Identities, Past and the Present

Written by  Tuesday, 28 July 2015 21:28

     For a long time, I have wanted to complete a manuscript contributing to understanding the complicated political and economic relationships between the Republic of China (ROC, or Taiwan), the People’s Republic of China (PRC or China), and the United States of America (USA). Part of the motivation is personal. While my parents and grandparents were born citizens of the ROC, currently headquartered in Taiwan, my daughter and I were born PRC citizens, and now we are both naturalized citizens of the United States. The other, larger part of my motivation comes from my academic training in both American and Chinese universities, and my enduring intellectual curiosity as a professor specializing in East Asian and Pacific Rim Studies at a private New England university about 90 minutes away from New York City.

 

     The journey to my time as a Fulbright Scholar in Taiwan started on the first day of my graduate studies at the University of La Verne (Southern California) in January 2000. When asked to give a self-introduction, one of my new classmates said, “I am Taiwanese, and I am from Taiwan.” Another student stood up saying, “I am Chinese from the Republic of China.” Having learned before class that they both were from Taiwan, I was stunned at the distinction between the self-proclaimed “Taiwanese-ness” vs “Chinese-ness” on the island and was thus brought into the fascinating journey of exploring what the ROC means to me and to my two classmates.

 

     I first learned about the ROC from my grandparents, whose ROC was a sad country. Their childhood in the late 1920s was ravaged by civil wars, Japanese invasions, poverty, and preventable epidemic diseases. Nationwide, one of every five newborns died from some form of illness in the first year of life. My great grandmothers and grandmothers were all illiterate and had bound feet. My late mother was the first woman in the family who could read and write, but she had to stop in middle school to return to Mao’s collective farming. As a child, I often fantasized about life in the ROC across the Taiwan Strait-- a place mocked by the PRC propaganda as “a running dog” of the United States.

 

     The Cold War and ensuing confrontation across the Taiwan Strait rendered a trip to Taiwan nearly impossible for average Chinese citizens. It was after I became a U.S. citizen that my dream was realized in July 2010. I first visited Taiwan on a Chiang Ching Kuo Research Foundation grant. Thanks to President Ma Ying-jeou’s initiatives, I was able to fly from Shanghai to Taipei in 90 minutes instead of the required 9 hours through Hong Kong during his predecessors’ terms. I was overjoyed on the flight when it flew across the Taiwan Strait, now peaceful enough to allow civil aviation for the first time in 60 years. What I found in Taipei was a small, orderly, and modern city with traditional Chinese script. The street names reminded me of the provinces and major cities in Mainland China. Of the many niceties, I loved Taipei’s cuisine, night markets, and soft tones spoken by the local residents. I was attracted to historical sites including the Japanese-style buildings, proof of Japan’s 50 year colonization of Taiwan.

 

     While culturally at home, I still felt a sense of familiarity tainted with alienation. Occasionally, people whom I met stared at me with suspicion: “You are not Taiwanese. You are from the ‘other side’ (of the Strait).” I knew my mainland accent exposed my identity, and I often smiled yes. It again betrayed me in the central city of Chia-yi when a taxi driver refused to take me because of my perceived Mainland-ness. I could not smile this time because I felt humiliated. Eventually, I was able to persuade him to give me a ride with my American passport. I learned then that in Taiwan my identity from “the other side” of the Pacific Ocean worked better.

 

     Five years later, I find myself in Taiwan again; this time as a Fulbright Scholar. On February 28, 2015, I walked unexpectedly once again into history. I had planned to continue writing at the National Central Library in Taipei, but was disappointed to find the library closed for the holiday. A loudspeaker and growing crowd drew me to the opposite side of the street, the plaza in front of the grand Chiang Kai-shek Memorial. It was a commemoration of the tragic incident in 1947 when Chiang’s regime murdered thousands (or more) of local Taiwanese in an effort to suppress riots. It was a painful page in the island’s history written with blood and tears, fear and terror, leaving a legacy still dividing Taiwanese society. In its background were an international Cold War, an ongoing Chinese civil war in the Mainland, and an island that just changed hands from Japan to Chiang’s Republic of China. In its wake, the people of Taiwan, with broken hearts, embraced incoming soldiers, refugees, and their government. They also inherited the confrontations between the Communists and the Nationalists. With generous military and economic aid from the United States, Taiwan witnessed an economic takeoff and political democratization under the Chiangs and their successors.

 

     A soft touch on my hand brought me back to reality in Freedom Square. A young girl handed me two stickers. One of them—ready to be filled in—said “Republic of Taiwan; I am ______, and I advocate Taiwan Independence.” The other sticker depicted a Green Taiwan shape with the severed head of Chiang’s statue seemingly on horseback along with the words, “I am Chiang Kai-shek and I bring death.” I shuddered at the horrific image. A banner and signs advocating Tibetan independence caught my attention along with T-shirts bearing characters calling for the Revolutionary Generation to act. I found a stool in the biggest tent where I listened to speech after speech about what happened 68 years ago and its relationship with today’s politics in Taiwan. Then, a well-known singer-turned speaker shouted, “Next year make sure you come out to vote. Let’s work together to get this monster (Chiang Kai-shek) out of the Memorial.” The crowd cheered, and I left.

 

     Before these unexpected encounters, I was working on an article on Chiang’s rival Mao and rising China’s latest initiatives in finance and security, PRC achievements that put Taipei and Washington in an awkward place. It seems that even though both Chiang and Mao have been dead for 40 years, their ghosts still haunt us today in one way or another. I am pleased to share, here, my recent first publication in The Diplomat Magazine (March 20, 2015), a piece on the PRC’s latest effort toward reshaping global financial systems. Here is the link: http://thediplomat.com/2015/03/new-chinese-banks-right-out-of-maos-playbook/

 

To end my reflection on identities is the full text of my article:

 

 

“New Chinese Banks: Right Out of Mao’s Playbook?”

 

Pitch: “Start your new stove!” Mao's paradigm shift may be behind China's recent bank initiatives.

 

    Last year, new institutions popped up in both the global finance and security arenas, courtesy of China. First, driven by Beijing, the $100 billion New Development Bank (NDB), a mini-World Bank sponsored by the five BRICS economies—Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa—was formed during July 2014. Then, at the APEC meeting in Beijing, that October, Chinese President Xi Jinping unveiled the regional Asian Infrastructural Investment Bank (AIIB), a body comprising more than 20 founding members. Finally, just one month later, a $40 billion Silk Road Fund (SRF) was announced to restore the centuries-old Silk Road trading route and to promote economic integration from Asia to the Mediterranean. These ambitious projects, widely interpreted as rivaling the U.S.-dominated global financial institutions—including the regional Asian Development Bank—will undoubtedly bolster Chinese influence in the region.


    On the security front, China revived an existing inter-governmental forum, proposed first by Kazakhstan’s president in 1992. The Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA), as it is called, held its fourth meeting during May 2014. With China holding the Chair through 2016, a regional security cooperation architecture emerged. CICA promotes a new concept, calling for a “common, comprehensive, cooperative and sustainable security.” The new CICA, along with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), represent China-led security organizations. Most recently, Beijing announced implementation late this year of a Cross-border Interbank Payment System (CIPS). First proclaimed by the People’s Bank of China (PBOC) in April 2012, this initiative would provide a mechanism for transferring funds without having to use the U.S. banking system, or the U.S. dollar. This is a potential game change for international finance. Some observers believe this scheme has economic security implications as well.


    Why were these initiatives announced at such short intervals? While these Sino-organized institutions offer an alternative for Western financial institutions, they also represent China’s frustration with current global economic governance. The U.S. Congress has veto power over any reforms to these institutions. China, and perhaps others, believes there needs to be a fair and well-represented system. In addition, the current governance structure stubbornly refuses to reflect Beijing’s new status as the second largest global economy. China does not have much input into major decisions, whether at the World Bank, the IMF, or the Japan- and U.S.-dominated Asian Development Bank. Recall the frustration reflected in IMF Director Christine Lagarde’s offer of “a belly dance” in return for Washington’s approval of long-stalled reform in the IMF. These reforms could have moderately improved China’s standing and engagement in the body.


    What emboldened China to suddenly challenge existing institutions dominated by the United States? Perhaps the impetus arises from Mao’s teaching of lingqi luzao strategy. In 1949, against the backdrop of the “century of humiliation,” Mao Zedong issued this famous principle. It was a paradigm shift, designed to prevent Western countries from their privileges specified in those “unequal treaties.” From the onset of the Opium War, the Western nations, in concert with Russia and Japan, imposed on China several hundred treaties granting themselves economic, political, and cultural rights in the Middle Kingdom. Mao applied that local wisdom of lingqi luzao (literally “build a new stove”) for redress. Just as a new stove solves problems from an old one no longer fit for its purpose, the PRC would now initiate diplomatic relations in a new fashion. Abandoning the treaty system that had subjugated his nation, relations would be established on a more equal footing. In short, if the financial rules run against your interests, build your own institutions.


    Unfortunately, from Washington’s perspective, these new China-led institutions are welcomed by Asian countries, judging from their memberships. Even America’s closest ally, Great Britain, has decided to join the AIIB as a founding member. This may serve as a wakeup call for Washington to accelerate necessary reforms in the IMF and World Bank to better reflect a changed world.
 

 
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