Taiwan’s national identity dispute was ignited yet again, just less than a month after students protested the Ministry of Education’s revised high school history curriculum to instill more China-centric identity, thanks to efforts by revision committee convener Wang Hsiao-po.

This past week, right-wing Japanese magazine “Voice” announced a piece by former president Lee Teng-hui, in which Lee claims “Taiwanese fought for their motherland as Japanese.” Lee went on to say that Taiwan was not part of any resistance war against Japan, as Taiwan was in fact part of Japan during World War II.

These assertions provoked a maelstrom of negative reaction from President Ma Ying-jeou and his party the KMT, whose administration has mobilized for a four-month long celebration of “70th Anniversary of Victory Over Japan,” to the tune of approximately US$2.22 million dollars. Not only did Ma said Lee “sold out Taiwan and shamefully insulted the people” and demanded an official apology, KMT politicians joined the fray, including presidential candidate Hung Hsiu-chiu and various legislators, calling for Lee to give up his benefits as former president of the ROC. Social media has been lit up with angry commentary calling Lee a “traitor.”

None of this is new. Lee has been long known for his views on Japan, and he has said openly he was “Japanese before he turned 22.” Historically, Taiwan was indeed ruled by Japan as a colony, and men from Taiwan were drafted to fight in the Japanese Imperial Army, oftentimes in China (including my own great-grandfather, who was an interpreter). On the other hand, it is also well known that the KMT, the Chinese Nationalist Party, has long harbored animosity towards Japan. The KMT (at least Chiang Kai-shek’s military faction) fought against Japan in China, during what’s called the Resistance War from 1937 to 1945, ending with Japan’s surrender in WWII. During KMT’s authoritarian martial law rule in Taiwan, official history textbooks taught of Japan’s aggression and brutality against the Chinese people, something I remember quite vividly from elementary school.

Certainly we should not discount the history of people who struggled with the uprisings of early 20th century China, suffered through the war with Japan, and fled from Communist China to Taiwan. That is part of the collective memory for a significant minority of families in Taiwan, and understandably, some of them will be uncomfortable at former president Lee’s association with Japan.

The problem here however, is that this version of history was deemed “official,” and sanctioned, even promulgated, by the state. President Ma Ying-jeou and the KMT decided to make this 70th anniversary against Japan a centerpiece of state-led cultural activity. In a televised speech to Stanford University in June this year, Ma used his opportunity to speak to US political scholars to focus on how the Republic of China, led by the KMT, helped the Allies defeat Japan almost a century ago (listen to the speech here). Ministries across the cabinet, the National Palace Museum, and the armed forces are all called to to participate in this top directive.

All this is happening, in spite of the fact that the KMT’s history of the Chinese mainland is no longer in the mainstream consciousness, especially with the youth. Even with the families who were part of the KMT exodus from China, their youngest generations identify much closer with everyday experiences as a fellow Taiwanese, than with the wartime stories of the past.

As the youth becomes more frustrated with their lack of job prospects and stagnant wages, they increasingly blame the Ma’s ruling clique. Protests against Ma’s China-friendly economic policies have only increased in frequency and scale; these include protests against pro-PRC business interests monopolizing Taiwan’s media, opposition to Chinese investment in tourism, the Sunflower Movement against further opening trade with China, and the most recent protests against curriculum revisions to a Chinese perspective of history. Taiwan Indicator Survey Research puts Ma’s approval rating at 16.3%. To the youth, trade with China meant profit to large conglomerates with personal ties to the KMT, but little for the rest of the population.

It is a negative spiral between disillusionment with China-friendly policies, which leads to a desire to assert Taiwan as distinct from China, which leads to more rejection of China-friendly policies—all leading to mass voter exodus from the KMT.

Therefore, Ma and the KMT are doubling down on their old histories precisely because the youth are abandoning the KMT. With the help of the likes of Wang Hsiao-po, the KMT is reengineering history that equates the Republic of China to itself, in order to legitimize its rule. This version of history glorifies the KMT as the inheritor of the old Chinese dynastic empires, defined to encompass Taiwan. This version of history dictates that the identity of people of Taiwan is the same as that of the people of China: as the one nation so benevolently ruled by the KMT.

This explains the seemingly counter-intuitive celebration of Japan’s defeat in WWII and the curriculum changes. They are attempts to utilize the power of the state to force an identity on its citizens.

This is problematic. First, just what is the regime called the Republic of China? Who does the Republic of China constitution actually “constitute?” Since the 1990s, the Republic of China has come to become synonymous with “Taiwan.” The laws made from this constitution apply to citizens within a well-defined geographical area. The reality is that most people from Taiwan understand that Taiwan is a state, under the (outdated and awkward) name of “Republic of China.” The posture that the KMT has taken up is so far from the reality experienced by the people of Taiwan that it is absurd. For example, insisting that the capital of the nation is still in Nanking, circa 1949.

The truth is, the KMT has no central ideology left. Officially, it espouses the Three Principles of the People, and quasi-socialist ideals first formulated by Dr. Sun Yat-sen. But its policies are producing the opposite results. Christina Liu, a former minister of finance under Ma, resigned after her proposal to institute a capital gains tax. And now, the party is using its control over the state apparatus to try to remind the voters that it had a soul–from 70 years ago.

More fundamentally, a top-down force feeding of identity is in itself not viable in the 21st century. If history has taught us anything, it is that a nation cannot solely be the project of the state; that national identity is not something a ruler can easily dictate to his subjects. According to Ashutosh Varshney, a professor of international studies at Brown University,

But in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, heavy-handed nation-building…seems neither possible nor desirable. It is too likely to undermine rather than bolster unity…arguments about some languages, races, or ethnic groups being intrinsically superior will today be called colonialism in another form, and resisted as such.

While Ma and the KMT are fantasizing about the Taiwanese people coming around to the stories of their former glory and express their loyalty at the polls in the 2016 national elections, the people are busy fighting for their own right to define history and identity.

Right now, children from Taiwan are playing in the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. When those children return to Taiwan, how will they describe their experience representing “Taiwan” to the world? When they grow up, will they feel compelled again to fight against a dilapidated patriarchal state dictating who they must be? Or will they be ever proud of representing a Taiwan where they, and anyone who wishes to, can find refuge? That’s the real question behind the national identity wars of Taiwan.

(Photo of a young Lee Teng-hui in kendo practicing gear)


Chieh-Ting Yeh

Chieh-Ting Yeh is the co-founder of Ketagalan Media. After working in think tanks and political parties in London and Taipei, he earned his law degree from Harvard. He has been a long time thinker of Taiwan's history, politics, and nationalism. He is currently based in Silicon Valley.