THE PAST WEEK has seen a wave of solidarity rallies in Taipei for the protests in China. There were four protests from one Sunday to the next. This is likely the largest number of solidarity protests in Taiwan since Ukraine, and before that, Hong Kong.
The largest of the recent protests, a candlelit vigil at National Taiwan University (NTU) for the victims of the Urumqi fire that sparked the protests, drew maybe 200 people despite rain.
In Hong Kong—which like Taiwan is dealing with identity issues regarding China—there has been pushback against commemorations of events that take place in China. With Hong Kong identity and pro-independence views on the rise, some do not feel that Hongkongers should commemorate events occurring in what they view as a foreign country.
By contrast, I don’t think this issue has been as contentious in Taiwan. Taiwan has had a longer time to reflect on these issues, given the history of the White Terror, while the outbreak of violence on the scale seen in Hong Kong is more recent. Hong Kong independence was an unheard-of idea as recently as the 2014 Umbrella Movement, for example. But the idea has exploded in recent years, driven on by China’s unrelenting crackdown. If the Chinese Communist Party had hoped to stamp out “separatism” by going after independence advocates, it also stoked passions around the idea—people started developing an interest in this notion, since it appeared to be such a threat.
A key flashpoint in Hong Kong has been the annual commemoration of the Tiananmen Square Massacre in Victoria Park, an event that is now banned. Localists invested in Hong Kong identity led calls to avoid the rally, a traditional gathering of the pro-democracy camp.
The annual Tiananmen Square Massacre commemoration in Hong Kong has traditionally drawn tens of thousands. By contrast, in Taiwan—home to a number of the survivors of the killings—only a few hundred typically gather for the event. Many Taiwanese may simply view the events at Tiananmen Square as something that happened in a distant place, in the big, scary, faraway land of China, Taiwan’s largest geopolitical threat.
What does it mean to stand in solidarity with a country whose government wishes death and destruction on you? With people who may share their government’s views?
I think a lot about something Nietzsche said: “A state is called the coldest of all cold monsters. Coldly lieth it also; and this lie creepeth from its mouth: ‘I, the state, am the people.’”
I believe many in Taiwan who have attended the solidarity rallies make similar distinctions between the state and the people. I’ve often seen participants at rallies or vigils prefacing their support for the protestors by emphasizing that they realize many Chinese participants may not necessarily have positive views on Taiwan–yet they stand with them nonetheless.
Likewise, an undercurrent of the protests has been the question of Taiwanese independence. Many participants state that they reject the broad notion of an “overseas Chinese,” the view that Taiwan is standing in solidarity with China because it is a “Chinese-speaking” or “ethnically Chinese nation.”
And hey, that includes me, I support Taiwanese independence. In the past, I’ve argued that Taiwan needs to exorcise the specter of cultural China. Surely, Taiwan cannot be forever seen as but a fragment of the lost whole, China. I say this, despite having three grandparents born in China, and only one in Taiwan.
To my mind, the most powerful of the protests to date was the vigil at NTU. This was the rally with the largest number of Chinese students studying in Taiwan in attendance. One student speaker in particular—a young woman—devoted a lot of time in her comments to addressing the concerns of Taiwanese. She stated that she could not answer for the views of all Chinese, but that she did know Chinese that were supportive of Taiwan and its democracy.
Rhetoric from Chinese nationalists has become increasingly extreme in past years; the fears of Taiwanese are obviously not unfounded. More Chinese nationalists have spoken openly about “Keeping the island, but not keeping the people” (留島不留人) if China were to invade Taiwan—rhetoric on the level of ethnic cleansing, really.
Yet at the same rally, a Taiwanese student who likewise emphasized her support of independence stated that it was necessary to stand with Chinese people—even if they perhaps supported the military annexation of Taiwan—as a human being.
I often ask myself, what is the point of showing solidarity? A lot of times, it’s just a gesture. But other times it can give strength to a movement, showing it that it is perceived, witnessed, and recognized. I know that quite well—I traveled to Hong Kong in 2019 for that purpose, to witness the frontlines of the protests, though, of course, I am not a Hongkonger.
Taiwan has long faced the threat of military annihilation from China. And while perhaps a democratic China would not have designs on Taiwan, it is not out of the question that democratically elected Chinese nationalists who could one day come to supplant the CCP, might still menace Taiwan with military threats.
I spoke at a conference in Berkeley in 2018 to mark the fourth anniversary of the Sunflower Movement and Umbrella Movement, an event in which many of the student leaders of both movements participated—plus me. I remember chatting with two Chinese students there about the military threats faced by China. One of them commented, “Well, if China democratizes, you don’t have anything to fear.” The other Chinese student snapped at him, “A democratic China might even be more nationalistic than the present China!”
It’s true. The U.S. holds elections, after all, and it still invades a number of other countries.
Perhaps there’s a utilitarian aspect to solidarity from Taiwanese advocates for independence.
Showing Chinese people resisting their government that Taiwanese support them, but have a different sense of identity, can maybe prevent that possibility of military aggression from coming to pass.
But that’s not why I’m out there at these solidarity rallies. After all, do you do what is right because it benefits you materially in some way? Or do you do it because it’s your moral obligation? Duty, in other words. Honestly, if I support Chinese people protesting against their government, I’m not there with any preconditions regarding their views of Taiwan. It’s just the right thing to do.
Brian Hioe is the publisher of No Man is an Island, a fellow member of The Brick House Cooperative.
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