which boldly states that the dream of Taiwan independence is dead is actually much better than most, but is still pretty woeful (it’s also analysed by Michael here). I can almost imagine the article writer started out with the assumption that Taiwan has always been filled with millions of fire-breathing “independence at all costs” extremists – and is a bit shocked to find out that pragmatism is alive and well on the island.
Taiwan’s ruling party has dreamed of making this self-governing island a sovereign state, but analysts say it’s unlikely that it will ever gain independence from China due to threats from Beijing and a lack of support from the island’s main protector, the United States.
Taiwan split from China amid civil war in 1949 and has since achieved de facto independence, forming its own government, issuing its own currency and developing modern armed forces.
Pro-independence activists are planning to hold a rally early next month.
But successive governments have stopped short of declaring formal independence because China, which still insists the island is part of its territory, has threatened to take Taiwan by force if it ever tries to formally break from the mainland.
But here’s a problem – the implication that a sequence of governments have secretly wished for independence but failed to provide it is false. There have only been 4 leaders of the ROC on Taiwan: The first (Chiang Kai Shek) spent all his time trying to plot the destruction of the PRC, the second (Chiang Ching-Kuo) gave up on his fathers dreams of retaking the mainland but retained the ideal of a unified China, the third (Lee Teng-Hui) had such little support for Taiwanese independence within his government that he kept all thoughts of it to himself until he retired, and the forth (Chen Shui-Bian) ran on a platform where he promised not to declare independence. So none of these governments stopped short of declaring independence – it wasn’t even on their radar (with the possible exception of the last one).
While being careful not to provoke his giant neighbor into attacking, Taiwan’s President Chen Shui-bian has pushed the envelope more than previous leaders.
Chen is the standard-bearer of the Democratic Progressive Party, which since 1991 has enshrined the goal of Taiwanese independence in its charter.
The DPP is also the party that in 1999 decided that Taiwan is already an independent and sovereign nation – thus making any formal declaration pointless.
But Chen, who took office in 2000, has been unable to translate the independence dream into anything reflecting real sovereignty, engaging instead in largely superficial gestures like toying with the words on the island’s passports.
What on earth is meant here by ‘real sovereignty’? Is he lamenting Chen’s failure to give Taiwan its own army, currency, government, economy, education system, border controls and so on? Taiwan has never lacked for ‘real’ sovereignty – it’s the ‘officially recognised’ sovereignty that’s been missing.
Even partial actions like creating a new flag or changing the name “Republic of China” into something more Taiwanese have proved too ambitious for him.
Hardly surprising – given the fact that Chen explicitly promised not to take either of these actions while president.
The result is a growing public sense that that the independence bandwagon — launched as an underground movement in the 1960s — has reached the end of its line.
This is the core premise of the whole article – and it is fundamentally flawed. The underground movement that is being talked about always had two goals: full democracy and independence. Of these two, democracy was always the more pressing (and universally accepted) issue; there were plenty of activists who were at best lukewarm to the idea of independence (and some, like Li Ao, violently opposed to it). While formal independence has always been popular with a number of idealists (and of course a high percentage of those activists were idealists), it has never had much more than theoretical support from the population of Taiwan.
The DPP included their independence clause into their constitution in 1991 a couple of months before some important National Assembly elections. The result of those elections was a resounding failure for the DPP. If you consider this the first public vote where independence was an issue, then the outcome was a clear ‘No’ by the people 14 years ago.
In contrast, since the DPP backed away from formal independence in 1999 they have won two presidential elections and become the biggest party (and made gains) in two consecutive legislative elections (the 2nd of those legislative election was considered a failure due to the lack of success of their pro-formal independence TSU partner).
“I think it’s the reality, and the general perception of the public that independence isn’t plausible anymore,” says Emile Sheng of Taipei’s Soochow University. “It’s not a viable option.”
Sheng and other analysts of Taiwanese politics point to recent polls indicating that only about 15 percent of island residents now describe themselves as enthusiastic independence advocates.
Missing from this article is any information about the percentage of enthusiastic independence supporters 5,10 or 20 years ago … I would be very surprised (and suspicious of the poll) if the figures were much different to today’s 15%.
[Taiwan specialist Shelley Rigger]”For a time in the 90s it was possible to imagine that China was not serious about blocking Taiwanese independence,” she says. “But that is no longer tenable. The message has gotten through.”
Shelly Rigger is usually one of the best (Western) commentators on Taiwan – but this quote is just bizarre. The 90s started with China having just proven (via the Tiananmen Square massacre) that they were quite happy to kill innocents and didn’t care about their image in the West, it continued with a series of ‘missile tests’/threats to Taiwan whenever the president sneezed (or visited his old university), and ended with a bunch of blood-curdling rhetoric which helped Chen (and ‘scum of the earth’ Annette Lu) to power.
So, what’s the real situation?
The ‘dream’ that this article assumes quite frankly has never been anything more than a dream for most Taiwanese. While the idea of full independence is popular (and is arguably more popular now than ever), the vast majority of the Taiwanese public have always been well aware of the risks associated with it. Given that the benefits are fairly nebulous (What is the point of a piece of paper which tells you something you already know?), most people are quite happy for it to remain an idea – and will happily vote against any politician who gets overexcited and starts talking about putting that idea into practise.
This AP article seems surprised that very few people are talking about complete independence as a realistic short-term possibility. I suspect the article writer would have been just as surprised if they had visited Taiwan 10 years ago. In the land of “cha bu duo” (差不多), most people have been pretty content with Taiwan’s “cha bu duo independence” for quite some time – but that doesn’t mean they don’t still dream.