On February 23, all eyes were on Taiwan’s Member of Parliament Freddy Lim, as he took the podium at the Legislative Yuan for the first time. Lim has been most well known as the heavy metal rock star who is now one of the five legislators of the nascent New Power Party.

As a long time advocate of international recognition for Taiwan and a famous figure among proponents of Taiwan independence, Freddy’s first time deposing Prime Minister Chang Shan-cheng over the legal statehood of Taiwan and China was civil, yet provocative. At the end of the session, Chang admitted that the Republic of China (ROC) regime currently ruling Taiwan is a separate state from the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

Video clips and reports of Freddy’s session were widely circulated, with headlines like “Freddy Says ‘I am for Taiwan Independence.’” While pro-independence advocates may applaud Freddy’s performance, the response has been mixed. Prof. Tsay Ting-guei, a long time hardliner on Taiwan independence and the founder of the Free Taiwan Party, publicly posted on Facebook denying that the New Power Party was for Taiwan independence (台獨, taidu), but instead stands for “ROC independence” (華獨, huadu).

Within the past year, the term “ROC independence” has come into the vogue as a political hot button word of the moment. In short, it describes the position that “Taiwan is already an independent state, named the Republic of China.” This position is distinguished from the “Taiwan independence” position, which is “Taiwan is not an independent state unless the Republic of China regime is overthrown and replaced by the Republic of Taiwan.”

The terms are hardly neutral descriptions of political stances. New Bloom Magazine editor Brian Hioe notes that “tensions are growing more pronounced” between the two positions, with people categorized into one or the other as though there were no middle ground.

Moreover, the term “ROC independence” was coined almost as a derogatory label by Taiwan independence advocates, conveying a sense of ignorance, or worse, impurity, on those who do not yet share their views. Prof. Tsay’s accusation of the New Power Party is one example; when Taiwan-born Korean pop star Tzuyu Chou was accused as a Taiwan independence sympathizer by Chinese netizens for holding an ROC flag in a video, there were attacks on her from the flip-side, saying that she was “not really Taiwan independence enough.”

Enough is enough. I think slicing different “independences” to label people is rather silly. I go one step further: let’s get rid of the term “Taiwan Independence” altogether.

No, I am not advocating giving up the movement of “independence” altogether. Rather I am advocating that we think about what the term actually means, and describe its goals more precisely than defaulting to convenient but meaningless labels.

Nascent Political Community to Full Democratic Nation-State

To rethink what the term “independence” really means, we first look at its history. Taiwan had been ruled as colonies, trading posts, frontier provinces or short-lived kingdoms in the past, but the first time Taiwanese activists acted on the notion that the Taiwanese should govern themselves politically, in the modern sense, was in the 1920s and 30s under Japanese rule. In the teahouses of Taipei’s Dadaocheng, young activists established organizations such as the Taiwanese Cultural Association and the Taiwanese People’s Party, to advocate for an elected Taiwanese Parliament. The movement imported the idea of national self-determination from the aftermath of World War I in 1918. This was the beginning of Taiwanese as distinct ethnic identity leading to a distinct political community.

After World War II, the ROC regime, led by Chiang Kai-shek’s Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), took control of Taiwan. In February 1947, island-wide riots broke out, ignited by the mistreatment of a street peddler and the killing of protesters by government agents. During the 228 Massacres, Taiwanese intellectuals tried to negotiate with the ROC for greater self rule. As a response, armed forces swiftly targeted and murdered the intellectuals en masse.

Soon after, the KMT was defeated by the Chinese Communist Party in the Chinese Civil War. The KMT fled to Taiwan in 1949, and brought the ROC government with them. Claiming wartime privileges and the 228 uprising as threats, Chiang Kai-shek established a ruthless dictatorship in Taiwan, cracking down on dissenters such as suspected Communists, pro-democracy advocates, and anyone supporting the idea of Taiwanese self-determination.

During this time, the idea of political self-rule and self-determination for Taiwan evolved, as its proponents fled or were exiled. Self-determination was given a concrete form: a revolution to overthrow the Chiang Kai-shek’s ROC regime and found the Republic of Taiwan in its stead. This movement became known as “Taiwan Independence.” Work was under way to educate the people of Taiwan to form its own national identity as Taiwanese, which would then support a coup to build a new state for Taiwan.

Taiwan Independence spread among the Diaspora and within Taiwan: activists such as Su Beng and Kin Birei fled to Japan; in the United States Taiwanese activists formed groups that became the World United Formosans for Independence (WUFI) to carry out armed resistance, such as the assassination attempt on Chiang Ching-kuo, Chiang Kai-shek’s successor, in 1970. Chen Chih-hsiung (陳智雄), educated in Japan and employed as a Japanese diplomat in Indonesia during the war, was involved with a Taiwanese government-in-exile organization and executed by the ROC in 1963; a group of independence activists incarcerated in Taiyuan Prison led an armed revolt that was summarily put down by the ROC armed forces in 1970.

Nevertheless, the idea of armed revolution to overthrow the ROC regime never became reality. Over time, the KMT’s control of the ROC weakened, and civil society in Taiwan became restless. In the 1970s and 80s, dissatisfaction over the lack of environmental rights, women’s rights, labor rights, and farmers’ rights came to the fore, and their proponents eventually formed a coalition with the Taiwan Independence supporters as a unified front against the KMT’s authoritarian rule, under the banner of “democracy.” The infamous Chungli Incident and Kaohsiung Incident (also known as the Formosa Incident) were ostensibly about election rigging and freedom of speech, respectively. Taiwan Independence, still punishable by death as a crime of sedition, became subsumed under the call for democracy.

In 1987, ROC president Chiang Ching-kuo ended martial law, and Taiwan embarked on a journey of democratization–under the legal and political institutions of the ROC. In the years following, Taiwan witnessed the explosive growth of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), the Wild Lily Student Movement in 1990 calling for constitutional reforms, and the first elections of the representatives of the ROC legislature and president, exclusively by the voters of Taiwan and outlying islands.

However, while the people of Taiwan no longer live under a dictatorship but under their own self-ruled democracy, the ROC regime has persisted, and the constitutional definition of the ROC–a regime that contends sole legitimacy as the state of all of China–has not been changed.

“ROC independence” is just a part of Taiwan Independence

That last discrepancy, between the de facto independent, democratic national identity of Taiwan and the de jure holdover legal state apparatus of the Republic of China regime, is the essence of the ROC independence versus Taiwan independence debate. But looking back at the history of the Taiwan Independence movement, the so-called “ROC independence” is no more than a tactical goal post for Taiwan Independence.

The key turning point is when Taiwan Independence went from a revolutionary movement to a position on the political spectrum of a democratic society. Described another way, Taiwan Independence evolved yet again in the 1990s, rejecting its original violently protested strategy for a peacefully negotiated strategy. Described yet another way, a “grand compromise” was achieved between the DPP and the KMT over the life and death of the ROC: the DPP can have its democracy and self-rule, but the KMT gets to keep the ROC institutions. The battleground moved from the streets to the ballot box.

A quick example of the grand compromise is the DPP’s own constitutional documents, the Taiwan Independence Clause in the party charter (台獨黨綱), and the Resolution on the Future of Taiwan (台灣前途決議文). The former, passed in 1991, says “We advocate…to make a new constitution and establish an independently sovereign Republic of Taiwan;” while the latter, passed in 1999, says “If Taiwan, called the Republic of China under the current Constitution, were to change its status quo as an independent nation, must be approved by referendum by the Taiwanese people.” The former was about revolution; the latter about democracy.

Why was this grand compromise made? The fundamental reason was that Taiwan Independence, the revolutionary kind anyway, was not supported by the majority of Taiwan’s population for much of the 20th Century. Self-determination for an independent Taiwan required both building a new national identity (“Taiwanese” as a political community) and a new state apparatus (the “Republic of Taiwan”), but as late as 1992, those who identified as “Taiwanese” made up for 17.6%, less than those who identified as “Chinese” (25.5%) or “Both” (46.4%).

While a Taiwanese national identity was still a long way off, the lifting of martial law and pressures on the ROC to reform gave activists an opportunity to work on the state apparatus side of the equation first, through the electoral democratic system. This includes having the Taiwanese electorate elect its own representatives, but also much more mundane reforms such as redefining maritime claims and streamlining bureaucratic organizations.

Instead of overthrowing the ROC outright, the movement instead began “Taiwanizing” the ROC, and as the state apparatus became a functional Taiwan state for its people, national identity for Taiwan would naturally follow. Hence, the strategy is to bring the people of Taiwan to identify themselves as a separate, self-ruling political community (“Taiwan is already an independent country”), while steadily but slowly reforming the ROC institutions (“my country’s formal name is the Republic of China”). “ROC independence” merely refers to the current stage where the national identity has solidified, but the ROC state apparatus has not been fully reformed; it is the result of a deliberate strategic decision made collectively by the Taiwan Independence movement.

Problems with Taiwan Independence

I can understand the anxiety of “Taiwan independence” supporters when they dismissively label others “ROC independence” supporters. As a result of the grand compromise, Taiwan Independence lost its sanctity and romance as a revolution, and became pedestrian political horse-trading. Activists such as Frank Hsieh, Annette Lu, and Shih Ming-te were respected in the past as revolutionaries but now are seen as common self-serving politicians. The youth today look past them to someone like Cheng Nan-jung, a legendary figure who died in 1989 before the secularization of the movement.

The movement has also stagnated, with the current transitional stage embalmed in the political amber called “the status quo.” Polls show that while Taiwanese identity has grown, the support for the status quo has also grown; in other words, ROC independence seems to be here to stay. As much as ROC independence was a tactical goal post, it has become difficult to push further past this goalpost. Practically, whatever ROC institutions that can be easily amended to fit the reality of Taiwan as a state have mostly been completed–and any further changes will require overhauling the ROC Constitution at its core, now an extremely difficult task.

Furthermore, Taiwan independence supporters fear that the ROC institutions are taken for granted and that the youth would not understand the need to change them. For example, the ROC flag is derived from the KMT party emblem during its one-party rule, and had been a symbol of oppression bythe KMT. Nowadays, Taiwanese athletes and pop stars fight for the chance to wave that flag to represent their country internationally. For Taiwan independence purists, this is tantamount to adopting the oppressor’s symbols as one’s own due to ignorance of the past.

These anxieties can be summed up as a result of Taiwan Independence itself becoming a meaningless term. If we take “Taiwan independence” to mean the overthrow of the ROC regime, then the term itself ceased to have meaning once its goals were incorporated into the ROC regime, as the grand compromise strategy has mostly been completed.

The China Factor

In the meantime, most outsiders such as US policymakers and international media define “independence” as a movement to separate Taiwan from the PRC. Often, the Taiwan Independence movement is seen as an adversary of the PRC, trying to “declare independence” and assert self-determination in the face of China’s claim that “Taiwan is part of China.”

As China grew in economic power and political influence throughout the last four decades, it has been forcing its weight diplomatically, denying Taiwan any precedent of statehood and insisting that governments around the world heed its One China Principle. This is well documented and understood to be China’s policy priority; it seems as if the Taiwan Independence movement should naturally be its enemy.

But I disagree with describing the Taiwan-China relationship using the word “independence,” because it wrongly assumes China has a legitimate claim on Taiwan’s sovereignty and hurts the case for Taiwan globally.

The word “independence” describes a part of a sovereign state seeking to break way in order to establish itself as a separate sovereign state. But Taiwan was never actually ruled by the PRC. Instead, the PRC’s claim of sovereignty over Taiwan rests on two lines of reasoning: one, a more general appeal to historic and cultural hand waving (“Taiwan has been part of China since time immemorial”); two, the fact that both the ROC and the PRC claim to be the legal successor of the same state (of “China”), so whatever lands the ROC controls should rightfully be the PRC’s.

To attack those two lines of reasoning, Taiwan independence advocates say regime change in Taiwan would nullify China’s claim on Taiwan by breaking the connection between the ROC and Taiwan. Nonetheless, to advocate for regime change means convincing the Taiwanese public, and the rest of the world, that Taiwan is not a country, but ruled by China, under the ROC–which to most observers is just as well as saying Taiwan is ruled under the PRC.

In today’s world where most people experience and understand Taiwan to be a country, to say that Taiwan is not a country is counter-intuitive–especially when the goal is to establish Taiwan as a country in the first place. For the nascent Taiwanese national political community that has formed (in a large part due to the grand compromise strategy), it is confusing and backwards. For the rest of the world, Taiwan ends up looking like independence movements such as Scotland, Catalonia, Quebec or Greenland, sending a false message that Taiwan is somehow ruled by the PRC and is still fighting to break away; this gives the PRC’s claim over Taiwan legitimacy and does not help Taiwan at all.

In any case, the PRC still has the first line of reasoning–abusing history and culture to say Taiwan has always been part of China–to fall back on. Even if Taiwan can say it is no longer ruled by the ROC, the PRC will undoubtedly still claim sovereignty over Taiwan by citing Qing Empire or Han dynasty histories or that the Taiwanese are descendants of Han migrants.

What the Movement Still Needs to Finish

It should be clear that in order to achieve the goal of building a Taiwanese nation-state, the term “Taiwan Independence” has become inaccurate and harmful. Not only does it cease to have meaning as a movement against the ROC regime, it misleads the global community into perceiving Taiwan as a part of China. Furthermore, continuing to stress “independence” directs energy towards silly labels that turns allies into enemies, rather than towards actual tasks that still need to be finished.

From its history, we see Taiwan’s trajectory as forming a cohesive political community (1920-1990), building state institutions (1990-2010), and shaping a civil society (2010 onward). I believe the next steps for the movement are:

  1. Internally, finish implementing nation-building and state-building;
  2. With China, develop a healthy and sustainable relationship;
  3. Globally, calibrate Taiwan’s own position in the globalized capitalist system.

First, the Taiwanese civil society must continue to evolve and become more resilient. This includes redefining the Taiwanese political community from an ethnic one into a civic one, based on common experiences, shared values, and a democratically agreed upon social contract. The past wrongs of each successive colonial and authoritarian regimes, and most importantly the crony social structures that are still in place from the KMT one-party state, should be deconstructed. ROC state institutions should be further reformed, from clarifying the power relationship between the parliament and president to rehabilitating past state symbols. In short, transitional justice and fundamental constitutional reforms.

Second, the relationship with China needs to be rethought not as a movement to break away from China, but as two distinct entities sharing an intertwined history–of which the ROC issue is but a part. The ROC legacy as a “state of China” should be completely given up, so the ROC simply becomes a “state of Taiwan.” The PRC’s sovereignty dispute on Taiwan should be described as such, in the same way that the PRC has sovereignty disputes with South China Sea claimants. Culturally, Taiwan should have the confidence as a society that is inclusive of various aspects of the Chinese civilization as its own, but also acting as a mediating ground between East Asian values and Western modernity.

Third, Taiwan needs to have mechanisms to calibrate its position within the globalized capitalist economy. Wealth inequality, stagnant opportunities for the youth, and the loss of sovereign governments to regulate global market activities are problems that will plague any administration in Taiwan, but they are also global problems. These problems are at the core of any relationship between Taiwan, China, and the rest of the world, as they will inevitably require trade-offs between autonomy and prosperity. Taiwan’s civil society and state institutions must take control of these problems for Taiwan to be truly independent.

Conclusion

There is still a lot more to do, and doing them does not require bickering over terminology or political correctness.

So let’s just drop the inaccurate and misleading moniker of “Taiwan Independence.” Let’s stop the counter productive accusation of people who are willing to participate in Taiwan’s political community to build a better state and nation. Let’s not throw away decades of Taiwan being a de facto state and argue Taiwan is not a state and tell the world Taiwan is part of China.

The original spirit of the Taiwan Independence movement tells us there are still monumental tasks ahead to reach the its ultimate goals. Accomplishing these tasks require broad consensus throughout Taiwan and its allies worldwide. Therefore, goodbye, Taiwan Independence; it’s time to turn a new page and get to work.

(Feature photo of sunset in the mountains in Taiwan, by sputnikzion)

 

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.