Discussing Civility in Taiwan and Hong Kong, Part II

So in my last post I talked about different interpretations of “civil” and “polite” protesters and cultures, and how these ideas underlie the politics of the Asian American model minority myth and the Hong Kong protests. What I didn’t talk about was why being in Taiwan, specifically, sparked this line of thinking. (Most of my photos won’t be closely related to the text, but I hope you enjoy them!)

The Presidential Building in Taipei

The Presidential Building in Taipei

Our first day of the conference focused on putting Taiwan in regional and global contexts. I was most fascinated by the way many of the speakers framed Taiwan’s role in East Asia and the world, and by the way people talked about the United States in relation to that role. And behind all of these discussions was the looming political, military, and economic power of Mainland China.

Speakers frequently talked about how the PRC “marginalized” Taiwan and hampered Taiwan’s desire to participate in the international community. A good concrete example of this is that Nepal rejected Taiwan’s offer to help with search and rescue efforts after the earthquake in April, which is one of things that Nepal needed most desperately at the time. In contrast, Nepal accepted China’s aid.

(On Facebook, a Nepalese Hong Konger reposted an apology to Taiwan “on behalf of my useless government for rejecting your offer to help in the name of geo-politics. I appreciate your offer. And I hope you know that there are more Nepali people who feel the same way.”)

大龍峒保安宮 - The gorgeous Bao'an Temple in Taipei

大龍峒保安宮 – The gorgeous Bao’an Temple in Taipei

This marginalization has a lot to do with how Taiwan’s political status in the world has changed between 1949 and 1971, and the whole “one China” stance that both Taiwan and the Mainland hold. Essentially, the ROC and the PRC claim to be the sole international representative of “China,” demanding that other countries can only have diplomatic relations with one or the other, but not both. When the countries that had relations with the ROC switched their opinions on which China was the true China in 1971, everything changed for Taiwan.

Some background: The ROC under Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) first joined the United Nations in 1945, and it maintained its membership after the government relocated to Taiwan in 1949. But in 1971, the PRC replaced the ROC as the sole representative of China to the UN, and the ROC was out. (Fun fact: Over one third of the countries that supported the PRC’s entry to the UN were newly-independent, decolonizing African states.¹)

Museum of World Religions, founded by a Buddhist monk and featuring to-scale replicas of major religious buildings throughout the world

Taipei Museum of World Religions, founded by a Buddhist monk and featuring to-scale replicas of major religious buildings throughout the world

I’m actually not sure whether I should say that Taiwan left the UN, or if I should say that the UN expelled Taiwan. This article from the Brookings Institute (an American think tank that’s been described as liberal, centrist, and conservative) suggests that it was a little of both:

When the crucial UN General Assembly resolution’s adoption seemed already unavoidable on 25 October 1971, the ROC delegation under orders of Chiang Kai-shek walked out of the UN to prevent further humiliation. Resolution 2758 “to expel forthwith the representatives of Chiang Kai-shek from the place which they unlawfully occupy at the United Nations and in all the organizations related to it” was adopted by 76 against 35 votes with 17 abstentions by the other UN members.

Political scientist Denny Roy agrees. From Taiwan: A Political History (2003):

Minutes before the vote (on the UN’s choice between the ROC and the PRC), ROC delegate Liu Chieh announced his government was withdrawing from the UN, allowing Taipei the small dignity of being able to claim it that [sic] chose to leave. (135)

Either way, the speakers at the conference all seemed to say that Taiwan was forced out of the UN.

So after Taiwan was no longer internationally recognized, Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui in the late 1980s

pursued “pragmatic diplomacy,” in which one strategy was maintaining Taiwan’s international existence through participation in various international and especially intergovernmental organizations. [source]

Chihkan Tower (赤崁樓), the site of the Dutch outpost Fort Provintia, built in 1653. The statues on the right depict the Dutch surrender to Ming Dynasty General Koxinga (鄭成功;) in 1662.

Chihkan Tower (赤崁樓) in Tainan (台南), the original site of the Dutch outpost Fort Provintia, built in 1653. The statues on the right depict the Dutch surrender to Ming Dynasty General Koxinga (鄭成功;) in 1662.

In other words, Taiwan knew it could no longer rely on the backing of the United Nations, the United States, and other Western powers that had bolstered it against the PRC. So Taiwan had to make changes in its relationships with the world – and with its own citizens – in order to maintain and enhance its status.

Indeed, the reason why Taiwan is a democracy at all – why it voluntarily ended what was, until recently, the world’s longest period of martial rule – is because of this strategy. Ching-fen Hu (2005) argues that Taiwan’s democratization was achieved because Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國, Chiang Kai-shek’s son) went through “political learning,” which he defines as “the process by which ‘authoritarians come to realize the benefits, or in some cases their only option for survival, is to move towards a democratic solution'” (26, italics mine). Hu argues,

[…] Taiwan’s growing diplomatic isolation was the driving force behind CCK’s (Chiang Ching-kuo) transformation from head of the feared secret police in the 1950s to political reformer in the 1970s and 1980s. Since Taiwan could not hope to compete with the PRC for power, CCK opted to secure Taiwan’s foreign relations by building a relatively free and prosperous Taiwan […]. So long as CCK was confident in the US commitment to defend Taiwan, there was little incentive to change the political system. Once President Nixon made clear his intention to play the China card, and international support for his regime began rapidly eroding, CCK took decisive steps to Taiwanize the regime and to move toward a more representative government. The US derecognition of Taiwan in 1978 and Deng Xiaoping’s reform and open door policy reaffirmed CCK’s belief that Taiwan must pursue a democratic path in order to survive.

Taipei Tien Ho Temple (天后宮), one of the only places where Chinese and Japanese religious figures are venerated in the same space; here, it's Kōbō-Daishi.

Taipei Tien Ho Temple (天后宮), one of the only places where Chinese and Japanese religious figures are venerated in the same space; here, it’s Kōbō-Daishi.

Hu really emphasizes the fact that Chiang’s decision to undergo political reform hinged on the United States – not the UN. He also highlights the way that Chiang used Taiwan’s democratization to enhance the ROC’s global reputation, in contrast with the Communist-ruled Mainland. He quotes Chiang’s speech at the June 1972 inauguration of Taiwan’s first native Taiwanese governor twice, indicating its importance:

To make greater strides in developing Taiwan today, we must strengthen our democratic political system to ensure that everyone in Taiwan enjoys a freer and more prosperous life in marked contrast to the miserable life under the Communist regime.

And Hu notes that Chiang didn’t take steps just to democratize Taiwan, but also to “Taiwanize” its political system. This meant that where in the past, the ROC had been ruled by “mainlanders” (外省人) and the local Taiwanese (本省人) faced discrimination (and let’s not even get into the discrimination the Taiwanese aboriginal peoples (原住民) faced at the hands of 外 and 本省人), now Chiang deliberately recruited Taiwanese people to join the political leadership (32-3). Lee Teng-hui himself was a native Taiwanese, for instance.

So the political shift at an international level didn’t just change Taiwan’s military dictatorship into a democracy, but it also impacted Taiwan’s social relations. Gradually it brought 外 and 本省人 together as Taiwanese people, in contrast to Chinese people (from the Mainland).

A god struts away in a ceremonial procession outside the Matsu Temple in Anping (開台天后宮).

A god struts away in a ceremonial procession outside the Matsu Temple in Anping, near Tainan (開台天后宮).

Bringing history back to the present, I saw the conference speakers’ discussion of Taiwan’s “marginalization” from engaging with the international community as the continued expression of self-differentiation between Taiwan and China. Certainly China applies pressure to thwart Taiwan acting independently, especially on the international level, but Taiwan uses its underdog status as a political tool as well. It’s a politics of civility. Taiwan claims a number of internationally recognized “good” traits that the PRC is frequently accused of lacking: Taiwan is a democracy, whereas the PRC is a communist state (in name, anyway; certainly not in its economics). Taiwan promotes human rights, not the PRC.

I think this is what I’ve been coming to for the past few months – the idea that this discussion about civility, as most people who visit or live in China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, or Macau talk about it, isn’t just about whether or not people wait in lines, whether their kids defecate in the street, whether they talk loudly or not. The term 文明, which I often hear translated as “civilized,” is about a lot more than just the way people interact with one another in public spaces from day to day. It’s political, too.

Photo credit: Nathaniel Gonzalez

Photo taken by my boyfriend.

Thus, Taiwan isn’t just a democratic country in contrast to Communist China. It’s distinguished itself in its social policies as well, being very proud to be among the most progressive Asian countries for LGBT rights, with one of the largest Pride parades in Asia. China, in contrast, detained five prominent feminist activists shortly before International Women’s Day this past March. (They weren’t discussing something as controversial as abortion rights, or anything like that – they were planning to protest against sexual harassment.)

Taiwanese activism and social movements are also notoriously peaceful, such as the Taiwanese students’ Sunflower Movement (太陽花學運) which occurred in March and April, 2014. The Hong Kong Umbrella Movement, following just a few months later, drew on the Sunflower Movement for many of its examples and inspirations, including the strategy of nonviolently occupying spaces of political decision-making, and the rhetoric of Hong Kong (or Taiwan) adamantly not being Chinese culturally, socially, or politically. And, as discussed in my last post, we know how polite protests speak to a history of Asian and Asian American stereotypes.

So “civility” seems to permeate discourses of Taiwanese international diplomacy and domestic affairs, and to influence Hong Kong as well.

As much a tourist attraction as Taiwanese beef noodle soup, which I ate at 永康牛肉麵館.

Another tourist attraction: Taiwanese beef noodle soup, which I ate at 永康牛肉麵館 in Taipei.

This Fulbright conference surprised me for showing that civility, as I’d been thinking about it in Hong Kong, wasn’t just limited to these grander narratives. Civility turned out to be something people also used to sell Taiwan and its people. A scholar who researched marketing and the Taiwanese tourism industry claimed, in charts and numbers, that surveys of visitors to Taiwan consistently rated the politeness of the Taiwanese people as one of the country’s most attractive features. Civility and good behavior were a commodity.

Other speakers and politicians made remarks echoing this notion. Though perhaps they had more serious things to say about US-Taiwan relations, they noted again and again, as jokes or asides, how nice Taiwanese people were. Go shopping more, they told us jokingly, support our economy; and be friends with us nice Taiwanese folks. Some talked very seriously about how the United States’ military presence in the Pacific was the key factor in maintaining peace and stability in the region, considering China’s growing power and its desire to see Taiwan reunified with the Mainland; others jokingly thanked us all (“my American academic friends”) for coming to shield them from any bombs that China might have wanted to send over.

Our discussions emphasized Taiwan’s reliance on the United States to prevent its further “marginalization” – and to court us and the rest of the world, Taiwan put its best face forward. Democracy, nonviolence, civility. Be friends with us; we’re so kind. We understand the demands of global humanitarianism; we were educated at Harvard Law and speak your language – and in return, we will work with you politically and economically to counterbalance the PRC. 

One of the other Fulbrighters really pulled these ideas together when he asked whether or not there was really an international “market for Taiwanese independence.” A market. Civility, in a way, seems like a way to open up such a market.

¹ Ian Taylor, China and Africa: Engagement and Compromise (2006), 40.


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