Chen Shui-bian and the Battle for National Identity – An Analysis of Key Speeches from His Second Term

Written by Joanna Zylinska.

Image credit: 2008 Republic of China Legislative Election by Rico Shen/Wikimedia Commons, license CC BY-SA 4.0

Chen Shui-bian’s presidency has been said to be a period of polarization, typified by aggressive nation-building policies and worsening cross-Strait relations. He became president in May 2000 and at first enjoyed widespread support. During the first two years of his presidency, Chen made many concessions to China, yet despite this Beijing remained unresponsive. August 2002 marked a drastic change in his approach to cross-Strait relations; Chen’s attitude towards China seemed to change drastically. Some examples of compromises Chen attempted to make in order to initially win China over are the Five No’s (promises made to China, meant to reassure Beijing of Chen’s moderation), semi-opening of the Three Links and calls for cross-Strait dialogue, among others. Yet everything changed when, in 2002, Chen stated that there are two countries: one on each side of the Strait. His motivations for this policy shift seemed to be mainly stemming from the upcoming elections and the fear of losing his core voter base to the Taiwan Solidarity Union (led by Lee Teng-hui). Some of the other factors were: the realisation that trying to appease Beijing was a dead-end strategy, an attempt to divert the voters’ attention from the worsening state of the Taiwanese economy by shifting the focus to identity politics and a sense of fear that unless something is done, Taiwan will be swallowed up by China.

While in the first term of his presidency Chen was still reluctant to make controversial statements during constitutional addresses (official speeches, often directed at his domestic audiences), his second term (2004–2008), however, marked a departure from that. It was then that the president’s remarks became increasingly controversial.

Chen’s second term in office was marred by corruption scandals, which have tended to be the focus of scholars. As such, the issue of national identity during that period has been understudied. National identity includes both ethnic and civic aspects. Ethnic attachment is characterised by identifying with the state’s history, common myths and so on, and civic aspects are based on attachment to the state itself. While the Taiwanese already identified with the state prior to Chen’s presidency, his nation-building efforts focused largely on building an ethnic-based identity. In his inaugural speech of 2004, Chen mentioned the “shared destiny” and “common memory” of the Taiwanese people, themes he would highlight in later speeches. By emphasising that the Taiwanese are connected through history and fate, Chen attempted to awaken a sense of ethnic national identity. Some of the examples of policies meant to achieve this goal include: pushing for various educational reforms meant to place Taiwan in the centre of different disciplines, efforts to change names of key enterprises and places, rewriting of Taiwan’s history and creating common myths of the Taiwanese nation. These policies have been heavily criticised by Chen’s domestic opponents, the Chinese Communist Party and even Washington, and dubbed the de-sinicization of Taiwan. Frequent mentions of the 228 Incident (a massacre orchestrated by the KMT in 1947 in response to Taiwanese people’s protests) were another tool used by Chen in his speeches to build a sense of common history. By mentioning this traumatic event, Chen hoped to awaken patriotism among the Taiwanese people.

Just how important the issue of national identity became for Chen after his re-election is also seen through the placement of said topic in his speeches. In his first term, Chen tended to first address terrorism, economy and social justice, yet in the second term of his presidency national identity and cross-Strait relations were spoken about before any other matters. For his DPP (Democratic Progressive Party), national identity and the cross-Strait relations became the sources of democratic legitimacy and, as such, an issue of the party’s survival. The DPP was unable to use economic successes as a source of legitimacy and thus focused solely on the above mentioned aspects. Moreover, national identity was seen as a weapon against China, which was implied by Chen in his New Year address of 2006:

“With no clear national identity, our national security cannot be safeguarded, for there will be no basis upon which national interests can be defended.”

Here, Chen clearly stated that national identity was linked to Taiwan’s defence abilities. He was aware of China posing a threat to Taiwan’s sovereignty, through both military and economic means. With the opposition blocking his efforts to purchase new weapons from the USA, he realised that Taiwan would not have the military capability to defend itself. With Taiwan’s and China’s economies becoming increasingly dependent on each other, building a psychological barrier in Taiwanese people’s consciousness by means of shared national identity seemed to be the only option. Chen hoped that by radicalising the public on this issue, business people would be more reluctant to conduct business with China as it would be seen as betraying the nation. In his National Day speech in 2007, he criticised the business community for being selfish and putting their own interest first, disregarding what is best for the nation. He attempted to instil fear by implying that without a consolidated ethnic identity, Taiwanese democracy was in danger, to a point of it being possible for Taiwan to revert to authoritarianism.

For Chen Shui-bian, national identity became almost a cure for all. Not only did he link national identity with Taiwan’s defence capabilities, but he also associated it with the process of democratisation. National identity became a tool used in DPP election campaigns – angering China seemed to only help them. Each time Beijing replied to Chen’s statements with threats, the president used these as an excuse to make even more controversial declarations. Some have suggested that Chen was deliberately talking about identity and independence-related problems in order to get attention from the international community. One might ask how would that benefit Taiwan and Chen? By bringing international attention to the island, Chen secured additional protection in face of possible cross-Strait conflict.

Identity politics enjoyed some support from the Taiwanese public and allowed the DPP to win the second presidential elections. The issue of national identity, however, was not enough to distract the voters from numerous corruption accusations made against Chen and his administration in his second term in office. Although he was largely considered to be a bad president, Chen succeeded in bringing the international community’s attention to Taiwan and in re-affirming identity politics’ place in later discourse. It has been said (but difficult to prove) that Chen inherited a political climate where identity politics were already at the forefront and an ethnic sense of consciousness was brewing under the surface. Nevertheless, Chen did spot an opportunity to use identity politics to his advantage. Not only did he attempt to build a Taiwanese nation united through a sense of common ethnic belonging, but he also knew that by doing so, he was protecting Taiwan from the Mainland. As the sense of uncertainty and urgency related to cross-Strait relations grew on the island during the second term of Chen’s presidency, so did the importance the president attached to national identity. With Taiwan’s questionable defence capabilities growing relatively smaller compared to China’s military power, he realised the only way to safeguard Taiwan would be by building a psychological barrier in people’s minds. Chen’s nation-building policies, although controversial, seemed to have influence over the public as can be evidenced by the emergence of the Sunflower Movement during the presidency of his successor, Ma Ying-jeou.

Joanna Zylinska is a final year undergraduate student at SOAS, University of London. Her research focuses on the issue of national identity in Taiwan.

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