We can admire and encourage Catalans as they aspire to build their own country. But the situation there is a false, and potentially dangerous, analogy for Taiwan.
The recent drama in Catalonia after the Spanish constitutional court suspended an independence referendum for the self-governing region of 7.5 million people has reinvigorated the debate in Taiwan on whether the island-nation should hold its own referendum on de jure independence.
As batons, boots and shields bruised bodies and broke bones in Barcelona, a good number of independentists back in Taiwan saw in a people’s travails a form of bravery and determination that, in their view, has been lacking in their own country. While the world looked on in horror as Spanish shock troops descended on unarmed civilians, Taiwan’s social media were filled with accusations, against their own, of apathy, lack of zeal and flabby patriotism. Catalonia, ebullient with defiance and its people willing to risk injury, stood as a shining symbol of self-determination. It was, many said, an example for Taiwan.
Laudable though the actions of determined Catalans may be, with a reported 90% of those who took part in the referendum voting for independence, the idea that the situation there should serve as a source of emulation for Taiwan rests on a false analogy. (The same holds for comparisons made over the years with Quebec, Israel and Macedonia, among others.) While self-determination is the common aspiration — and right — of all nations, the cases elsewhere and that facing Taiwan are markedly different, so much so that using them as an example tends to obfuscate rather than elucidate the idiosyncratic nature of Taiwan’s journey. Therefore, accusations by ardent pro-independence activists in Taiwan that their fellow citizens somehow lack the moral fiber they have seen in fearless Catalans are both unfair and based on a misreading of the respective conflicts.
First and foremost, there is not in Taiwan the sense of immediacy that has inspired Catalans to seek outright independence from Spain. The principal reason why that is so stems from the legal status of the nations involved. Though self-governing, Catalonia currently is no more than a nation within a state. Its aspirations therefore are revolutionary, seeking a breakup from the Spanish state and statehood for Catalans, with its own independent government institutions, currency, passport, armed forces, and the ability to conduct foreign relations on a state-to-state basis.
Unpalatable though the historical burden of its official appellation may be to many, it is nevertheless undeniable that Taiwan — or the Republic of China — is and acts as a sovereign state.
Taiwan, meanwhile, is already both a nation and a sovereign state. Unpalatable though the historical burden of its official appellation may be to many, it is nevertheless undeniable that Taiwan — or the Republic of China (ROC) — is and acts as a sovereign state. It has its own elected government, armed forces, currency, passport, has a designated territory, and is able to engage in relations with other states, to sign treaties and to join international institutions. The ongoing quest for self-determination in Taiwan is therefore evolutionary rather than revolutionary; already independent and meeting all the criteria for statehood, Taiwan (the ROC) need not break away or separate from anything in order to achieve the status of country. It should not be surprising, then, that the majority of Taiwanese, regardless of their party preference, do not feel the compulsion to take drastic action, such as holding a referendum, because the current situation already confers the benefits of statehood. Pragmatism, rather than emotion or preferences over nomenclature, is what guides the Taiwanese public on matters of sovereignty. (I would even argue that cleansing Taiwan of the impositions and legacies of the ROC, as members of the deep-green camp have long called for, is an evolutionary and not a revolutionary process.)
To sum up: Catalonian statehood would necessitate a separation and the creation of an entirely new government; Taiwanese statehood, whatever its current name, already has the full set of institutions. Moreover, on a legal basis, Catalonia remains an internal matter for Spain, whereas the Taiwan “question” is external, involving two parties that have separate existential status (Beijing’s claims notwithstanding) within the international community.
National suicide isn’t in Taiwan’s interest, nor is it the rational way to achieve a “purer” form of independence.
It is also difficult to imagine how a successful referendum, followed by a declaration of independence, would benefit Taiwan. While perhaps serving as a self-affirmation of statehood (which in my opinion already is lived and experienced every day) replete with symbolism, the fact remains that such an outcome would not in any way alter the nature of the external threat that Taiwan faces, nor would we have the assurance that the international community would give its blessing to such a move by recognizing a Taiwan republic. Whether it exists under the current “status quo” under the official name of ROC, or as a Republic of Taiwan, Beijing will remain adamantly opposed to sovereignty for Taiwan and/or the ROC. Therefore, while exposing themselves to potentially devastating retaliation, the external threat would remain unchanged for the Taiwanese.
While Catalans showed bravery when facing off with riot police at the weekend, the forces that are pitted against them are minor compared with the military response that would follow a declaration of de jure independence by Taiwan, or even the holding of a referendum in that direction. Catalans are not dealing with Franco but a democratic government; Taiwanese, for their part, face the full might of an authoritarian state that would not hesitate to unleash the People’s Liberation Army to seal the “question” once and for all. Therefore, accusing the Taiwanese of cowardice for not taking the risks that Catalans have taken is most unfair. We are not talking boots and truncheons here, but cruise and ballistic missiles, artillery, amphibious vehicles, submarines, tanks, aircraft, bombers, destroyers, frigates, and thousands upon thousands of foreign boots on the ground. National suicide isn’t in Taiwan’s interest, nor is it the rational way to achieve a “purer” form of independence.
Additionally, it is hard to conceive that a referendum and declaration of independence would markedly affect how Taiwanese live their lives. Given that the entire infrastructure of government (and of the state) already exists, a Republic of Taiwan would in the end conceivably be built upon the foundations of what preceded it. In other words, even a declaration of independence would perforce be followed by an evolutionary approach to state-building. Unless the new leaders of the Republic were able to find replacements for the hundreds of thousands of public servants, police officers and members of the armed forces — and by default lay off the hundreds of thousands who already occupy such positions — what comes after a declaration of independence likely would look a lot like what already exists.
The idea that a Republic of Taiwan would somehow remedy all the problems that plague Taiwan, meanwhile, is also based on illusion. The fix to those problems (and indeed they are legion) is evolutionary: it lies in the deepening of Taiwan’s democratic institutions, in the retiring of underperforming officials, in the streamlining of government agencies, in greater transparency and accountability, and by adapting to the changing global environment. All of this can already be accomplished if society rolls up its sleeves and does what needs to be done. Whether we like it or not, those challenges would be the same under a Republic of Taiwan — and what’s more, they would have to be surmounted by the same 23.5 million people.
No doubt we can all be inspired by developments in Catalonia and the aspirations of its people, which are an expression of the universal values of freedom and self-determination. However, accusations by restive independentists that Taiwanese are cowards for not going down that road are invidious and belittle the many achievements that have already been made by this nation. Worse, they could only be made by people who have failed to properly study the history of both conflicts and the geopolitical context in which they seek to build their own nation.