The Process of National Identity Construction and the KMT Elections

How can the Nationalist Party Change its Narrative?


Taipei cityscape © MagicTV / Public Domain / Pixabay


The Chinese Nationalist Party has held control in Taiwan for 70 consecutive years, initially, establishing a one-party dictatorial system. Later, as the island began the gradual democratization process, it managed to maintain a legislative majority. However, the Guomindang’s (Zhōngguó guómíndǎng 中國國民黨, transliterated as Kuomintang and abbreviated KMT) stable ruling majority began to lose support as the century progressed. The first alternation of power occurred in the 2000 and 2008 elections, with the two administrations of Chen Shui-bian (Chén Shuǐbiǎn, 陈水扁). The situation changed in 2016, with the overwhelming victory - both in the presidential and legislative elections - of the Democratic Progressive Party (mínzhǔ jìnbù dǎng 民主進步黨, abbreviated DPP, from the English Democratic Progressive Party). There have been a variety of speculations about the KMT's defeat; however, one element that heavily affected the election results concerns the concept of “national identity” (Batto, 2019).


A characteristic of Taiwan is that it ranks first regarding the frequency of surveys conducted on the population about national sentiment. Hsin-I (2020) recorded that since 1992, the Election Study Center at the National Chengchi University (Guólì Zhèngzhì Dàxué 國立政治大學) has conducted annual surveys and recorded changes in the “Taiwanese/Chinese identity” duality. Having grasped this notion, it must be stressed that the link between party politics, election outcomes, and national identity in Taiwan is binding. Since 1990, the most crucial factor in voting choices has been shaped solely by this single factor: identity (Batto, 2019).

In the election held on 25 September, Eric Chu (Zhū Lìlún, 朱立倫) became the new chairman of the Chinese Nationalist Party, succeeding Johnny Chiang (Jiāng Qǐchén, 強尼蔣), who had been acting chairman since March 2020, after a narrow electoral defeat. The challenge for the newly appointed KMT president remains to revamp the KMT's programmatic platform and win over the youth vote. In fact, just 3% of the KMT's membership is under the age of 40, and the party is struggling to make inroads with young voters, who are very sensitive to the issue of Taiwanese identity (Lamperti, 2021). Essentially, the battleground is played out in the KMT's ability to set a different narrative that can communicate and convey a strong identity message that convinces the electorate.



Taiwanese Bipartisanship

Currently, Taiwan's party system, aided by the democratic transition process and the diverse ideals embodied, sees the clash between two main political forces: the Chinese Nationalist Party and the Democratic Progressive Party.


In Taiwanese politics, the demarcation line often corresponds to relations with Beijing. This point deserves some clarification, as it would currently be immensely simplistic and misleading to divide the two Taiwanese political forces into “pro-independence” and “pro-Beijing”. While historically the two parties identified themselves as “pro-independence” or “pro-reunification”, however, the recent centrist evolution of the Taiwanese electorate has blurred out these differences, making the two parties more moderate and shifting the comparison between the DPP and KMT about the degree of cross-strait cooperation. In fact, the DPP and the current Tsai Ing-wen (Cài Yīngwén, 蔡英文) administration, rather than being pro-independence, are pro-status quo: it does not pursue any change to Taiwan's status. The KMT also tolerates the status-quo stances, as long as the final goal is to push Taiwan closer to China (Nachman and Hioe, 2020).


To better understand the difference between KMT and DPP, it is helpful to quote the 1992 Consensus. The tacit understanding reached in the agreement concerns the notion of “One China”, first mentioned then. In 1992, during the administration of Ma Ying-jeou (Mǎ Yīngjiǔ, 馬英九), an agreement was signed between the Taipei and Beijing governments about the existence of only one China. Charter (2021) believes that the key feature of the 1992 Consensus is that it is an “unspoken agreement to disagree”, as the two parties agree that there only exists one China, without specifying whether that China is the Republic of China or the PRC. However, besides representing a very fragile basis for dialogue - which stems from the willingness of Beijing to accept it tacitly - it is a non-starter for the DPP's administration, which did not explicitly reject it, but does not recognize it.


It is essential to mention the different sensibilities embodied by the two majority parties since the Taiwanese reality has experienced a process of reconfiguration of the feeling of national identity over the centuries that is constantly evolving. Carteny (2020) points out that the combination of factors such as the integration of ethnic minorities, the historical succession of different dominations, the generational change, and the democratization process have, on the one hand, left strong imprints on the perception of national identity, and on the other hand, are leading more and more Taiwanese to abandon the idea of belonging to a single Chinese nation. Many polls and research, including the most recent one conducted by Taiwan Thinktank in 2021, show that younger generations increasingly view Taiwan as an individual political entity. About 70% of citizens surveyed say they feel only Taiwanese and not also Chinese. This evolution of the concept of identity represents a potential stumbling block for the Chinese Nationalist Party, especially given the upcoming 2024 presidential election.


The term “national identity” is a multi-layered concept. It refers to a social construct composed of a set of blend factors, among which we have emotions, cognitions and historical events that influence its evolution over time (Pelaggi, 2020). Therefore, many elements in the specific Taiwanese case have contributed to the construction of national identity. First of all, the twists and turns in Taiwanese history. If it is true that Taiwanese identity was born out of the shared history and culture with mainland China, it is equally important to underline that the island's historical, political, and social experiences have transformed it and made it unique. When we talk about Taiwan’s history, we must be able to divide the notion into various phases, which for simplicity, we will reduce to pre-1949 and post-1949.


National Identity in pre-1949 Taiwan

Taiwanese national identity has gone through many phases throughout history and is an ever-evolving construct. The first traces of humanity on the island date back to about 4,000 years ago, embodied by aborigines whose culture was similar to the inhabitants of the territories of Southeast Asia (and some of which still constitute the 16 minorities officially recognized by the government). As pointed out by Pelaggi (2020), the island has seen the succession of different dominations over the centuries: from the end of the sixteenth century, it was characterized by the colonial presence of some Western powers (specifically Portugal, the Netherlands, and Spain), then in the late seventeenth century it came under the control of the Qīng Dynasty (清), becoming a minor province of the Chinese Empire. Despite this, the island continued to be considered foreign in Chinese culture, such that the presence of imperial authority was weak or non-existent, and vast portions of the territory remained unexplored (Pelaggi, 2020). Japan's victory during the Sino-Japanese War of 1895 sanctioned the cession of the island of Taiwan to the Japanese Empire. If until then, historiography often reports descriptions of Taiwan as an “inaccessible place, populated by a disjointed society and with a labile belonging to Chinese culture”, however, with the Japanese domination, a strongly authoritarian model was established (Pelaggi, 2020). Tokyo began a gradual process of cultural and identity penetration aimed at transforming the colony into an appendix of Japan. The Japanese presence on the island had a strong impact: not only did it contribute to improving the living conditions and social development of the territory, but it also demonstrated for the first time that although the Chinese cultural matrix was the main one, it was not the only one. During this period, therefore, the population of Taiwan experienced some degree of identity shift, which left cultural imprints that are still visible and helped shape the present-day Taiwanese identity (Zhong, 2016).


Post-1949 Construction of Taiwanese National Identity

Although the government of the Republic of China took office on the island as early as the end of World War II, in 1945, the Republic of China was officially born in the aftermath of the conclusion of China's thousand-year imperial history, with the fall of the last dynasty. In 1949, with the conclusion of the Chinese Civil War - which pitted Communist and Nationalist forces against each other, and after the defeat suffered on the mainland against the Communists led by Mao Zedong (Máo Zédōng 毛泽东) - Chiang Kai-shek (Jiǎng Jièshí 蔣介石) retreated to the island. An oppressive regime was established that lasted until July 15, 1987, when martial law was lifted, and the actual process of democratization of the island began. It is precisely in this period that a further process of definition of Taiwanese national identity comes to life. A process of sinicization began with a twofold purpose: on the one hand, to assimilate the ethnic minorities present on the island, with the ultimate aim of reintegrating them into “Chinese culture”; on the other, to legitimize the KMT and propagandize the Republic of China as the legitimate government of mainland China (Pelaggi, 2020). When facing the people who had been under Japanese rule for around 50 years, the government was eager to implement a de-Japanization policy in order to strengthen the Chinese identity among inhabitants of the island. Policies suppressing Taiwanese identity were promoted, which aimed at assimilating minorities (Tsai, 2007).


As pointed out by Cartany (2020), the process of gradual political opening of the island took place thanks to increasing demand for democratization by the Taiwanese population itself, accompanied by the - fluctuating - openings of the regime led since the second half of the 1970s by Chiang Ching-kuo (Jiǎng Jīngguó 蔣經國), son of the late Chiang Kai-shek. These openings have allowed for the first time the formation of an opposition force to the KMT: the Tangwai (dǎngwài 黨外, literally translated as “outside the regime”), which is none other than the ancestor of the DDP, officially born in 1986, one year after the abolition of martial law on the island. It was only in 1992, five years after the lifting of martial law, that constitutional reform was promoted, allowing the first multi-party presidential elections in Taiwan, held in 1996.


Pelaggi (2020) points out that since the 1990s, the process of redefining Taiwanese identity has been channeled in a new direction. Rather than continuing the process of de-legitimizing Taiwanese heritage and promoting sinicization, a more significant historical, geographical, and cultural knowledge of the island began to be promoted, creating a true “Taiwanese identity” that was going to detach itself from its Chinese cultural ancestor (Pelaggi, 2020). Since the 1990s, policies have been implemented to ensure a greater assimilation of ethnic Taiwanese into the economic and political elites of the country, which has contributed to a steady shift in ethnic identity on the island from “Chinese” to “Taiwanese” (Tsai, 2007). What currently distinguishes contemporary Taiwanese identity is the deep connection between the ethnocultural matrix and the political matrix. Therefore, it would seem that the democratic component has become a distinctive feature of Taiwanese national identity (Pelaggi, 2020).


Conclusions

How does the discourse on national identity relate to the recent chairmanship elections of the Taiwanese opposition party? Undoubtedly, the national identity of most Taiwanese residents has evolved hugely over the past three decades. Batto (2019), in his research, points out that currently, the variable that best predicts and drives election outcomes is precisely the concept of “Taiwaneseness”, the terrain on which the KMT is struggling to articulate its unique selling position.


Therefore, it is of paramount importance for the KMT to carry out internal reform and create a political and identity discourse that is more appealing. Although Taiwan is often only mentioned in connection with Washington or Beijing, Taiwanese identity and its historical, political, and social evolution are unique. While it is true that Taiwanese identity developed out of a culture and history share with mainland China, it should be noted that from 1992 - the year in which Lee Teng-hui (Lǐ Dēnghuī, 李登輝) began implementing a large number of policies aimed at emphasizing the consciousness of Taiwanese inhabitants and distinguishing it from the “Chinese Nation” - to 2021, the percentage of individuals who identify as Taiwanese has grown from 16% to 65%, a considerable percentage increase. One of the KMT’s core goals has been to achieve ever-increasing integration with Beijing. While this strategy initially proved functional for the party, lately, the electorate has become increasingly dissatisfied with it. The KMT has lost some of its electoral support as “it has gradually lost the national argument about identity” (Batto, 2019).


The challenge for the KMT is to figure out how to reconnect with its electorate, especially the younger portion - which to date represents a truly marginal slice of the total. What is on the table in these years leading up to the island's next presidential election, above all, concerns the duality of political communication and national identity. For a party that is often accused of being too “pro-Chinese”, the KMT has before it a crossroads: to set its future propaganda on positions more openly close to Beijing - in this way recovering a solid identity and becoming a reference point for a marginal (but existing) portion of the electorate - or to renew the communication, focusing on a “Taiwanisation” of identity - but in this way risking to flatten on the positions of the DPP and ending up appearing as a duplicate (Lamperti, 2021). The continuing identity evolution of Ilha Formosa - as named by the Portuguese in the 16th century - and the growing internal consensus on identity issues will be of crucial importance, not only to reform the KMT’s political discourse but also to better understand the future significance of the Republic of China itself in the world.



Martina Albini is a double master’s degree student enrolled in the “China and Global Studies” program (Università di Torino and Zhejiang University). She studied “Linguistic Sciences for International Relationships” during her bachelor's degree, spending a semester at the Beijing Language and Culture University (Peking). She has just completed an internship at the Special Diplomatic Delegation in Taipei. She is deeply passionate about China; her interests include gender issues and EU-China relationships. You can find her on Instagram and LinkedIn.



The opinions expressed here are those of the writers and do not represent the views of European Guanxi.



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