Hypotheses on Taiwanese Nationalism
A talk by Perry Anderson.
On May 13 UCLA's Perry Anderson (who holds a joint appointment in History and Sociology) analyzed nationalism in Taiwan from the perspective of three questions: How should Taiwanese nationalism be viewed in a comparative perspective: Where does it fit taxonomically? What are the prospects for this nationalism vis-à-vis China, over the short or longer run? How much leverage does the United States have over the situation in Taiwan?
Crystalization of a Distinct Taiwanese National Identity
Professor Anderson began by pointing out that the emergence of a distinct Taiwanese nationalism has been swift. "As late as 1996, well over 50 percent of the population when asked described itself as 'Chinese and Taiwanese,' over 20 percent just as 'Taiwanese,' and under 20 percent as just 'Chinese.' Today, less than 50 percent define themselves as 'Chinese and Taiwanese,' and not more than 10 to 15 percent as just 'Chinese,' while those who see themselves as simply 'Taiwanese' number over 40 percent." Morever, "the electoral system -- offering minimal differences between the two leading parties on social and economic policy -- is increasingly organized around identity politics."
Citing his brother, the noted scholar Benedict Anderson, Perry Anderson stated that the crystalization of a Taiwanese national identity might "best be seen as a contemporary version of what is historically the originating form of modern nationalism, namely, the separation of overseas settler communities from an imperial homeland. . . . This form of nationalism predated the romantic nationalisms of central and eastern Europe that are often thought to have set the pattern for twentieth-century nationalism." This sort of national identity required no major linguistic or ethnic difference from the metropolis, rather "markers of nascent national identity were territorial and historical: Geographical distance and colonial institutions engendered a distinct culture and self-consciousness and therewith a collective identity that laid the foundation for independent states."
Anderson went on to ask: Within this general taxonomy of national identity, where does "the particularity of Taiwanese nationalism lie?"
The Particularity of Taiwanese Nationalism
Anderson offered four particularities -- "corresponding to each of its decisive historical experiences" -- that set Taiwan apart from other instances of "settler nationalism."
First, separation of Taiwan from the imperial homeland on the mainland came neither from revolt (as in North and South America) nor by negotiation (as in the White dominions of Australia, Canada, and New Zealand), "but by foreign conquest, when Japan seized the island in 1895 as a prize of its victory in war with China." The fifty years of Japanese rule "was clearly a deeply formative experience, dividing the fate of the island from the mainland. Whereas Japanese imperialism was a ruthlessly destructive force once launched against China itself, . . . in Taiwan it established a relatively orderly, peaceful, and productive system of rule."
Second, after the reversion of Taiwan to China in 1945, "the Kuomintang was rapidly responsible for far worse exploitation and oppression than the Japanese."
Third, Taiwan essentially played no active role in the 1945-49 civil war in China.
Fourth, after 1949, Taiwan "became an outpost of the American empire. . . . Sheltering behind U.S. firepower, and benefitting from lavish U.S. aid, the KMT reconstructed itself as an efficient development state. . . . Taiwan became one of the great material success stories of the region."
The so-called Blue tradition on Taiwan "is understandably proud of these achievements. Part of the hostility of its following to the DDP is based on a sense that Green politicians . . . are in some sense free-riders on a prosperity they have done little to create and done something to damage -- Taiwan, of course, has suffered its severest recession under Chen Shui-bian." The Greens, on the other hand, see themselves as "the descendants of a political resistance to a brutal dictatorship. . . . The Green tradition is rooted in brave struggles against a long trail of Kuomintang thuggery."
Once the United States recognized the PRC (in 1979), "the KMT . . . had no option but to reposition itself. . . . Chiang Ching-kuo, seeing the danger that he could be left high and dry by Washington, moved to relegitimize KMT rule by gradually liberalizing its system from above, and then picking a local successor, calculating that this would make it very difficult for the U.S. to abandon the island. Democracy, when it came to Taiwan, was thus the result of a combined development: an opposition pushing against the dictatorship from below, and a regime quest for new credentials from above."
Anderson concluded that "out of this sequence of historical experiences has come a distinctive kind of national sentiment."
Cultural Specificity and Taiwanese Identity
The traditional forms of settler nationalism, Anderson continued, required little or no linguistic differentiation from the homeland. "In Taiwan, on the other hand, such a basis for local identification has to some extent always existed, since after all 70 percent of the population speaks the Minnan dialect. But this cultural specificity has never so far been the primary signifier of discursive identity. There are two reasons for this."
First, "the settlers who arrived from China formed two different communities with a long history of mutual hostility, whose traces have by no means vanished today": the Fujianese and the Hakkas. Second, overlaying this division "is the more recent stratum of mainlanders."
Althought "urbanization, education, and intermarriage have reduced the differences between the three groups, they remain sharp enough to draw much of the political map of the island." The north, "where mainlanders and Hakka are concentrated, is typically Blue, while the south, where the Fujianese are dominant, is . . . overwhelmingly Green."
However, "specifically cultural claims of difference, although on the rise, are still secondary as discursive themes in Taiwanese nationalism, in part because they are tactically divisive, tending to split the Green and Blue constituencies, but also because they offer little international leverage. The principal definition of national identity lies instead in the contrast between democracy on the island and dictatorship on the mainland."
A Political Construction of the Nation
Professor Anderson argued that "in itself, such a political -- as distinct from linguistic, ethnic, or cultural -- construction of the nation is not unusual in the history of settler nationalisms." The revolt of the thirteen American colonies against Britain, for instance, "could be regarded a an early modern version of much the same program."
"The peculiarity of the Taiwanese case," he continued, "lies in the fact that the nation claiming independence is itself completely dependent on a foreign power. The separation from the mainland that has formed its distinctive experience for the past century has always been a function of empire, not a revolt against it. First Japanese and then American suzerainty has been the condition of everything else." Although Anderson described Taiwanese democracy in glowing terms -- "in fact, it puts to shame that of its two overlords [the PRC and the United States]" -- he contended that "the underlying reality still remains: the island is a protectorate of U.S. imperial power."
As for Taiwan's relations with the mainland -- "the imperial homeland," as Anderson termed it -- a number of distinctive features can be observed. First, unlike the overseas settlements of the European powers -- which were separated by thousands of miles from the metropole, a fact that favored the growth of strong local identities -- Taiwan is no more than a hundred miles from the mainland. Second, the European powers that generated transoceanic colonies were smaller in area -- and eventually smaller in population too -- than their overseas outposts. The reverse obtains in the case of Taiwan and China. Third, historically capital and labor flowed from the European metropoles to their former overseas settlements once these settlements gained independence. "In the case of Taiwan, the process has been the other way around. Vast amounts of capital have gone from the island to the mainland and now reverse migration is following investments."
"The cause of Taiwanese independence," Anderson declared, "rests on the national right of self-determination." In positioning itself to call for a national referendum "that would give formal effect to the claim of national sovereignty, the DPP can appeal to the authority of one of the rare principles expressly shared by both of the great antagonistic ideologies of the twentieth century, articulated respectively by Wilson and by Lenin."
"The right of national self-determination has historically had two main zones of application, corresponding in effect to its dual ancestry." First was "the Wilsonian moment of national self-determination," which involved the realization of statehood by nations in central and eastern Europe -- after the First World War -- that had been "contained within dynastic empires." Second was the "Leninist moment," which ratified the coming to independence of former colonial possessions of the Euorpean empires outside Europe, "in the wave of anti-imperialism struggles before and after the Second World War."
"At the same time, this right [of national self-determination] has always encountered a limit: Where a nation-state was already constituted rather than still to be created, self-determination has been systematically rejected. In such cases, the right typically reverses into a taboo, for ideologically speaking what is then at stake is not 'self-determination' but 'secession.' This is what we may call the Lincolnian moment. . . . No standard nation-state has so far ever allowed the detatchment from its territory of a breakaway community."
In multinational federations, however, separations have occurred. Anderson mentioned as examples the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. In addition, "three cases of the peaceful separation of bi-national states are also on record: Norway and Sweden, in 1905; Malaysia and Singapore, in 1965; and the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1992. In each case, political leaders on both sides saw mutual advantage in the breakup of the union of two territories whose linguistic or ethnic difference was constitutionally acknowledged from the start."
The Implications for Taiwan
"What are the implications for Taiwan," Anderson asked, "of this three-sided record: the national right to self-determination, the taboo on national secession, and the friability of pluri-national federations?"
Although the PRC, unlike the ROC, acknowledges the existence of multiple nationalities within its territory, "unlike the USSR, it has never accorded any of them republican status." Nonetheless, Tibet, Xinjiang, and Inner Mongolia -- all areas with majority or large ethnic minority populations -- "form part of today's PRC as bequests from the Qing empire."
"It is not difficult to imagine them winning national self-determination in a democratized China. Taiwan, on the other hand, is ethnically Han and by the late nineteenth century was administered as a normal province. . . . Taiwan falls by ethnic and linguistic criteria within the national core [of China]. In comparative terms, its independence would be a secession. It is for this reason that there is little likelihood that the attitude of a future Chinese democracy toward the breakaway of Taiwan would differ significantly from the present dictatorship."
Furthermore, "insofar as the case for Taiwanese independence rests on the island's democracy, it would on the contrary be weakened rather than strengthened by the elimination of the authoritarian 'other' on the mainland."
Anderson pointed out that the "standard means of preventing or crushing a secession is war. But in the case of Taiwan, the PRC is in no position to attack the island since it is protected by American military might, against which the PLA has no chance of prevailing. Military threats from the mainland are pure bluster -- of no immediate significance for the island."
This being the case, Anderson argued, "the CCP's only hope is that growing cross-Strait economic integration will eventually persuade Taiwanese business of the advantages of reunification. Mind you, this is a delusion, based on a false analogy with Hong Kong. . . . The chances of buying out separation from a club of tycoons are virtually nil."
Choices for Washington and Beijing
Anderson argued that the United States has little effective policy vis-à-vis Taiwan. On the one hand, the United States is formally committed to the principle of one China as proclaimed in the joint Shanghai communiqué of 1972. Furthermore, "the United States is now critically dependent on Chinese financial flows to cover its trade deficit and prop up the dollar. So it has every wish to maintain close relations with the PRC. On the other hand, it is tacitly bound by the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 to protect the island against any threat of invasion and since the 1990s has become politically hostage to new-born Taiwanese democracy."
"The U.S. cannot, in other words, accept Taiwanese independence de jure, but must guarantee it de facto. America's only policy therefore is to cling to the indeterminancy of the status quo. Both big powers are immobilized."
In this situation, the only dynamic force in Anderson's view is Taiwanese nationalism. Politics in Taiwan is increasingly organized around questions of identity. The Green block "has a built-in advantage . . . since it can always set the patriotic pace and accuse its Blue opponents of footdragging." Thus, there may be little to prevent the Greens from pursuing the goal of formal independence.
What could the United States do to prevent Taiwanese independence? "Once the bandwagon began to roll, the only deterent at its disposal would be the threat to withdraw the Seventh Fleet from the Strait. But this is a bluff that Taiwanese nationalism could call. . . . In the United States the mainstream media and public opinion would . . . whip up an insurmountable storm at the prospect of leaving the island at the mercy of the PLA."
As for the PRC, at most it "could seek to frighten the island's jumpy stock market and hope for knock-on effects among voters. Beijing could, of course, apply real pressure on Washington in a way it cannot on Taipei, since any Chinese threat to sell U.S. treasuries could pull the rug out from under the dollar." But, even setting aside the hugh economic repercussions of such a move for China, "the authorities in Beijing have no appetite for any conflict with Washington." Thus, in the event of a formal Taiwanese declaration of independence, "huffing and puffing [in Beijing] about 'one China' would become shriller than ever, but no consequential actions would follow."
In view of the above, "the Greens probably could engineer a declaration of independence without paying any serious external price. Not, on the other hand, that they would gain any further international recognition by doing so."
Anderson asked, if this scenario of a plebicite leading to a declaration is likely, what are the contingencies that might derail it?
First, would be a deepening of the ethnic split within the island itself. "The Green camp is becoming increasingly nativist. . . , with a sharp edge of prejudice against ex-mainlander families. . . . Pressed too crudely, Fujianization of the educational system, the civil service, the media, and the armed forces and security services could create a backlash, polarizing Taiwanese society over internal issues rather than, as intended by the fundamentalist agenda, mobilizing the nation in a sacred union against the external enemy."
Second, would be "a sudden stiffening of attitude on the part of the PRC, however unlikely that seems. . . . Military action well short of a casus belli with the United States might -- Beijing could perhaps hope -- galvanize Washington into imposing a settlement along the lines of 'one-China two-systems.'"
Whatever the short-term eventualities may be, "the long-term prospects of China ever accepting a breakaway Taiwan seem small. . . . So long as Taiwan remains an American protectorate, Beijing will put up with it. But historically, some kind of reintegration seems likely to be the ultimate outcome."
* * *
Perry Anderson holds a joint appointment in the Departments of History and Sociology at UCLA. Among his publications are Passages From Antiquity to Feudalism (1974), Lineages of the Absolutist State (1974), In the Tracks of Historical Materialism (1985), English Questions ( 1992), A Zone of Engagement (1992), and The Origins of Postmodernity (1998).
Has been the editor of the New Left Review since 1962 and was a cofounder of Verso books. He is a regular contributor to the London Review of Books.
Perry Anderson has been described as "one of the foremost contemporary Marxist thinkers." His oeuvre extends from English exceptionalism to European absolutism, from the politics of Latin American transitions to the shifting contours of Western Marxism, from the origins of postmodernism to exterminism and the Cold War. Born in London in 1938, Anderson moved to China where his father was stationed while in the employ of the Chinese Maritime Customs. After spending the war years in the United States, the family returned to the south of Ireland where he was raised. Anderson went up to Worcester College, Oxford, in 1956 where his interests shifted from "modern greats" to philosophy and psychology to modern languages.
Two years ago Perry Anderson was interviewed on UCTV. The interview can be viewed in streaming video