Freedom Fighting: Taiwan’s Resistance against China’s Ethnonationalism   

Written by Hsin-I Cheng.

Image credit: 2019.06.16台灣立法院-撐香港.反送中03 by 柯金源 Ke Chin-Yuan/ Flickr, license: CC BY-NC 2.0.

In the past decade, the world has heard the resisting voices of dissidents across Asia. From the 2014 Sunflower Movement to the Occupied Central Movement in Hong Kong later in the same year, citizens peacefully held their governments accountable. Since then, we have witnessed mass protests for freedom and transparency in nations such as Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, India, and Myanmar, to name a few. These challenges against authoritarianism generated transnational synergy, as demonstrated in the “#Milk Tea Alliance.” This movement started in 2020 when young Thai netizens fought cyberattacks against two Thai celebrities who expressed support for Taiwan and Hong Kong’s autonomy. Shockingly, two years later, the world witnessed Russia’s further invasion of Ukraine—it is a less militarily powerful neighbouring nation. The Kremlin’s crackdown on its citizens’ freedom to speak against Russia’s war was swift, and the Ukrainian nationalistic resolve to defend their way of life was inspirational. Against these backdrops, we launched the book: Resistance in the Era of Nationalisms: Performing Identities in Taiwan and Hong Kong. This special issue will introduce four cases of glocalised resistance strategies in Taiwan from this collection.  

Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen’s Political Communication    

This special issue starts with the first essay on the rhetoric of Tsai Ing-wen, Taiwan’s first woman president of Hakka and Aboriginal descent. Next, I examined how the small island nation’s leader uses “transformative rhetoric of marronage to articulate Taiwan’s existence as resistance against China’s aggression over Taiwan.  

While Taiwan is not under the PRC’s (People’s Republic of China) rule, its autonomy has been severely compromised by Beijing’s persistent claim over the island nation, despite that more than 60 per cent of its population self-identifies as Taiwanese instead of Chinese. Interestingly, this identity is closely related to how China and the United States are viewed positively. In Pew’s 2019 survey, 68 per cent of Taiwanese held a favourable view of the United States compared to 35 per cent, who viewed China positively. The polling data demonstrates that when external forces, like the Chinese government, threaten the sovereignty and self-determination of a population, such as the Taiwanese, the growing resistance against these threats is similar to the resistance faced by those under imperialistic colonial rule. 

President Tsai Ing-wen, one of TIME’s 100 most influential people of 2020, continues to advance Taiwan’s connections with world leaders, including bipartisan U.S. congressional members, EU representatives, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan. Her leadership is most evident when she conveys her visions with resolve and strength to the Taiwanese people as well as the world. President Tsai’s articulation of Taiwan’s existence as an undeniable fact is a model for Taiwan’s citizens to speak about China’s threatened encroachments. Through what I call transformative rhetoric of realness, she concretises an inclusive nationalism by combining a marronage standpoint, pirate-like spirit, and reserved invitation for dialogue. 

President Tsai accomplished this rhetorical feat by engaging in the rhetoric of flexible endurance, reserved invitation, and sustainable relationality. Such a communication tactic is rooted in the reality of Taiwan’s multiple lived experiences as outsiders, excluded from major global organizations. Political scientist and African studies scholar Neil Roberts, in Freedom as Marronage, writes that “freedom is a state of being … and becoming.” President Tsai’s speeches recognised that, under China’s threats, people in Taiwan have engaged in “perpetual flight” from being subjected to searching for free-willed survival. In her 2018 National Day Address, she noted that Taiwan is “naturally” under pressure during this particularly tumultuous time because of its strategic location. Her rhetoric of realness is combined with a sense of making Taiwan’s resistant process count. She reminded listeners that “as a president, protect[ing] sovereignty is not a provocation [but] a responsibility.” President Tsai alluded to resolving Taiwan’s past experiences, similar to its early pirate settlers, in nimbly finding resources to survive and stand firmly amid challenges outside the island. There is the reality that Taiwanese people have a sovereign nation. They are charged with finding flexible ways to counter the dynamic international arena when the PRC puts a crushing amount of pressure on Taiwan and its international allies.  

Transformative speeches evoke inner faith and capabilities within the audiences. Ellen Baker, an African American civil rights activist, was known to be such an invitational rhetor—an eloquent speaker and attentive listener. President Tsai also acts as a transformative speaker while facing a formidable threat from a super-powerful CCP leader. On National Day in 2016, President Tsai stated “the reality that the Republic of China exists” and then repeatedly stressed its “continued existence” during her next National Day speech in 2017. In her second inauguration speech, she declared that “the Republic of China can be united. Taiwan can be safe. Being Taiwanese can be an honour that makes you hold your head high.” How President Tsai continued to fluidly interweave “ROC” and “Taiwan” signals her acknowledgement of the presence of the Republic of China in Taiwan, thereby recognizing the reality that there are people who identified as both Taiwanese and ROC Chinese.  

On 2018 Lunar New Year’s Eve, President Tsai explained that “the Lunar New Year is the most important holiday of the year on both sides of the Taiwan Strait” and closed her remarks by wishing “our friends in mainland China and ethnic Chinese around the world a happy Lunar New Year.” This more intimate occasion allowed the President to blur the private-public rhetorical boundaries. President Tsai again reminded her audiences of the political reality faced by both Taiwan and China when she declared, “I will not be provoked into confrontation or conflicts that endanger cross-strait relations, nor will I deviate from the will of the people, and sacrifice Taiwan’s sovereignty.” Her words reflected the real desire of the majority in Taiwan, evident in a 2016 poll, which showed that almost 75 per cent of Taiwanese preferred “immediate independence” if no military threats from the PRC were present. President Tsai emphasized the existence of Taiwan based on her regard for its people’s wishes while simultaneously signalling goodwill to meaningful engagement for peace. In practising reserved invitational rhetoric, people in Taiwan and China are positioned in a dialectical relation delicately balanced with an unwavering stance supported by her people’s will and openness based on genuine respect. As a result, her audiences are empowered to sit at the table as equal interlocutors.  

President Tsai enacted a rhetorical strategy of significance to amplify Taiwan’s role on the global stage. Her rhetoric communicated the deeply rooted cultural sense of intimacy mitigated through “relationality.” In her 2018 Lunar New Year’s Eve remarks, President Tsai expressed her appreciation toward those who assisted after Taiwan experienced a devastating earthquake earlier that year. She called for every Taiwanese to take up the responsibility to live out its most powerful resource: qing​ (情; connective feelings). Taiwanese were reminded to show friendship to those who have offered support based on ​qing, a concept recognizable to all Taiwanese.  

Impact of Tsai’s Rhetoric   

This island of significance offers its people opportunities and resources to authentically be(come) Taiwanese, further nurturing genuine relationality within and beyond its geographic bounds. 

In President Tsai’s transformative rhetoric, Taiwan becomes, borrowing James Scott’s term, a “zone of refuge,” seeking survival with localized knowledge and lived experiences at the edge of the Chinese expansion. Yet, simultaneously, she underscores be(com)ing Taiwanese as a source of pride.  

President Tsai’s transformative rhetoric of realness presents radical permission to imagine and be(come) free Taiwanese. Her rhetoric is transformative in remaining aware of China’s substantial threat while articulating Taiwan’s geocultural identity as rooted in the experience of multiple enduring forms of occupation. In the process, Tsai articulates an inclusive form of nationalism rooted in Taiwan’s cultural diversity and collective memories. As a rhetor, President Tsai’s goal is to persuade and invite those with willing ears to hear Taiwan’s reality. Moreover, her speeches offer a model for all Taiwanese to engage in resistance at the ground level by acknowledging and embracing their lived experiences in the past, present and future.  

Future Topics  

In the following week, we will discuss the role of social media in expressing resistance in Taiwan. First, Wen Liu argues that humorous memes render reparative potential through palpable affects. Then, using the COVID-19 pandemic as an example, she analysed how memes were effectively used in Taiwan to fend off the perils of misinformation in cyberspace. Separately, Chiaoning Su provides a critical assessment of fact-checking platforms in Taiwan—one of the most targeted countries for misinformation from China. Finally, Sydney Yueh demonstrates how Taiwanese netizens use the term hari ​(哈日, Japan-worshipping) to negotiate Taiwanese meanings and express their resistance to China. ​ 

While this special issue includes only cases in Taiwan, Hongkongers’ struggles for free expressions under Beijing’s authoritarianism are inextricable from Taiwan’s fight for autonomy. Collectively, the book Resistance in the Era of Nationalisms: Performing Identities in Taiwan and Hong Kong offers analyses of resistance from what Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri call an “intersectional multitudes” perspective. This special issue and the book collection aim to continue the conversation about resistance to expanding imperialistic nationalism through military, monetary, biotechnology, and cultural dominance.  

Hsin-I Cheng is an Associate Professor in the Communication Department at Santa Clara University. Her first book, Culturing Interface: Identity, Communication, and Chinese Transnationalism, investigates the experiences of Taiwanese and Chinese communities living and working on the U.S.-Mexico border. Her second book, Cultivating Membership in Taiwan and Beyond: Relational Citizenship, proposes the theory of “relational citizenship” to explain the communicative nature of membership and belonging.

This article is part of Chapter 1 in the book: Resistance in the Era of Nationalisms: (Per)Forming Identities in Taiwan and Hong Kong(2023, Michigan State University Press), and was published as part of a special issue titled “Resistance in the Era of Nationalisms.”

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