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Monday, June 25, 2012

Taiwan's Soft Diplomacy: Cycling The World To Make Space For Taiwan

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A pair of child's overalls from 1978 with an ROC flag and the slogan, "I Love China/Chinese". This provides an excellent example of how these Chinese Nationalist symbols were used to reinforce KMT party ideology in children. The symbolism was a performative means through which Taiwanese located on the periphery could attempt to satisfy their ethnic burden and benefit from drawing closer to state power. The ROC flag is still a very important symbol in every school.

The CNA via Taiwan Focus brings us an interesting article on a Taiwanese cyclist who will embark on an extended bike tour to highlight Taiwan's difficulty in negotiating an ambiguous national identity.

Teddy Liao, who prefers to be known as "Taiwan Floatman," will wear a T-shirt printed with the Republic of China's national flag and perform "human flag" maneuvers in which he makes his body parallel to the ground while holding a pole at famous scenic sites in various countries. 
Liao, 28, who has sold his bike shop in central Taiwan's Taichung city, told CNA that he's motivated to quit his job and travel in this unusual way because he is patriotic and is concerned about Taiwan's unique international status. 
The island of 23 million people is not recognized as a country by the United Nations because China considers it a province to be reunified one day.  
As a result of Beijing's objections to Taiwan being treated as a country, Taiwan is often barred from participating in international organizations that require statehood or using its official name -- theRepublic of China -- at international events. The ROC moved its seat to Taiwan in 1949 after losing a civil war to the Chinese communist party.  
Despite the warming ties between Taiwan and China, Taiwan is still not allowed to show its flag at international sports events, and thus many patriotic Taiwanese people or athletes make a point of showing Taiwan's flag in the audience sections or on the stage of sports competitions or other events. 

What may be the most interesting aspect of this article is how Mr. Liao's trip not only accurately expresses the level of confusion and insecurity the current national policy of demurring ambiguity creates among its citizens, but also in how Taiwan's status as an unresolved post-coloniality has resulted in a confusing juxtaposition and reconfiguring of national identities and symbolism.

The debate over Taiwan's representation is not only being waged between the People's Republic of China (PRC/China) and Taiwan (Republic of China/ROC), there is also vigorous debate within Taiwan over the state of the nation.

Form Taiwan's earliest contact with the ROC, the relationship was defined as one between the centrality of the ROC state apparatus and the Taiwanese periphery. To gain access to the state's monopoly on power, Taiwanese were expected to move closer to the state center by adopting the state ideology of Tridemism, also known as Sunism after the writing of the Chinese ethnic nationalist writer, Sun Yat-sen.

Tridemism is based on the principles of Nationalism/Populism/Patriotism, Democracy, and Public Welfare. Sun Yat-sen believed the Chinese people were racially superior to the other peoples of Asia and, only through these principles, could rise up and become the masters of the "Yellow Race".

Sun's ideals were brought to Taiwan by the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) following WWII, which operated as a mirror to the Japanese colonial government it had replaced. The symbols of patriotism and nationalism were regular deployed to array out the nationalization program with the aim of transforming the Taiwanese people into Chinese. 

This process put an incredible burden on Taiwanese to adopt idealized modes of behavior to satisfy the KMT state's requirements of patriotism, while the KMT maintained a gap between the civilized center and its degraded peripheral peoples (Taiwanese).

The ROC flag has remained a confusing and controversial symbol of Taiwan as it is based upon the KMT party flag, brought to Taiwan from China in 1945. After 40 years as a single party authoritarian state, Taiwan's transformation to a democracy failed to transform many of the former symbols of the pre-democratic regime and its failed neocolonial, China centered programs.

In the article above Mr. Liao expresses his desire to display his patriotism in the face of China's belligerence by displaying the national flag-- a flag that is often suppressed by Chinese efforts and also by the complicit acts of the ROC's own representatives.

It is not clear if Mr. Liao is a strong supporter of the constitutional ROC, the Chinese Nationalist state that still maintains a China-centered outlook, or if he has come to associate the old symbols of Chinese nationalism with the modern, democratic experience of Taiwan.

It Taiwan, it is commonly recognized that the ROC flag is not a neutral representation of the nation, but tightly associated with the KMT; a party which still officially seeks to realize its pipe dream of seeing Taiwan as a part of some "Chinese" entity. This would make Mr. Liao's efforts seem almost counter productive.

Many Taiwanese who support a formal declaration of independence steer clear of the old symbolism that is tied to the type of ethnocentrism that was used so effectively in maintaining the social cleavage between those who identified closely with the KMT state (and were the beneficiaries of their close relationship) , and those who did not.

As the majority of Taiwanese reject any type of Chinese identity in recognition of the realities of Taiwan as their center, the deployment of old symbols imbued with new meanings will likely continue and become more common as Taiwanese inch toward a "Taiwan consensus"driven from the bottom up. For many Taiwanese, there seems to be a type of dissonance between the Chinese centered history and experience of the ROC and the Taiwanese historo-political experience, as if the history of the ROC in China has been imported wholesale, reconfigured, and re-imagined as if it had happened in Taiwan. 

What Mr. Liao may represent with his bike ride, is the possibility that a Taiwan centered nationalism has supplanted the China-centered model to become the predominant grammar for discussing the national expectations and aspirations of the Taiwanese. This bike project also betrays how the KMT and PRC policies of containment deployed against Taiwanese nationalism have produced the opposite of the desired effect.  

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