Friday, February 23, 2007

Republic of Cynics

A recent Taiwan pride push has sparked a backlash from islanders sick of identity politics
Jonathan Adams
Newsweek Japan, February 21, 2007
(untranslated draft)

It must have been a slow day for mail delivery in Taiwan. Last Monday, scores of angry, yellow headband-wearing postal workers from all over the island left work to protest behind barbed-wire barricades in Taipei. The cause of their ire: the government’s decision to change their company’s name from “Chunghwa [Chinese] Post" to “Taiwan Post."

On the other side of the barriers, President Chen Shui-bian presided over the unveiling of the new “Taiwan Post” plaque—part of a recent push to rectify names that has included tweaking the titles of other state-run companies, changing the nation’s postage stamps, and last fall, changing the name of the main airport. Chen has said the steps are necessary to avoid confusion between Taiwanese and Chinese firms, and bolster “Taiwan consciousness.”

But the workers said the unnecessary name change had been rammed through without their input, and was a political ploy to deflect attention from the government’s incompetence.

A clerk at a convenience store near the protest aired a common complaint: “It will just cost a lot of money and create nuisance. I think Chen’s gone crazy—and he keeps causing problems for our relations with China.”

Indeed, many Taiwanese have grown sharply disillusioned with Chen’s focus on emotionally-charged identity politics—which is widely seen as part of his strategy to seal a legacy as the champion of Taiwan’s sovereignty before he steps down in May 2008.

Next week Chen will take advantage of a significant date for Taiwan-first nationalists: the 60th anniversary of the 228 Incident, in which Kuomintang troops sent from China massacred tens of thousands after a local uprising against one and a half years of their bumbling rule. Chen’s lame-duck government plans to play up the date to the hilt, with a “Taiwan pride” sing-along in front of the Presidential Office, a huge concert in the evening, and the grand opening of a new national memorial hall.

But such is the extent of public cynicism that even some relatives of 228 victims think the beleaguered Chen is just using the tragedy to whip up political support.

"Political parties want to claim 228 so they can get credit,” said Liao Ji-bin, whose grandfather was shot and dumped into the sea north of Taipei by KMT military police in March 1947.

"Everyone knows why [Chen’s party] is claiming it—it’s just for elections. They want to remind people of the KMT’s killing and murder.”

Opposition to Chen’s latest campaign to strengthen Taiwan identity has come from all sides—including some unlikely sources.

Beijing warned that the name changes were part of a dangerous plot to reach full independence through tiny steps—a goal it would stop at any cost. The US spoke out against the changes, saying they may violate Chen’s pledges not to alter the cross-strait “status quo.”

But even former President Lee Teng-hui—widely viewed as the “godfather” of the Taiwan independence movement—shocked many by criticizing the government for using the independence issue, and the renaming of state-controlled firms, for selfish political gain.

"The changes should be done step by step and quietly, rather than done while the polls approach,” he complained. Ironically, many observers said Lee’s own comments were equally self-serving: they think he’s trying to save his own small, hardline pro-independence party from extinction by giving it a moderate makeover.

To be sure, the irritation with identity politics doesn’t mean Taiwan identity itself is in retreat. Chen’s name games still have a market in the deep south, the base of support for his Democratic Progressive Party. And survey data shows that island-wide, Taiwan identity keeps rising: Last June, 44.4 percent identified themselves as only Taiwanese, compared to 23.1 percent in 1996—and the number identifying as only “Chinese” has been in steady decline.

The Taiwanese dialect is more widely-spoken than ever, and is now the lingua franca not only in the south and on the streets, but also in the legislature. Chen’s government can take some credit for that, say observers.

“Chen has delayed exchanges between mainland China and Taiwan and put in place regulations to remind people that China is the enemy,” said Hsu Yung-ming, a political analyst at the Academia Sinica in Taipei. “This helps people identify as Taiwanese.”

But rising Taiwan pride is also fueled by such unlikely figures as MC Hotdog—a Taiwanese rapper whose hit song “Wo Ai Tai Mei” (I Love Taiwanese Chicks) last year helped fuel a taike pop culture fad that celebrated the island’s earthy rural culture: betel nuts; tacky, bright-colored clothes; dyed hair and blunt talk.

In fact, Taiwan identity is now more a social and cultural trend than a political one. “Taiwan identity is rising, but that doesn’t mean that the numbers of people who want Taiwan independence is also rising,” said Wu Nai-teh, a sociologist at the Academia Sinica.

The number of self-identified DPP supporters has dropped in the past two years, even as Taiwan identification continues to rise. And over the last ten years the number of survey respondents who clearly support independence has bounced between 10% and 20%, while support for maintaining the “status quo” has risen from 35% to 60%.

So while it may now be hip to be Taiwanese, independence diehards are still a decidedly lonely bunch—a fact that should come as comfort to China.

“If [Beijing] is realistic, they realize Taiwan is only 90 miles from China and it’s not going to drift away,” said Lin Wen-cheng, an expert on cross-strait relations at National Sun Yat-sen University in Kaohsiung. “We can’t cross the red line—we are not going to declare Taiwan independence. That’s the consensus among political parties in Taiwan.”

Now, some politicians are trying to respond to islanders’ embrace of Taiwan identity, but mounting distaste for divisive identity politics.

Lee’s attempt to reinvent his Taiwan Solidarity Union party is a case in point: his party hopes to sidestep the unification-independence debate with pragmatic proposals to improve people’s livelihood: letting in Chinese tourists and investment, reducing university fees for low-income families. “We have to rethink our national direction,” said Lee Shang-ren, head of the party’s legislative caucus. “Emphasizing the people’s welfare is most important.”

The party’s turn to the center is no surprise for those who have watched Lee’s shape-shifting career: a Communist Party member as a young man, he became chairman of the fiercely anti-communist, pro-unification KMT in the late 1980s, then left the KMT in 2000 to start the strongly pro-independence TSU. Still, analysts say his latest move may be one about-face too many: Lee’s influence has faded, and it will be difficult for him to convince his “deep green” supporters to shift to the center with him.

That leaves room for others to follow a similar strategy, though. Some DPP moderates back a similar focus on pragmatic economic policies, and their preferred candidate Su Tseng-chang is considered a strong potential contender for the presidency in 2008.

The KMT candidate Ma Ying-jeou—still considered the frontrunner in the 2008 race despite being charged with corruption last week—backs direct cross-strait flights as a way to jump-start the economy.

Back at the postal protest, Tang Wen-tai, 56, head of the Banciao city postal workers’ union, said workers were most angry about having their concerns ignored. “We didn’t have a say,” said Tang. That’s the way more and more Taiwanese feel about the island’s political discourse—and politicians might do well to start listening.

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