Before and after Taiwan’s 7th direct presidential election, one popular narrative emerged in the international coverage. This narrative is centered on Chineseness, the (real or perceived) historical continuities in terms of ethnicity, language, or culture. A news report inThe Telegraph says that Taiwan’s elections “remind the world … that Chinese culture and democracy can co-exist”, a sentiment that is echoed by commentators such as New Yorker’s Jiayang Fan and The Economist’s Gady Epstein.
Not only does this narrative rest on a mistaken essentialism that conflates ethnicity, language, and culture, it also fundamentally misunderstand Taiwan. Taiwan’s election is about Taiwan.
That is, the right story to be told about Taiwan’s election is that of a post-colonial, post-authoritarian society coming to embrace liberal democratic ideals. (In the same spirit, historian James Lin has offered a sharp analysis of Chineseness from a post-colonial perspective.) Emerging from successive colonizations eras — European, Japanese, and Chinese — Taiwanese people of all political affiliations now see liberal democracy as a non-negotiable feature of our civic society. Indeed, most living Taiwanese people, myself included, have experienced the transition to liberal democracy in their own lifetime.