Taiwan and China: A battle for sovereignty or diversity?

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The China-Taiwan story has long been defined by China’s sovereign claims on the island. This “renegade province” story is a legacy of the Chinese civil war of 1927 to 1950 fought by the Kuomintang (KMT) and the Communist Party of China (CPC), and which drove the KMT to Taiwan.

But today the war is about far more than the CPC’s continued sovereign claims on the island. In fact, the sovereignty issue may have far less to do with China’s Taiwan bellicosity than most of us realize.

When journalists write about Taiwan, they generally evoke its vibrant and hard-earned democracy, which is obviously a subject that Beijing’s autocrats would prefer was never discussed.

But the byproducts of Taiwan’s democratic evolution are also anathema to Beijing because they make a mockery of the CPC’s much-touted claims of having evolved a magical rule-all model for governance based on – of all things – Marxism.

As China’s president Xi Jinping continues to push his Marxist-based China model, Taiwan stays on course with experiments in diversity that have no place in the CPC’s China. Obvious examples include the Constitutional Court ruling in 2017 that the current civil-code definition of marriage as being only between a man and woman is unconstitutional, setting a two-year time frame for the legalization of same-sex marriage.

China only legalized homosexuality in 1997, and the Health Ministry only delisted it as a “mental disorder” in 2001. Meanwhile, a 2016 Peking University report found that only 15% of Chinese gay respondents had “come out” to their families and more than half said they had suffered discrimination as a result.

Another area of divergence between Taiwan and China is freedom of the press. The latest World Press Freedom Index, which ranks 180 countries according to “an evaluation of pluralism, independence of the media, quality of legislative framework and safety of journalists” by Paris-based NGO Reporters Without Borders (RSF), placed Taiwan 42nd out of 180 countries. This made it the highest-ranking country in East Asia. China was placed 176th, putting it close to the very bottom of the list, ahead of Syria, Turkmenistan, Eritrea and North Korea.

But perhaps most telling of all in this tale of two political entities is attitudes towards language policy. Take the mass rapid transit in Taipei, and you will hear announcements in English, Mandarin, Minnan (the dialect of Fujian Province known in English as Hokkien and locally as Taiwanese) and Hakka, the language of China’s most diasporic ethnic group and spoken by approximately 7 percent of Taiwanese. Hakka was designated as a national language by legislators in December of last year.

The 42 dialects of Taiwan’s 16 officially indigenous languages were recognized in June of the same year, requiring that the government allow them to be used for legislative and legal affairs, and that the government establishes a foundation to support the languages with the development of writing systems and dictionaries.

This leaves the vexing question of Taiwanese, which is believed to be spoken by more than 80% of the population. Under KMT rule, the language was effectively banned and students were punished for using it at school. Today its use is mandatory for public transport public announcements, but a draft bill promoting national languages, which will require that Taiwanese is included in school curriculums, is expected to be passed very soon.

This will put Taiwanese on an equal footing with Mandarin as a national language. The reason this move has been so long in the making is fear that making Taiwanese part of Taiwan’s mandatory 12-year educational curriculum will be viewed by Beijing as yet another step in the direction of formalizing Taiwan’s functional independence.

It is provocative precisely because China’s national language policy is focused on Mandarin – and to the extent that many of the country’s estimated 298 languages are considered to be under threat. In a report on the Phonemica Project by The Atlantic in 2013, Phnonemica co-founder Kelly Parker said: “In many … places, the generation after today’s children won’t be able to speak the local language.

“These aren’t small languages either; we’re looking at languages that have tens of millions of speakers … More and more people are consciously using Mandarin at home,” she added.

This is particularly the case in regions of China that Beijing perceives as problematic, such as Tibet and Xinjiang, where the government appears to be set on erasing the non-Sinitic languages of Tibetan and Uyghur.

 In short, the challenge for China in dealing with Taiwan is that the rise of Taiwanese identity is a threat not only to China’s claims on the island, but that Taiwan is speaking non-CPC endorsed languages, and protests, such as the Sunflower movement, against China and Taiwanese China-aligned politicians, are often carried out in Taiwanese, not Mandarin

The threat also is that Taiwan is evolving its own model for governance based on values that are not merely inclusive but also make “universal” sense – unlike the mind-bending intellectual acrobatics required to understand Xi’s interpretation of Marxism as a guiding light for global governance.

This might be simply summed up as a standoff over whether dissent is defined as inimical to state interests or whether it has a role to play in advancing inclusive national creativity.

It is not a debate that China tolerates, but Taiwan is pressing ahead with it all the same – simply because it has allowed its citizens to become part of an argument about how they define themselves and how they own their future – assuming that China decides it is not militarily ready to stop them from doing so.

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