Disputes over new guidelines covering history textbooks used in Taiwanese schools reflect greater divisions over the interpretation of the island’s history and identity in the run-up to the general election in 2016.
After more than one year of relative peace on Taiwan’s streets after opposition to a cross-strait trade deal led to the storming of the Legislative Yuan by members of the “Sunflower” student protest movement, protests erupted again on July 23, 2015. This time, secondary school pupils stormed the offices of the island’s educational authorities and confronted police.
The issue under scrutiny was proposed revisions to secondary school history textbooks. Student protesters and the pro-independence opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) claim that the revisions were a move to “brainwash” young Taiwanese into accepting Beijing’s “One China” stance on the island’s geopolitical status.
Supporters of the revisions, meanwhile, argued that they would “restore historical fact” to the existing curriculum which, they claimed, had been “distorted” to serve a pro-independence political agenda.
The July protests are just the latest chapter in an enduring conflict over the content of Taiwanese school textbooks that has raged for 20 years, ever since dramatic modifications were made between 1996 and 2008 under the administration of Kuomintang (KMT or Nationalist Party) leader Lee Teng-hui and his DPP successor Chen Shui-bian. Both men are well-known for adopting a pro-independence stance, although in Lee’s case his party has traditionally supported the “One China” doctrine.
Critics have long argued that the current textbook guidelines formulated by these administrations violate the constitution of the Republic of China (ROC), Taiwan’s official name, by severing the history of the island itself from the history of the ROC, and thus serving a long-term strategic goal of indoctrinating students into supporting Taiwanese independence and framing the ROC as an alien regime.
Since the KMT triumphed over the DPP in the 2008 general election and subsequently adopted policies to strengthen economic ties with the mainland, there have been strong calls to revise the guidelines.
After six years in power, current Taiwan leader Ma Ying-jeou’s government finally decided to take action. Although the newly proposed changes are relatively minor compared to the overhaul instigated by the Lee and Chen administrations, school textbooks immediately became the newest battlefield to open up between the DPP and the KMT.
‘Occupation’ vs ‘Governance’
Besides the long-standing dispute over whether to refer to the mainland as “China” or “the Chinese mainland,” a major debate has raged around wording describing Japan’s colonial rule of the island after its military victory over China’s Qing Dynasty in 1895, an occupation which endured till the end of World War II.
In 2013, the Ma administration decided to use “occupation” instead of “governance” to refer to Japanese rule, although pro-independence groups prefer the latter term. The change prompted strong protests from the DPP.
According to KMT officials, although Japanese rule in Taiwan was relatively less brutal than its annexation of Korea and subsequent invasion of the Chinese mainland, the word “governance” paints an inappropriately favourable image of a period in which Japanese soldiers killed thousands of Taiwanese resistance fighters and appropriated the island’s economic infrastructure both directly and through local intermediaries. Among the more than 200,000 sex slaves known as “comfort women” that were kidnapped and forced to work in Japanese military brothels during World War II, it is estimated that more than 2,000 were from Taiwan.
For pro-independence groups, however, use of the word “occupation” undermines their legal argument that Taiwan is an independent nation-state, as it suggests that the cessation of Taiwan to Japan in 1895 was illegitimate and temporary. In contrast, by using “governance,” they can argue that Chinese sovereignty in Taiwan ended legally and permanently in 1895, and thus the island should have been considered an independent nation after Japan’s surrender.
Although the recently revised textbook guidelines appear to have compromised, using “Japan’s colonial rule” to describe the period between 1895-1945, pro-independence groups have continued to contest terminology used to describe other historical events. The new guidelines state that the island was “recovered by,” rather than “given to,” China. The latter was formerly the official term when describing the ROC takeover of the island after Japan’s surrender in 1945. The proposed guidelines also include content concerning Japan’s economic exploitation of Taiwan, and a new chapter on contributions made by the Taiwanese to the anti-Japanese resistance movement, both in Taiwan and on the Chinese mainland.
If the adoption of the word “forcefully” in the guidelines when referring to the drafting of more than 2,000 “comfort women” from Taiwan into Japanese military brothels has merely made pro independence groups uncomfortable, mention of the Potsdam Proclamation, which was jointly issued by the US, Great Britain and the ROC in 1945 and defined the terms for Japan’s surrender, broke one of the party’s central taboos.
Demanding that Japan accept the terms of the Cairo Declaration, another Allied document that included a clause requiring Japan to restore “all the territories Japan has stolen from the Chinese, such as Manchuria [northeastern China], Formosa [Taiwan], and The Pescadores [Penghu Islands]… to the Republic of China,” terms imperial Japan officially accepted prior to its surrender, the Potsdam Declaration has long been used by Beijing to support its sovereignty claims over Taiwan, as well as the disputed Diaoyu Islands, known as the Senkaku in Japan.
Pro-independence groups argue that the inclusion of both the Cairo and Potsdam declarations is evidence that the KMT is attempting to mollify Beijing by “selling off” Taiwan’s sovereignty. Many KMT supporters contest that they are “pro-ROC,” not “pro-Beijing,” and that the revised textbooks serve to defend the ROC’s constitution.
The fact that this year marks the 70th anniversary of Japan’s World War II surrender has made such disputes even more heated. At the same time as the textbook protests erupted, former leader Lee Tenghui, now 92, made some controversial remarks regarding Japanese rule in Taiwan during a visit to Japan. In a speech to the Tokyo Foreign Correspondents’ Club, Lee remarked that Taiwanese people were “grateful” for Japanese rule, adding that Taiwan was “given” to Japan by the Qing authorities as an “unwanted territory.” In addition, Lee stated that the Senkaku [Diaoyu] Islands belong to Japan,
Lee’s remarks were immediately met with criticism in Taiwan. “People were harshly bullied, abused, humiliated and oppressed during the colonial period,” said Lai Shyh-bao, head of the KMT policy committee. According to Lai, Lee’s remarks “damaged Taiwan’s rights and reputation.” Lai vowed to seek to amend the law to scrap Lee’s taxpayer-funded annual stipend of NT$10 million (US$317,000). “If [Lee] wants to enjoy perks, he should go to Japan,” he added.
Yok Mu-ming, chairman of the island’s New Party, part of the KMT’s pan-blue coalition, took it a step further by filing a complaint against Lee at the office of Taiwan’s High Prosecutor. Pointing out that Lee had, during his time in office, explicitly declared that the Diaoyu Islands belong to the ROC, Yok accused Lee of “colluding with foreign states” with the intent of subjecting ROC territory to foreign control.
Given the different perspectives over Japan’s rule of Taiwan, it is not surprising that most of the criticism of Lee’s remarks has stemmed from the KMT and its supporters. When pressed by reporters to respond to Lee’s comments, Tsai Ing-wen, the DPP’s candidate for Taiwan’s top leadership position, reiterated the official stance that “the Diaoyu [Islands] belong to Taiwan,” but has declined to openly criticise Lee. When Lee returned to Taiwan on July 30, he was warmly greeted by representatives of the pro-independence Taiwan Solidarity Union, who presented the former leader with flowers and chanted “I love you.”
The divisions between the pro-independence and pro-ROC camps over the official narrative of Japanese rule in Taiwan are also closely mirrored in debates over how to refer to the 1945 arrival in Taiwan of the KMT-led ROC.
Under the Lee and Chen administrations, a major change in the official narrative of the ROC’s rule was the highlighting of the so-called 2.28 Incident, which occurred February 28, 1947. Dubbed the “2.28 Massacre” by pro-independence groups, the incident was triggered by a dispute between a cigarette vendor and a police officer, which quickly escalated into an anti-government uprising which was violently suppressed by the KMT-administrated ROC government. The island was subsequently placed under martial law, a period now known to Taiwanese as the White Terror.
Historians have long disputed the number of people killed during the KMT crackdown, with estimates ranging from a few hundred to as many as 30,000. Broaching this subject at the official level was a political taboo until in 1995, when Lee Teng-hui publicly addressed the 2.28 Incident upon becoming Taiwan’s top leader. Since then, annual commemorative activities gradually developed into an official Peace Memorial Day, when representatives of Taiwan’s government ring a commemorative bell in memory of the victims. Pro-independence groups have long considered the 2.28 Incident as the birth of the Taiwanese independence movement.
While recognising the dark past of KMT rule in Taiwan, pro-ROC groups complain that existing textbook guidelines intentionally expunge the history of later periods when the island emerged as an “Asian Tiger” economy, achieving significant economic, educational, cultural and political development under a series of KMT administrations.
KMT supporters are particularly resentful that the Lee and Chen guidelines skirt around KMT contributions to the establishment of multiparty democracy on the island, a system many pro independence activists consider a part of Taiwanese identity, which many have attributed to the influence of Japan.
For example, during Lee’s controversial address in Tokyo, the former leader said that Japan, during its colonial rule, helped to introduce the concepts of separation of powers and modern governance to Taiwan.
A commentary published in the Taipei-based, pro-ROC China Times on April 28 argued that, by “highly praising Japanese colonial rule but casting aspersions on the ROC government,” existing school textbook guidelines aim to forge a Taiwanese identity that leads younger generations to “believe China is a foreign, uncivilised country, regard the ROC as an alien regime, [and] consider Taiwan to be their mother country, with Japan as the source of [its] culture.”
“But the ROC has not faded away, and the so-called ‘Republic of Taiwan’ has never materialised,” it continued.
Removing references equating the White Terror and 2.28 Incident with the Holocaust in social studies textbooks, the new guidelines retain historical references to the incident, but include additional content on the more recent history of KMT rule, including a landmark land reform programme, economic policies and the KMT’s role in establishing multiparty democracy on the island.
roponents of the new guidelines argue that the new content includes important historical facts that can provide students with more balanced and complete knowledge about the history of ROC rule in Taiwan. Pro-independence groups have contested this view, claiming that the new curriculum only presents a history of “Chinese colonialism”.
As debate continued to rage, student protesters and the DPP began to adopt a different strategy, shifting focus away from debating historical fact and towards how the revisions were made. They accused the KMT of engaging in “back room operations” and painted the party as an enemy of “Taiwanese centrism” and “democracy”.
When a local court in Taipei ruled against the educational authorities in a case concerning the revisions, the KMT argument that neither Lee nor Chen had consulted the public before making dramatic changes to school textbooks seemed rather weak. In June, education officials agreed that the government would allow schools to choose their own textbooks, old or new, when the new semester began, a concession ruled unacceptable by pro-independence groups.
The July 30 death of a student protester who committed suicide by suffocating himself caused the beleaguered KMT’s position to collapse further, even as the party wavered on the brink of withdrawing the proposal.
Calling the whole plan a “crushing defeat”, an editorial in the China Times blamed the failure on a “lack of character, courage and ability in the face of controversy”, accusations routinely directed at the administration of Ma Ying-jeou.
Such a mentality may explain the rise of Hung Hsiu-chu as the KMT’s candidate in the 2016 general election. Nicknamed “little chilli pepper,” Hung has argued that Ma’s vagueness in his mainland policy has made him seem like a weak leader. She alleged that the DPP has taken advantage of Ma’s flip-flopping to openly advocate for Taiwanese independence. Hung has said that, if elected, she will adopt a more “proactive” policy to seek a permanent peace agreement with the mainland in order to better integrate Taiwan into the global economy.
To achieve this goal, Hung, currently trailing far behind DPP’s Tsai Ing-wen in the polls, said that she would build on the 1992 Consensus, a political platform agreed upon by Taipei and Beijing that allows the two sides to establish an economic relationship and is commonly known as “One China, Different Interpretations.” Hung would push to reach a new agreement rooted in the spirit of “One China, One Interpretation,” which Hung said would require Beijing to officially recognise ROC sovereignty over Taiwan in exchange for Taiwanese recognition of the People’s Republic of China as the legitimate government on the mainland.
Hung’s stated agenda immediately led to a backlash from both the opposition and from within her own party, with critics claiming she is a closet supporter of reunification on Beijing’s terms.
However, most experts believe that it is unlikely that Beijing would accept Hung’s proposition as it effectively presents a “Two China” solution, which Beijing officially views as a two-state solution, and thus anathema to its “One China” policy.
However, as pro-independence groups oppose any policy that includes a “One China” doctrine, and routinely challenge the legitimacy of the ROC itself, Hung’s argument is unlikely to sway undecided voters.
Amidst heated debates over Taiwanese identity, Soong Chu-yu (James Soong), chairman of Taiwan’s People First Party (PFP) and a veteran politician and former KMT member, announced his candidacy on August 6.
Criticising both the pro-independence stance of the DPP’s Tsai Ingwen and the pro-unification position of the KMT’s Hung Hsiu-chu, Soong argues that he represents a “third way.” However, given Soong’s traditional ties to the KMT, it is widely believed that his presence will split the ruling party’s share of the vote, and hand the election to Tsai’s pro-independence DPP. The latest polling shows Tsai comfortably ahead of both Soong and Hung.
As Tsai herself has adopted a vaguely worded policy vowing to “maintain the status quo” regarding the cross-strait relationship, it seems that Taiwan’s identity crisis is destined to rage on beyond next year’s election.