Saturday, February 18, 2006

KMT: Theology, Identity, Crisis

"No one must ever ask where another rabbit was and anyone who asked 'Where?'-- except in a song or poem -- must be silenced. To say 'Where?' was bad enough, but to speak openly of the wires -- that was intolerable. For that they would scratch and kill." -- Watership Down

The mainlander population in Taiwan consists of a number of disparate ethnic groups from different parts of China. History teaches that they came over in two basic groups: ruling elites, including a large numberof bureaucrats; and thousands of soldiers, mostly semi-literate peasants. Out of these different social and cultural identities, the KMT formed the mainlander identity that would enable it to rule Taiwan. That identity is first and foremost a political identity; characterizations of social conflict between mainlanders and ethnic groups in Taiwan as "ethnic conflict" are misleading. The whole purpose of this identity is to suppress competing ethnicities, including the Taiwanese one. "Ethnic" conflict is its inevitable result.

But what kind of political identity is the mainlander identity? What kind of social structure offers the best analogy to the KMT? If you want to understand an idea that elaborates a shared social identity out of different class and ethnic groups, provides a vision of an reachable yet different future, has a defined opposition that is beyond the pale, and proffers an absolute ethic of Good and Evil, political parties are the wrong comparison. The right thing to look at is Churches and Religions. The KMT is a Church, the Church of the Mainlander Identity, and the mainlander idea of Return functions as its guiding theology.

As I noted in an earlier post, KMT policy toward China began as a political policy, and as the possibility of taking back China receded into history, it evolved into a theology, a highly detailed fantasy whose collection of myths and understandings of history helps organize the sociopolitical identities of the local mainlander population. Democracy in Taiwan has forced this population to re-examine its identity and the role of the KMT, with the result that both the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and the population whose interests it both defines and guards, is going through an extended identity crisis that reflects a deeper identity crisis among mainlanders in Taiwan.

As the mainlander political identity gradually gave up the concrete ideal of return and evolved the Theology of Return, it clung all the more fiercely to China, as The Absolute Good. Along the way the mainlander stance on Return shifted in a subtle but crucial way -- instead of Taking Back China, it became support for China Taking Taiwan. Since the KMT could not go to the Pure Land, the Pure Land would have to come to it.

For mainlanders the Chinese Nationalist Party, the KMT, is the vessel of China and the Theology of Return, the political manifestation of the mainlander identity (just as the Catholic Church became both the vessel and political manifestation of the early Christian identity). Both guided and controlled by a Church called the KMT, the mainlander identity had evolved an eschatology to partner it -- China would come over, just as Jesus will return -- and after that everything would be ideal, like the new heaven and the new earth envisioned at the end of The Last Battle: "All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page; now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story, which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever; in which every chapter is better than the one before." If China had to smite a few Taiwan independence radicals to Return the Island, well, that was just Joshua slaying the perfidious Amorites who had the temerity to interrupt the conquest of the Holy Land. No doubt the sun would stand still for China too.

But with this eschatology came a series of contradictions that the political identity called "mainlander" has never really resolved. China was not democratic, which meant that the KMT would cease to exist were the mainlander eschatology ever realized. Hence, in order to save the KMT, the Return would have to be put off until China was democratic, a position more or less informally adopted as KMT policy. But anyone can see that the chance of democracy breaking out in China is remote. The KMT's Conditional Return, strongly backed by current Chairman Ma Ying-jeou, was an admission that in fact the Return was no more than a Theology that would be invoked when convenient -- for it was obvious that if the KMT really felt that Taiwan was part of China, and that it really believed in that, it would immediately hand the island back, regardless of whatever personal sacrifices had to be made. The Conditional Return indicated doubt on both those scores, and a weakness of belief besides -- as if the Catholic Church had announced that it would welcome Jesus' return, but only on the condition that the Pope would go on making all the decisions. It made every mainlander into a Sunday Christian, paying lip service to the Theology in the pews on Sunday, but gambling and whoring and thieving like lesser mortals Monday to Saturday.

Democracy not only forced the KMT to confront the problem of just what the Theology of Return meant, it also forced the KMT to confront its own role in society and in the not-quite-nation of Taiwan. This too is slowly being played out, in two important ways. First, there is the problem of the succession. In the first few decades, when the KMT was Chiang & Son, the succession problem was not an issue, because the charisma of the founder was handed down from father to son. But after Chiang Ching-kuo's death, the problem of succession has become acute. In any social group, but especially a religion, authority is legitimated by its backward connection to the supernatural charisma of its founding member. In the Catholic Church this is achieved through the doctrine of unbroken apostolic succession, the pleasant and orderly fantasy of bishop ordained by bishop all the way back to Peter, who was appointed by Jesus. But the KMT has a problem, for it is not obvious along which line the supernatural charisma of the founder has descended. Does it go through the Apostle James Soong, who claims to carry the true spirit of the Chiangs, yet founded a more-KMT-than-the-KMT party, the People First Party (PFP)? Or does it come down through the family line, the illegitimate son of Chiang Ching-kuo? And where does the charismatic Mayor Ma of Taipei, the current Chairman, who was elected and not elevated by debate among the party bosses, fit into all this? Both the institutional Church, the KMT, and the body of its members, the mainlanders, are struggling with these problems.

Chairman Ma's most recent pronouncements, and the criticism, backtracking, clarifications, and denials that ensued have illuminated yet another problem that lies deep in the mainlander Theology of Return. Ma Ying-jeou, in recent remarks and advertizements by the KMT, has not only voiced the opinion that China's missiles are an impediment to negotiations, and conceded that independence might be a possible option for the island. Because China was an Absolute Good, and return to its embrace the guiding eschatology, independence for Taiwan could never ever be just one policy among many. It could never even be policy; since it was the opposite of Return, Independence is Evil and never to be contemplated, let alone presented as a potential choice for the island's future. To understand the reaction to Ma, one must understand that he is not proposing a revision to extant policy -- he is proposing something like the KMT equivalent of Vatican II. Hell, it turns out, is just another public policy option.

Almost as bad as contemplating independence, even at arm's length, is that in Ma's suggestion that independence is an option lies the admission that the center of Taiwanese society is a pro-independence center. The future that confronts the KMT is that in a democratic society its power will inevitably recede, for mainlanders are vastly outnumbered by other groups in Taiwan's society. So far it has succeeded by co-opting ethnic Taiwanese into it, by forging a coalition with other minority groups in society, such as Hakkas and aborigines, and by its control over local government structures. Time will eventually reduce or eliminate the effectiveness of these strategies.

What is the KMT? Mayor Ma insists on asking, probably with at least some self-awareness of what he is doing. Is it the Church of the Mainlander Identity? If so, then what is such a Church that is already 80% Taiwanese in membership? And what future can it have where a local Taiwan identity is increasingly asserted and increasingly mainstream? The Church can remain fundamentalist, but it can only do so at the price of a shrinking pool of members.

Or is the KMT merely a political party with a particular set of policies, one of which is annexing the island to China? But if that is a case, then what is the relationship between the KMT and the mainlander identity? What happens to the Theology when the Church declares that it is not a dogma to be maintained, but a set of choices to be made? Everyone knows how the Catholic Church receded in Europe after Vatican II, and everyone knows that there are diehards to this day who never accepted the reforms of Vatican II, and went off to found another Catholic Church. Ironically, Ma's attempt to build a more inclusive, democracy-oriented, and centrist KMT may result in further splits in the party as hardliners leave to found purist shadows of the original KMT.

How skillfully Ma harnesses the Chiang charisma (he was Chiang Ching-kuo's English secretary) to fend off the challenge from his Taiwanese rival Wang Jin-pyng, while suppressing that same charisma's threats to his own legitimacy, and transforms the Church into a corporate institution, one among many in society, may well determine -- in the short term -- whether the KMT is able to defeat the DPP in the 2007 and 2008 elections. It will also determine the future course of the party, and, if Ma is permitted to carry out reforms and move the party out of its past, redefine the relationship between mainlanders, their party, and Taiwan. Perhaps, in the long run, mainlanders might well discover that they, like everybody else here, are just one small expression of the greater Taiwan identity.


Matt said...

Hey, I really appreciate your entry here. I found it very impartial compared to other blogs I have read (both for and against blue). As such, it was much more interesting, because I think it was far more honest.

Michael Turton said...

Me? Impartial? I'm as pro-Green as they come. It seems impartial only because it deals with one side. I try to be impartial when being didactic and analytical...but many of my other posts are more polemical. :)