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Green and Blue: Understanding Identity Politics and Taiwanese Nationalism

Written by: Conor Hilliard & Mirjam Seiler

Conor Hilliard is a third year History and International Relations student, whose main academic interests include British diplomatic history, Irish nationalism and peacekeeping studies. Mirjam Seiler is a third year History and International Relations student. Her main interests include the concepts of non-state nationalism and the effects of globalization on world affairs.

The two main political factions in the Republic of China (ROC) engage in rather opposing nationalist discourses. While the pan-Blue coalition headed by the Guomindang (KMT) aims for eventual reunification with the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the pan-Green coalition, dominated by the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) offers visions of Taiwanese independence. The KMT ruled over the ROC as the internationally recognised exile government of China; it was forced to transition towards claiming representation of the Taiwanese people while still maintaining the goal of eventual reunification with the PRC. The DPP, on the other hand, only emerged as a political party after the ROC democratized and saw itself challenged to formulate a distinct national identity that supported their political aim of Taiwanese independence. Only 2% of the ROC population are ethnically indigenous to the island. The majority are descendants of 19th century and post-1949 migrants from mainland China. This means most Taiwanese people are of Han-Chinese ethnicity, meaning a nationalist discourse based on ethical difference proved unsuccessful.

Pan-Green Coalition – Mirjam Seiler

Opposition to the KMT leadership and its inherent aim to unify the ROC with the rest of China dates back to the beginning of Chang Kai-shek’s dictatorship imposed in 1949. When martial law was abandoned in 1987, opposition to a mainland-Chinese identity evolved into the political faction of the pan-Green coalition within the newly democratized system. It was accompanied by a heated dispute over national identity.

The pan-Green coalition has gained momentum since the 2000s when Chen Shui-bian became the first non-KMT President. However, the intra-coalition differences are evidence for the many complexities inherent in defining Taiwanese national identity. Within the pan-Green coalition, the DPP is by far the largest party and strongest opposition leader and builds its coalition with smaller factions, such as the Taiwan Statebuilding Party (TSP) and the more radical Taiwan Independence Party (TAIP). These intra-coalition divisions have been shown to complicate political movements and electoral success, with the DPP oftentimes finding itself in competition with its own partners over appealing to the broader public.

But what exactly is the core issue of the DPP when it comes to building a coherent opposition to the pan-Blue coalition? At the heart of DPP politics, we argue, lies their attempt to distinguish Taiwanese national identity from its Chinese counterpart. The pan-Green coalition largely agrees on the main point that it does not see Taiwan’s future to be part of the “one-China” project as proposed by Beijing. From the more radical TAIP objectives of establishing a fully fledged independent nation-state, to the more moderate factions of the DPP who would like to see the status quo of de facto independence to continue, the coalition does find some form of consensus to formulate an identity that sees the ROC as separate from China. However, constructing a distinct national identity has proven to be difficult and, evident through the political struggles of the pan-Green coalition, is far from being consolidated among its people. Some scholars, such as Shirley Lin, have pointed out that after lifting martial law in 1987 the country has moved towards democratization and, in turn, a consolidated shift to an identity conceived on the basis of civic nationalism has taken place. Setting the ROC apart from the PRC due to its separate civil society and democratic institutions, she argues, has bridged the gap from the ethnic discourse to a perspective of Taiwan being a political and cultural entity irreconcilable with the Chinese political system. This is supported by studies showing a percentage growth of people, who “self-identify as exclusively Taiwanese” from 18% in 1992 to over 67% in 2020.

But does the historic turn to civic nationalism fully explain what constitutes a Taiwanese identity? One cannot overlook that political change towards institutionalized democracy since the 1990s has not necessarily consolidated the political identity. Rather, the debate surrounding nationalist discourse broadened and diversified over what, if not ethnicity or birth, constitutes as a shared imagination of identity. Lo, researching collective identities in Taiwan, observed that the pan-Green coalition has come to redefine and defend the concept of the “Taiwanese nation” not as non-Han Chinese but as anti-China.  Consequently, she argues that DPP identity politics are based on a perception of a unique social and political history and distinct cultural patterns. This move from seeing the ROC as a locally different but constituent part of the Chinese nation towards a definition of a community that is “Taiwanese” and distinctly non-Chinese in its culture, politics, history and societal structure is what drives the most extreme pan-Green coalition members to argue in favour of Taiwan becoming a sovereign nation-state.

Pan-Blue Coalition – Conor Hilliard

Since the beginning of its exile from the mainland in 1949, the KMT has struggled to reconcile the gap between its official status as the legitimate government of the whole of China and the political reality of its territorial limitation to a single island. By 1988, Jacobs and Liu highlight, the ROC had broken off diplomatic relations with much of Europe, Canada and, most crucially, the United States, and had withdrawn from the UN in 1971. The question of how the KMT would resolve this most pressing internal crisis would come to dominate the ROC’s transition to democracy.

January 1988 marked the start of the party’s evolution; as per constitutional precedent, vice president Lee Teng-hui succeeded Chiang Ching-kuo upon the latter’s death, and moved quickly to increase the representation of native Taiwanese in key positions. Lee himself had been born in Taipei, and though his administration maintained a commitment to reunification, in 1991 the government formally recognised that the ROC did not control the mainland. This, in our view, marked the beginning of the KMT’s involvement in the creation of Taiwanese political nationalism.

In this involvement, it is difficult to overstate the impact of Lee himself; Clark notes that Lee’s Taiwanization of KMT made it a more electorally palatable option for voters, and effectively ruined the DPP’s chances of running an election that explicitly appealed to ethnic tensions. Moreover, Lee began to involve the KMT directly in constructing a Taiwanese national identity, through introducing the teaching of Taiwanese history and language in schools, and emphasised Taiwan’s role in building a “living culture” that was reflective of the new democratic settlement. This can be seen in the 1998 election for the mayor of Taipei, in which the KMT candidate defeated the DPP incumbent, in part by running on a platform emphasising the “new Taiwanese” identity.

Taiwanese political democracy was integral to the formation of Taiwanese nationalism; as Clark argues, democratization relies upon informal political processes, including a competitive party system, in order to function. Lee’s emphasis on building up Taiwanese culture aided the development of this system, as it allowed the parties to establish clear lines of debate between the major factions of post-democratisation Taiwanese politics, which Lijphart and Sartori suggest is one of the most important aspects in the creation of a relatively stable political environment.

The KMT’s involvement in the construction of Taiwanese nationalism is thus inextricably linked with the civic institutions of liberal democracy that exist in the ROC today; by cultivating “Taiwanese consciousness” through the course of his second term, Lee was able to ensure a national consensus around these institutions. Whilst some scholars, such as Rigger, have argued that this has seen the ROC become “post-nationalist”, we would argue that the KMT’s nationalism is readily apparent today, however it is constructed around the “living culture” of democratic inclusive Taiwan. 

Conclusion

Through the course of this article, we have sought to analyse the separate strands of nationalism in the Republic of China through the prism of the state’s two major political factions, the Pan-Green and Pan-Blue coalitions. In the case of the former, DPP politicians have sought to characterise Taiwanese identity in opposition to China, based on the state’s unique political and cultural history. In contrast, successive KMT governments have sought to develop a framing of Taiwan as an integral part of China, and have advocated unity with the mainland in the longer-term. What both of these conceptions share is a commitment to fostering a civic identity based on democracy, equality and the rule of law, in the context of a “living” Taiwanese culture that brings together indigenous Taiwanese with successive waves of Han migration to the island.

Editor: Victor Wascher 

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