Why does this blogger write so much from so little?
The CNA and Taiwan Focus recently reported on another cycling event planned at the cabinet level to be held on December 31, 2011. The goal of the event is to arrange for 1 million riders to simultaneously "ride in a clockwise formation" along a specified route around Taiwan.
Emile Sheng, minister of the Cabinet-level council, said at a media briefing that the event would be the grand finale of centenary celebrations and symbolize Taiwan "moving forward" into the next 100 years.
If you have been following my running commentary on the bicycle and its symbolic representations in Taiwanese political life below, you will understand my own skepticism and caution in promoting a cycling event. I would love to be the type who could declare that every bicycle event must be a positive force in the world... but my experience in Taiwan has made me a bit more cautiously cynical. When I read a piece coming from the government, I always must question the motive. A government event is rarely benign and almost always comes with a political price tag. What is the value of this expense? What is the angle? Who is this benefiting and why?
With events like these we really need to be cautious in how our participation may run counter to our own values in the long run or if our participation may actually be to our detriment.
I would like to take a little time to deconstruct this article to uncover a little more about the motives behind this event and the possible outcomes. This provides a very good example of politics at work in Taiwan.
Issue #1: 100 years of the R.O.C
"The event will demonstrate that all Taiwanese people are making a concerted effort to move forward into the next 100 years,"
Here we see the common and problematic conflation of Taiwan into the extrinsic finality of the "Nation".
In 1895 Taiwan was ceded to the Empire of Japan and colonized as a model colony under a program of centralized state modernity that was widely promoted during and after the Meiji restoration period. Taiwanese were subjected to, and active participants in, the colonization of Taiwan by the Japanese. During this period of time the citizens of Taiwan occupied various levels of society with competing and conflicting goals. They adapted their lives to fit within the Japanese colonial structure and negotiated with the state for greater autonomy and opportunities. Under Japanese colonial rule the center of economic, political and cultural life shifted to Tokyo. Times changed, laws changed and people changed to best learn how to take advantage of their realities. Taiwanese, in effect, were becoming Japanese. Many elder Taiwanese I talk to still identify themselves as Japanese.
Meanwhile, in 1911, the Wuchang Uprising finalized the slow decline and collapse of the Qing empire and replaced the dynastic system with a modern republic. The Republic of China was founded without Taiwan or Taiwanese as a part of this new nation. It is also important to note that this is the birth of "China" and "Chinese" as we know them today. Prior there had been no common or unifying culture, language, border, people or anything else modern Chinese nationalists have constructed and projected into the historical past. Prior the the modern Chinese nation, there was simply a succession of empires comprised of cultural and ethnic pluralities undergoing constant cultural change; disparate people living within a system that viewed the world in terms of the center and its periphery. I am always disappointed when I hear people expound on Chineseness without understanding the term's problematic nature or its selective and superficial denial of plurality and change. It would be like calling all English "Romans" because the Roman empire once stretched to what is now modern Britain... or why "Chinese" is indelible when we have no trouble referring to a person from Vietnam as Vietnamese... when they had been Indochinese until very recently.
In 1945 the ROC arrived on Taiwan on behalf of the allies, and by 1949 the ROC government followed after losing the Chinese Civil War. During this period of time the ROC Constitution was amended and then suspended without Taiwanese participation as they were considered "tainted" by their colonial experience under Japan. A period of martial law was declared, which effectively froze the government and suspended elections leaving the ROC dead, lying in state, until 1988 when social forces forced an end to the period of martial law. This is the Taiwanese experience with the ROC.
In 1953 the schools were instructed to focus on teaching ROC ideology. Much of this is still in place today. History was told from the Chinese point of view, which caused much confusion as to who the "we" group represented. For only half of the "100 years" were Taiwanese ever experiencing the ROC... if only in its suspended state, many as second class citizens.
So why is this centenary being so heavily promoted?
I feel it demonstrates the government's own insecurity and the public's obvious ambivalence for the KMT's beloved Republic of China. There is very little in the way of shared positive sentiment for the ROC, when compared to people's pride for "Taiwan". I know many Taiwanese friends who are amazed during the singing of the Star-Sangled Banner, at the spontaneous response to the flag. Many, and I dare say most Taiwanese do not feel the same connection to the ROC. This may be, in part, due to its problematic history on Taiwan as an oppressor or hegemonic entity that sought to suppress local cultures and force ideology down the throats of Taiwan's citizens. The government is trying very hard to make people feel an attachment to "the ROC" in the same way the Chen administration successfully deployed the name, "Taiwan". In the eyes of the KMT, localization is simply the result of political engineering and can be reversed using similar tactics rather than realigning concepts of culture with reality. They deny it is a phenomenon that reflects people's actual identities. Any time a government has a Bureau of Culture, or Government Information Office, then it is clear it does not understand the nature of culture and is trying to artificially construct it.
Item #2: Moving Forward":
"symbolize Taiwan "moving forward"
The second issue is the terminology of "moving forward". I find the underlying meanings to be both a little comical and frightening.
Much of the early philosophy used by the Chinese Republicans focused on the idea of modernity. Sun Yat-sen and his contemporaries at the turn of the 19th century, imagined, like many other thinkers of the time, that the nations of the world were in a constant state of competition and conflict. Only the strongest [fittest] nations would survive. Sun Yat-sen adhered to this Social Darwinist concept and thus constructed a scale of measuring modernity with he and Han people at the fore, and the others being in various states of degradation. Traditionalism became an enemy of the state and was thought to be a weakening force to "the People".
It was not until the 1930's that "Chinese Culture" was identified and defined by the state, and traditionalism found a place within the ROC. Later, during China's Cultural Revolution, the Chinese Cultural Renaissance Movement was promoted in Taiwan to essentialize the ROC as the vessel and protector for "true" Chinese culture (whatever that means). Kite making, flower arrangement and other activities defined during the late Ming empire were revived and an effort was made by Chinese nationalists to promote their imagined traditionalism. I say "imagined" because it reflects an imaginary time and place that never existed. Still, many confused people fall for this line of thought. "Westerners" are particularly easy bait.
So when I hear how a "Chinese traditionalist" party imagines "time" in terms of forward and backward, I have to chuckle as Confucian thought conceives time from the perspective of falling backward into the future while facing the glorified past... and not the Darwinist evolutionary model.
What I find a little frightening is this phrase's echo of Taiwan's dictatorial past, where the state positioned itself, and those who identified with it, as "modern" and sought to lead the "backward" Taiwanese toward modernity.
The state's monopoly on modernity gave it the pretext to enact its transformative policies on Taiwanese and transform Taiwanese into "Chinese"---something the government felt Taiwanese were lacking as long as they rejected state ideology. The acceptance or rejection of state ideology determined one's opportunities and social mobility. The government unfairly and inaccurately portrayed Taiwanese as ignorant, illiterate and backward, then stepped in to paternalistically "guide/teach" them to accept Chinese nationalism and enter the realm of the "modern" and the loyal. The project was a complete failure.
The use of this phrase may sound harmless, neutral or ambiguous, until it is placed within the context of Taiwan's recent social experience.
What is "forward"?
In this context, forward may very well imply a future relationship with China and the KMT is trying to paternally usher those "backward", "uneducated" and "irrational" Taiwanese toward what the government feels is best for them; a Chinese future. In a white paper issued several years ago, Chinese officials determined that "reunification" (annexation) could be realized by convincing the Taiwanese of its benefits after marginalizing the pro independence voices.
We have seen a similar point of view from the ECFA cartoons released by the GIO, which seemed to criticize Taiwanese for their "unwillingness" to "modernize" by tying their economy to China's.
This terminology leads to a very slippery slope.
Issue #3: Why Bike? Why Now?
One million cyclists are expected to start simultaneously from 100,000 points around the country and ride in a clockwise direction along a route circling the island, Sheng said.
Although this event is supposed to be the finale in centenary celebrations, I really do not think this is the purpose. I feel the real purpose of this event is to initiate the opening salvo of Ma Ying-jiu's 2012 campaign for a second term as Taiwan's president.
Ma identifies very closely with the ROC, as he has always been a beneficiary of its imbalanced existence on Taiwan. A cycling event that draws riders from 100,000 different points from around Taiwan gives the central government, controlled by Ma's own party, an opportunity to effectively conduct an unofficial island-wide campaign event that would allow the government to spread cash (in many forms) to all corners of Taiwan in the name of the ROC. The campaign gifts may come in the form of tourism dollars and other temporary infrastructure projects aimed at this event. It allows the government to purchase labor in all districts. It gives the government a reason to purchase space, materials, transportation and other goods and services (possibly at inflated prices) from strategically important districts and the politicians who run those districts. It gives the KMT an opportunity to purchase patrons.
If we pay close attention to how the centenary and the various related activities will be carried out, we will see a very comprehensive strategy for influencing the election in the KMT's favor at the taxpayer's expense.
So here, in this little article, we can see how the bicycle's use in politics extends far beyond the scope of the semiotic, and into the electoral structure itself: Spreading The Pork!