Contesting Nationalisms in the Taiwan Strait

Much of the irreconcilable differences between Taiwan and China are the result of different types of nationalism, the ‘blood’ versus the ‘civic’
Photo: J. Michael Cole / TT
J. Michael Cole

“The degree of shared or conflicting understandings of what the nation is,” writes Stephen M. Saideman, “has significant implications not just for whether a country will go to war but with whom” (Nationalism and War, John A. Hall & Sinisa Malesevic, eds., Cambridge UP, p. 342). Though Saideman does not once mention China in his chapter, could just as well have been discussing Beijing’s irredentist designs on Taiwan. Conflicting understandings of what the nation is, as he writes, is at the heart of the decades-long conflict in the Taiwan Strait, one that, despite the recent rapprochement, will not be resolved anytime soon.

Although academic literature often draws a direct link between nationalism and war, I would argue that in the context of the Taiwan Strait, misunderstanding the other side’s nationalism (or a conflicting understanding, to quote Saideman) is even more likely to drag the two countries — and perhaps the region — into war.

China has long claimed sovereignty over Taiwan, and has cited history and ethnicity as its two principal means of justification for what is fundamentally an imperialist claim. In other words, empire and nationalism can create a feedback loop, each reinforcing the other. The “one China” principle, under which Taiwanese “compatriots” are categorized as ethnically Chinese and therefore part of an indivisible historical China, is an expression of inclusive (irredentist) nationalism rather than the xenophobic/exclusionary type which has often resulted in ethnic cleansing to “purify” the state.

And this is what has given rise to the conflicting understanding of what constitutes the Chinese nation. Chinese nationalism is very much defined by bloodline and ancestry. Consequently, anyone who has some “Han” blood flowing through his or her veins, regardless of where that person lives, is “Chinese.” Conversely, nationalism in Taiwan, especially among its younger people, is much less racially defined and is instead a construct involving liberalism, democracy, physical boundaries, a way of life, and a set of traditions that emerged indigenously and through the internalization of external influences. In other words, Taiwanese nationalism is perhaps best described as civic nationalism.

It is also defined by what the nation is not: brutal, authoritarian, and expansionist, all of which are characteristics of a state that the descendants of Taiwanese today (that is, those who came from China) fled from and do not want to see replicated in Taiwan. In that regard, Taiwanese nationalism is very similar to that of the Europeans who fled the Continent to make a fresh start in the New World. Over time, descendants of the French and British and others put down roots in the Americas and constructed their own sense of nation, while never completely abandoning their cultural heritage and language. In fact, their cultural baggage contributed to the richness of the American and Canadian experiments in multi-ethnic societies.

Must the embrace of one’s American nationalism, or identification as an American citizen, imply the denial of one’s French, Nigerian, British, Irish, or Spanish heritage? Of the legitimacy of those states? Of course not!

The difference is crucial and the source of much misunderstanding between China and Taiwan. The Chinese (by that I mean the citizens of the People’s Republic of China) have a very difficult time understanding how a people largely of “Han” ancestry could not feel Chinese or want to be part of the Chinese nation. Many of them cannot accept the idea that one can be culturally Chinese, celebrating its rich contributions to art and language, and yet not identify as ethnically Chinese in the nationalist sense of the word. This duality is the very essence of Taiwan, a multi-ethnic society that over the ages has absorbed and localized not only Chinese culture, which for reasons of history is predominant, but a multiplicity of others: Aboriginal, Japanese, European, and American. (The absence of a “blood nationalism” among Taiwanese could also explain why overseas Taiwanese tend to be less involved in the politics of their ancestral land than do overseas Chinese.)

With the exception of Taiwanese ultra-nationalists who regard ethnicity in its strictest definition (for example, those who recently criticized DPP Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen over her Lunar New Year scroll, which in their view used four characters that were “too Chinese”), the majority of people in Taiwan acknowledge and celebrate the strong cultural influences that define them, and yet they know viscerally that their nation is not China but Taiwan (or the Republic of China, which I would argue are now interchangeable designations).

Taiwanese nationalism and its inherent refusal to consider one’s ancestry/bloodline as an unbreakable tie to the Chinese nation (and a responsibility thereto) does not constitute a denial of the existence or legitimacy of the Chinese nation-state, nor is it “anti China,” as Taiwanese (civic) nationalists and their defenders are often accused of. It is instead a celebration of the idiosyncratic experiment that is Taiwan, of a nation that has transcended the narrow (blood) definition of nationalism.

Much of the anger that Chinese nationalists feel towards over Taiwanese people’s refusal to be “re-united” with their cousins would dissipate if they chose to recognize what Taiwanese nationalism is. I am optimistic that ordinary Chinese have the ability to see the contrast with their nationalism and, more importantly, to accept it at some point. One can also hope that the international community will come to acknowledge the fundamental differences between the two nationalisms.

Recognizing the legitimacy and sources of Taiwanese nationalism would de-conflict the situation and help delegitimize the CCP’s use of nationalism as cover for its imperial ambitions, while the continued refusal to recognize this reality could fuel frustrations in Beijing and ultimately create incentives for war. It would also put to rest the idea that the conflict is simply an unfinished civil war, and dispel the notion that Taiwan has been hijacked by a small group of separatists, aided by outside agents (e.g., Japan, the CIA), who manufactured a (false) nationalism with the aim of weakening the Chinese state by keeping it forever divided.


J. Michael Cole is editor in chief of Thinking Taiwan, a senior non-resident fellow at the China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham, and an Associate researcher at the French Center for Research on Contemporary China (CEFC) in Taipei.

One Response to “Contesting Nationalisms in the Taiwan Strait”

March 20, 2015 at 3:22 am, Lanny Yeh said:

The conclusion is but so difficult so far to Taiwanese politicians, who think only about how to cooperate with Chinese government and keep their jobs intact. Besides, I doubt that China would wait Taiwanese for such a long to time to find the way of being independent…


Comments are welcome, but will be moderated. Remarks containing abusive language, personal attacks or self-promotion will not be published. We encourage healthy discussion and, above all, tolerance of other's views.