Written by J. Michael Cole

I distinctly remember the feeling that something had shifted, that a new, undefined force had installed itself in Taiwan. It was in the air, in the glimmer of determination that showed in the young protesters’ eyes. That was the summer of 2012, following a major rally against a pro-Beijing Taiwanese billionaire’s attempt to expand his media empire. In my nascent excitement, I made the observation that youth seemed poised to change the face of politics in Taiwan. I was immediately accused of being naïve, of placing my hopes in a segment of Taiwanese society that was apathetic, materialistic, and irremediably apolitical.

As recent history has demonstrated, my critics were wrong, though I can understand why they viewed things differently as the mood at the time was indeed pessimistic. Throughout 2013, the fabric of politics in Taiwan was transformed by the intensification of civic activism, which in early 2014 translated into the Sunflower Movement and its three-week occupation of the Legislative Yuan over a controversial services trade agreement with China. Those two intense years were the seeds of the ideological split that brought the once seemingly undefeatable Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) to its knees and ensured that President Ma Ying-jeou’s ambitions would be dashed.


We can draw a direct line between those two years and the Nov. 29, 2014, local elections, which were the KMT’s first major electoral defeat in recent years and a sign that it was in real trouble. I traced the path of that civic activism in my book Black Island: Two Years of Activism in Taiwan[1] and demonstrated how a politicized youth was being defined by and was simultaneously redefining nationalism in Taiwan. As society came together to oppose the state, old, exclusionary notions of what constituted a “true” Taiwanese were being replaced by inclusiveness. The green-versus-blue divide that had imposed a poisonous status quo on the Taiwanese polity was slowly eroding, to be replaced by “civic nationalism” and a new understanding of citizenship. There is no doubt that young people spearheaded that transformation, with their words and their actions.

By tracing the evolution of social movements during that period, Black Island operated largely at the tactical level, focusing on how it transformed the domestic political environment in Taiwan. The next step was to elevate those dynamics to thestrategic sphere and to try to see what impact, if any, they would have on Taiwan’s relations with China and the international community. What did the consolidation of “civic nationalism” mean for high-level politics, starting with the 2016 elections and the future of cross-strait relations? What did it say about Taiwan’s future as a member of the community of nations?

That book, which is being released in Chinese language this week in Taiwan, is 《島嶼無戰事:不願面對的和平假象》.[2] An English version should be released later this year. Written in the summer of 2015 and updated in early 2016, the book follows the transformation of Taiwanese society and places it in the context of self-determination versus Beijing’s claims of sovereignty over Taiwan. It also seeks to demonstrate that the fundamental differences that exist between those two societies are such that “peaceful unification” is unfeasible, that it is not, as many academics have argued, the result of a simple disagreement over history or differing political systems which simple dialogue and “better understanding” can help resolve. It also shows how Beijing has painted itself into a corner by fomenting a rigid, and stridently nationalistic, policy vis-à-vis Taiwan. By making the “re-unification” of Taiwan a “core” element of legitimization with the Chinese public, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has limited its room to maneuver and undermined its capacity for accommodation, with serious ramifications for conflict resolution.

That ideological rigidity, which has taken the shape of military threats and a United Front campaign, is now clashing with the consolidation of a separate identity among Taiwanese who, contrary to China’s civilizational approach to the nation, have come to regard the nation-state through the lens of the Westphalian concept. Thus, while not denying their ancestry and the many Chinese cultural influences that have shaped their society, the Taiwanese — in the inclusive rather than exclusive sense of the term — see no contradiction in identifying as citizens of a sovereign state, whose identity is the sum of Taiwan’s distinct geography, idiosyncratic history, and various foreign influences.Black

The book argues that despite its overt ideological rigidity, the CCP is well aware of the transformation that has occurred within Taiwanese society and will do whatever it can to erase the contradictions. The parallels with Hong Kong, to which I dedicate an entire chapter, serve as a warning for the Taiwanese, as recent developments in the Special Administrative Region make it clear that erasing the contradictions will inevitably come at a high price in terms of freedoms and liberties.

When I first started drafting the manuscript, my assumption was that the emphasis on the civic values that make Taiwan unique would be a key factor in the 2016 elections, and that the party that best met those expectations would likely emerge victorious. That assumption seems to be been the correct one, as the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen scored a major victory against a KMT that didn’t seem to have learned any lessons from the past two or three years. Some people have already observed that the KMT’s poor showing in the January elections is a sign of its imminent demise. I do not believe that it the case. Instead, as it needs to survive in a democratic environment, the KMT will most likely adapt. And as I argue in my book, the only logical direction is toward closer alignment with the demands and expectations of an increasingly self-assured Taiwanese public, which inevitably means further away from what Beijing wants.

Whether all of this will lead to conflict in the Taiwan Strait is largely contingent on Beijing’s reaction. By emphasizing their desire to exist separately from the People’s Republic of China, the Taiwanese have in no way denied the legitimacy of the PRC or the desirability of coexistence. What they want are normal relations, what in essence is a state-to-state relationship, and the retention of their liberal-democratic way of life, which as the “one country, two systems” formula has made amply clear, would almost certainly be undermined under any political arrangement in which Beijing is “the center.”

As I conclude in my book, it is very much in the self-interest of the international community to recognize the value and legitimacy of Taiwan’s self-determination, and to provide the oxygen it needs to flourish. This acknowledgement will only occur if media, academic and government circles make a genuine effort to study and understand what is going on in Taiwan. Conversely, ignoring Taiwan and abandoning it to an uncertain fate, as some have counseled, would not only threaten a precious and highly successful democracy, but more troubling still it would reward the hawks in Beijing while silencing the more progressive voices across China who hold the key to their country’s peaceful integration into the international system.

J. Michael Cole is a Senior Non-Resident Fellow at the China Policy Institute. Image credit: CC by Chris/Flickr.

[1] Black Island was published in March 2015. A Chinese-language version, 《黑色島嶼:一個外籍資深記者對台灣公民運動的調查性報導》, was released in December 2015.

[2] 《島嶼無戰事:不願面對的和平假象》 The Convenient Illusion of Peace: Convergence or Conflict in the Taiwan Strait?

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