Making History: Scotland and Taiwan, 2014

The Chinese government has long promoted the vision of a Greater China under its perpetual stewardship – an expanded People’s Republic into which Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan will have been harmoniously assimilated. In 2014, this segment of Xi Jinping’s ‘China Dream’ was rudely interrupted by the Sunflower Movement in Taiwan (in April) and the Occupy Central with Love and Peace Movement in Hong Kong (from September to December). In both places, protestors volubly opposed what they saw as their governments’ acquiescence to Beijing’s demands. On the mainland, netizens posted barbed wit in support of the protestors. The Scottish referendum on 18 September 2014 also attracted interest on the Chinese Internet. Someone wrote:

The United Kingdom is intact. Actually, regardless of the outcome, the Scottish referendum has shown the people of another country that even during such a crisis, England did not impose an ‘Anti-Succession Law’. No armoured vehicles prowled the streets of Scotland nor was Scottish First Minister Salmond branded a national traitor. What’s more, no citizen was charged with disrupting order and put in jail for promoting independence. From these points alone, we can see that Great Britain, you remain an empire on which the sun never sets!


This Weibo post, promptly censored in China but archived in many places on the World Wide Web, highlights the predicament of China’s Communist Party leadership today as it seeks to win over cosmopolitan and globally engaged people, unimpressed by its authoritarian ways.  Mark Harrison reflects on these recent events on the first anniversary of Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement.

Mark is Senior Lecturer in Chinese Studies at the University of Tasmania and a member of the Management Group of the Australian Centre on China in the World. In 2014, he was a visiting fellow at the Institute of Sociology at Academia Sinica in Taipei. His three-month fellowship was supported by the ROC Ministry of Foreign Affairs.–The Editors


A pro-independence Scot waves a flag; image courtesy of   Màrtainn MacDhòmhnaill.

A pro-independence Scot waves a flag; image courtesy of
Màrtainn MacDhòmhnaill.

Through most of 2014, the Scottish independence referendum attracted wary and curious attention worldwide. Months before the vote, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, on a state visit to the UK, spoke out jovially in support of the union. Li’s passing comments were joined by those of US President Barack Obama, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott and senior figures in the European Union, even Pope Francis. Over several months, world leaders expressed their position on Scottish independence in quips and glib press conference remarks that generally reflected a nonchalant attitude to the vote.

The attitude changed suddenly when a poll result in the first week of September gave support for the ‘Yes’ campaign a slim majority. UK politicians and business leaders who had made breezy comments in passing about keeping the union together now rushed to issue dire warnings, threats and vague ideas of ‘reform’. The tone of much of it, from dismissive to righteously indignant to incredulous, was symptomatic of the many problems that had led the Scots to have a referendum. They were effectively marginalised in the over-engineered and aging structures of British power. Now they were threatening to dismantle the system from below much to the alarm of those at the top.

Faced with the dissolution of the country that boasts the world’s sixth largest economy, the intertwined networks of global financial, media and political power – from London, Washington, New York, Brussels, to Beijing, and even Canberra – came together in what seemed like the flash of an eye to present a virtually unified view. The Scots, campaigning up and down the streets of their towns and cities, had shone a light on the contemporary world system and its interests. The British Labour Party showed itself to be wholly embedded in this system, and most of the rest of the London left was conflicted and confused. It was unable to reconcile nationalism, which it reflexively regards as reactionary and right-wing, with progressive identity politics and resistance. It fell to the widely unloved Gordon Brown (a Scot) to make a detailed, passionate and thoughtful defence of the Union from the left.

In the end, Scotland voted No! Stock indices and the British pound rose in approval. But enough voted Yes! (forty-four percent) that an afterimage of what-might-have-been has lingered across Britain. The rest of the United Kingdom saw the national and global system illuminated too, and saw the half-forgotten possibilities of politics in the referendum campaign. In an era in which political disengagement is assumed to be a normal feature of the postmodern condition, the Scots showed how politics and citizenship could be reactivated and made to surge through homes and street corners and to energise citizens to speak to national and global power. The reactions of national and global power to this expression of popular will were also clear.

The Scottish independence referendum might seem a long way from the Chinese-speaking world, which has its own complex array of cultural and ethnic identities and historical narratives. For Chinese readers who followed the developments in Scotland, the referendum demonstrated how the concept of self-determination could be put into practice. But with the PRC state implacably committed to an ideology of national unity, it also highlighted how even the idea of any such referendum happening in the Chinese-speaking world would incur an immediate and threatening state reaction.

Taiwan is a part of the Chinese-speaking world where the rhetoric of self-determination and national identity has long circulated and has recently been on the rise. An independent Taiwanese state has been the goal of an organised nationalist movement since the aftermath of the 2-28 Incident in 1947. Eighteen months after the island was taken over by the Kuomintang (KMT) under Chiang Kai-shek at the end of World War Two, the Taiwanese rose up in revolt. Tens of thousands were systematically killed in the uprising’s suppression and the Taiwanese nationalist movement was born.

Since then, both the KMT and Chinese Communist Party (CCP), as official representatives respectively of the Republic of China and the People’s Republic of China, have seen ‘Taiwanese independence’ as an aspiration far more seditious than their own historical rivalry. While rapprochement with the KMT has been a CCP policy goal since 1979, a ‘declaration of independence’ remains one of the PRC’s pretexts for a military response to the so-called ‘Taiwan problem’. ‘Taiwan has belonged to China since ancient times’, is baldly stated in the 1993 White Paper on the Status of Taiwan and the Reunification of China from the Taiwan Affairs Office under the State Council of the People’s Republic of China.

Most Taiwanese will make the point that whether called Taiwan or the Republic of China, the island is already ‘independent’. It has democratic elections for its president, a functioning state and a vociferous identity politics. Some people followed news updates of the Scottish vote in Taiwan’s overheated and sensation-driven media but the story did not seem to generate much traction. Shortly after the referendum, the opposition, pro-Taiwanese Democratic Progressive Party issued a statement commending the peaceful process and respecting the outcome. The KMT premier Jiang Yi-huah said that Taiwan did not need a referendum because the Republic of China was already a sovereign nation.

However, only twenty-two nations in the world accord the Republic of China diplomatic recognition. While the Premier might claim Taiwan does not need a referendum, voting on independent statehood by the Taiwanese is something angrily warned off by every global power. To assert a collective identity in order to speak to power and to win international recognition as a people is something the Scots and the Taiwanese equally understand. When Taiwanese stake a claim for Taiwan’s identity and statehood in the international system, they are often met with the same dismissive bemusement that greeted the Scottish aspiration for independence. The international community is often willing to laud Taiwan’s democracy but would prefer it to democratically acquiesce to PRC hegemony.

What the Taiwanese can teach the Scots is the difficulty of living with the galvanising political moment they have just experienced. In ways that Scotland would now recognise, Taiwan has had several points in its modern history in which the island’s people came together in extraordinary periods of political and civic engagement.

In 1987, Taiwan emerged from forty years of martial law and embarked on its path to democracy. During the 1994 Taipei mayoral election, contested by the KMT and the DPP, every Taipei resident expressed their outrage at the dreadful state of their city and joy at the chance to do something about it. In 1996, while the PRC test-fired missiles into the Taiwan Straits as an act of intimidation, the Taiwanese went to the polls to elect their president in a properly contested race between the KMT’s Lee T’eng-hui and the DPP’s Peng Ming-min. In 2000, they went to the polls again, and this time, for the first time, the KMT lost and the DPP’s Chen Shui-bian was elected President of the Republic of China.

In the Sunflower Movement of March and April 2014, several hundred university students occupied the Legislative Yuan, Taiwan’s parliament, for three weeks. They organised a rally in Taipei attended by as many as 400,000 people. They paralysed the normal system of government and through their political skills and use of social media, briefly illuminated a whole other future of politics, media and community engagement across the island.

In each of these periods, citizenship became a live active experience. Everyday routine was suspended and in its place were new ways for people to express their political and social aspirations in their homes and on the streets. These periods captured the ideals of a democratic public participating in informed, peaceful but passionate debates.

For the Taiwanese, the meaning of these moments was created by the sense that they were making history and leaving behind the past, in particular the martial law era from 1949 to 1987. Taiwanese society was being renewed and the ills of authoritarianism swept away.

Scene from the Sunflower protests in Taipei, image courtesy of speedbug

Scene from the Sunflower protests in Taipei, image courtesy of speedbug

In the most recent example of this, the student activists of the Sunflower Movement declared themselves to be engaged in the task of renewing Taiwan’s democracy. They wanted to cleanse the country’s political processes of the tendencies of authoritarianism that they saw lurking in the operations of government and political parties.

These transformative moments of social political engagement are compelling but they leave the status of the past uncertain. The goal of social change and political renewal seeks to disconnect the past from the present in the name of democracy and progress. In this way, it has been paradoxically harder, not easier, for the Taiwanese to address the history of these exhilarating political moments as a continuing legacy in their political institutions and, most importantly in their personal lives.

Appalling human rights abuses were visited upon the people of Taiwan, whether island-born or Chinese Nationalist refugees fleeing from the mainland in 1949, in the decades before democracy. Among the victims and their families were the unspoken terrors of arrests and imprisonment, and the trauma, guilt and humiliation that accompanied personal betrayals and surveillance by the state. Even for the majority of Taiwanese who managed to avoid the authoritarian state’s gaze, there remained an anxiety about politics and power. Knowing the difference between public and private, minding your words at school and at work and nurturing the dream of emigrating for a freer life were lessons people learned over forty years and passed on to their children.

The government and state institutions continue to promote and celebrate Taiwan’s achievements as a democracy and economy while important campaigns like the Sunflower Movement have exploded into Taiwan’s public life and made their own claims to represent democratic Taiwan. But in recent years, less spectacularly, the past has come increasingly to haunt Taiwan. Remembering the martial law era has become a central but often unheralded part of civic life as artists, writers and academics retell the Taiwan story. Gradually, they are displacing the official narrative of economic achievement and liberal democratic triumph with one of how the people on Taiwan, both local and mainlander, survived a brutal regime. Artists and writers are telling a new story of Taiwan’s modern history that addresses in far more detail and nuance the effect of the authoritarian period on the lives of ordinary Taiwanese. Their work signals a new post-democratisation era for Taiwan.

The Scots do not have to come to terms with a period of modern authoritarian rule in their history. But they have experienced the brutal effects of post-World War Two economic restructuring which saw the Scottish economy being de-industrialised and remade around resource extraction. North Sea oil and gas have been a boon for the entire UK economy, and the fairness of wealth distribution was a key theme of the referendum. A sense of anger and injustice at the history of Scotland’s place in the union, and optimism about the possibilities of leaving it behind to make a new Scotland, drove the passion of the campaign. In their bid for independence, the Scots reinvigorated democratic idealism in ways that the Taiwanese would immediately recognise. The Scots stepped back at the last minute from formally separating from the United Kingdom, but their moment of civic engagement has nonetheless made history. Similarly, the movement for Taiwanese independence and the recent Occupy Central with Love and Peace movement in Hong Kong are acts of civic engagement with lasting effects, not least because they strengthen local resistance to received ideas about Chinese identity and history.