Since Tsai Ing-wen became president of Taiwan, China has been pressuring Tsai to agree to the “One China Principle” (that Taiwan is by default part of China). China has snatched away diplomatic allies such as Panama and blocked Taiwan from participating in major multilateral events. As a result, some commentators believe Tsai has no choice but to come around to China’s demands and conduct relations assuming Taiwan will be absorbed in China in the foreseeable future.

Unification with China is not what the vast majority of people in Taiwan wants now. According to Taiwan’s National Cheng Chi University’s widely cited poll on cross-straits relations, only 11.8 percent of those polled leaned towards unification with China in any way.

However, the rest of the poll shows that 68.0 percent of those polled favor the status quo (either temporarily or indefinitely). While NCCU’s poll of national identity in Taiwan shows the majority of people in Taiwan identifying as only Taiwanese at 56.0 percent, that is barely over half compared to others who identify as both Chinese and Taiwanese and only Chinese. In fact, since 2014 the people who identify as only Taiwanese has steadily declined from 68.6 percent.  

I believe that in the face of China’s aggressive diplomatic and economic chokehold, if Taiwan wants to maintain even just the status quo as an independent political entity, it has to consolidate its identity as a society distinct from China and unique in the world. One example to use as a reference point is the small city-state of Singapore.

Diversity and Singapore’s Survival

Not many people realize that the Republic of Singapore only became a fully independent state after it was expelled from the Federation of Malaysia in 1965. Tiny, poor and threatened by its much larger neighbors Malaysia and Indonesia, Singapore’s situation was so dire that its then-leader, Lee Kuan Yew, openly cried on television while announcing Singapore’s expulsion from Malaysia.

While Singapore’s society is dominated by descendants of southeastern Chinese migrants, it also has sizable Malay and South Asian populations, due to its position as an important seaport. It was paramount for Singapore to turn the allegiance of its people from ethnic, ancestral, and linguistic ties to civic and national ties as Singaporeans. Singaporean leaders defined Singapore not as a “Chinese” nation, but instead as a multicultural society to ensure its uniqueness. Tamil and Malay were made official languages in addition to English and Mandarin, and all Singaporeans are required to learn English plus one of the other three official languages.

Given Singapore’s history of friction with its much larger neighbors, its strategy naturally forced it to emphasize how it is different. Maintaining its ethnic diversity not only solidified its people’s willingness to work together against common external competitors, it also resulted in a particular image of Singapore in the world as an unique and multicultural place, that is also more open to outsiders.

Taiwan’s Past and Present

Taiwan can take some food for thought from Singapore in its ethnic and language policies. Under the Chinese Nationalist Party’s (KMT) one-party rule in the 20th Century, Taiwan has long been bound under a China-centric approach in its educational, linguistic, cultural and ethnic spheres.

The KMT controlled the Republic of China (ROC) regime founded in 1911 in China, but lost a civil war with the Chinese Communist Party after WWII. The KMT fled to Taiwan in 1949, bringing the ROC government to Taiwan while the communist People’s Republic of China (PRC) was established in Beijing.  

From the 1940s to the 1980s, Taiwan was acknowledged as “Free China,” and kept the ROC’s United Nations membership and Security Council seat. As the People’s Republic of China became economically and geopolitically powerful, however, Taiwan’s international space became gradually reduced.

Throughout this time, Taiwan, under the KMT government, continued to cling onto the ROC’s original identity even as Taiwan’s international space shrank. Elites within the KMT had a stronghold on political power and wealth, as well as the right to define their culture as superior to those of the existing peoples in Taiwan. For instance, Taiwan schoolchildren of this era were taught Chinese imperial history and China’s geography as if China was their own country, while Taiwanese and Hakka were banned in schools until the late 80s and were only given very limited air time on radio and TV until the early 90s.

In the 80s and 90s, Taiwan made the transition to democracy, thanks to activists fighting for more basic civil rights and for recognition of local Taiwanese identities. Since then, the Taiwanese people have increasingly perceived themselves as separate from China, both as a country and as a people. According to various polls, the percentage of people in Taiwan who identify as Taiwanese has reached record highs in recent years. Minority cultures were beginning to become more prominent in the mainstream consciousness.  

In 2008, the KMT came back to power with the election of Ma Ying-jeou, a Harvard-educated elite, as president. He adhered strictly to a program of deepening ties with China, which his party painted as a growing economic engine to which Taiwan must attach itself in order to prosper. He also tried to bring back the vision of Taiwan as “Free China,” including reverting the national postal service’s name from “Taiwan Post” back to “Chunghwa Post” (meaning “Chinese”), and attempted to see through a high school history curriculum reversion that emphasized Chinese history as “our national history.”

His vision was completely at odds with popular sentiment, and Tsai Ing-wen’s victory in 2016 was a clear sign of the people’s rejection of the KMT’s version of national identity. While Tsai’s presidency may be going through tough times on the domestic front, she has, by deflecting China’s overbearing demands, demonstrated that Taiwan now has a firmer sense of itself as an independent country. For the first time, Taiwan has a government that has a vision largely in line with most Taiwanese people.

Embracing Diversity in Taiwan

But to move to the next step towards developing a unique Taiwanese identity, it is not enough to simply declare a rejection of Chinese-ness. Something more constructive is needed.

Linguistically, Taiwan could do more to boost its English proficiency; but more importantly, Taiwan is also a multilingual society, with Taiwanese and Hakka still being spoken in casual settings by many Taiwanese. The move to have Hakka taught in Hakka-majority areas is a welcomed one, and there are now calls for the government to add a publicly funded Taiwanese language TV channel, to complement existing Hakka and Indigenous language channels. In addition, local governments in Taiwan have begun issuing official notices in indigenous languages.

However, all these languages are still nowhere near the status of  Mandarin in actual usage; there are no books or magazines written in any of these languages, nor roadway signs or billboards. Moving Taiwan’s mother tongues toward a more equitable and dignified status would do well to bring people together, and signal Taiwan’s openness as a society, that like Singapore, where ethnic Han are the majority but there is still room for other ethnicities and cultures to participate in society.

Conclusion

Of course, Singapore’s policies are not all desirable or applicable to Taiwan. Singapore’s political system is still dominated by one party, the PAP, and the Taiwanese society enjoy more personal freedoms and rights to challenge government policies than Singaporeans.  

Linguistic policies in Taiwan can also be more complex than in Singapore, as Taiwan is moving towards recognizing no less than 16 indigenous Austronesian languages, as well as languages spoken by increasing Indonesian, Vietnamese, Thai and Filipino immigrants. While the task of constructing a Taiwanese identity that incorporates all these elements will be difficult, the efforts towards diversity and equality itself will become a cornerstone of Taiwan’s identity in the world.

The recent moves from China such as stealing of allies and the obstruction of participation in international conferences make it even more imperative for Taiwan to overcome the shackles of its ambiguous identity and move forward in this new era. Taiwan can be confident in itself as a nation, through its diversity and the process in which it embraces its diversity. This will take time, but if Taiwan wants to break out from being “little China,” it needs to embrace its distinct societal mix and boost multilingualism. Singapore provides some vital points of reference for Taiwan in this regard.

Taiwan’s newfound sense of identity could have vast ramifications for its foreign policy and how it is perceived internationally. When a country is clear about its sovereignty and willing to stand up for itself and its people, it gains a greater chance of earning respect and standing up to bullying from larger countries.

(Feature photo of children from Lona, Taiwan)

 

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Hilton Yip

Hilton is a freelance writer who has worked in various newspapers, magazines, and tech firms in Taiwan and China. His work ranges from opinion pieces to travel and culture. He is currently based in Taiwan.