Monday, February 19, 2007

Shelly Rigger strikes again...

Shelly Rigger, who is often a source for scholarly commentary on Taiwan in the international media, has made some rather strange remarks in recent months. In October of last year she inexplicably told an audience of high school teachers that support for Taiwan independence had already peaked, and that there's no trend toward independence. Huh? On what planet?

Rigger gave another sample of how the Taiwan in her rearview mirror differs from the real Taiwan with a series of comments in a fine piece in the Weekly Standard on the new Taiwan history curriculum:

But aside from their symbolic import, the new textbooks will have a practical effect on Taiwanese students. "The real question is, what do you want the children of Taiwan growing up learning," says John Tkacik, an Asian studies expert at the Heritage Foundation. "Do you want them learning Chinese history and thinking that Taiwan doesn't matter? Because that's what's been going on for the past 50 years."

Indeed, during more than 50 years of control, the KMT revised history textbooks many times, always giving short shrift to Taiwanese history. While the regime never allotted more than a few chapters to Taiwan alone, volumes of "National History" indoctrinated students with the glory of KMT goals. The most recent KMT-sponsored revisions in 1995 included a section on the country's future stating that, "the ultimate goal is to unify China." By contrast, these first DPP-sponsored revisions leave questions of Taiwan's future open-ended.

The most controversial change in the new books is the removal of the honorific "Guo Fu," or "Father of the Country" to describe Sun Yat Sen, a cofounder of the KMT. Sun's political philosophy forms the basis of Taiwan's constitution, but the "Guo Fu's" practical impact on Taiwan varies widely depending on who you ask. "Sun Yat Sen had zero impact on the formation of Taiwan," says Tkacik. But Shelley Rigger, a professor of East Asian politics at Davidson College, believes that downplaying Sun Yat Sen's importance is a "decapitation" of historical facts. She compares the textbook revisions to a U.S. history course that doesn't mention the Framers of the Constitution: "Trying to purge anything that doesn't accord with a particular version of events . . . is a very dangerous way to teach history."

But removing Sun's grandiose title is not the same thing as removing all mention of the man himself, just as distinguishing Chinese history from Taiwan's is not the same thing as striking it from the record. While the timing of the changes is no doubt politically motivated, the content of the changes is less ideologically charged than previous revisions. And it is the content itself, not the recent fracas it has ignited, that will shape the national identity of Taiwan's young people.

Fortunately the writer took the trouble to obtain comments from all sides -- from the KMT liaison office in DC, from the TECRO office, and from the John Tkacik, who knows Taiwan up and down, and is a staunch supporter of the island. It's interesting that the writer thought Rigger would be the antidote for Tkacik, and clear why: the position she holds on this topic is a pro-KMT position completely at odds with reality.

Let's review a little history. The Constitution which she claims is so important was ignored by the KMT throughout most of Taiwan's history and when the chance came, reformed immediately because it is clumsy and ill-suited to the needs of a democratic nation. It doesn't even specify whether the government is Presidential or Parliamentary, a problem that has caused serious political problems throughout its short life. It wasn't adopted by the KMT's handpicked assembly until 1946, long after Sun's death. Sure, eliminating Sun is like eliminating the Founding Fathers, if the Founding Fathers had been handpicked by King George, and had all died twenty years before the US Constitution was adopted.

Further, its effect on the island was profoundly negative, for it was part of a toolkit that legitimated the KMT's claim to own all of China, a China that included Taiwan. The Constitution itself was never more than the candy-coating around an authoritarian dictatorship, and its lines of authority were routinely ignored by the Party-State that vested the real power in the KMT chairman. The Three Principles of the People made fine propaganda, but they were never honored here on Taiwan. Its legitimacy was contested in both Taiwan and China.

The ROC in its current incarnation has little to do with Sun Yat-sen, and much more to do with the machinations of the martial law era, and even more importantly, the numerous reforms during the era of democratization that have helped gain it some legitimacy here in Taiwan. But that evolution has nothing to do with Sun. Perhaps Sun is the father of some country somewhere else, but it isn't Taiwan. Here Sun, as Tkacik rightly observes, has had little impact, being nothing more than a face on a stick worshipped by the KMT as part of its Return to China mythology. None of the democratic reformers here took their cue from Sun. None of his principles are taken as the basis for Taiwan's current democratic development. Nobody spares a thought for Sun, ancient history from another nation's development.

And note, of course, that Sun is not being wiped from the books. His absurd title of "Father of the Country" is being deleted and his role in Taiwan's history is being restored to its proper level. Here Rigger manages to be overwrought, using very unscholarly language (Decapitation?) and delivering an erroneous analysis at the same time.

Decapitation? Hardly. More like restoration. Let's hope next time around Rigger uses more restrained language, and manages to align her opinions more closely to reality.


Anonymous said...

Shelley Rigger has been spending too much time in China.

Taiwan's unfortunately not visible enough in the US these days (aka China related fields been a huge vacuum sucking up talent) to attract higher caliber academics to turn their attention towards it. Damn shame, but hey, there are really good political academics in Taiwan, they just aren't always so read in the US.

Anonymous said...

I disagree with the above comment. Dr. Rigger's scholarship on Taiwan is really second to none. Her contributions to the questions of the political ramifications of the developing "Taiwanese identity" are invaluable. Furthermore, even if one were to disagree with four line comment by an academic, that certainly does not justify disregarding the scholar all together. Where is the nuance?

Anonymous said...

However, Sun is unquestionably an important figure in Chinese history, and an inspiration for people who still believe in the Republic of China.

His ideas and hopes and dreams still have tremendous force for people, especially those in Overseas Chinese communities ... (could we think of Taiwan as the largest concentration of Overseas Chinese??)

And at least at present, Taiwan is still part of the ROC -- if not *the* ROC. So if ROC officials and historians and teachers and judges are animated by Dr. Sun's principles, then at least he should be honored appropriately.

We can have a separate question on Taiwan's relationship to the ROC, but that doesn't diminish Sun's importance to Chinese history and the inspiration of Republican China beginning in 1912.

At the very least, it is something we can point toward the PRC as a mirror -- just as the KMT on Taiwan was profoundly undemocratic and oppressive. The unfortunate thing is that the Three People's Principles were twisted to support dictatorship instead of carried out to fruition.

Finally, if Taiwan's democratic system reflects SYS's early political thought, then in a way he is still Father of the Country in terms of ideas about government, separation of powers (five-powered Constitution), and the importance of popular participation and representation.

Would an appropriate analogy be something like "John Locke" to the United States rather than "George Washington"? (Although there is some strange mix of these, because there was much more over political formulation from Sun.

The later Constitution from the 1940s may not hold the same force though, and could potentially be revised or replaced by an even more perfected or appropriate form.

(This is very different for an American where our Constitution has been in existence since its adoption since 1787, and though amended, has kept its original spirit and structure.)