The Neighbors Suck: Taiwanese Identity and China

There are many instances of small countries neighboring large and powerful nations. The list is long; Canada and the USA, Scotland and Britain, New Zealand and Australia, Belgium and France, Taiwan and China, etc. The geopolitical positioning of these smaller countries causes them to share some characteristics. They tend to have a bit of a national inferiority complex. Not in the, “Oh, we’re such a crappy country” way, but more in an acute awareness they are an insignificant, or at least smaller player, on the international stage than their neighbor. They tend to define themselves in contrast to their powerful neighbor. They see large differences in culture where the rest of the world might see uniformity.

I’m Canadian. When I was growing up and trying to understand what being Canadian meant, the answer I received from adults was always a contrast between us and Americans: we’re polite, they’re rude; we’re multicultural, they’re a melting-pot; we’re democratic socialists, they’re rip-your-own-grandmother-off capitalists; we’re peace-loving, they’re imperialistic; etc. This is not a very affirmative way to define yourself. It doesn’t so much define what is Canadian, as what is not American.

Taiwan is an even more graphic example of the small country mindset. They define their country by how it differs, or is similar to China: Taiwan is a democracy, China doesn’t have open elections; Taiwan is defensive, China is aggressive; Taiwanese are polite, Chinese are rude; etc. Like Canadians, Taiwanese self-indentification is not positive, but rather a series of negative contrasts with their large and powerful neighbor. However, unlike most of the other small countries I listed, Taiwan is in an abusive relationship with its larger neighbor. China is the belligerent, drunken husband, yelling its demands and bullying. The bullying can reach shockingly petty levels, like when a teenage Taiwanese singer in a Korean pop group was forced to publicly disavow her flag. Petty. Taiwan is the battered wife, at times distressingly loyal, but beginning to recognize the nature of the relationship and pulling away.

On an individual level Taiwanese definitions of self are complex, multivariate, and changing. When I first arrived in Taiwan, twenty years ago, many of the people I met defined themselves as Chinese, in contrast to Taiwanese, which was regarded as déclassé. Most were the children and grandchildren of wai sheng ren (外省人), the Chinese who fled to Taiwan at the end of the civil war; many ben sheng ren (本省人), native Taiwanese, also defined themselves as culturally and racially Chinese. Today this is much less common. I arrived here a few years before the first peaceful democratic transition of power. During my time here, there has been the growth of a nascent nationalism. Taiwanese still define themselves in relationship to their larger neighbor, but increasingly see themselves as distinctly different from China and Chinese. In present day Taiwan only the cultural and political fringe sees itself as Chinese.

Self-definition is not simply an individual’s choice, but in Taiwan, institutions and businesses often have to define themselves and their level of Chineseness. Many corporations, most of which need to do business with China, must define themselves in opposition to Taiwanese national identity, or risk severe economic repercussions for themselves or their subsidiaries in China. Taiwanese businessmen have been coopted as foot soldiers in China’s culture wars.

Politics is perhaps the arena where this phenomenum is played out in its most blatant way. The two main political parties are virtually entirely defined by their philosophy towards China. There isn’t a traditional left and right in Taiwanese politics, there is only a sense of how each party views its relationship with China. When you vote for a leader in Taiwan, generally, you have very little sense of how they will actually govern the nation; how will they manage the economy, what are their stances on social issues, etc. You do have a sense of how they define themselves and Taiwan in relationship to China—that is defined. The actual guiding principles for governing the nation—well, we’ll just muddle through. I’m reasonably sure that former president Ma Ying-jeou’s first thought whenever devising policy was; what will China think? This is starting to change as politicians realize that their citizens want pragmatic solutions to the country’s problems.

Like other peripheral nations Taiwanese do constantly compare and contrast themselves with China to arrive at a sense of themselves as a nation and culture. It is not so different than the process we see in many other small nations around the world. After all, the flea is always more aware of the dog than the dog is of the flea. However, it is different in that Taiwan’s neighbor is not a good neighbor, and this lends a piquancy to the Taiwanese search for self. As a Canadian I can choose to define myself however I want in terms of my sense of myself as different than American. Taiwan, under constant threat of Chinese aggression, finds its self-definitions taking on stunning importance throughout all levels of society. The Taiwanese are living right next door to the neighborhood bully. They are forced to acknowledge this constantly in their national dialogue.