The 2016 presidential and parliamentary elections in Taiwan are finally over, and it had been nothing short of a spectacle. But as much as mainstream media outlets around the world such as the Economist report on the event, it ultimately was an internal affair, a decision cast by the Taiwanese voters themselves about their own matters.
Just a few months ago, two events occurred that deserve some more reflection, because they speak to how Taiwan should reexamine its relationship with the rest of the world.
First, the meeting between Taiwan’s president Ma Ying-jeou and Chinese president Xi Jin-ping in November last year was supposedly a momentous event, leading to some sort of a breakthrough in Taiwan-China relations. But the meeting produced no relaxation of China’s stance on Taiwan. Instead, Xi tried to reaffirm China’s claim to Taiwan by proclaiming that China and Taiwan were the same “family” and should cooperate to rejuvenate the “Chinese nation.” In Xi’s mind, the message was clear – Taiwan is part of China.
China denies Taiwan’s status as a country and continuously restricts Taiwan’s international space. The specter of the neighbor across the strait looms large in almost everything from international trade deals to multilateral institutions to even beauty contests. Of course, the apology that Taiwanese pop star Tzuyu, a member of Korea’s girl band Twice, issued online further drove home the point that China will throw its weight around to bully even 16 year old girls into ending her career.
China’s influence and interference may always be upon Taiwan, but China is losing out in trying to subvert Taiwan’s identity and the world is gradually coming to understand this. The Sunflower Revolution movement, the Ma-Xi meeting and the 2016 national elections have attracted significant media coverage that highlight the fact that unification with China is not something the majority of Taiwanese want.
Second, an unsavory incident happened at home that raised questions about Taiwanese attitudes towards foreigners. An expat in Taipei was verbally assaulted and provoked for almost 10 minutes on the Taipei MRT by a fellow rider. The Taiwanese was a security guard but insulted the expat over supposedly being poor, called him a loser and then called the expat’s girlfriend, who recorded the whole incident, a whore for dating a foreigner. It was a worrying example of an anti-foreigner inferiority complex.
While the majority of Taiwanese do not share such vile racist feelings, that does not mean it is non-existent nor is it unprecedented. Earlier in the year, a Taiwanese band released a video for a song called “Foreigner” that makes fun of interracial relationships and specifically, Western men. Meanwhile, there are still some locals who have negative perceptions towards Southeast Asians, especially Filipinos and Indonesians who work in Taiwan as manual laborers and maids.
Taiwan as periphery
The common theme between these two seemingly unrelated events is in the uncertainly over how Taiwan defines itself in the context of the rest of the world. One of the hand, the Taiwanese society had been debating its identity, however necessarily, almost exclusively in terms of how Chinese it is, or not. On the other hand, the Taiwanese society harbors a range of emotions, from fear to disdain, towards that which is foreign and unknown. While it is becoming unthinkable for the Taiwanese to be Chinese, it has also been unthinkable for the Taiwanese to be more of anything else.
Because of the weight placed on Taiwan’s Chinese roots and the rule of the Republic of China one-party regime, Taiwanese society had been taught that it is a homogeneous society of Han descendants living on a small offshore island. This view of history had embedded itself into the Taiwanese consciousness and made Taiwan an inward looking society. The Han culture stresses legitimacy from the center of power, and sees culture in terms of the distance from the imperial power center: the farther one is from the center, the more barbaric one is. This explains why the Taiwanese, when looking at themselves as a periphery of China, feel inferior, but when looking at themselves compared to foreigners (especially those in more southern parts of the world), feel superior. This explains why the Taiwanese often treat indigenous Austronesian culture as an afterthought, or an anomaly, or worse, as a social ailment that needs to be regulated. This explains why while Taiwan is trying to attract foreign investments and talents, it has also been debating on whether to ease restrictions on hiring foreign nationals.
Taiwan cannot afford to become so inward, especially with China squeezing it on the international stage. The Taiwanese society must contemplate what it means for Taiwan to become more globally relevant beyond participating in multilateral organizations and free-trade deals.
Taiwan can reject China’s unreasonable claims on its sovereignty and its identity, but it also needs to define its place in the world; otherwise it risks getting caught in a deepening isolation. Increasing relations with other countries, especially its neighbors, needs to be a priority. This comes at a time when a declining economy with less stable jobs and stagnant salaries has caused many Taiwanese to feel uncertain about its own future.
Taiwan, already internationalized
First, internationalization can start at home, with how Taiwanese views itself historically. Instead of a uncivilized frontier island, Taiwan should see itself as the intersection of global maritime trade routes since ancient times. Austronesian peoples have traveled on seafaring kayaks throughout the Pacific and Indian Oceans, with their origins from Taiwan. Dutch and Spanish traders vied to establish colonial posts in Taiwan, and the Japanese and Chinese all have ruled Taiwan with an eye towards international trade. Since the 1800s, merchants in Dadaocheng in Taipei bought spices from Southeast Asia and sold tea to Europeans. Its manufactured products in the 1970s and electronics in the 1990s were exported to markets worldwide.
In this view of history, Taiwan should look less to China and much more towards Singapore as a reference. Singapore itself is a good example of a small country surrounded by larger neighbors, a state that has exceeded its geographic and demographic limits. It counts Malay, Tamil, Mandarin and English as its official languages, with the last being the most commonly used in business, not to mention Hokkien (referred to as Taiwanese in Taiwan) as a n unofficial language of sorts. It focused on its strengths as a hub of international shipping, and adopted policies that are welcoming to foreign labor.
To facilitate Taiwan becoming a more globally open environment, Taiwan should take steps in making English an official language. In May, Tainan began implementing policies to bring more English into the public life.
Moreover, Taiwan must look beyond China and seek stronger ties with neighboring countries like Southeast Asia in fields like economic ties, cooperation or cultural exchanges. It is fitting that the DPP’s Tsai Ing-wen and the KMT’s Eric Chu have mentioned boosting economic ties with Southeast and South Asia rather than just relying on China and hence, furthering an unhealthy dependency. As the new president-elect, Tsai’s New Southbound Policy mentions “people-to-people, cultural, educational and research linkages” in addition to investments and economic ties. Now that the elections are behind us, it is imperative that the new administration in Taiwan look beyond China to build up its international presence, rather than become more isolated.
As recent events point out, Taiwan has a long way to go towards changing its views about its own standing in the world. Becoming globally relevant is not only a matter of the economy and diplomacy, but it is a matter of identity. In all of these regards, Taiwan needs to abandon looking at itself through the lens of China, and adopt a more holistic view that is, ultimately, Taiwan’s own.
(Feature photo of Tamsui River and Taipei, by Alex Nien-Yi Ho)