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Caught between empires: Rising nationalism in Taiwan, Okinawa and Hong Kong

Caught between empires: Rising nationalism in Taiwan, Okinawa and Hong Kong

Umbrella Revolution demonstration in Hong Kong's Causeway Bay. (Photo: Doctor Ho via Wikimedia Commons, 2014. CC BY-SA 2.0.

Rwei-Ren Wu recently spoke on emergent nationalism in Okinawa, Hong Kong and Taiwan at the Asia Pacific Center, arguing that they stem from the dynamics of colonial rule.

Nationalism, which was on the periphery, ... has entered the conversation for the long term.

by Kevin Sprague (UCLA 2018)

UCLA International Institute, March 22, 2018 — On March 8, Rwei-Ren Wu, an activist-scholar from Taiwan, spoke at the UCLA Asia Pacific Center about the new waves of nationalism that have swept through Okinawa, Hong Kong and Taiwan in recent years. Wu argued that these nationalist discourses evolved from the semi-independence of Hong Kong under British rule and the communities created in Taiwan and Okinawa by Japanese colonial institutions, as well as the current oppressive actions against activists, legislators and national economies taken by the Chinese and Japanese governments.

The talk was part of the APC's Taiwan Studies Lectureship program, and was cosponsored by the Center for Chinese Studies, Terasaki Center for Japanese Studies, and the Center for Social Theory and Comparative History.

National identities emerge under colonialism

“The formation of Taiwan as a modern political subject was a process of a colony transforming into a nation,” Wu said. “Taiwanese societal history features wave after wave of settler groups arriving to the island from Southeast China since the 16th century,” he noted.

The island underwent a “fragmentation” of identities and ethnicities that were reunified under Japanese colonial rule between 1895 and 1945, explained the speaker. After independence, these identities were strengthened by popular sentiment against communist China.

“Okinawan nationalism came to be through the process of a feudal kingdom becoming a colony, then developing into a larger state seeking autonomy and secession,” said Wu. “Consciousness of Okinawa as a modern nation was formed through the process of subjecting [the Okinawan people] to external powers and the subsequent loss of statehood,” the speaker said, drawing a comparison between the development of nationalist discourse in Okinawa and Taiwan.

By contrast, the narrative of nationalism in Hong Kong is slightly different. “Under British rule, Hong Kong enjoyed freedom to enter international organizations with an independent status… and make decisions in regard to country codes, telecommunications, treaties, postage, etc.,” said Wu, noting that the liberties granted to Hong Kong citizens did not include the right to self-governance. Nevertheless, granting certain degrees of independence when communicating abroad solidified a unique identity that was shared among residents of the city.

“In the 1970s and 1980s, the British colonial government embarked on policies of identity building in Hong Kong [in anticipation of the return to Chinese governance],” the speaker continued. These cultural projects further solidified the framework of a semi-independent territorial state inhabited by citizens linked by a Hong Kong identity.

“There was only one missing link — democratization,” said Wu. “Democratization is a key test of decolonization, which connects society and state,” he explained, arguing that the British government took steps to democratize Hong Kong too late and ultimately paved the way for the current ongoing clash between Beijing and Hong Kong.

“The [formation] of a self-governing Hong Kong community was left uncompleted, sowing seeds of today’s discontent,” Wu observed. Such discontent has long blossomed in Taiwanese and Okinawan societies as well, paving the way for the institutionalization of rising nationalist movements — in addition to backlashes against the movements by those in power.

Currents of nationalism take hold

Wu then turned his attention to the state of nationalist politics in each territory. “In Taiwan, nationalism has been fully integrated into state institutions,” he observed.

“Congressional pro-China policy between 2008 and 2014 triggered a wave of civic nationalism that resisted [the] liberal economic invasion of China and culminated in the outbreak of the current Taiwanese nationalist movement,” the speaker explained. Currently, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) — a liberal anti-communist party that promotes a unique Taiwanese identity — controls the Taiwanese legislature.

“The number of 20-year-olds in Taiwan who identify as Chinese has dropped to less than one percent,” said Wu. He also referenced a 2016 national poll that asked whether the citizenry wanted to be independent if China became a democratic nation. Almost 80 percent of respondents answered that they wanted Taiwanese 
independence regardless of the political situation in China.

“However, rising nationalism doesn’t mean the national consensus is to outright declare independence,” noted Wu. “The mainstream manifestation of modern Taiwanese nationalism wants to maintain de facto independence without declaring it, out of fear of provoking China and bringing danger to the nation,” he explained. 

Recently, China has put pressure on Taiwan by announcing “31 incentives,” a set of financial measures meant to entice young Taiwanese citizens to work and live in mainland China. “China’s strategy is now a mix of diplomatic siege and the economic co-optation of younger generations,” said Wu.

Rwei-Ren Wu visits the UCLA Asia Pacific Center. (Photo: Kevin Sprague/UCLA.)

In Okinawa, like in Taiwan, a nationalist party currently controls the government. Takeshi Onaga, the current governor of the prefecture, ran on a platform opposed to federal interference in the Okinawa islands’ affairs, particularly in regard to a controversial U.S. air base near Nago.

Although an outspoken critic of the federal Japanese government, Onaga and legislators who support him are not campaigning for complete independence. “The mainstream view is a more mild nationalism centered on ‘internal self determination,’” said the speaker.

“What [Takeshi Onaga and his supporters] are aiming at is a constitutional revision and allowance for a special, uniquely Okinawan federal state within Japan,” Wu explained. “There are still radical nationalist groups fighting for outright Okinawan independence, but they’re in the minority. Ideologically, however, they are quite influential and the base of today’s popular independence movement is founded on ethnicity,” he said.

“Contrary to civic nationalism in Taiwan, Okinawans turn to ethnic nationalism,” remarked Wu, noting that activists in the region have successfully promoted their right to self-determination from the perspective of international human rights law. “[Okinawans] have been recognized by the United Nations, who named them as the indigenous people of the Okinawa islands and warned the Japanese government to respect their right to self-determination,” said the speaker.

Despite the progress made by Okinawan nationalists, the Japanese government has largely disregarded the UN’s counsel. “[Prime Minister] Abe has been insistent that the new [U.S.] base must be in Okinawa,” said Wu.

So far, the prime minister’s efforts have been successful. The Supreme Court of Japan ruled in Abe’s favor in late 2016, proclaiming that the new U.S. airbase would indeed be built on the island of Okinawa. Similar legal struggles face nationalist movements elsewhere, especially in Hong Kong.

“Hong Kong is the most tragic case today,” said Wu. “As a social movement, it is trying very hard to be politicizing and failing.” The speaker explained that, similar to Taiwan, the number of 20-year-olds in Hong Kong who identify as Chinese is also less than one percent.

Yet nationalistic discourse remains marginal and removed from establishment politics on the island. “Hong Kong is an elitist society, born from the British system… and now totally corrupted by China,” said Wu. “The elite within Hong Kong [is] 100 percent absent from the nationalist movement.”

However, the elite are no longer completely in control in Hong Kong. “As this social movement became a political movement, many nationalist activists wanted to run for office, realizing they needed power to enact this agenda,” Wu explained. In 2016, multiple candidates ran for the Legislative Council of Hong Kong on nationalist platforms and ultimately won six seats. Still, they face an uphill battle as a political group.

“Pro-democracy activists have been charged with treason and instigating riots… and face sentences of at least seven to nine years in jail,” said the speaker. Jailed activists include organizers of the 2014 “Umbrella Movement,” which organized sit-ins at which protestors held umbrellas as a symbol of their opposition to the pre-screening of candidates for Hong Kong's chief executive.

“Beijing has also disqualified pro-democracy legislative council members.Wu noted, referencing the 2017 arrest and subsequent removal from legislative office of four Hong Kong lawmakers who altered their swearing-in oaths, modifying the portions that concerned allegiance to China.

“Even more tragically, there are young activists in exile… many teenagers fled after facing arrest for participating in 2016’s ‘Fishball Revolution,’” he said. One such teenager is Lee Sin-yi, an 18-year-old girl who likely sought political asylum in Taiwan last year.

“Nationalism, which was on the periphery, ... has entered the conversation for the long term,” concluded Wu. Despite government decisions adverse to their cause, he said, “[T]he conflict will reignite if favorable conditions emerge.” Until that time comes, he added, “[W]e must know the situation as it is without illusion, in hope that knowledge will inform our actions and become a form of redemption.”

Rwei-Ren Wu is an associate research fellow of the Institute of Taiwan History at Academia Sinica, Taiwan. He was in residence at UCLA as a Taiwan Studies visiting scholar in early March. The UCLA Taiwan Studies Lectureship is a joint program of the UCLA Asia Pacific Center and the Dean of Humanities and is made possible with funding from the Department of International and Cross-Strait Education, Ministry of Education, Taiwan, represented by the Education Division, Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Los Angeles.

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Published: Thursday, March 22, 2018