Inside Story

Taiwan’s double jeopardy

In Taipei, National Day tests the temperature of nationalist sentiment

Antonia Finnane Taipei 12 October 2023 1229 words

Ma Ying-jeou and his successor as president, Tsai Ing-wen in 2016, as government passed from the Kuomintang to the Democratic Progressive Party. Office of the President

Tuesday this week was National Day in Taiwan — also known as Double Tenth Day — a politically difficult twenty-four hours marked this year by more than the usual level of controversy. The first sign of trouble was former president Ma Ying-jeou’s announcement that he would not be attending the formal ceremony. Following suit, the rest of the China-leaning Kuomintang, including its presidential candidate, held a separate National Day celebration at party headquarters.

Billionaire Foxconn founder and independent presidential candidate Terry Gou quickly came out in support of Ma, criticising the country’s leaders for their position on national identity. Ko Wen-je, presidential candidate for the Taiwan People’s Party, demurred, arguing that National Day should be above party politics; but on the day itself he left the ceremony early to attend a demonstration.

In a country that has yet to declare its own independence — a country, moreover, claimed by another country — a “national day” is inherently problematic. Taiwan’s National Day is the anniversary of the 1911 uprising that led to the founding of the Republic of China, or ROC, the following year, at a time when Taiwan was a Japanese colony. After the People’s Republic was created by the Communist Party in 1949, the ROC survived in rump form in Taiwan. The island itself, governed by the Kuomintang under martial law until 1987, was technically nothing more than a province.

All this was a long time ago. The participants in the original conflict are mostly dead; martial law has given way to multi-party democracy. With every new generation, Taiwan’s connection to the Chinese past has become increasingly attenuated and “Republic of China” less meaningful to them as a name for their country. Identification with the People’s Republic is much weaker again.

Around two-thirds of people in Taiwan now think of themselves as Taiwanese without qualification — in other words, they don’t even describe themselves as Taiwanese-Chinese. Judging by the level of electoral support for President Tsai Ing-wen’s independence-oriented Democratic Progressive Party, they would have opted by now for independence if it were not for fears of triggering war with China.

In these circumstances, the question “Whose National Day is it, after all?” has become progressively sharper. At Taipei’s monumental East Gate, not far from the site of the annual ceremony, the tensions underpinning the day are openly expressed each year. Separated by a thin blue line of police, a unification-with-China group and an independence-for-Taiwan group hurl abuse at each other in what has become a National Day ritual.

Under President Tsai, in office since 2016, the response to this question has been to allow greater leeway for expressions of Taiwanese nationalism, which in turn has reduced the visibility of the name “Republic of China.” Passport covers have been one scene of action. Within a few months of Tsai’s election, increasing numbers of Taiwanese travellers were covering up the words “Republic of China” on passport covers with a sticker carrying the inflammatory words “Republic of Taiwan.” The current passport design, issued early in Tsai’s second term, altogether omits the English words Republic of China from the cover.

Another site for subversion of the island’s ROC status is the National Day logo. This is generally designed around the Double Tenth symbol “++” (the Chinese character for ten, repeated), which evokes the date of the 1911 uprising, 10 October. Since 2017, this symbol has by degrees become more abstract and the accompanying references to the Republic of China less clear, if they’re retained at all. “Better Taiwan,” “Taiwan Together” and “Taiwan Forward” are among the slogans used in logos issued during Tsai’s first term of office.

Since 2020 the designs have become more assertive again. The Kuomintang criticised the 2021 logo because it carried no mention of the Republic of China. The logo for 2022, the year Russia invaded Ukraine, for the first time carried no reference to the Double Tenth. It instead featured a stylised sun — its blue and yellow rays read by some as a salute to Ukraine — accompanied by the words “Protect the Land, Guard the Country.”

The Double Tenth sign was resurrected for this year’s design. But the slogan of “democratic Taiwan,” resonating with the name of the Democratic Progressive Party, was provocative. In combination with the absence of any reference to the ROC, it was enough to prompt the Kuomintang’s boycott of the last National Day ceremony to be presided over by Tsai Ing-wen. In May next year, Tsai will hand over to whoever wins the presidential election in January.

The trend towards erasing references to the ROC can of course be reversed if the Kuomintang is returned to office, but at present that seems unlikely. The Democratic Progressive Party’s presidential candidate, vice-president Lai Ching-te, has been leading the polls since the race began. As long as none of his opponents join forces, Taiwan’s first-past-the-post voting system means he is likely to succeed Tsai Ing-wen next year.

Lai’s forward position on independence for Taiwan is well known but as vice-president and now presidential candidate he has had to juggle the fact of Taiwanese self-determination with the realities of cross-strait relations. In a recent interview he summed up the complexities of talking about a country that not everyone agrees is even a country in saying: “Taiwan is already a sovereign, independent country called the Republic of China.”

And there’s the rub. As “Republic of China” under Kuomintang rule, Taiwan was a recognised enemy of the People’s Republic during the Mao Years, 1949–76. The 1992 consensus — entailing both sides recognising the core principle of “One China” — ushered in a period of neutrality. Hostility was replaced by pragmatism, trade and migration between the two places. As the Republic of China, Taiwan remained formally “Chinese” and paradoxically compliant with the One China principle.

Had the Chinese Communist Party been prepared at any stage to put One China ahead of One Party, Taiwan might have joined with China to form a reconfigured republic — neither the Kuomintang nor the Communist Party version, but something attuned to the briefly hopeful, democratising world of the late twentieth century.

This chance appears to have evaporated, and the very term “Republic of China” is again becoming anathema in China. In Hong Kong this year, commemoration of the Double Tenth was prohibited because of its association with Taiwan independence. Current affairs commentator Sang Pu, born and raised in Hong Kong, recalls that in his boyhood the largest number of Chinese flags displayed there each October were the Republic of China’s, in commemoration of the Double Tenth. This year, Hong Kong was a sea of mainland China’s “five-star red flags” — 70,000 of them, around sixty-three per square kilometre.

It was the prospect of a sea of five-star red flags on Taiwanese soil that brought voters out to return Tsai Ing-wen to office in 2020. In her final National Day address on Tuesday, Tsai mentioned Taiwan over fifty times and the Republic of China just seven. Occasionally the two terms were coupled, most notably in her reference to national defence and the “resolve to defend the Republic of China (Taiwan).”

Needless to say, this is a rather different ROC from the one that China’s leaders have imagined might voluntarily return to the ancestral fold. From a Taiwanese point of view, it is an open question whether it ever belonged to that fold at all. •