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Rising Chinese nationalism over the Taiwan question
Eric Teo Chu Cheow
5/14/2004

The electoral campaigning for the presidential polls in Taiwan has clearly brought three pertinent issues on Taiwan to the forefront and provoked an unprecedented surge in Chinese nationalism on the Mainland.

First, the Taiwanese society appears to be more politically polarized than ever, due to the heated electoral campaigning as well as the very close margin of victory (0.22%). Fears that following the announcement of the victor, supporters of the losing side could turn violent and cause public disorder or unrest have become even more acute after opposition protesters demanded a recount. Security forces have been on standby since the polls closed, as the opposition continues to protest. The Mainland has reportedly also been concerned that Taiwan's stability could be undermined during this tense period. Without a post-election national reconciliation, parliamentary elections in November or December this year could bring yet another period of unrest to the island.

Second, the rise of Taiwanese nationalism is very clear today, manifested by the advances made by the Taiwanese language in everyday life. Less than half of this year's campaigning was conducted in Mandarin, with candidates choosing to speak Taiwanese and Hakka dialects instead. Academia Sinica's President Lee Yuan-tseh came out in favor of de-linking "localization" from "de-Sinicization". According to Lee, the KMT began the process of "de-Taiwanization" when it occupied the island in 1947, but successive generations are countering this trend. He believed that Taiwanese should learn about their roots, ancestral languages and cultures, while imbuing themselves with a "modern" Chinese culture. This debate is of paramount importance in light of Taiwan's sovereignty and independence. Taipei's "cultural space" appears to be growing, as the Hoklo, Hakka and aboriginal groups champion greater ethnic cultural space in Taiwan. In fact, Chen's DPP is said to have made sizable political gains within the Hakka community, which was previously thought to be in the KMT's full political embrace. Taiwan's 'cultural space' is fast evolving.

Last, there is the key-question of Taiwan's or sovereignty, which riled Beijing when raised at the United Nations during the SARS epidemic last spring. Even as Taiwan's "international economic space" is being reduced, massive Taiwanese investments flow into the Mainland and the re-establishment of transport, post and commerce links will eventually take place across the Strait. Taipei wants some "international space", but may have to accept Beijing's condition of framing that within the 1992 consensus framework, even if Taipei cannot publicly declare its acceptance of the one-China policy. In this new light, Beijing may also have to reconsider its tough stance against Taiwanese independence thanks to rising Taiwanese nationalism. Beijing could, for example, accord Taiwan some international cultural space in exchange for non-independence within the 1992 consensus framework, like observer status in UNESCO, WHO or IMO, but not at the United Nations.

Pragmatism and realism are needed on both sides to overcome this psychological barrier and perhaps find a new formula for Taiwan's status quo, which Taiwan, China and the United States all need to redefine after the traumatic elections. In view of Taiwan's changing cultural space, China should consider how it could accommodate Taiwan within its 'one country, two (or even three) systems' framework, especially at a time when China appears to be reviewing Hong Kong's status.

The weeks of uncertainty and political turmoil in Taiwan have whipped up storms of protests in Mainland China, especially over the eventuality of Taiwanese independence and the right of China to "defend its sovereignty". Two sources of Chinese reaction were tapped after the wafer-thin 0.22% victory for Chen Shui Bian, viz. instantaneous reaction on the Net and a telephone survey conducted by the Social Survey Institute of China.

A Sina.com chat-room Netzien, for example, called for China to "cross over the Taiwan Straits and liberate all our compatriots in Taiwan"; another just wrote one word, "Attack!" Battle cries also surfaced in the People's Daily chat-room, where one wrote, "Look. In 2006, they'll amend their Constitution. In 2008, they will declare independence". The tone on the Chinese Net was undoubtedly non-reconciliatory.

Others ironically questioned the value of Taiwanese democracy, when they saw the chaos and mayhem in Taipei and in major cities across Taiwan, with continuous agitation and 'sit-ins' in the country. A political analyst Niu Jun even wondered if democracy was suitable for Chinese society at all; he stated, "You pay a high price, and what you get in return is higher disintegration of the society in Taiwan". It was felt that the current Taiwanese democracy may have deviated from the people's ideal when the election stirred ethnic struggle and used a referendum to achieve personal political goals. But the majority of the calls made in China were still to "hold back Taiwanese independence" and win them over on the idea of peaceful reunification, whilst strengthening China's own ability to achieve reunification, even by force, should peaceful means fail.

These reaction indicate a rising nationalism in China, as the elite (those who use the Net particularly) press for reunification and stress that Taiwan must never be allowed to separate from the Motherland. Secondly, this nationalism could also be traced to what some elite Chinese see as a failure of democracy to help achieve social peace in Taiwan, especially when "external forces agitate" and "split the island".

More revealing was a telephone survey done in the days following the Taiwan election and stalemate. A Social Survey Institute poll of 1,263 Chinese in 12 cities had a sampling size of more than 2,000, it followed a first survey taken just before the election. 9 out of 10 Chinese polled stated that they were following the Taiwanese election closely; it had jumped from 79.1% before the polls to 93.2% after (+14%); those who were not bothered plunged from 20.9% to 1.7% (-19%).

Besides the increase in interest in Taiwan, those who opposed Taiwan's independence grew from 88.4% to 97.4% (+9%) whereas those who would not oppose it fell from 5.6% to 1.7%. What came out of these findings was the growing sense of crisis over Taiwan. But significantly, the percentage of those calling for reunification by force dropped from 42.8% to 29.1%, whereas those who advocated peaceful reunification increased from 54.9% to 70.9%. Hence, despite the sense of crisis felt over Taiwan, cool heads still prevail regarding reunification. The results of this survey clearly demonstrate a sharper division of the two sides of the Straits, as nationalism gains ground in both China and Taiwan.

Cross-Straits analyst Zhang Tongxin also highlighted the fact that the rejection of Chen's referendum meant that the Taiwanese people would not wish to see relations with China worsen. There was also a growing confidence amongst the Chinese for a peaceful reunification process despite the sharp divergence in opinion. Nevertheless, nearly 92% of all respondents agreed that China should exercise its sovereign rights to deal with chaos in Taiwan, whilst 4.6% opposed this move. Many reiterated the fact that the Taiwan problem was an "internal issue", one which Americans and Westerners should not meddle with. Chinese nationalism is therefore on the rise, as the Taiwan election debacle coalesced the Chinese on the Mainland amidst an upsurge of nationalism, national uncertainty (of a Taiwanese independence) and potential external interference (from the West), as has always been the case in Chinese history.

The on-going Taiwan debacle of protests, "sit-ins" and political controversies over the presidential polls of March 20, 2004, as well as the controversies in Hong Kong over China's refusal of direct universal suffrage as early as 2007-2008, have come to the fore at a time when nationalism is rising in China. Curiously, these three trends converge in Chinese politics today, and put together, they have important implications and impact on the future development of China and the stability of the Asia-Pacific region.

Dr. Eric Teo Chu Cheow, a business consultant and strategist, is Council Secretary of the Singapore Institute for International Affairs (SIIA).

This article appears on AFAR with permission from Jamestown Foundation, China Brief.

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