The Return of the Two Nationalisms

One fascinating aspect of the KMT's regaining political dominance in Taiwan is the reappearance of two forms of nationalism that have been central to that party's political ideology, namely Greater China (大中華) and anti-Japanese resistance (抗日). Both have enjoyed a certain degree of legitimacy in the context of modern Chinese history, yet each carries its own risks as well.

The theme of Greater China found clear expression in President Ma Ying-jeou 馬英九's inaugural address, which emphasized the idea that the residents of both China and Taiwan were part of a greater ''Chinese nation'' (中華民族). It also seemed significant that Ma made no mention of Japan, as well as the issue of whether Taiwan (or the Republic of China, for that matter) is a sovereign state. From a diplomatic perspective, the skirting of such issues in order to enhance cross-Strait negotiations makes considerable sense, as can be seen in the successful conclusion of agreements on direct flights and tourism. However, as I noted in a previous blog, the question of who will benefit from these policies is unclear, and there are also concerns about the costs. One example is Ma's agreeing to be addressed as ''Mr. Ma'' when he meets China's Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait (ARATS) Chairman Chen Yunlin 陳雲林 later this year. While such compromises have a reasonable chance of furthering future ties between China and Taiwan, one cannot help but think of other leaders from the previous century who were willing to make all manner of sacrifices in the interest of ''peace in our time''.

Anti-Japanese sentiments made a dramatic comeback in Taiwan's political arena during a diplomatic row with Japan that ensued after the June 10 sinking of a Taiwanese fishing vessel by a Japanese patrol boat in disputed waters surrounding islets known in Taiwan as Tiaoyutai 釣魚台 and in Japan as the Senkakus. Both Taipei and Tokyo claim these islets and their surrounding waters, in part due to their abundant fishery resources and potential natural gas deposits. Japan subsequently apologized and offered to negotiate compensation for the fishing boat's captain, but the immediate aftermath of the incident was marked by highly provocative comments, including Premier Liu Chao-shiuan 劉兆玄 allowing himself to be goaded by hard-line KMT legislators into saying that he did not ''exclude war'' with Japan.

Perhaps more importantly, in addition to recalling Koh Se-kai 許世楷, Taiwan's de facto ambassador to Japan, the Ma government scrapped the Committee on Japanese Affairs, a body that had played a key role in improving Taiwan's ties with Japan. Established in 2005, this committee comprised experts who reported directly to the foreign minister and provided recommendations on Taiwan-Japan relations. The presence of this committee contributed to steadily improving yet unofficial links with Tokyo, with Japan overtaking the United States as Taiwan's second-biggest trading partner after China in 2006, and the two nations becoming each other's top foreign tourist destinations.

Now that this committee has been axed, one wonders who will be responsible for managing ties with Japan, and whether the links between these two countries will improve or continue to deteriorate. If the Ma administration continues to play on emotional anti-Japanese sentiments, the people of Japan might well conclude that years of friendship with Taiwan are now at risk. Such sentiments are already being expressed in editorials in the Japanese media, which point to the rise of Greater China and anti-Japanese sentiments as harbingers of what could be a ''nightmarish'' future.

There have also been signs that these tensions are infecting Taiwan's own domestic arena. On June 18, following a meeting with former president Chen Shui-bian 陳水扁, Koh Se-kai was struck by a protester who claimed to be a member of the pro-unification Patriot Association (愛國同心會). This assault followed highly charged comments by KMT lawmakers, who labeled Koh as a "Taiwan traitor" (台奸) and "a Japanese, not a Taiwanese". There have also been reports of Japanese students being beaten up, and there is now enhanced security at the Taipei Japanese School.

It seems particularly fascinating that both of these forms of nationalism have also helped shape CCP ideology, which suggests that they might serve as a common ground for future negotiations. Moreover, both the CCP and the KMT have found it useful to exploit such sentiments in order to distract attention from other issues. In Taiwan today, the stock market has plummeted 15% since Ma's inauguration, while prices are continuing to rise. In addition, the new government has been plagued by controversies over its members having until recently enjoyed dual citizenship or permanent residency, including the current Foreign Minister, who somehow managed to apply for a green card while serving as ambassador to Guatemala. As a result, the administration's popularity has been steadily declining, and even a recent United Daily News (聯合報) poll showed Ma's own rating at 50%, down from 66% one month ago.

Finally, there are disturbing indications of politics once again extending its claws into academia. One example is the decision by National Cheng Chih University (國立政治大學) not to extend the contract (不續聘) of former Ministry of Education Secretary Chuang Kuo-jung 莊國榮 on charges of "conduct unbecoming of a professor" (行為不檢). While Chuang had made some highly offensive remarks about Ma's father, he had subsequently apologized, and the department and college faculty review committees had only recommended a suspension, only to be overruled by the university review committee in favor of the harsher punishment. During the past 10 years, there have been 106 instances of contract termination at Taiwan's universities, but those that involved charges of "conduct unbecoming of a professor" tended to be cases of sexual harassment, rape, and corruption, and usually followed the accused faculty member's being convicted in a court of law. There have also been difficulties surrounding the proposed reappointment (回任) of former Representative to the United States Joseph Wu 吳釗燮 at the same university. These events, combined with reports that many officials appointed by the Chen administration are now in danger of losing their jobs, suggest a return of the ''cicada in winter effect'' (寒蟬效應), by which opposition voices gradually fall silent.

One hopes that the above instances are merely aberrations, and that the KMT's return to power, combined with the understandable quest for improved relations with China, do not come at the price of rampant nationalism and the abandonment of the democratic freedoms that so many men and women fought so hard to achieve.

Note: Some of the contents of this blogpost were inspired by Max Hirsch's June 17 article entitled "Goodwill between Japan, Taiwan fading after key committee scrapped".


Anon said...

When Hu Jingtao receives Taiwanese visitors, he is usually addressed as "Mr. Hu" or "general secretary Hu" too, rather than "President Hu". So what's the big deal?

Robert said...

The big deal is, probably, the fact that if the Taiwanese representatives did call Hu "president," it wouldn't have been remarkable. Had the Taiwanese delegation called Ma the "president," it likely would have caused serious problems. So, there's a double standard.

Ah-Hao said...

Paul, this is a really great and insightful post. The past month has certainly borne out Japanese fears regarding Ma and the KMT's lingering 'Kang Ri' sympathies, despite his reassurances in his visit there last year that the KMT had put this behind them.

Perhaps most disturbing are the charges that Koh Se-kai 許世楷 is 'Japanese', rhetoric scarily reminiscent of the KTM indoctrination campaigns of the late 1940s and 1950s, and the related belief that Taiwanese who had been educated under the colonial Japanese system were 'poisoned' and 'Japanese slaves'.

I have to wonder though, how widespread is support for a revived Kang Ri nationalism be amongst the general populace? Certainly in Taipei there is a vocal minority of KMT supporters that harbour such sentiments, but I have always found Taiwanese on the whole hold extremely positive views of Japan, especially in the south.

Indeed one of the core themes of the discipline of 'Taiwanese History' (Taishi) is the reevaluation of the Japanese colonialst legacy, often in overtly positive tones (harbinger of modernity, rather than violent exploiter). This is alos apparent at a popular level in the widespread fascination with the Japanese era in heritage tourism, an area which has been isightfully explored by Jeremy E. Taylor's work.

Might Ma and co. be backing the wrong horse in trying to stoke up anti-Japanese nationalism?

(Also interesting to note that Diaoyutai/Senkaku-related activism first brought a young Ma to prominence in the 1970s.)

J said...

Living in Taipei I find it hard to believe that anti-Japan sentiment is widespread at all. I haven't heard anyone say anything bad about Japan yet, and pro-independence Taiwanese, many of whom voted for the KMT this year, tend to be look favorably on Japan.
I don't even think it makes sense from Ma's perspective- without implicit support from both the US and Japan, he loses a lot of bargaining power with the CCP. As much as he may want to encourage closer cross-straight relations, putting himself under the CCP's thumb does nothing for his own position.

Paul R Katz said...

Many thanks to everyone for the insightful comments! The next few months could be a tricky period of time for China and Taiwan. Patience, tolerance, and diplomatic skill will be required of both sides...

Anon said...


I understand what you mean. All I was trying to say is that for the mainland delegation to call Ma "Mr. Ma" is a standard practice, which was used by Taiwanese visitors in the mainland too. So there is nothing unusual there.