By Taylor Loeb
March 15, 2020
Last month, I was in Taiwan, watching the presidential election and its democracy, in action. I sat around table-mounted microphones, drinking black coffee, listening to experts meditate on election results, observing Taiwanese society, and, as experts do, analyzing what it all means. I went to raucous political rallies with hundreds of thousands of supporters. I surveyed cab drivers, foreign ministers, housekeepers, expats, political activists. In room after room, there was talk of “identity.”
On Saturday night as incumbent Tsai Ying-wen became the first ever Taiwanese presidential candidate to cross the 8 million vote threshold, something important was happening on the other side of the island.
Her key challenger, Han Guo-yu, often dismissed as a demagogic populist, was delivering his own speech. In conceding, he congratulated Tsai, and, though disappointed, he implored his followers to accept the vote, accept the process, accept the discussion. Han was affirming that the process of democracy, not outcome, is most worthy of protection.
In Taiwan, I heard again and again and a few more times that this process was a manifestation of human dignity. Even if it can be messy—at times “inefficient”—it is so manifestly important to people in Taiwan that they have a say in who they are and who they become.
For Taiwan, more than perhaps anywhere on the planet, identity is existential. Despite, or perhaps because of that fact, it is also elusive and perpetually under construction.
Southern Chinese traders and farmers came to the island centuries ago. Aboriginal, Austronesian-speaking peoples had already been there for centuries before. The Dutch and Spanish had their moment, then, for 200 years, the Qing dynasty, then, for 50, the Japanese. Then, again, came the Chinese—this time mainland Kuomintang (KMT) Nationalists, under Chiang Kai-Shek, fleeing Communist “liberation” of the mainland. The mainlanders brought a new dialect, educated elites. and harsh, authoritarian martial law. The KMT never got comfortable, though, waiting for the day they might return and “unify” China—their China—once more. Years passed and martial law became democracy—untidy at first, but growing, improving.
People died, with them memories and stories of who we are. The national dream-myth-conclusion of geographic recapturing of who we are began to fade away. And the question of who we want to be could no longer be answered by invoking who we were. The people on the island, caught between centuries of cultural upheaval and identity imposition began to see that their shared experiences in recent memory were defining a greater part of who are we than memories past. They also seemed to realize not only that this was something unfinished, evolving, but something they could talk about, together. Debate, discuss, even create. That, after hundreds of years of imposed identity, they now had power over how they wanted to create this identity.
The Taiwanese—people from the island of Taiwan, forever students of identity, seem to have a more circumspect understanding of the simultaneous insignificance and existential gravity of this concept than any other group on the planet. Insignificant, because times require who we are to change, existential because not everyone realizes that.
The Taiwanese government appears to be consciously building a new identity based around pluralism and openness. In Taipei, you hear of strategies like the New Southbound Policy, which is not just about moving economic resources from China—although it is very much about that—to South and Southeast Asia, but also about boldfacing cultural and ideological ties. Re-conceptualizing the island’s geographic location as—to write words that haven’t been spoken— north of the Philippines as opposed to, say, east of China and south of Japan.
The People’s Republic of China, Taiwan’s neighbor and/or housemate (depending) 100 miles to the west, operates under a different, more religio-dogmatic setup administered by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Identity comes first, outcome informs process. Form follows function. The 10 Commandments are Commandments, not suggestions. They are lines—narrow ones at that—to be operated within. Lines drawn for, not by.
China and Taiwan have mostly stopped talking to each other, diplomatically. CCP propaganda attacks the Tsai Ying-wen administration as illegitimate. The Chinese government continues to be single-minded in its policy of “reunification.” Meanwhile, it spurns what is clearly the will of the people—legal or otherwise—in Hong Kong. The world, for its part, observes and takes notes. In a less public and much less discussed way, it is trying to eliminate the Uyghur identity altogether in Xinjiang. This is identity dictated. And it doesn’t work. Without conversation, without deliberation, and with only strict adherence to one’s own unilateral definitions of reality, hearts and minds will remain indefinitely elusive.
As cultural, ideological, economic, and—conceptually at least—even geographic ties dissipate, natural links will too. “Reunification” becomes a pointless, groundless argument. When talking to those on the mainland who have a clear understanding of the situation in Taiwan, you may often see the phrases 两情相悦 (liang qing xiang yue) and 自作多情(zi zuo duo qing) side by side. The first means “natural affinity,” aka the CCP dictated reality. The second means “unrequited love,” aka the reality dictated reality.
There is no media in China. To the extent that there is news, it is outcome-affirming. It is a way to deliver the plot of a narrative whose conclusion is already written. Choose your own adventure, it is not. There is no real dialogue playing out in the arts about who we are. There is no discussion, not under the sun, at least. There is a cultural and ideological arbiter who has, more often than not, arbitrated correctly over the past few decades. But, are we confident that that will always be the case? It hasn’t always been in the more distant past.
Truth be told, I find much value in elements of the Chinese governing system. It has, after all, drastically improved the lives of hundreds of millions of people—very few organizations in the history of the world can make that claim. There is plenty for which to applaud the Chinese government.
However, times and realities, leaders and interpretations evolve.
In China, there’s this pseudo-academic dogma that Chinese people can’t handle democracy, can’t handle decision-making. Many people are, in fact, happy to tell you this themselves. This is supposed to be because of “collectivism” and “thousands of years of history.” I spent an election week in Taiwan. I have been to Hong Kong many times. The idea that there is a cultural anaphylaxis to discourse is false, definitively.
In Taiwan, people chanted and rallied in the streets for their candidates—for their ideas of who we want to be. Thousands more stood on the other side, working, building parties that supported those candidates and those ideas. They did it because they could do it and, in fact, they had to do it. Otherwise, someone else would answer those questions for them. To be sure, it was not always friendly—effective discussions never are. And it is far from perfect.
Uniformity in democracy is not the thing to strive for. Quite the opposite. We aren’t the same. We shouldn’t be the same. We can’t be the same. The questions of who am I, who are we deserve different answers. But mostly, as I saw on the tiny island of Taiwan, the process by which we decide who we are is perhaps the most fundamental answer to that question.