As images poured in from Catalonia on Sunday, commentators, columnists and the general public in the West expressed sadness and outrage over the the Spanish government’s police crackdown of a peaceful vote. The consensus of those following the story seems to be that, at the very least, the Catalonians deserve a chance in the form of a referendum to decide their future, even if the hoped-for result is to remain a part of the Spain, or an arrangement with increased autonomy.
The same might not be said about the general perception of the pro-independence movement in Taiwan by hackneyed and lazy talking heads in the West. Pro-independence politicians in Taiwan are often described as “hardliners;” every pro-Taiwan statement they make or action they take creates “tensions” with China, including the election of any president China does not approve of. Descriptions of Taiwan almost always come with the disclaimer that China somehow has control: Taiwan is “an island China considers its own” or one which “Beijing sees as a breakaway province to be reunited with the mainland one day.” Talk of a referendum on independence is common in Taiwan, but is generally not mentioned in the international media. Friends of Taiwan admit that there is “not a lot of support” in the US government for such a referendum.
Only recently have mentions of the rise in Taiwanese identity, or how the Taiwanese feel about China, made it into international news reports, thanks to a handful of journalists going against the grain. However, the standard practice is still to give China’s claims, or the “tensions” Taiwan is claimed to be causing, prime real estate in most pieces, often leading headlines about Taiwan.
Yes for Catalonia, No for Taiwan?
Compare this with the coverage of the Catalonian vote. Carles Puigdemont, Catalonia’s leader, addressed the violence, saying “on this day of hope and suffering, Catalonia’s citizens have earned the right to have an independent state in the form of a republic,” a statement which was published as is; he was not called a “hardliner.” The tensions that resulted from the vote were appropriately attributed to the Spanish government rather than the secessionists. The Opinion pages of The Guardian carried a defense of plebiscites and referenda, as did The Atlantic. The Washington Post noted that the vote was “chaotic” and “violent,” but also pointed to “landslide support for secession,” publishing descriptions of the Spanish riot police “whipping ordinary citizens with rubber truncheons and dragging them away by their hair.” Those quoted called the Spanish government’s tactics “heavy-handed” and “the shame of Europe.”
Imagine if these language choices were employed in international reporting on Taiwan and Taiwan’s actions against Chinese encroachment. China would be called out for its unreasonably stubborn refusal to consider Taiwan’s positions, and would be correctly identified as the party responsible for “tensions” when it throws a temper tantrum whenever Taiwan says anything. Discourse about advancing Taiwan’s cause would simply be described as “pro-Taiwan” rather than “anti-China.” Beijing’s territorial claims over Taiwan would not be accepted as fact, but be challenged on the basis of its illegitimacy and aggression.
If the media lends support to Taiwan in the same way it did with Catalonia, then perhaps there would be greater international understanding of Taiwan’s situation and support for de jure sovereignty. The world might finally realize the infeasibility of China’s failed “one country two systems” framework, or simply be aware that Taiwan wants both independence and peace from China’s hostile attitude. Just as importantly, the Chinese government would be put on notice that any violence it sows in Taiwan will be met with strong international condemnation.
There are good reasons for the West to support a referendum on Taiwanese statehood, however. The post-war Western world has moved away from the idea of ethnic nation-states, having correctly decided that pigeonholing people into specific nations by ethnicity only causes more tensions rather than easing them. Yet Catalonia, an area whose identity is deeply fused with ethnic identity, enjoys international sympathy for its desire for a referendum. Taiwan, on the other hand, has no “ethnic” claim to nationhood. It is made up of ethnically Chinese Hoklo and Hakka people, a number of distinct indigenous groups, and a growing number of people from Southeast Asia and the rest of the world who have made Taiwan their home. Its nationalism is today a civic nationalism based on shared values, and these shared values line up nearly perfectly with those of Western democracies.
Furthermore, unlike Catalonia, Taiwan is experienced in governing its own affairs and has done so successfully, peacefully and democratically for some time. De jure statehood would not result in a nation dependent upon the largesse and protection of its neighbors, but one that is essentially the same as the Taiwanese state that already exists despite clinging to the name “Republic of China”. It may be argued that Catalonia’s decision seems ill-conceived; conversely, a Taiwanese referendum would only serve to underscore what is already true. Given how much closer Taiwan is to official statehood than Catalonia Taiwan’s case somehow does not garner much sympathy.
Everyone Deserves the Right to Self Determination
One must ask, then, why the tone differs so much between news pieces about these two issues. It is true that the two cases are not exactly parallel. Supporting the Catalonian referendum does not necessarily translate to support for secession, but those who are aware of Taiwan’s situation are also aware that a referendum here might very well produce a pro-independence result and would assumably, at this point in time, result in Chinese military action. Those who understand the history of the region will know that the Taiwan issue is a question of global geopolitics, which is usually assumed to be “complex,” whereas Catalonia’s case more closely resembles the classic independence vote by a regional minority within a state—the roles of the hero and the villain are well defined.
It may also be due to the geographic, cultural and linguistic proximity of Spain to the countries where most international media reports in English are produced. Taiwan is far away, with a different culture, and what happens here might seem too distant to be important.
While this attitude is understandable, it is also deeply problematic: Beijing seeks to control all international discourse on China and Taiwan, and by ignoring Taiwan or accepting without question China’s narrative about Taiwan, those who follow China’s preferred ways of discussing these issues are handing the Communist Party a victory. Understanding Taiwan and China is an excellent way to understand power relations and political tactics in a free democracy compared to an authoritarian state, a discussion which China is actively trying to block by keeping Taiwan out of the news.
There may be a deeper, more troubling reason as well. When discussing current affairs in Asia, there is a fear of “imposing Western values on Asians.” Westerners are perhaps more willing to support self-determination by a minority within a Western state; when asked about a territory in Asia, may point to “Asian values” or how politics happen “differently” here, where people view issues of governance, democracy and human rights through a different lens. One might even hear “Confucian” values evoked to defend this stance.
While this attempt at multiculturalism and intercultural understanding is laudable in some ways, when it comes to issues of human rights and freedom, such a view essentially states that these things are for Westerners and are not available to Asians. Or, even more troublingly, that Asians as a whole don’t want them or that they somehow do not apply to Asian cultures. By this logic, Westerners are entitled to self-determination, but in Asia one apparently does not deserve such privileges.
Such a view is acutely harmful to Taiwan, a free and liberal democracy that values self-determination in much the same way Western nations do. Such a view also benefits China, an unfree and illiberal state whose values are in direct contradiction to those of the free world. The Chinese government has said openly that these values, which ought to be universal human values, are merely ‘Western’ and therefore do not apply to them. For the West, to support such a view is to undermine its own moral framework.
In fact, everyone has the right of self-determination: not only ethnic minorities, and not only in the West. While unity is a praiseworthy goal as well, the burden falls upon the larger nation or organization to make it an appealing choice. Spain has shirked this responsibility, and China is not only unlikely to succeed, one can argue that it has never tried.
Although every situation is unique, Taiwan has the right to recognition of its sovereignty as well as support for a referendum to decide its own future, no less than the Catalonians do, and no less than the Kurds, Scottish and Quebecois did. While it may be argued that Catalonia would be better off voting for increased autonomy rather than outright independence, few outside the Spanish government would say that the Catalonians do not deserve a voice or valve to express their discontent. Puigdemont is correct: the Catalonians have earned statehood, or at least a referendum to express their views on the issue. What few abroad have considered is that Taiwan has earned it, as well.
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