Civil unrest is making headlines in Taiwan. A couple of weeks ago, a group of student protesters began occupying the Taiwanese legislature, as a means of drawing attention to the China-Taiwan trade bill that was hurried through that part of the government. The students are still there now, and many people are pointing their fingers at Ma Ying-Jeou 馬英九, current President of Taiwan, as the one responsible for the breakdown of the democratic process in this country.
The protesters are of course upset by the content of the trade bill, which would compromise many local industries, but their main concern is the fact that this bill was hurried through the legislature without having been reviewed in full. At best, the representatives involved weren't concerned enough with the content of the bill, and just wanted to expedite its passage into law. At worst, these representatives were attempting to pass this bill without the full cooperation of interested parties, and in order to do so they were willing to break the law. Given that President Ma was a supporter of this bill, the whole thing reflects very badly on him.
Since the protests began, the protesters have clashed with police several times. No one has been seriously injured as yet, but some of them have been bloodied, and water cannons have been deployed. Whichever side of this argument one falls on, you have to admire the protesters' fortitude. It is already the second week of their stay in the legislature, and there are few reasons to think that this demonstration will end any time soon.
For me, what this protest brings to mind is the future course of Taiwanese politics. I'm not just talking about the trade imbalance with China, but also the larger issue of Taiwanese identity. What does this protest portend for Taiwanese people and their idea of Taiwan? What does it mean for their future? Beyond the politics of party, what does this protest mean for the Taiwanese sense of self?
As anyone acquainted with Taiwanese history will tell you, this island has a long history of being caught between a rock and a hard place. In the 1600s it was caught between Dutch colonizers and the Ming Dynasty. Later on it was an object of dispute between the Ming loyalists and the Ching Dynasty. Still later it was caught between Japan and imperial China, and up until now it has been disputed between the governments of China and Taiwan. For all this time, Taiwan has never had a chance to be its own nation, its own people, and (in some ways) its own culture, defined against the national cultures of other regional powers.
Yes, there were brief moments of nationalist fervor in Taiwanese history. Many of the Ming loyalists were fighting more for their home (Taiwan) than for any issues related to dynastic succession. There was even the short-lived "Republic of Taiwan" 台灣民主國 that collapsed just as the Japanese were arriving. One might even point to the election of Chen Shui-bien 陳水扁, a noted advocate of independence, and say that his election symbolized the Taiwanese desire for true sovereignty. Of course we all know how it went with Chen Shui-bien, but that doesn't change the importance of the gesture.
What Taiwan has always lacked is a consensus. What Taiwan has always lacked is a collective will, a group of people standing up and saying "We are Taiwan. We are not China." This has not happened because outdated, ridiculous claims to the Mainland still persist through the Taiwanese constitution, and forsaking such claims would involve a long, complicated political process. It wouldn't be an easy thing for the people of Taiwan to stand up and say "We are Taiwan." Such as statement would, in many respects, be as difficult as many English colonists standing up in the 1700s and saying "We are the United States of America."
Even so, I think such a statement would be worth making. There are many problems in Taiwan that aren't going to be fixed until the people of Taiwan can make such a statement. Until they can do so, the trade imbalances will continue to get worse, and Taiwan's economy will continue to slide into the Mainland vortex. That is unless the Chinese government or economy undergo some kind of collapse, which doesn't seem likely in the near future. Odds are that such a collapse might even make things worse for Taiwan, not better.
Just imagine, for a moment, what it might be like to see a Taiwanese delegate in the United Nations. Just imagine what it might be like to see Taiwan as a true nation, in its own right. Just imagine what it might be like to be Taiwanese, and not to have to explain or apologize for that fact. Yes, it's a long way from here to there, but it is a definite possibility. It is, moreover, a possibility that can become a reality in our lifetimes.
When I look at these protesters, I can't help but wonder if they are the beginning of this process. Whatever their reasons for engaging in this demonstration, whatever their knowledge of what they're protesting and why, they have the world's attention right now, and they could be a good thing for Taiwan. Perhaps, as it watches these brave students, the Taiwanese government might learn a lesson from them. Perhaps the government might learn that there is a will to sovereignty alive in this place, and that people are ready to fight when their freedoms are taken away.
Maybe a seed has been planted. Maybe one day, not too far removed from now, that seed will grow into an independent Taiwan. That would be a good thing, I think. That would be a thing worth fighting for.
Hengchun's "Old City" 恆春古城 (中)
Semicoherent Thoughts on China
Mandarin in Taiwanese Elementary Schools
Taiwan by the Numbers: People