by David Pendery
The following essay developed out of a Global Issues class I teach at National Taipei University of Business. We were on the topic of nations and states, and we watched the 2001 documentary Promises, which examines the Israeli–Palestinian conflict from the perspectives of Palestinian and Israeli children living in communities in the West Bank and Israeli neighborhoods of Jerusalem. Upon conclusion of this beautiful film, I asked students to write a piece entitled “My Taiwan, My Nation,” in order to examine the conception of nationhood, through the eyes of Taiwanese students. The following is taken from their reflections on nationhood in Taiwan. To be sure the students voiced perceptive and profound opinions, which we, foreigners all around the world, must take note of. Yes, “My Taiwan, My Nation”—a conception these students know full well, and one that I myself know better than many people realize.
Students may have begun with what seems to be a fairly obvious view on just what sort of nation Taiwan is. That is, “Taiwan is a country of democracy and freedom,” (Audrey Liu, age 25), it “ranks high in terms of political and civil liberties, health care and human development,” (Sunny Pan, age 40), has a media environment “among the freest in Asia” (Winnie Chen, age 43), and it is “a free and independent country” (Pitt Shi, age 37). “We are one of the most democratic countries in the world, we support human rights and protect freedom of press, speech and thought,” wrote Anthony Chen (age, 34). To sum up, “I am proud to be a citizen of Taiwan, we are one of the most democratic countries in the world” said Chen. Taiwan is “a hidden treasure in Asia” (Leona Wang, age 29), “Taiwanese people have fortitude and the spirit of never giving up; we are willing to fight for freedom and rights” (Julia Liu, age 25), and “I love my country, Taiwan” (Ann Lin, age 39).
All of this suggests more, and there were occasional doubts and questions in my student’s views. Crystal Mo (age 47) asked “Is Taiwan a sovereign, independent nation?” Her answer was yes, “Taiwan is a de facto independent democratic country”—falling into the old “de facto” trap, which is itself a contradictory view of nationhood. She went on to consider that “those who advocate that ‘Taiwan is a sovereign, independent nation’ may fall into a contradiction”—that is, that only 15 countries now recognize this so-called nation, and its “name” is not officially Taiwan, but the Republic of China. The ROC, but not necessarily Taiwan, “can still be regarded as a sovereign state.” Mo continues that, “in essence, Taiwan is a sovereign state that is not generally recognized by the international community,” summing up the concerns of those advocating Taiwan’s independent status. Meanwhile, “those who advocate that ‘Taiwan is not a sovereign, independent nation’ also fall into a contradiction”—that is, and again obviously, that Taiwan does indeed possess most if not all of the necessary attributes that define what a nation state is. “It seems that Taiwan’s problem still have to wait for time to resolve,” writes Wilbur Dai (age 48), and he goes on worrisomely “could it be possible that Taiwan will be transformed to a communist and totalitarian country…so that political thinking on both side of the Strait can become unanimous?” Many people here are waiting for answers to these questions in the best ways. With this confusion, with both “opposing claims,” what is the truth of Taiwan’s sovereignty? asks Mo.
Wilbur Dai adds that “When you are not a ‘state’ on any occasion that involves international politics, you simply have no place to stand, not matter how much you contribute to the world or how good your performance is.” To make matters worse, he continues, “in the constitution of the Republic of China there isn’t any intention or indication to cut off the connection with ‘China.’ From other states’ perspectives, as long as this circumstance doesn’t change, it is just two countries fighting for the same representative right.”
In light of this “deliberate ambiguity” (Lynn Wang, age 21), and in reference to the opening statements of this essay, the perhaps obvious conclusion is that “Some countries do not think that Taiwan is a country, but we have our own laws, systems, and our own presidents. We have everything that a country should have, why are we not recognized?” (Chen, age 21). To conclude with a conception common in Taiwanese politics that incorrectly tries to sum this all up, Wang says that “The status quo is accepted in large part because it does not define the legal or future status of Taiwan, leaving each group to interpret the situation in a way that is politically acceptable.” Pitt Shi adds that “It is time to correct Taiwan’s humiliating treatment on the international stage,” and “We should do our best to [earn] the international recognition that Taiwan is a free and independent county.” The contradictions and ambiguities mount.
China and its relations with Taiwan may be suggested in all of the above. Though a handful of students were somewhat antagonistic to the Middle Kingdom (“I do not think the government of the PRC can be trusted to be humane,” wrote Mitchell Li [age 23]), one student hoped for something better. “I don’t want to perform like an irrational person and just curse China,” wrote Nini Wang (age 21). “I think communication is the only way we can decrease misunderstanding. I hope we can have more opportunity to know each other and not bring the bias and judgement, just listen to what the other side is thinking. We can think from another perspective to learn each other’s merits, learn from other countries and progress ourselves.” No argument against this more accommodating view.
Students appreciated Taiwan’s diversity, calling the nation “a melting pot developing its own unique characteristics from different cultures” (Arthur Liu, age 21). “Multiple ethnicities live here, different cultures are combined, and coming out this small island is a Taiwanese culture,” wrote Winnie Chebn. “Taiwan is a country with many ethnic groups, including indigenous peoples, Hakka people, Minnans [閩南語, the Min Chinese originating in Fujian Province], and immigrants and foreigners who come to Taiwan to work or marry Taiwanese,” wrote Jamie Wu (age 26). As a long-living foreigner in Taiwan, I would not disagree.
Perhaps to sum up, “What is gratifying is that Taiwan is making progress in a good direction, from wilderness to civilization, from Colonial period to dictatorship, from dictatorship to freedom and democracy. Taiwan is my current home and my nation. No matter what its past or future name will be, or what story happens, we should all guard together at this moment to make this place become better and better” (Queenie Fu). “Taiwan must use a brand-new identity to make it possible to embark on a new path and enter the international community, wrote Pitt Shi. Let’s hope this all comes to be. “I still hope to retain the original Taiwanese spirit,” wrote Fanny Pan (age 21), and Fiona Chang (age 21) concluded that we have “a great opportunity to shine like a bright star and show the world regarding Taiwan.”