Friday, March 05, 2010

Beijing sees culture as a weapon

Addressing the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) on Wednesday, Jia Qinglin (賈慶林), the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) No. 4 official and chairman of the CPPCC national committee, reaffirmed his government’s commitment to the “peaceful” development of cross-strait relations.

“We will constantly increase contacts with political parties, organizations, social groups, influential figures from all walks of life and the general public in Taiwan,” he told the more than 2,000 delegates at the Great Hall of the People.

Then came a comment that should make us pause both for the strategy that it highlights as for the lack of understanding of Taiwan that it elicits: “All this [growing exchanges] greatly enhanced the acceptance of the Chinese nation and Chinese culture by our Taiwan[ese] compatriots.”

Chinese officials have made no secret of the fact that they see Chinese culture as a weapon by which to persuade Taiwanese to agree to annexation. After many years of seeing Taiwan allegedly “drift” from its Chinese cultural heritage — efforts that accelerated during the administration of former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) — Beijing is now seizing the opportunity created by the presidency of Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) to impose a Chinese cultural template on Taiwan. Given the Chinese Nationalist Party’s (KMT) acquiescence in this endeavor, and Ma’s repeated references to Chinese culture, the situation is somewhat reminiscent of Taiwan during the era of White Terror, when symbols of Taiwaneseness, including the language, were barred from the media and Chinese — as opposed to Taiwanese — history was taught in the nation’s schools.

As contact between the two sides accelerates and the creative industries cross-pollinate (this will likely be mostly one way, given China’s greater financial resources and censorship at home), the assault on Taiwanese consciousness through cultural means will only intensify. By dint of repetition and subtle changes here and there (on television, in schoolbooks and academic forums), the Chinese plan could succeed in eroding Taiwanese cultural identity — at least to a certain extent.

Other countries with a powerful neighbor, such as Canada vis-a-vis the US, have often raised the specter of a culture threat, mostly through the flooding of their domestic markets by films, music, literature and McDonald’s. Under such circumstances, however, if there is a threat, it is an indirect one in that no conscious effort is being made by Washington to shape minds through cultural bombardment.

In Taiwan’s case, however, it has become rather clear that cultural influence is no mere collateral — it is, in fact, the tip of a missile aimed straight at the heart.

This effort at cultural transformation to achieve political objectives, however, is of limited effectiveness and will be less likely to achieve its ultimate aims if the strategy becomes too transparent (external factors, such as the Chinese military threat, will also undermine such a strategy).

Comments such as those by Jia, to the effect that cross-strait exchanges highlight “the acceptance of the Chinese nation and Chinese culture by ... Taiwan[ese] compatriots,” underscore the political elements of China’s cultural strategy and are an example of the transparency that could throw Beijing’s plans off track. That is so because of the false assumptions that buttress those efforts.

The willingness of Taiwanese to engage in more discussions with Chinese, to watch Chinese movies, attend Chinese art expositions (or gaze at pandas) is simply natural curiosity. By no means does this signify, however, that by doing so Taiwanese accept the so-called Chinese nation — by which Beijing means “one China” — or see it as their culture. Quebecers, for example, may show a great deal of interest in a French troupe performing in Quebec City (or Hollywood movies, for that matter), but this does not mean that they “accept” France, or the US, as the seat of their culture.

A better analogy, perhaps, would be that of a Palestinian interested in learning more about Israelis living across the fence by attending discussion groups involving the two people. However high his interest might be, it remains purely academic and under no circumstances would it imply the acceptance that Palestinian land belongs to some Greater Israel.

If Beijing subscribes to the belief that interest in seeing things Chinese means acceptance of its dominion over Taiwan, it is in for a very unpleasant surprise.

Slips like that made by Jia on Wednesday are not infrequent and should serve as a warning to Taiwanese that for Beijing, nothing is sacred, or off limit, in its pursuit of unification.

This article was published today in the Taipei Times.


FOARP said...

I'm sorry, but why in the world would anyone try to set out whether someone should or should not accept a culture "as their own". Either they do recognise it or they don't, but it is a personal decision.

Yes, the CCP clearly wishes that Taiwanese people should accept a Chinese identity, and a large part of why they would lie this to be so is because they believe it strengthens their claim to Taiwan. However, just because the CCP believes this to be the case does not make it true. Many people in Taiwan do accept such an identity without in anyway accepting that this consequently means they should be ruled by the Beijing dictatorship. Some even assert, and not without a strong measure of truth, that the prevailing culture of Taiwan is a truer representative of Chinese culture than that found in the modern-day mainland.

Others accept a dual Chinese/Taiwanese identity, and wish for political independence whilst recognising a shared cultural heritage. The people who recognise no such shared identity are in a very small minority indeed.

Finally, comparing modern-day Taiwan to the days of the White Terror is simply the most ridiculous kind of paranoid hyperbole.

J. Michael said...

FOARP: I did not compare modern-day Taiwan to the days of the White Terror, as you claim, but only said that the tactic was reminiscent of those used during that period - and in the art/culture/social sphere only (in other words, I did not portray what I discuss in my piece as akin to the atrocities committed under the White Terror).

If you'd seen the CCTV guidelines on Taiwan, you'd understand what I mean by the imposition of strict limitations on cultural items.

FOARP said...

Mike, I watched CCTV (all the channels, even CCTV 5's awful sports coverage, and the often bizarre '8-1' channel) for a number of years and know exactly their drill. Furthermore, I think any comparison, even in the cultural sphere, between now and 1947 in Taiwan is ridiculously overblown as, at the very least, no real censorship exists. In fact, today's climate represents a flowering of Taiwanese cultural expression compared to that which existed in Taiwan at any point before the end of the marshal law period, nor has the election of Ma Yingjiu brought about any great change in this.

Yes, CCTV does restrict Taiwan news pretty much to stories which support the CCP line. Strangely enough, this is actually its policy towards every form of news or documentary. Does this censorship extend to Taiwan? No - so why even raise the subject? Cultural exchange means projects like Huan Zhu Ge Ge, not news or documentaries, which anyway the vast majority of Taiwanese people would have no interest in watching.

Voyu Taokara Lâu said...

I think the word 'identity' used by FOARP may need to be clarified. FOARP mentioned that many people in Taiwan do accept such a (Chinese) identity....and Others accept a dual (Chinese/Taiwanese) identity. If this 'identity' is political, according to the polls held by Chengchi University and MAC more than 70% of Taiwanese people today recognize themselves as just Taiwanese. Only about 20% share the dual identity and the rest have Chinese identity.

On the other hand, we may find that sometimes it is not easy to tell Taiwanese things, customs or thoughts from the Chinese ones in Taiwan. This is definitely not because there's nothing unique in Taiwan. For decades, Taiwanese people have been educated that every Taiwanese hallmark and traditions are originated from Chinese culture and merely part of it. Even there are differences; common people, without comparison and study, just can't distinguish them.

Last, I wonder whether there are clear boundaries between cultures. Nations in Eastern Asia share so many things culturally that are witnessed in their architectures, traditional apparels, arts, festivals, and Confucianism. This is just like in the Western World, nations share the Greco-Roman heritage. Every nation does have something unique, but people without intentional studying would have difficulties to tell them apart. (E.g. is this painting looks Canadian? This novel reveals Anglo-Saxon spirit, isn't it? Or can you describe a Christmas in Italian-style?)

I would rather say that the things we have in Taiwan are 'Taiwanese'. They may share a heritage with other nations or cultures, but they are native now. Chinese people have no right to claim the ownership.

FOARP said...

@Voyu Taokara Lâu - Of course I meant cultural, not political. What of the things I like about Taiwan is the way in which people have made their own minds up as to what their identity is. This goes from the friend of mine who I worked with on the mainland who swore to me that, whilst she would never support Taiwanese independence, having lived in mainland China she knew herself to be Taiwanese first, Chinese second, to my friend who declares, when asked,in Chinese and English,  "中國是我的祖國 BUT TAIWAN IS MY COUNTRY!". In my mind this is all very good, my quarrel is with the people who make such individuals out to be brainwashed dupes.

Anonymous said...

Well, the CCP strategy towards Taiwan and its aims are pretty clear and have been for at least 30 years by now, so thats not really news I guess. The problem China faces in its quest to peacefully reunite the country is that every pleasing tune played towards the local audience (Chinese nationalism, miltarism, claims of Chineseness) is a direct shot in the foot when it comes to appeal to the Taiwanese.

I don't think this problem can be solved (at least as long as the CCP doesn't control the island...), therefore their whole cultural approach is not all that important. The Taiwanese local media is far more important at that respect.