Taiwan needs to focus on building 'Chineseness' : The China Post

Chinese culture is at the core of Taiwan's society.
Chinese culture is at the core of Taiwan's society.PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

In its editorial on Nov 12, 2015, The China Post says political leaders should focus on building the Taiwanese brand of "Chineseness".

When President Ma Ying-jeou and mainland Chinese leader Xi Jinping expressed their hopes of "reviving China" at their meeting last week, a substantial number of Taiwanese people no doubt rolled their eyes. The idea of Taiwan's Chineseness seems undesirable, even unnatural, for people born after 1949 who call Taiwan their home.

There is no doubt that Chinese culture is at the core of Taiwan's society.

Most Taiwanese people speak Mandarin and Taiwanese Hokkien, both Chinese dialects, read and write Chinese, observe Chinese traditions and customs, celebrate Chinese holidays, live on a staple of Chinese food and have Chinese names.

The China in question is not the geopolitical entity or the historical/imaginary "Middle Kingdom," the classical regional powerhouse both Ma and Xi were no doubt alluding to in their "revival dreams."

Being Chinese is not even necessarily about genealogy, as yesterday's foreign invaders (such as the Manchurians) can be today's Chinese. It is rather about the aspects of life that were created by, imported to, and have been repeatedly reinvented by the expansive groups of Chinese-speaking people.

People who reject Taiwan's Chineseness are not looking to change their way of life but are mainly repelled by the political connotations of "China," which are closely related to the authoritarian oppressions of pre-1980s Taiwan.

This "China" is an overriding nationalist (and feudalist) idea the government used to impose its prerogative on the people. Before the democratisation of the country, Taiwanese people were forced to sacrifice their diversity, their freedom of speech and sometimes their lives for "reviving China."

No doubt when the authoritarian regime from the mainland waves the China banner, many find the idea unappealing in Taiwan.

What is also certain is that Taiwan leaders in the foreseeable future will have to contend with the political reality of the Chineseness of the nation.

It is yet to be seen whether the surge of such nationalistic sentiments in recent years is indeed a paradigm shift or simply the result of the unpopularity of the current pro-China Ma administration - just as the unpopularity of Chen Shui-bian propelled Ma to power in the first place.

But even supporters of Taiwan's independence would not expect the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Chairwoman and presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen, who enjoys a commanding lead against her Kuomintang (KMT) rival Eric Chu in the polls, to change the official name of the nation if elected president.

Due to a lack of imagination and courage, both the KMT and DPP have been unable to reconcile Taiwan's Chineseness with its nature as an independent nation.

On the one hand, the KMT fails to recognize the Taiwan localists' very human tendency to love the land of their birth rather than the imaginary "revived China."

By branding the localists the enemy and by subscribing to the same outdated dream as the mainland of "reviving China," the KMT earns the distrust of the Taiwanese people.

On the other hand, the DPP is equally caught in a bind between its supporters' localist tendency and the political reality that Taiwan is the Republic of China.

Politically, the party finds itself in an awkward position of rejecting China while vying to govern a nation named the Republic of China.

More importantly, it is caught between its pro-independence stance, a strong rallying point in elections, and the same idea's lack of international currency.

The Taiwan/China divide in the nation's politics has served the two parties well but not the Taiwanese people.

It leads to political gridlock and to a confused national identity.

There is no reason why Taiwan cannot be both uniquely Taiwanese and Chinese at the same time.

Chinese societies across the world share common features but have also developed their own unique cultures.

In terms of politics, both contemporary and historical, there may only be "one China," but in terms of culture, there are as many Chinas as there are Chinese communities.

Instead of reviving China or rejecting China, forward-looking leaders should focus on "reinventing China" in Taiwan.

"China with Taiwanese characteristics" can be a strong brand that celebrates the same family-centered, industrious and education-heavy traditions of the Chinese-speaking people mixed with a respect of diversity, a love of freedom and democracy as well as openness to new ideas.

With effort, Taiwan can also show the world that, unlike the mainland, a Chinese-speaking society does not necessarily have to be a Han Chinese-centric one, by supporting Sinicized aboriginal peoples and immigrants to embrace and celebrate their cultural roots.

Rather than regard Taiwan's official name as an unshakable burden or a convenient political ambiguity, Taiwan's leaders should play with the hand they are dealt and maximise Taiwan's strength by using the Republic of China as a brand to appeal to the more than 1-billion-strong potential audience of Chinese-speaking people.

* The China Post is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, a grouping of 22 newspapers seeking to promote coverage of Asian affairs