Sunday, March 23, 2008

Still in the dark about the KMT win?

Don't worry. You're not alone. I guess a lot of foreigners in Taiwan are too (as indicated by some of the Taiwan political blog comments I have recently read). What you can't understand is why Taiwanese would choose a party that seemingly doesn't support independence. The reason is simple: although we may have our own Western democratic sympathies, we still do not understand what really drives the Taiwanese to vote the way they do.

I have long wanted to blog about why foreigners' political sympathies seem to naturally lean towards the DPP (my informal poll in the image below would seem to back this up). Here's my take on the situation.

Let's face it. By and large, the foreign contingent in Taiwan are newbies, with varying levels of Chinese understanding as well as various levels of culture shock. I can tell you from my over 10 years living here that I wish I knew stuff when I arrived that I know now. And I have seen and heard remarkably uninformed positions about how Taiwanese should know this or that or should do this or that. What's missing is visitors to Taiwan reading a lot of situations correctly, something that not even I will boast that I can do with 100% accuracy.

Furthermore, we are mostly a China bashing lot, mainly since we do not see China as necessarily important to our well-being. There's not much to like about China, is there, with their dismal human rights record. Taiwanese and China, however, are linked in a political and economic love-hate relationship which cannot be denied. As a Canadian living next to the giant United States, that would be like denying that America has no effect on Canada.

So, coming from countries with backgrounds of independence movements and an emphasis on freedom, we tend to equate independence with our freedom. However, is this the case in Taiwan? For all extents and purposes Taiwan operates as independent even though the UN does not recognize her as such. Secondly, I'm not so sure that Taiwanese equate their freedom with independence. I have found that there is more of a connection between freedom and economic mobility in the Taiwanese mind.

As a foreigner living here in Taiwan, I love the freedom and the independence that my country offers and would not understand why Taiwanese in their right minds wouldn't either. But I'm really just imposing what I would want on the way Taiwanese think. Maybe they already feel they have these things.

There is also the matter of the losing party itself. Over the past few years, the DPP could be considered to be somewhat of a party of idealists. They are 'cause' fighters. The people who support the DPP strongly are independence activists to the core.

The DPP's Frank Hsieh's 2008 Campaign Platform was called "The Pursuit of Happiness in Taiwan" and is a reflection of the happy, happy, joy, joy attitude the party has taken when faced with a serious economic situation. The rejected drive to enter the UN under the name Taiwan is largely this kind of "'heart's in the right spot" policy which didn't really have a realistic chance to pass considering that people are currently preoccupied with making ends meet.

They have also tried a rectification campaign by using the name Taiwan on passports and in government offices which has resulted in alienating a lot of people. They have even gone after national monuments such as CKS Hall and changed the name of Taiwan's main airport from CKS to Taoyuan International. They would like to reverse historical wrongs which is often no easy job (look at the fruitless efforts in Burma or Tibet) by using symbols and school textbooks. These kinds of changes truly come from the bottom and are better not imposed from the top by governments. Lots of observers say that Taiwanese are brainwashed by the past but I disagree. What we think is brainwashed is just the Taiwanese saying they need more time to come around and be convinced (being fairly conservative in the first place).

The past 8 years plus have been years of introspective while the world outside has been globalizing at a furious pace. Taiwanese are obviously fed up with being isolated and impeded by silly protectionist restrictions (a mutual fund I own was discontinued because it didn't meet the correct content restrictions, that is, no China content). Not only this but relations with with once friendly countries have been sullied by dirty remarks (I recall "snot" and "China's got them by the balls" being used in diplomacy).

The DPP has also screwed up their chances by not setting a good example, which would have been a good idea on a first outing in power. First, they have been the pots calling the kettle black. They have proven themselves as corrupt as the KMT in Taiwanese eyes. I will not deny that both parties have corruption issues. However, President Chen has been disgraced by his family's embroilment in corruption which doesn't help the party image.

Added to this, there is a strong streak of playing one part of society off against another, turning friends into enemies, even within families. It was very evident last election with staff being divided into camps, not talking to each other and being suspicious of other's intent. This is the Taiwanese first policies that are directly squarely at people who supposedly do not love Taiwan or consider themselves Taiwanese (read Mainlanders). At times, this really felt like the DPP was getting their revenge after all those years. I think of CKS Hall with the mockery of the monument and efforts by some to bring the sins of the father upon the son (going after the Chiang family).

I find this ethnocentrism personally distasteful. In fact, when looking at history, this is what we might expect from the KMT. It is ironic to see the current KMT doing a better job at championing unity of all the people in Taiwan. If Taiwan is to stand a chance against China then people need to unify, not to divided and labeled and even sometimes demonized.

Overall, my point is this: Taiwanese march to a different drum than we do. What is important to us foreigners is not always as important to them. And though I might make the strong connection between things like achieving independence and earning freedom in our own minds, we should not just assume that these things are necessarily connected for or as important to Taiwanese. And that is why Taiwanese seem to consistently defy our political expectations.
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