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Is China Really That Irritable?

Written by J. Michael Cole.

We, or at least international media, seem to have traveled back in time. The current president isn’t Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) but Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁). The 16 years that have elapsed since never existed. We are back to an era when everything that Taipei does is bound to “anger” Beijing.

In the past few weeks, the Taiwanese president has “infuriated” Beijing — “from the get go” — by failing to embrace the so-called 1992 consensus and the unsavory “one China” dish that Beijing has been forcing on the Taiwanese people for years. The Taiwanese have “angered” Beijing by electing her and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). The Chinese public has been “angered” by Taiwan’s insistence on maintaining its way of life and, as a result, refusal to be absorbed by their giant (and undemocratic) neighbor. One point three billion Chinese are “angered” by Taiwan’s lack of gratitude for all the supposed concessions made by Beijing in recent years. Taiwanese athletes and teenage pop stars have “angered” China for displaying the Republic of China flag. Beijing has been “angry” with Taiwan for the latter’s ability to deal with its nationals who engage in telecom fraud.

Continue reading “Is China Really That Irritable?”

There is no Huadu

Written by Ben Goren and Michael Turton.

In his latest piece for this Blog, Thinking Taiwan Editor-in-chief J. Michael Cole argues that Beijing faces not one but two forces for independence in Taiwan: Taidu (臺獨), who support de jure independence for Taiwan, and ‘Huadu’ (華獨), supporters of maintaining a ‘status-quo’ of de facto Taiwanese independence, under the rubric of the Republic of China, for as long as China threatens to annex Taiwan by force. Cole claims that both Taidu (Taiwan independence nationalists) and Huadu (ROC independence nationalists) now comprise the vast majority of people in Taiwan and thus, he argues, Taiwanese President-elect Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) should attempt to secure the overlapping interests of both groups if she wants to achieve national unity and present a united front against Beijing’s pressure.

Although the piece is creative, it posits a false dichotomy based on a misunderstanding of the etymology of the term ‘Huadu’.  Although the term has become more popular in recent years, it originated as a dismissive phrase coined by Taidu supporters to refer to other Taiwanese who they see as weak-willed appeasers of the ongoing ROC colonial occupation of Taiwan. Outside of this tiny subset of active citizens who are politically engaged on the issue of Taiwan’s independence, the term Huadu remains largely unknown.

Cole argues that Huadu supporters tend to associate with the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and the People First Party (PFP). This is incorrect. Even if the term was repurposed to describe these people, Huadu would still be a very loose way to describe individuals who feel that the current status quo as the ROC is an acceptable short-run compromise. Note that Taidu calls for independence are simultaneously calls for abolition of the ROC.

Huadu and Taidu are two flavors of the same thing: independence from China. The difference lies in the substance of each phenomenon. Taidu is an identifiable political cleavage whereas Huadu is a label conferred by others. The only evidence of Huadu’s existence surfaces intermittently in polls that ask whether Taiwanese want independence, the status-quo, or annexation. Those polls provide too little information on the identity of respondents to conclude that those who favour the status-quo have a unique and consciously shared political identity.

Cole talks of the “the values and liberal-democratic practices that are now intrinsic to the form of nationalism that has developed in Taiwan over the decades” without defining the content or context of that nationalism. In fact that context is Taiwanese nationalism, and liberal democratic practices are a core component of its identity. They are not core components of KMT identities. The KMT under President Ma Ying-jeou put great effort into reviving the ethnic component of Chinese nationalist identity in Taiwan, since it underlies the KMT’s Han Chinese nationalism. Taiwan and China are therefore not so neatly divided into civic verse ethnic variants of nationalism as they can both be found in each nation. Neither the KMT nor its satellite parties are ‘Huadu’ because Huadu would be a weak form of independence, which they utterly reject. Huadu could also be a way of being Taiwanese, and the core of the KMT sees itself as Chinese.

Cole’s description of how former President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) “probably catered too much to the Taidu crowd, while President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) has centred his efforts on the huadu segment within Taiwanese society and alienated Taidu supporters” is problematic. Ma’s ideological rigidity was typified by his curriculum “reforms” (which Cole extensively and brilliantly reported on). His obsession with a program of ‘re-sinifying’ Taiwan  was one of the factors that swung public opinion sharply against him. Moreover, there is no “huadu segment within Taiwanese society”, that Ma could talk to, because Huadu is not a formal idea or ideological program which people are out there supporting, like “unification” or “independence”. Ma’s message followed traditional KMT themes: the future is China, if the DPP wins there will be war, and similar. Indeed, it was Ma’s (and the KMT’s) inability to appeal to middle of the road voters, who might be the presumed Huadu crowd, that led to the KMT’s blowout losses in 2014 and 2016.

In the end, it is more accurate to think of Huadu not as some kind of meaningful or identifiable political cleavage, but as a misappropriation and inflation of a very specific and limited term. There are no “two camps” because Huadu is not a camp. Everyone who is “Huadu”, as Cole correctly observes, is also Taidu. If tomorrow Beijing said it no longer objected to Taiwan independence, this nebulous Huadu crowd would wave good bye to the ROC without a second thought.

Ben Goren and Michael Turton own Letters from Taiwan and The View from Taiwan respectively.

Why Beijing Needs to Work with Tsai Ing-wen

Written by Yu-Hua Chen.

The result of 2016 Taiwan presidential election has come out and, not surprisingly, the candidate of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Tsai Ing-wen won a landslide victory against the Kuomintang candidate Eric Chu (6.8 million votes against 3.8 million). More importantly, in the Legislative Yuan the DPP holds 68 seats out of 113. What does this unprecedented DPP victory of mean for the future of Cross-Strait relations?

In principle, the dynamic balance of Cross-Strait relations will be maintained by four important actors: Washington, Beijing, Taipei, and especially, young Taiwanese. First of all, the US government is unlikely to change its policy toward Taiwan under the emerging Sion-American rivalry. In fact, the US expected the DPP and has expressed its continued support for the peaceful resolution of the dispute between China and Taiwan. In a conference held by the Nation Committee on United States–China Relations on January 11, four former US defense secretaries (Harold Brown, William Perry, William Cohen, and Chuck Hagel) together expressed their view on the future of the Cross-Strait relations. While Hagel reminded the new Taiwan government not to force the US to make a tough decision, other secretaries relayed four important messages from Washington to Beijing: 1) the US has a commitment to Taiwan because of the Taiwan Relations Act, 2)  this commitment relates to US credibility to other treaty allies, 3) China cannot count on the US being passive if China wants to take over Taiwan by force, and most importantly 4)  the economic benefits between Taiwan and China are too huge to sacrifice. In other words, the US wants both sides of the Straits to work out a peaceful modus vivendi.

Tsai’s DDP has demonstrated a willingness to engage with China, especially on the issue of Taiwan sovereignty. To avoid provoking China during the campaign, Tsai did not mention the independence constitution of the DPP whose objective is to construct “the Republic of Taiwan” to replace the current name of Taiwan, Republic of China (ROC). In addition, she did not mention the Resolution on Taiwan’s Future (台灣前途決議文) pointing out Taiwan is a sovereign state. The DPP’s adoption of such a low-profile posture on sovereignty shows its willingness to peacefully manage Cross-Strait relations with Beijing. The changed position, especially on the issue of the “92 Consensus” is a highlight of Tsai’s pragmatism. In the debate between presidential candidates, Tsai said to all of Taiwanese that the “92 Consensus”, whose existence she denied in her 2012 presidential campaign, is one option. Her new stance on the Taiwan sovereignty issue frustrated many of her supporters and cannot be regarded as insincere.

One of the factors changing this balance came from Beijing. President Xi Jinping and many Chinese officials made it clear that the Cross-Strait relations cannot have a peaceful development without the “92 consensus”. The mouthpiece of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), General Wang Hongguang issued multiple warnings (see this, this, this, and this) to the US and Taiwan on the consequences of a DPP victory throughout the campaign. Furthermore, China Central Television broadcasts how the PLA staged a takeover of mock Taipei City during the Chi Rihe (朱日和) military drill. Kanwa reported that the PLA is speeding up its military preparations against Taiwan because more H6H bombers have been deployed in the Nanjing military region. Therefore, Beijing, or at least the PLA, will not compromise its sovereignty claim over Taiwan and might even assert that claim more aggressively.

The other factor which is going to clash with Beijing’s attitude toward Taiwan are young Taiwanese who are called natural independentists (天然獨). Born in the 1980s and 1990s, they do not have any memory about the Cold War and have barely memory about the Taiwan Strait Crisis, but they loathe Beijing’s unambiguous intention toward their country. They earnestly want their country to have clearer markers that Taiwan or the ROC is a de jure sovereign state in all issues. The Sunflower Movement, the Passport of the Republic of Taiwan Movement, and the Anti-black-box Curriculum Movement are the proof that they will not compromise their state’s sovereignty. It should be noted that the DPP did not lead any of those movements. In this election, the main reason that young Taiwanese cast ballots for Tsai is not because they agree with her changed position on the “92 Consensus” but because they were so disappointed in the Ma administration’s policy performance, especially in its second term. Therefore, they were decisive in Tsai’s election as president, but it is very likely that they will also be disappointed in Tsai’s China policy.

Cross-Strait relations will depend on how well Beijing works with Tsai. Former Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian’s famous “for noes and one without” (四不一沒有) in his 2000 inauguration speech boldly showed the DPP’s goodwill toward Beijing and frustrated many of his supporters. However, Beijing rejected this olive branch and Chen subsequently ignited his Taiwan independence movement to consolidate domestic support for his second term. If Beijing refuses to work with Tsai, the history of confrontation over the Straits will repeat itself. In a word, Beijing’s Taiwan policy cannot be based on “placing the hope on the Taiwan people and striking down a few Taiwan independence supporters”, but should place the hope in the DPP led by Tsai instead. The DPP, interestingly, has become a key buffer between Beijing and the young Taiwanese.

Yu-Hua Chen is a PhD student at the Australian National University

Undoing An Undemocratic Anachronism: It’s Time To Elect Taiwan’s Premier

Written by Ben Goren.

January 16th 2016 turned out to be a very good day for Asia’s most robust, and well-functioning, democracy.  Taiwan went peacefully and orderly to the polls (albeit with a significantly lower turnout) and brought about a number of political firsts in the sixth direct Presidential and ninth Legislative Yuan elections. Tsai Ing-wen, Chairwoman of the pro-Taiwan Democratic Progressive Party, was elected as the first female Asian President who was not the daughter or relative of a previous President or Prime Minister. That a woman got elected to the highest political office was a landmark, but not really all that surprising in a polity which features a number of high profile female politicians. The Mayor of Kaohsiung for example, Chen Chu, also from Tsai’s party, is arguably the nation’s most successful and popular elected female official. Tsai’s original KMT opponent, Hung Hsiu-chu, is also a woman who has served at the highest level of lawmaking as the Deputy Speaker.

Given Tsai’s capable and inspirational rejuvenation of her party after its defeat in 2012 and her unwavering and solid leadership during the election campaign, it would have been a shock if she hadn’t have won. Perhaps then the greatest impact of Tsai’s win will not be the fact that a woman became President but the huge symbolism her victory will have for the next generation of young Taiwanese women. Representation matters and Tsai’s win serves as a beacon telling women that there are no gendered glass ceilings in Taiwanese politics. The election of the greatest number of women ever to the Legislative Yuan only serves to reinforce this new, more balanced, reality.

Tsai’s victory was not alone in being a first for the country’s political zeitgeist. Many records were set: the first time a naturalised Asian immigrant citizen was elected as a Legislator, the first time a non pan-blue candidate won an Aboriginal seat, the first symphonic black metal singer legislator, the youngest Legislative Yuan on average to date, the first time the DPP gained an absolute majority of seats and, consequentially, the first time the KMT had ever not won a working majority. A new political force – the New Power Party – born out of the rising political awareness and participation of youth, many of whom were involved in the Wild Strawberry & 318 Occupation protests, burst spectacularly onto the scene, winning five seats. Even the marginal Social Democratic Party, in it’s alliance with the Green Party, won 2.5% of the vote, ensuring that they will not have to field ten district candidates at the next Legislative elections in order to submit candidates for party list votes.

In contrast to previous elections, China, and its multi-faceted attempts to destabilise cross-strait relations in order to neutralise Taiwan’s unambiguous democratic sovereignty, wasn’t much of an election issue. Instead, the economy, along with welfare, trade, and the environment, were centre stage. Older smaller parties formed around the pro-Taiwan/pro-China cleavage fared less well in the vote – both the Taiwan Solidarity Union and the New Party failed to win a single seat. Furthermore, the internet again played another major role in the election campaign allowing citizens to rapidly critique and comment on the candidates and their policies, highlighting where they had contradicted themselves or acted in a manner unbecoming of someone seeking office.  In this respect then Taiwan’s Digital Democracy was another winner, keeping the campaign honest, sane, and interesting.

Yet, despite Taiwan demonstrating once again how a fair and free election can be held, providing lessons for older, more institutionally unhealthy, and disenfranchising, democracies like the US, there remains one aspect of Taiwan’s political institutional make up that is decidedly undemocratic, a flaw that was immediately exposed within hours of the vote count having been completed. On Sunday, Taiwan’s Premier Mao Chi-kuo (毛治國) announced that he was resigning with immediate effect and would lead his cabinet in a mass resignation. The next day a small farce played out as President Ma visited Mao’s residence to convince Mao to stay on, only for his wife to turn him away at the door.

Refusing to reconsider and having gone into self-imposed radio silence, the Vice-Premier Simon Chang (張善政) was left with no choice but to take over duties and lead a cabinet unsure of whether they should resign or remain in office during the five month interregnum before Tsai is inaugurated on May 20th. It is at that time that Tsai has the constitutional authority to name a Premier who will form a new Government. Accordingly Tsai has refused to be drawn into or made party to a crisis not of her making, or her responsibility.  Mao’s actions have however highlighted one of the major flaws in Taiwan’s semi-Presidential system. This system was born of negotiations and constitutional revisions that occurred during democratic transition between 1990 and 2005. Rightly fearful of an overly powerful President, greater power was invested in the Legislative Yuan, but the question of the Premier’s role and powers got caught in between.

The President selects the Premier and formally appoints members of the Cabinet on the recommendation of the Premier. The Premier presents policies and reports to the Legislative Yuan and responds in interpolation sessions. The Premier can effectively be forced from office if one third of legislators initiate a vote of no confidence and pass it with a simple majority, at which point the entire cabinet, as convention, usually resigns along with the Premier. The Premier may also request that the President dissolve the Legislative Yuan. If the motion fails, another no-confidence vote against the same Premier cannot be initiated for one year. Finally, the Constitution forbids a Cabinet and a head of state from different parties.

The Premier has no other formal accountability to the Legislative Yuan and usually stays in office until they have become a political liability to the President. They have little formal power except as a figurehead and director of the Government, but they are usually the first the public expects to take responsibility when the President’s policies are unpopular. With no power comes great responsibility – it is generally a thankless job usually staffed by aspiring academics who fancy their hand at politics before scuttling back, tail between legs, to the comfort of academic tenure.

The life-span of Premiers in Taiwan has reflected their disposable nature – since the 1990s they have lasted on average about two years each. The Premier is not elected, they are tapped for the job and at the end they are often pushed before they can jump. Mao is unusual in that he bolted from the position with a shocking swiftness. In turn he has created the absurd situation where President Ma may have to choose a new Premier and form an entirely new cabinet for only five months – an exercise in futility. Even if the Vice-Premier takes over in the interim, if Ministers resign they will need to be replaced and who will want to take a job for a few months?  Of course the President can refuse a Premier or Minister’s resignation, and he has made a curiously public effort to reverse Mao’s decision, but if he doesn’t turn up for work Ma has to make some alternative arrangements.

One solution to preventing this kind of constitutionally derived impasse from happening again is also possibly one that could deepen and enhance Taiwanese democracy, in the one place it is still lacking. It is time that Taiwanese elected their Premier. It would require a constitutional revision – not an easy task even for a Government with a Legislative majority – and it would mean clarifying the relationship between the Presidency, Legislature, and Executive Yuan, but in principle it is workable.

The Premier could be elected every two years in a popular vote held in tandem with alternating General, and Municipal and County, elections. There should be no limit on the number of terms a Premier can serve in order to allow voters to re-elect someone who they feel has been doing a good job. If the public are not satisfied with their performance the two year terms serve as a way for them to regularly hold the Premier and the Government to account. The convention that the entire cabinet must resign when the Premier is replaced should also be scrapped – allowing new Premiers to retain those Ministers who have exercised their duties competently and have retained the public’s approval and trust. Premiers would have to attend mandatory Premier’s Question Times, along the lines of the British model of Prime Minister’s Questions, but they should be quarterly rather than weekly. The Legislative Yuan would lose the ability to vote out the Premier but it could register symbolic votes of no-confidence – the right to eject an under-performing Premier from office now being reserved solely to the electorate in a popular vote.

The right to run as Premier could be subject to certain restrictions set down by the Central Election Committee – for example they would have to be over 30 years of age and have had to have served as an official (elected or otherwise) leading a Government at the City or County level upwards. This would reward career civil servants with experience and those who have dedicated themselves to public service, in turn hopefully ensuring a Premier with a track record in heading a governing body with responsibility for public services and welfare. The Premier would not have to be a member of any political party but it would likely aid their campaign (financially and in terms of visibility) if they were. They would not have to come from the party which had won the Presidency, or the party with a majority of seats in the Legislature – that choice again reserved to the public. These are just a few initial rough ideas which would have to be ironed out after considerable negotiation. It should go without saying that such negotiations would have to be conducted in good faith and with enhancing Taiwanese democracy, rather than party advantage, as the shared objective.

These changes would represent a huge step towards democratising the last bastion of patronage and clientelism in Taiwanese politics at the national level. They would allow for a popular Premier with a democratic mandate to lead the very institution that formulates and executes public policy, creating a direct link between the voter and their government. In turn, this could neutralise perennial grumbles amongst the public about the government being out of touch with public opinion and being unaccountable.

There are many areas where Taiwan’s legislative and governmental system needs reform, something that has been recognised by all parties even if they have had different interests and objectives in promoting reforms. If the electoral system is to be changed to produce more proportional results, and if a Tsai Presidency can lead legislators and the public to effect reform at some point in the next four or eight years, it would be a wasted opportunity not to visit the issue of the Premier at the same time. Taiwanese democracy is an example for other countries to emulate and study, not just in Asia but around the world. It is not however without its limitations and institutional weaknesses and the position and function of the Premier is perhaps one of its most glaring ones.

A democracy is not a policy or an institution but a process, and one where public participation and the accountability that it generates serves to strengthen it. Democracy is vulnerable to challenges from authoritarians if it is not constantly nurtured and protected, or if it remains monolithic as all else around it changes. Taiwan’s democratisation came in part because of the catalyst of young students protesting at the life terms of unelected legislators who had fled China with Chiang Kai-shek’s Republic of China. In this election once again we have seen youth act as the vanguard, demanding and voting into office a more representative and progressive set of politicians, many of whom place a premium on ensuring a more inclusive and tolerant exercise of politics. Making the Premier an office won through election is one of the next steps to continuing the story of Taiwan’s remarkable democratisation.

Ben Goren owns Letters from Taiwan.

Taiwan’s past and present: A personal reflection

Written by Chieh-Ting Yeh.

Taiwan’s voters will soon decide who will represent them in crafting their nation’s future. Many eminent scholars and journalists have weighed in on the possible results of those elections, which are expected to usher the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) into power, and perhaps even legitimize new political parties in the process. But amidst all the forward looking predictions, allow me to reflect on the past. I would like to talk about my grandmother.

Lai Ying-tsi was born to a farming family of moderate means just west of the city of Kagi (嘉義) in modern Chiayi County in southern Taiwan, sometime between 1919 and 1922. During this time, the Japanese engineer Hata Yuichi and his team had just completed the construction of the Chianan canals (嘉南大圳), a system of irrigation channels and reservoirs that turned Taiwan into a subtropical agricultural powerhouse. When the legendary Kagi Agricultural School baseball team earned second place in the all Japan Empire high school tournament, my grandmother would have been around 10 years old.

When my grandmother married, she moved to Tsui-gu-tshu (水虞厝), the next village over. She raised four sons and three daughters (my father is the third son). My grandfather worked a small plot of land and herded ducks, while my grandmother took care of everything else for the household. As far as I know, she was not formally educated, and was illiterate in the languages of either colonial governments, Japanese and Mandarin.

Since she only spoke Taiwanese, I was fortunate enough to learn it as a child, when she lived with my family in Daxi (大溪) in northern Taiwan to babysit for me. Otherwise, she mostly lived in my father’s childhood home in Chiayi, a very modest one story, thatched roof structure my grandfather built, adjacent to a temple and the temple grounds. At one end of the house was a kitchen, the walls caked black by smoke from the wood burning stove. I remember visiting her a few times a year as I grew up. Upon seeing me and my parents, she would slip behind the house, snatch a chicken, and squat over the wood oven butchering, cooking, and setting up a feast, which we ate over a folding table in the kitchen.

In 1992, when I was 10 years old, I emigrated to New York, and I never saw my grandmother again. Shortly after I left Taiwan, a new central avenue was planned for the village, which required half of her home to be appropriated and demolished. A few years later she fell ill, and passed away soon afterwards. She was in her mid-seventies. As my US immigration status was unclear at the time, I could not leave the US to attend her funeral; my father only told me of her passing after the funeral was over, when I asked over the phone how grandma was doing.

It was not until many years later that I gathered, from my parents, that her death could have been indirectly caused by a misdiagnosis by the local clinic where she went. And that the doctor was either careless, or needed extra motivation in the form of a red envelope, or both. In any case, my grandmother was not treated properly and was not transferred to a larger hospital in time. It was a failure on a human level, but also a failure of the workings of the social system, an institutional failure, at which I felt both angry, and pretty powerless.

As I thought about her death, I also thought about her life, and the silhouettes of Taiwan’s evolving social institutions over the course of her life. Could she have lived longer than she did? Was the demolition of her home inevitable? Would her life have been different if she had received formal education and was taught to be a proper Japanese subject, and then a proper Chinese nationalist? Should I be grateful for land reforms that gave my grandparents their own land to farm on, and at the same time disparage the local agricultural associations that held power over their livelihoods?

Institutions are important, much more so than who is voted into power at any given time. Since 1987, Taiwan has embarked on a road to democracy and rule of law. There are formal, institutionalized, competitive elections for government representatives at the local and national levels. But no matter which party is in power, and no matter how popular a mandate Taiwanese presidents enjoy, the political process in Taiwan eventually disappoints the vast majority of the citizens. Bills, even those initiated by the majority party’s counterparts in the executive branch, have a hard time being passed. Members of parliament are usually junior politicians, more interested in pandering to local constituents to set up for their governor runs than national issues. Votes are not represented equally across the nation. Worst of all, the responsibilities and powers between the President, Premier, and the Parliament are murky at best, leading to extra-constitutional decision making through party mechanisms rather than state mechanisms.

Furthermore, the social structures and traditions built over time during Japanese colonial rule and Chinese martial law remain in place. The few families who accumulated wealth through government dealings continue to hold court, while the economy suffers. Unemployment has risen, especially sharply for the 20-24 year olds. Business barons, like the heads of Farglory, Ting Hsin, Far East and Want Want, seem to extract benefits from common societal resources, be it land, the airwaves or public trust, with impunity, while the public feels powerless in holding them accountable. Meanwhile, the popular media feeds their audience’s need for vicarious glamour and tasteless spending, spotlighting the carefree and irresponsible lives of wealthy scions.

If my grandmother were still around, I am not sure what she would think of how Taiwan has turned out. Then again, I doubt my grandmother would think too much into these kinds of questions. She was a quiet person, who chose to accept institutional forces beyond her control. During her time, institutional forces were beyond her control; in a better Taiwan, that should not be the case.

When the excitement of the election inevitably subsides, I hope we, both the citizens of Taiwan, and those of us who study and care about Taiwan, return our focus to institutions. Taiwan deserves better institutions, and as outside observers who may be able to see the bigger picture more clearly, it is our job to drive the institutional changes that Taiwan needs.

Chieh-Ting Yeh is the co-founder and Editor-in-Chief of Ketagalan Media.

 

Ways of remembering – Green Island

Written by Mark Harrison.

Just off the south east coast of Taiwan, facing the Pacific Ocean, is the small atoll of Green Island. Over the four decades of Taiwan’s authoritarian rule from the 1940s to the 1980s, it was the location for a cluster of notorious prison camps that housed Taiwanese political prisoners. Thousands of people who opposed the government of Chiang Kai-shek and the Chinese Nationalists (Kuomingtang or KMT) spent years in isolated imprisonment and an unknown number died there.

Green Island (2016) is the title of a new novel by the Taiwanese-American author Shawna Yang Ryan. It tells a story of Taiwan that is little-appreciated in the English-speaking world, through the experiences of a family whose life is defined by authoritarianism.

Shawna Yang Ryan is from Sacramento, California and teaches creative writing at the University of Hawaii. This year she won the Elliot Cades Award for Literature for emerging writers. She is steeped in the west coast literary culture of the “Bay Area” and her work is championed by figures such as the doyen of the San Francisco literary scene Thomas Farber and the celebrated beat poet Gary Snyder.

Shawna Yang Ryan’s first novel, Water Ghosts (2009), was set in the late 1920s in the town of Locke, built by Chinese settlers not far from Sacramento. In Water Ghosts, Ryan turns lives ruptured by migration and the Exclusion Act of 1924 into a miasmic world filled with longing and desire. Because of its Chinese social and cultural themes, Ryan’s earlier work has seen her situated in the categories of Asian-American and Chinese-American literature. Literary scholar Wei Ming Dariotis describes her as one of a new generation of Chinese-American writers exploring new themes and genres in the literary terrain opened up by celebrated Chinese-American writers like Amy Tan and Maxine Hong Kingston.

However, Ryan’s mother is from Taiwan and Ryan calls herself Taiwanese-American. She has described learning about Taiwan in personal terms, by becoming close to her extended Taiwanese family in the central city of Taichung. This relationship helped her better appreciate her own childhood and the challenges her mother faced in the 1970s in translating Taiwanese cultural life into a Californian setting through the rituals and rhythms of family life.

Ryan lived in Taiwan on a Fullbright scholarship, and described encountering Taiwan’s history of oppression and resistance there as a political awakening. She is active in the Taiwanese-American community and once politely but pointedly admonished celebrated Taiwanese film director Ang Lee at a public forum in Berkeley on his failure to tell a fully ‘Taiwanese’ story in his filmic oeuvre. It is as a novelist writing her second novel that Ryan has chosen to tell her own Taiwanese story.

Green Island begins with the birth of a girl in Taipei on February 28 1947, the day of the start of the island-wide uprising known as 2-28 that has defined Taiwanese politics and society ever since. Shortly after, her father, a Japanese-educated doctor, is arrested by the authorities and becomes one of the thousands who disappeared in the ‘White Terror’, when he is interred on Green Island. The family is forced to remake a quotidian Taiwanese family life around the despair wrought by his absence. But after 10 years of imprisonment he suddenly returns, meeting his daughter as a young child for the first time, and creating a new and different kind of silence at the centre of the family. In a society shaped by fear as a policy of authoritarian rule, the family is reunited but more deeply fractured than ever by suffering and suspicions that cannot be uttered.

Shawna Yang Ryan focusses on the vivid details of daily life in Taiwan as the hopes of her characters are realised and compromised by Taiwan’s social and political travails. As a writer, Ryan is particularly interested in the senses and on the tangibility of experiences, with her distinctive style bringing an intense tactility to the narrative. This dimension of Ryan’s work could be characterised as explicitly feminist. Green Island is a woman’s story that is attentive to the way women must negotiate power in their relationships and through their bodies in the everyday. More broadly, through the story of modern Taiwan, the book explores the choices people make, and are forced to make, in their political and personal lives and the consequences of those choices.

Later in Green Island, the daughter marries and emigrates to the United States, but the memories of the traumas visited upon her family in Taiwan haunt the present. In California in the 1970s, where the instruments of Taiwan’s KMT government can still reach, she is entangled by her husband’s participation in the exile Taiwanese democracy movement, with disastrous consequences. The novel concludes in the 2000s, long after Taiwan’s transition to democracy but during the public health panic of the SARS epidemic. In a resolution that might be read as cautious optimism, Ryan shows people reaching towards resignation, accommodation and understanding across the generations in their relationships.

As an act of story-telling, Green Island is imbued with a sense of urgency that comes from Ryan’s consciousness of the limited understanding of the history of Taiwan in the English-speaking world. And it is the political transformation of Taiwan itself that has made possible Ryan’s telling of it.

Taiwan had been gradually incorporated into the Qing empire from the 18th century until the Sino-Japanese War of 1894 ceded Taiwan to Japan. For 50 years the Taiwanese benefited from Japanese imperial modernisation and suffered under imperial militarism. In 1911, the Chinese Nationalists overthrew the Qing dynasty on mainland China and founded the Republic of China. The Taiwanese fought in the Japanese imperial army in WWII, but with Japan’s defeat in 1945 it was to the Republic of China, led by Chiang Kai-shek, that Taiwan was ceded. On ‘2-28’, the Taiwanese rose up against Chinese Nationalist rule. The uprising was crushed with extraordinary brutality, with tens of thousands killed, thousands more imprisoned or fleeing into exile in Japan and the US. In 1949, defeated by the Chinese Communists, the KMT relocated the national government of the Republic of China to Taiwan, leading more than one million refugees to join a hostile population of five million Taiwanese.

Taiwan became a developmentalist state governed under martial law from 1949 to 1987. After decades of both political violence and rapid economic development, Taiwan began its transition to democracy in the late 1980s, by which time the majority of the international community had renounced diplomatic recognition of the Republic of China.

In the martial law period, exiled Taiwanese activists in the US campaigned for democracy, and also for Taiwanese national self-determination. In opposing the KMT government, Taiwanese activists were sometimes stridently anti-Chinese. The peak of anti-government activism overseas occurred when Wen-shiung Huang, who was affiliated with the World United Formosans for Independence, attempted to assassinate Taiwan’s Vice-premier Chiang Ching-kuo, son of Chiang Kai-shek, in New York in 1970.

With democratisation in Taiwan and the rise of the People’s Republic of China threatening Taiwan’s autonomy, an inclusive Taiwanese national identity politics became mainstream on Taiwan. The KMT now stands in competitive elections like any other political party against its main rival, the Democratic Progressive Party.

For overseas Taiwanese, the achievement of democratisation has meant that exile anti-government activism lost much of its political, cultural and moral purpose. But for a second and third generation born in the US with Taiwanese family histories like Shawna Yang Ryan, far from diminishing its salience, this has opened identification with Taiwan to new kinds of political and cultural encounters. It is what the Deleuzian social theorist Eugene Holland calls a “double-becoming” in which the meaning of a place does not merely change, from dictatorship to democracy in the case of Taiwan, but changes the scope of what it is possible for it to mean.

In the US especially, Taiwanese identity has engaged with the rise of identity politics. By being able to let go of its anti-authoritarian and hard anti-ROC government activism, Taiwanese identity in the US has been opened to the questions of subjectivity and cultural representation. Hyphenated, diaspora, third culture and other terms are now available to people who identify with Taiwan to explore their subjective plural identities as both Americans and Taiwanese in their political and cultural lives.

Shawna Yang Ryan is herself part of the story of Taiwan through her family’s history of migration. She has written and spoken about the opportunities for Taiwanese-Americans to recognise how their experiences growing up in the US have been shaped by the distinctiveness of Taiwanese social and cultural life. As a writer, these opportunities include speaking back to Taiwan’s history in her own artistic voice. She has created her own Taiwan story using the exacting literary discipline of the novel, writing with force, compassion and the higher truth available to the novelist about the violence wrought on individual lives in Taiwan’s modern political history, as well as with a wary optimism about acknowledging and reconciling with those truths in a democratic Taiwan.

In Ryan’s practice as an artist writing in English, Taiwan becomes the source of stories through which she marks out a place for herself as a contemporary American novelist. But as a writer who identifies with her own Taiwanese experience through her politics and her family history, she also shows the place of her work in Taiwan’s political and cultural history.

Dr Mark Harrison is Senior Lecturer in Chinese Studies at the University of Tasmania. He is the author of Legitimacy, Meaning and Knowledge in the Making of Taiwanese Identity, Palgrave Macmillan, 2006. This piece appeared in TAASA Review Vol. 24 No.4 December 2015, The Asian Arts Society of Australia.

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