Wednesday, November 20, 2013

What China doesn’t get: A response to Wang Kung-yi

Helping Beijing understand the complexity of Taiwanese society, rather than reinforcing its flawed assumptions, would go a long way in avoiding the kind of reckoning that could prompt China to use force against the island

One of the principal reasons why I fear Beijing will eventually lose patience with the government in Taipei on the “reunification” issue, and therefore likely embark on a more hardline course, is that even after five years of cross-strait rapprochement, Chinese expectations continue to be based on a terribly flawed understanding of the highly complex political dynamics that exist within Taiwanese society.

We should state from the outset that this lack of understanding has nothing to do with the intelligence of Chinese officials and academics. Instead, the blind spot stems from a tendency to regard Taiwan in zero-sum terms, under which only two political forces — the pro-unification and pro-independence camps — are allowed to exist. This world view does not allow for a gray zone: everybody who supports Ma Ying-jeou’s Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) is in the “good” camp; those who oppose its policies are from the pro-independence Democratic progressive Party (DPP), the “bad” camp, whose supporters Beijing regards as “the minority.”

Of course there are probably thinkers and officials in China who have a more refined understanding of the political environment in Taiwan. But if they exist, their views have not become mainstream to the extent that they are influencing official policy. This is made evident by the inability of the Chinese policymakers who are involved in cross-strait negotiations, and of the academics who participate in cross-strait conferences, to propose anything about unification that isn’t immediately a non-starter, even among the “safe” pan-blue envoys and academics that were selected by the blue camp to represent Taiwan.

What makes Taiwanese politics so complex, and likelihood that the Taiwanese public will be willing to enter into political talks with China so slim, is exactly that gray area in Taiwan, which encompasses swing voters — “colorless,” “light-green” and “light blue” — civic movements, NGOs, and a growing number of mostly young voters who have become disenchanted with the main political parties. This not insubstantial segment of the population is driven more by what could be called civic nationalism (as opposed to ethnic nationalism) than by the “green” versus “blue” politics of independence and unification. What this means, therefore, is that opposition to KMT policies is not necessarily related to independence versus unification or party affiliation.

Domestic matters that directly touch in values, mores, and the ideational characteristics of Taiwanese society, are the main drivers of activism in the gray zone. As a result, civic movements that, for example, oppose the Ma administration’s controversial cross-strait services trade agreement are not necessarily pro-independence or even pro-DPP (many are not). In fact, the forces that have led to the emergence of an activist civil society in the past 18 months are the direct result of the aforementioned disillusionment with “blue” and “green” politics and their ethnicity-based component.

So it does everybody a great disservice when Taiwanese academics publish articles in China-based magazines and newspapers that reinforce Beijing’s dichotomous, and therefore myopic, understanding of Taiwan.

In an op-ed titled “Why be afraid of small protest groups in Taiwan?” (台灣警方為何怕小型團體抗爭?) published in the Hong Kong-based ChinaReview on November 18, Wang Kung-yi (王崑義), a professor of international affairs and strategic studies at Tamkang University, commits such an infraction. Using the protests that surrounded the KMT’s 19th party congress held in Greater Taichung on November 10 as the entry into his subject, Wang, perhaps for the sake of his audience, papers over and therefore oversimplifies the major distinctions that exist between the more than 10 civic organizations that protested on that day. In fact, he places disparate groups such as the 908 Taiwan Republic Campaign, the Referendum Alliance, the Black Island Youth Front and the laid-off factory workers under the umbrella of “pro-independence.”

Anyone who has followed those groups, as I have, will immediately recognize the error in Wang’s position, as the aims of organizations like the Black Island Youth Front and the laid-off factory workers are not related to the independence question, but rather focus on very precise legislative goals. Anyone who has attended the many protests organized by those groups will moreover have been struck by the absence of politicians and legislators from the DPP, not to mention the white-and-green flag associated with the party or with independence.

The DPP’s inability to reach out to those organizations, or to assist them in translating their protests into action items in the Legislative Yuan, has led to a conscious decision among the leadership of those groups to keep the DPP at arm’s length. The composition of the activist groups is also evidence of that, as they comprise “blue” and “green” voters, “Taiwanese,” “Mainlanders,” Aborigines, Hakka, and so on. No single party identification or “ethnic” group has primacy over the others.

This reality also counters Wang’s conspiracy claim that the DPP, having decided to no longer directly involve itself with mass protests, is using the smaller and “more radical” groups of activists as proxies to pressure the Ma administration. No such understanding exists. As a matter of fact, the DPP has repeatedly been criticized for ignoring the efforts of civic organizations, or the value of civil society as a whole.

Wang is right when he argues that police and the government should be afraid of the small organizations. But he is right for the wrong reasons. The so-called “radicalism” of groups such as the Black Island or the Taiwan Rural Front, which he contrasts with the “orderly” Red Shirts and Citizen 1985, isn’t the issue. The unpredictability, connectedness, intelligence, and persistence of those organizations, and above all, the heterogeneous nature of its members, which at long last has succeeded in transcending the blue/green/ethnic divide that for far too long has kept Taiwan a house divided, is what the Ma administration is afraid of, hence the high security, barbed wire, and overuse of the legal system to deter the activists.

Ultimately it is such a force, animated by the dynamics of “colorless” civic nationalism, which will foil China’s designs on Taiwan by highlighting the irreconcilable divide that exists between the two societies. Consequently, helping Beijing understand the complexity of Taiwanese society and the nature of its civic activism, rather than reinforcing its flawed assumptions, would go a long way in avoiding the kind of reckoning that could prompt China to use force against the island. (Photo by the author)

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