Written by David Pendery.
Nigerian Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has spoken of “the danger of a single story” and how such one-dimensional narratives can preclude us from understanding other peoples and nations, leading to misunderstanding and misrepresentation. These stories can stereotype others, and, Adichie argues, single stories often stem from confusion and a lack of familiarity with other peoples. At worst, these stories often have a malicious intent to suppress other groups, but they are also simply misconceptions and misjudgments. She says that our lives and cultures are composed of many overlapping stories. We must tap into this variety to truly comprehend and appreciate the world and people around us.
I feel that such a depthless narrative is at work in Taiwan, influencing how people see the nation. In some senses, this is positive, as this narrative is indeed just that—a happy-go-lucky, cheerful view onto the wonderful-ticious place that Taiwan is. This story is most often a tale of how Taiwan has emerged from a dark, veritably totalitarian past into the bright light of freedom and democracy. One glowing comment after another is seen in the media of how Taiwan has accomplished this. Indeed, this comes with all of its associated factors: the peaceful transfer of power, protection of civil liberties, political pluralism, freedom of expression, personal autonomy, and that old saw trotted out time after time, “the rule of law.”
Many people, myself included, would agree with this cloud of favour. But alongside it is what I feel is a lot of misapprehensions. This is to say that there is much more going on in Taiwan than this essentially uncritical outlook. To be sure, other favourable views have been expressed, such as the nation as a tourist hotspot, its tasty cuisine, progressive often “smart” cities, and an advanced educational system. There is nothing wrong with this, but it remains an often incomplete view, and this endless paean of wonderfulness becomes tiresome. While itself a model political community, I have noted that the U.S. is by no means an entirely favourable and commendatory place to live and that we U.S. citizens have had to face some serious negatives in life. They are part of our story. This side of the story needs to be related to Taiwan to understand all that we are.
With this introduction, and without meaning to “dwell” on the negative, I would like to examine an adverse side of Taiwanese life, as I see it. A key – here – is the politics of Taiwan, which, though “free” and “democratic” in all senses, is somewhat shallow, and in this respect, limiting. This is to say that the two parties in this system (it’s a shame Taiwan cannot claim better than this as part of its national/political story) are somewhat sketchy and perfunctory, often failing to deliver the real civic and bureaucratic goods to the Taiwanese people.
The KMT and the DPP are vaguely similar to conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats in the U.S., but the resemblance is not really pronounced. As I see it, the KMT and DPP are much less “political” than what you see in the U.S., and in sum, they seem to be doing less for the country.
When you think of a Republican or a Democrat in the U.S., you think of the clear political views of the two parties—conservative versus liberal, strains of libertarianism versus radicalism/progressivism, corporate issues, gun control, class and income, and different tactics in terms of freedom, order and equality. You do not see such particulars in Taiwan. Moreover, it seems that the two parties are less focused on governance, administration and diplomacy methods. They function more as cultural and, to some extent, nationalist/ethnic icons (this is not to ignore the fact that governance and law-making occur in Taiwan). Thus, it seems that the KMT and DPP are less absorbed with serving the populace proper and instead spend their time vying with one another for attention and framing arguments in heated, dogmatic ways. Even their ideologies—the DPP as an independence-leaning party and the KMT as China-focused—are not always clearly expressed by politicians. It is well-known that the DPP’s claim that Taiwan is independent is not backed by any substantive, much less concrete action. Moreover, most KMT politicians would ignore any given preference for China, not wanting actually to be seen this way by the people of Taiwan. These factors provide a somewhat imperfect view of the country and have not been sufficiently noted by observers.
Observers have commented that Taiwan has little power or penchant for altering relations with Beijing, reflecting my claim that the two parties are not ideally handling diplomatic situations. These observers say that the two parties must attend better to policies, governance, authority and oversight—and I have stated this is not really happening.
And so, this is my take on a given “negative” in Taiwan life and culture that should be taken alongside the more positive stories that are seen so often in the media (both parties in the U.S. government offer nothing but universally glowing views of Taiwan, and virtually never speak in more frank, honest and open terms. This is to be sure tiresome in terms of the news that is reported). To return to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, all of this represents Taiwanese people in trivial ways, hemming them in politically and socially. Although there are positives, this essential banality indicates confusion and a lack of true familiarity with the people. Although not malicious, these views are nevertheless essentially misconceptions and misjudgments. Taiwanese life and culture are composed of many coincidental stories, some positive and some negative. We must take a view of this variety to comprehend and appreciate this nation and its people truly.
David Pendery is Associate Professor, National Taipei University of Business, Taipei, Taiwan