The following commentary by Bruce Jacobs, Emeritus Professor of Asian Languages and Studies at Monash University, was originally published on The Conversation.
Voters assert themselves as Taiwanese in a warning to KMT
By Bruce Jacobs, Monash University
Taiwan’s opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has won an unprecedented landslide victory in the country’s local elections. The ruling Kuomintang (KMT) won only one of Taiwan’s six largest “special municipalities” in voting on Saturday and this by a very narrow margin. Elsewhere, the DPP won unexpected victories in many counties and municipalities.
The best explanations for this unexpected DPP victory relate to the losing party. Like Australians, Taiwanese want their ruling parties to be able to govern themselves. The divisions between Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard have resonances in the KMT between Taiwan’s president (and KMT party chairman) Ma Ying-jeou, former vice-president and premier Lien Chan and Legislative Speaker Wang Jin-pyng, who have been quite open in their three-way mutual detestation.
In addition, parties that cannot govern themselves usually perform badly in policy and administrative terms. Recently, major food companies in Taiwan have used industrial oil rather than food oil in the preparation of foods. This has raised huge questions over the government’s ability to provide safe food for its citizens.
Ma’s government, which should be aligning with South Korea as a fellow Asian democratic state, became hysterical about the “certain” damage to the Taiwan economy when the South Koreans signed a free trade agreement with China. It turned out that the Taiwan government had not seen the text of the FTA nor had it done any research.
China’s claims look ever more tenuous
Many Taiwanese people are also concerned about their government’s approach to China. Citizens quite rightly raised questions about aspects of the Cross-Strait Service and Trade Agreement (CSSTA) negotiated with China. But rather than defend the agreement through explanation, the government said Taiwan needed free trade agreements.
Thus, the Sunflower Student Movement earlier this year raised numerous questions, but the Ma government did not answer their queries. Taiwan’s citizens do have deep concerns about their government’s performance and the results of Saturday’s election reflect these concerns.
What are the implications for China? In a sense this is not the right question because China’s claims for Taiwan are not legitimate.
Taiwan has never been part of China except during the 1945-1949 Civil War, the worst four years in Taiwan’s history. Before the Dutch came in 1624, there were no permanent Chinese communities living in Taiwan. It was the Dutch who first imported Chinese to work in Taiwan.
The Dutch were followed by the colonial regime of Koxinga in 1662 and then the Manchu empire in 1683. It is important to note that the Manchu empire was not Chinese, but that China too was a colony of this huge empire. Then the Japanese took over Taiwan.
Finally, Chiang Kai-shek and his son, Chiang Ching-kuo, established another colonial regime over Taiwan in 1945. This Chiang colonial regime resembled the Japanese colonial regime in many aspects including systematic discrimination against native Taiwanese, second-class citizenship, strong repression and the promotion of the “official language”, first Japanese and then Chinese.
It is noteworthy that in his interviews with Edgar Snow in 1936, Mao Zedong said that Taiwan should be independent. Furthermore, it was only in 1942 that the KMT or the Chinese Communist Party said that Taiwan should belong to China. Taiwan has not belonged to China since the beginning of history.
China also claims “blood” ties Taiwan and China. Yes, many people of British heritage peopled the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, but are we still British? Similarly, many people emigrated from southern China to Taiwan, starting in the late 17th century, but they do not identify as Chinese.
Taiwanese assert a distinct, democratic identity
Taiwan has undertaken numerous surveys on identification. Most show sharply declining identification with being “Chinese” and sharply increasing identity as “Taiwanese”. Some ask whether people are both “Chinese and Taiwanese”, but these surveys show this dual identification has declined while “Taiwanese” identification has risen sharply.
In addition, very few now refuse surveys because with democratisation people are no longer afraid to respond. Also, identity is a question that virtually everyone in Taiwan has considered.
Taiwan is one of the few Asian countries to have consolidated its democracy. The island nation is a “middle power” with a population about the same as Australia, a developed economy, an educated population and a powerful military. Taiwan is precisely the type of country with which such democratic nations as Australia, India, Japan, Korea and the US are establishing closer ties.
The Taiwanese value their democracy. Like Australians, they expect a functioning government that meets the needs of its citizens. Just like the Victorians who also turned out their unsatisfactory government last Saturday, Taiwan’s voters have replaced their unsatisfactory local leaders.
All eyes in both Taiwan and Australia will now be on the central government elections scheduled for 2016 in both countries.
Bruce Jacobs does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.