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‘Taiwan Independence’ Doesn’t Mean What You Think

It’s Not About Separating from Mainland China, It’s About Nation-Building

On February 23, all eyes were on Taiwan’s new Member of Parliament Freddy Lim as he took the podium at the Legislative Yuan for the first time. Lim is now best known as the heavy metal rock star who, following January 2016 elections on the self-governing island of 23 million, became one of five legislators from the nascent New Power Party. A long-time advocate of international recognition for Taiwan and a famous figure among proponents of Taiwan independence, Lim’s first time deposing outgoing Kuomintang Prime Minister Chang Shan-cheng over the legal statehood of Taiwan and China was civil, but provocative: by the end of the session, Chang had admitted that the Republic of China (ROC) regime currently ruling Taiwan is a separate state from the People’s Republic of China.

Video clips and reports of Lim’s session were widely circulated, with headlines like “Freddy Says ‘I am for Taiwan Independence.’” While pro-independence advocates may have applauded Lim’s performance, the response from other quarters has been mixed. Tsay Ting-kuei, a professor at National Taiwan University and a long-time hardliner on Taiwan independence who founded the pro-independence Free Taiwan Party, took to Facebook, Taiwan’s social network of choice, to insist that the New Power Party stands for “ROC independence,” or huadu, and not Taiwan independence, or taidu.

Within the past year, the term “ROC independence” has come into vogue within political discourse in Taiwan. It holds that Taiwan is already an independent state, named the Republic of China. This position is different from the “Taiwan independence” position, which insists that Taiwan is not an independent state unless the Republic of China regime is overthrown and replaced by the Republic of Taiwan.

The terms are hardly neutral descriptions of political stances. Taiwan independence advocates have increasingly used “ROC independence” as a derogatory label to convey a sense of ignorance, or worse, ideological impurity on the part of those who are more moderate and do not yet share their views. Meanwhile, “Taiwan independence” has long been a bête noir in mainland China. As China has grown in economic power and political influence throughout the last four decades, it has been throwing its weight around, denying Taiwan any precedent for statehood and insisting that governments around the world heed its One China Principle. This is well understood as China’s policy priority, and the term taidu is neuralgic among mainlanders; at first glance, it seems that Taiwan’s Independence movement should be its natural enemy.

But Taiwan’s independence movement is really about state-building and nation-building. The outcome of the current debate within Taiwan about what “independence” means has important implications for China and East Asia policy, both military and economic, in the United States and elsewhere. To understand what motivates the positions behind the labels requires delving into the history behind the Taiwan Independence movement.

Contrary to popular belief, Taiwan Independence did not begin as a movement separating Taiwan from the Chinese mainland.

Contrary to popular belief, Taiwan Independence did not begin as a movement separating Taiwan from the Chinese mainland. In its history, Taiwan has been variously ruled as a colony, a trading post, a frontier province, and a (short-lived) kingdom. The first time Taiwanese activists tried to realize the notion that Taiwanese should govern themselves politically, in the modern sense, was in the 1920s and 30s under Japanese rule. In the teahouses of Dadaocheng in the capital of Taipei, young activists established organizations such as the Taiwanese Cultural Association and the Taiwanese People’s Party to advocate for an elected Parliament. The movement imported the idea of national self-determination from the aftermath of World War I in 1918. This was the beginning of Taiwanese as a distinct ethnic identity, one that would ultimately lead to a distinct political community.

After World War II, the ROC regime, led by Chiang Kai-shek’s Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), took control of Taiwan, even as it also governed, or purported to govern, the Chinese mainland. On February 28, 1947, island-wide riots broke out, ignited by the mistreatment of a street peddler and the killing of protesters by government agents. During what came to be called the 228 Massacres, Taiwanese intellectuals tried in vain to negotiate with the ROC regime for greater self-rule. In response, armed forces swiftly targeted and murdered the offending intellectuals en masse.

Soon after, the Chinese Communist Party defeated the KMT in the Chinese Civil War, taking control of the mainland and establishing the People’s Republic of China in 1949. That same year, the KMT leadership fled to Taiwan, and brought the ROC government with it. Claiming wartime privileges and the 228 uprising as threats, Chiang established a ruthless dictatorship, cracking down on dissenters, including suspected Communists, pro-democracy advocates, and anyone supporting Taiwanese self-determination.

During this time, the idea of political self-rule and self-determination for Taiwan evolved, as its proponents fled or were exiled. Self-determination assumed a concrete form: a revolution to overthrow Chiang’s ROC regime and found the Republic of Taiwan in its stead. This movement became known as “Taiwan Independence.” Work was under way to educate the people of Taiwan to form its own national identity as Taiwanese, which would then support a coup to build a new state for Taiwan.

Taiwan Independence spread across the island and among the Taiwan diaspora. Activists such as Su Beng and Kin Birei fled to Japan, while in the United States, Taiwanese activists formed groups that became the World United Formosans for Independence (WUFI) to carry out armed resistance, such as the assassination attempt on Chiang Ching-kuo, Chiang Kai-shek’s successor, in 1970.

But the idea of armed revolution to overthrow the ROC regime never became reality. Instead, over time, the KMT’s control of Taiwan via the ROC weakened, and civil society on the island became restless. In the 1970s and 80s, dissatisfaction over the lack of environmental rights, women’s rights, labor rights, and farmers’ rights came to the fore, and their proponents eventually formed a coalition with Taiwan independence supporters to create a unified front against the KMT’s authoritarian rule. Taiwan independence, still punishable by death as a crime of sedition, became subsumed under the call for democracy.

In 1987, ROC president Chiang Ching-kuo ended martial law, and Taiwan embarked on a journey of democratization—all still under the legal and political institutions of the ROC. In the years following, Taiwan witnessed the explosive growth of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), the Wild Lily Student Movement in 1990 calling for constitutional reforms, and the first elections of the representatives of the ROC legislature and president, exclusively by the voters of Taiwan and outlying islands. In other words, while the KMT party retreated from its position of authoritarian dominance, the ROC state superstructure endured as the sole legitimate entity governing Taiwan. The constitutional definition of the ROC—a regime that purports to be the only legitimate entity ruling all of China, including the mainland—has not changed, even while the reality around it has transformed.

The turning point occurred when Taiwan Independence went from a revolutionary movement to a position on the political spectrum of a democratic society. In the 1990s, Taiwan Independence traded its original strategy of violent protests for a strategy of electoral competition. The DPP and the KMT reached a grand compromise over the life and death of the ROC: the former could have its democracy and self-rule, while the latter got to keep state institutions intact. The battleground moved from the streets to the ballot box. Instead of overthrowing the ROC outright, the Taiwan independence movement instead began “Taiwanizing” the ROC.

Instead of overthrowing the ROC outright, the Taiwan independence movement instead began ‘Taiwanizing’ the ROC.

Fundamentally, this grand compromise emerged because Taiwan Independence, the revolutionary kind anyway, did not enjoy support from the majority of Taiwan’s population. Self-determination for an independent Taiwan would have required building both a new national identity (“Taiwanese” as a political community) and a new state apparatus (the “Republic of Taiwan”). But as recently as 1992, those who identified as “Taiwanese” made up only 17 percent of the island’s population, less than those who identified as “Chinese” (25 percent) or “Both” (46 percent), according to polls by National Chengchi University, a prestigious university in Taipei.

As the state apparatus became a functional Taiwan state for its people, national identity for Taiwan naturally followed. The same polls in 2015 show “Taiwanese” at 59 percent, “Both” at 33 percent, and “Chinese” at 3 percent. The independence movement’s strategy is to bring the people of Taiwan to identify themselves as a separate, self-ruling political community, while steadily but slowly reforming ROC institutions. “ROC independence” merely refers to the current transitional stage where Taiwan’s national identity has solidified, while the ROC state apparatus has not yet fully reformed. This is the result of a deliberate strategic decision made collectively by the Taiwan Independence movement.

In the meantime, outsiders such as U.S. policymakers, international media, and China itself misunderstand “independence” as a movement to separate Taiwan from the mainland. Often, Taiwan is seen as an adversary of the People’s Republic of China, trying to “declare independence” and assert self-determination as a “renegade province” of China. State media in China paints Taiwan independence as instigated by “forces” bent on leading the people of Taiwan astray.

As a movement for self-determination, Taiwan Independence does run counter to the PRC’s sovereignty claims over Taiwan. Supporters of Taiwan Independence are also traditionally China-skeptics, or see China as an ill-intentioned hegemon, and have not been shy about sharing these views in public. In this sense, Beijing’s view of Taiwan and the Taiwan Independence movement are certainly at odds.

But Taiwan’s Independence movement is, primarily, about nation-building. Its seeds were planted in colonial Taiwan during the 1920s, at the dawn of Wilsonian ideals of self-determination—well before the founding of the Chinese Communist Party. The movement’s trajectory echoes post-colonial struggles elsewhere in Asia and around the world, with an eventual path down democracy, rule of law, and a pluralistic society. The fact that Taiwan’s society has arrived at this destination without violent coups or political and economic instability should be celebrated publicly and often.

Taiwan has paid a price for its achievement. The state apparatus is, after all, still that of the old Republic of China. It’s one that has become untenable and irrelevant: China still claims sovereignty over Taiwan and threatens military action, while Taiwan still has no legal place in the world. But all the misunderstood labels pale in significance to the reality of how far Taiwan’s body politic has come, and how much work still lies ahead.