A Word on the United Front against Chinese Nationalism

Tony Yen
Tony Yen
Aug 5 · 8 min read

In the past two months, the situation in Hong Kong definitely has changed the political discussion in Taiwan. The “one nation, two system” utopia, the political structure CCP promised that would bring peace and prosperity in Hong Kong, Macau, and ultimately Taiwan, has obviously failed.

It is now also obvious that, the main topic of our President election next year will be the debate between people who are for or against Chinese Nationalism, this time with a more direct concern of the results.

The people who support Chinese nationalism, the Chinese Nationalist party and other more radical political forces, possess a clear chain of logic that leads to their support: China is strong and getting stronger, so we (as part of the Chinese family) should be proud of it and join the great Chinese dream.

As a response, a coalition of political factions is gradually being formed that intends to set a united front against the Chinese nationalists. The people who are against Chinese nationalism, however, might have different reasons to be so.

To simplify the matter, let us only discuss one main divergence among the group: those who believe building up a strong sense of Taiwanese nationalism is necessary in the fight, and those who don’t or even consider it a potential threat for further democratization of the island.

It is beyond doubt that Chinese nationalism is already a threat to the fragile democracy in Taiwan; whether or not this is a universal feature of all kinds of nationalism ideologies, is the question behind the divergence within the united front.

What’s Wrong with Nationalism?

It’s All Artificial

The problem with nationalism is that it is always a self-constructed fulfilled prophecy, setting a category between “us” and “them” by a man-made boundary at an arbitrary point of history.

When nationalist revolutionaries wished to justify their cause of overthrowing the Qin government (which was governed by the “alien race”, the Manchu people), the “Chinese nation” they talked about only referred to the Han people that lived in proper China within the original border of the Ming empire.

When the nationalist revolution did succeed in 1911, however, the Manchu people were suddenly included under the category of the Chinese nation to give legitimacy for the new born Chinese Republic to inherit Manchuria.

The same reason was behind why the Mongolians, the Tibetans, and the Hue people (those who were Muslim in China) were included inside the Chinese nation as well. Together they formed the five major peoples in the Chinese Republic, and “co-prosperity among the five peoples” became a propaganda slogan.

This arbitrary in/exclusion of peoples into a nationalism banner, of course, did not always get approved by the regarding peoples. Throughout the first half of twentieth century, autonomous and/or independent movement in these regions grew. International interventions from Japan, the Soviet Union, and the UK would sometimes make or break one of such movements, and the results of these movements differed largely by the time the Chinese Communist Party took power.

Mongolia would be the only one to successfully gain independence, at a cost of being under direct Soviet Union influence. The Uyghurs also allied with the Soviet Union during the later stage of World War 2 but were betrayed by their patrons at the closing stage of the civil war. The Japanese set up a puppet government in Manchuria and legitimized their act by bringing the emperor of Qin back to throne, but this government would be dissolved by the end of World War 2. Tibet was de facto an independent nation until the people liberation army invaded it in 1950.

And It Practices “Exclusive Inclusion”

Today, tension still exists within these regions that failed to become independent. The concept of “exclusive inclusion” explains well the policy of CCP towards ethnic minorities: officially they are included under the nationalism banner and being treated equally as the Han people, but simultaneously these regions are also excluded from proper China, in the sense that the most intense surveillance and “re-education” system now applied in these regions at a level unimaginable for people outside; their unique cultural identity and their political demand for more autonomy must be excluded in the nationalism narrative.

Exclusive inclusion is the second dangerous feature of any type of nationalism: to justify the arbitrary differentiation between “us” and “them”, within the category of “us” there will always be a main storyline of any kind of nationalism.

Any idea or anyone that would cause potential deviation from this story line must be silenced for the greater good of fulfilling this storyline, and sometimes members of “us” could be turned into “them” to purify the constructed nation.

The official storyline of the Chinese nation is something like the following:

Since the mid-nineteenth century western imperialists have been trying to colonize China, up until this day. But different from its predecessors, the new China led by CCP is thriving; it will one day regain full strength and honor in the international community as it deserves.

In this process, the western powers, in hope of destabilizing China, will continue to poison some weak minded Chinese with wicked ideology, including so-called “democracy” or “basic human rights”. The Chinese nation needs none of those ideas if it wishes to become a global superpower.

Today, we are seeing the same exclusive inclusion process happening in Hong Kong. The people of Hong Kong are being considered as Chinese, but their ideas and political demands are not.

To include Hong Kong into the grand anti-colonialism storyline of the Chinese nation, the free will of Hong-Kongese must be excluded and denounced as conspiracies from ex-colonists. The moment a Hong-Kongese goes on a general strike, she is no longer Chinese but a CIA spy.

Under the “one nation, two system” structure, Hong Kong will remain Hong-Kongese’s Hong Kong, but only the Hong-Kongese who are considered to be Chinese enough.

Replacing One Nationalism with Another in Practice

Let us now drop the discussion of China and focus back in Taiwan. With all the potential damage, why would people even urge for a strong Taiwanese nationalism?

As history has shown, the most effective way to confront a type of nationalism is to build a rivalry nationalism on your own. But this does not come without after effects.

The French gained a new nationalistic identity after the great revolution and Napoleon, thus they defeated the coalitions again and again until they conquered most of Europe. So people from all over the old Europe realized that they need nationalism calls of their own to confront the French invaders, and they did succeed: the nineteenth century witnessed many newborn nations unified under nationalism calls and memories of being oppressed, some of which will in return became notorious aggressors in the next century with the same ideology.

More recent examples are the nations within the former Soviet blocs. Nobody would deny the oppression they faced under the Soviet regime. But to combat the communism ideology of the hegemony, nationalism calls were also used, and to renounce the Soviet worldview sometimes people jump from one extreme to another, such as those who commemorate international volunteers of SS as their national heroes in the Baltic states. Today, former East Germany and East Europe hold a higher population of right-wing conservatism people compared to western Europe, and it should hardly be a coincidence.

Right wing populists in the former Soviet bloc now exploit the slogans and ideas during the democratization period to their own advantage.

The idea of Taiwanese nationalism, like those historical cases, originated from foreign oppression. It was first the Japanese, then the Chinese nationalist and communist government who, through brutal governance and continuous threats, had given birth to the tendency among the Taiwanese people to break away from anybody else.

It is of course a constructed concept, and it suffers the same exclusive inclusion dilemma: for instance, whether we should grant Chinese immigrants via marriage full political rights has long been a hotly debated issue among communities of Taiwanese nationalists.

Of course, historical examples and common share trends do not suggest a rise of Taiwanese nationalism will, in the end, turn Taiwan into a right wing conservative state, like its Chinese counterpart has already proved to be able to do during the last elections and referenda.

But Taiwanese can only avoid so, if they are able to contain the two worst feature of nationalism ideology as mentioned above: an arbitrary division between “us” and “them”, and a regular practice of exclusive inclusion.

An Intermediate Solution

Nationalism under the Agenda of Progressive Politics

For me, the only solution to this potential problem is to guarantee that the united front against Chinese nationalism must always remain supportive of the progressive politics, e.g. LGBTQ rights, energy transition, etc.

We defy the vision of a unified but authoritarian China primarily because we urge for a just and democratic society that excludes nobody, oppresses nobody, while not being excluded nor oppressed by anybody either.

To achieve so, rejecting any annexation deals offered by China and maintain Taiwan’s status quo of de facto independence is perhaps the best strategy Taiwanese should follow at this moment.

But a strategy is not the goal. To make this differentiation more clearly, imagine the following scenario: a day when China is fully democratized and has run the new system reliably well for sometime.

In this scenario I would argue that an annexation deal should be consider an option, depending on what the terms would look like. By then this attitude might agitate some more fundamental nationalists within the united front, but fortunately for the Taiwanese (unfortunately for the Chinese) I believe such divergence would never be put into test at least in my life span.

An Unavoidable Alliance

Will this marriage between progressive politics and nationalists sentiment in Taiwan turn out to be a good one? I do not know.

But let us face the startling truth: the spring of 2014 would never have gathered such momentum, had it not been triggered by a rushed trade deal with China, and had it not been for China’s recent provocation and the uprising in Hong Kong, Han Guo Yu, the Trump-like Chinese nationalist nominated candidate, can already call himself Mr. President.

We live in a society where only the “China problem” is able to stir up large scale social movement, and where Chinese nationalists are now tightly collaborating with conservative political forces.

These are pre-conditions we cannot escape, so it doesn’t seem to me that there exists other options but to cooperate with people sympathize towards the cause of building a de jure independent Taiwanese state from a constructed Taiwanese nation.

But in the meantime we must remind ourselves always what our ultimate goal and core value is, and that obviously will never be to fulfill a storyline of the constructed nation.

Tony Yen

Written by

Tony Yen

A Taiwanese student who studies in the master program of Renewable Energy Engineering and Management in University of Freiburg.

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