Coexisting historical memory is a condition for peace
Cross-strait relations are once again in the focus as the electorate gets ready for a quadrennial election for the nation’s highest office. Beijing is nervous, and has been making assumptions and statements about the importance of the coming election on bilateral ties, with Xi Jinping’s words that “a new important juncture” has been reached and then Taiwan Affairs Office director Zhang Zhijun last week making a statement challenging Tsai and the DPP on their stance, saying that “responsible parties must clearly state their positions.’ on the “core issue of the ‘1992 Consensus,’ which states that Taiwan and the mainland belong to one China.”
Zhang offered sharp criticism of former President Lee Teng-hui, who met Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on his trip to Japan. “Even today, there are some in Taiwan who distort history and beautify Japanese rule” and attempt to cut the connection between Taiwan and the mainland, Zhang blasted.
It is understandable that Beijing is advancing its ties with the KMT, because both share a commitment to a one China framework. It is on that basis that the two sides have been sitting down at the table, exchanging views at the highest partyto-party level. The problem with this scenario is that in exerting its bid to get all parties to accept its viewpoint, Beijing is throttling opportunities for dialogue with the opposition.
Put another way, a better place to start might be a position without preconditions. This is especially critical because the biggest point of debate in cross-strait relations is the Republic of China’s political status, and Beijing’s view doesn’t currently even recognize the existence of the R.O.C. The People’s Republic wants to win by offering some form of lesser status for Taiwan, but the crucial debate can’t even be had with such a precondition.
The criticism of former President Lee can be expanded upon to remind Beijing that the clash of historical memory remains deep in Taiwan. There are those whose fealty and sense of identity are firmly entrenched in the narrative of a Greater China, with bonds to places and people and institutions on the mainland. There are also those whose overarching memory is one of Japanese education, and who through the turbulence of change in the aftermath of World War II had to go through another regime change that altered the language and country of their allegiance.
From the standpoint of a citizen, one could have taken this very harshly, or the change might have left scars, resentment, and a feeling of being adrift. It is hard to blame those who have coped less well with the tumult of the times. Or, one could have coped relatively well via good luck and strong spirits through bad times. What is undeniable is the amount of suffering that has been etched into the historical memory of people who have been through cruel, disastrous twentiethcentury upheavals in a succession of wars and Chiang’s martial law.
Understanding is crucial for an effective dialogue. While people as individuals congregate into camps with shared memory and perspectives, it has to be said that their feelings are equally valid, whether the fondest memories are that of an upbringing in the mainland or that of growing up as a Japanese, or even that of a time when aboriginal villages have not been incorporated into either power.
All things considered, it is wiser for Beijing to stop taking a polemic stance and to give space to those outside its own worldview. It can begin by dropping the assumption that all historical views and allegiances that don’t fit neatly with those of its own are traitorous, offensive, or disruptive. As society in Taiwan continues to struggle with the fault lines of national identity, once again brought into focus by the conflict over education guidelines over history, it raises uncomfortable perspectives for people with different backgrounds. Thus, the need for compromise and dialogue.
The DPP has stated before that unification can be an agenda for discussion, but it cannot be the precondition for talks. Thus far, it has been left out of discussions with the Chinese Communist Party due to the latter’s insistence on adherence to its precondition. It would truly be a new level of confidence for peace if the CCP can find the heart to sit down with the DPP and those like-minded because understanding requires a willingness to appreciate the historical memory of those different from oneself.
It is understandable that Beijing feels like it has too much at stake to lose. However, denouncing the historical memory of worldviews foreign to its own doesn’t help foster cross-strait peace.