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15 May 2020updated 09 Sep 2021 3:08pm

Why the Taiwanese are thinking more about their identity

Renewed resistance to China and successful handling of the coronavirus pandemic has led Taiwan to re-examine ideas about its identity – and its future. 

By Jessie Lau

It was pouring with rain during Ruben Lee’s first protest. The Taiwanese overseas student wore a black mask, shielding his face against the bitter cold, as he marched alongside other pro-democracy supporters last autumn in a demonstration in Sheffield, England. The rally wasn’t supporting democracy in Taiwan or the United Kingdom, but in Hong Kong – the former British colony embroiled in what has now been almost a year-long political crisis that Lee, 20, sees as a wake-up call for Taiwanese youth.

“The fight in Hong Kong is very much related to Taiwan. I see Taiwan in this position if we don’t do anything,” says Lee, an advocate for Taiwanese independence, who was born and raised in the self-governing island. “The protests and the coronavirus outbreak are helping us build a nationhood. We are not only fighting the virus, but also the Chinese government.”

Lee is among a growing number of young, emerging Taiwanese activists disillusioned with Beijing’s hostile geopolitical behaviour who are exercising their political rights, fostering a Taiwanese national identity separate from Chinese identity, and building transnational solidarities – with far-reaching consequences. 

In the run-up to January, China’s forceful response to the Hong Kong protests fuelled mutual anti-Beijing resistance that reversed the political fortunes of President Tsai Ing-wen from the Democratic Progressive Party and helped secure her landslide victory, in one of the most controversial elections since Taiwan’s democratisation. In April, a Twitter war between Chinese and Thai users sparked anti-Chinese nationalist solidarities with Taiwanese and Hongkongers, resulting in the new pan-Asian #MilkTeaAlliance movement.

Now, Taiwan is stepping up its lobbying to be allowed to take part in next week’s World Health Assembly as an observer, shining a spotlight on the territory’s long-standing fight for greater international recognition. The move is supported by the United States, who also sailed a warship near Taiwan ahead of Tsai’s inauguration next week. Taiwan had observer status from 2009 until 2016, when China blocked further participation after Tsai became president.

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Such solidarities come at a time when China’s standing in the international community is under scrutiny due to tensions in Hong Kong, the US-China trade war and most recently the pandemic, which has fanned anti-Chinese sentiment. In contrast, Taiwan – which has reported 440 confirmed cases and seven deaths – has been widely praised for its effective coronavirus response and is positioning itself as a model for a democratic society dealing with the crisis. Through swiftly implementing tracing and quarantining measures, upping mask production and even conducting simulations, the state successfully contained the spread despite its proximity to China and diplomatic isolation. A recent study by the Pew Research Center also found that people in Taiwan rated the US more favourably than China by a nearly two-to-one margin.

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For Taiwanese people, these developments have prompted deeper examinations of Taiwan’s identity and vision for its future, as well as created an opening to push for greater global participation. Despite never having ruled the territory, China claims Taiwan as its own and has presented Hong Kong’s “one country, two systems” a model for reunification – a goal it has threatened to pursue by force. The island is a multi-party democracy, ruled for over three decades by the nationalist Kuomintang, which maintained a rival government after fleeing mainland China in 1949. 

While the majority of Taiwanese people support maintaining the “status quo” with China, in recent years the island has experienced a dramatic shift in national identity and growing calls for formal independence. Between 1992 and 2019, those who identified as Taiwanese more than doubled to 58.5 per cent, according to statistics from the National Chengchi University’s Election Study Centre.

In contrast, those who viewed themselves as Chinese fell by 86.3 per cent to 3.5 per cent, and those who identified as both Taiwanese and Chinese dropped by 25.2 per cent to 34.7 per cent. The trend towards Taiwanese identification and against reunification is also led by the youth, creating a generation gap between voters.

Shifts in Taiwanese identification serve as a barometer for the population’s attitudes towards future cross-strait relations, according to Ming-sho Ho, professor of sociology at National Taiwan University. Now, political campaigns advocating for closer relations with China on the basis of cultural affinity are no longer effective, and Beijing’s aggressive tactics usually backfire when it comes to swaying public opinion. As the international climate continues to become more critical of China, Taiwan may also have more geopolitical room to manoeuvre, Ho says.

“The only way to persuade Taiwanese voters not to antagonise Beijing is to emphasise the economic benefit,” Ho said, adding that while the possibility of a Chinese military attack keeps voters supportive of the status quo, the threat is much less pronounced than it is in Hong Kong. “We still have our national defence layer. It’s in Beijing’s best interests to spread fear so that Taiwanese people will be more subservient to Beijing’s demands, but so far I haven’t seen that happening.”

Dr Dafydd Fell, director of the School of Oriental and African Studies’ Centre of Taiwan Studies, says most Taiwanese do not see a need to declare independence because they see the country as already independent. “To a large extent, public opinion constrains what political parties can do on relations with China,” Fell said. “If they move too fast in the direction of integration, they are likely to be punished… but if they are seen as too extreme in the direction of formal independence so that it undermines Taiwan’s economy, they will also be rejected.”

Taiwan’s political sphere remains divided. But Taiwanese people are clearly embarking on a journey of Taiwanese identity-building that is strengthening the nation’s soft power, as well as fostering transnational solidarities between communities resisting Beijing’s authoritarianism. This will have lasting ramifications not just on cross-strait relations, but also the broader geopolitical landscape worldwide. 

For Tzu-Chieh Chang, a 22-year-old law student who previously strongly supported the more Beijing-leaning Kuomintang Party, such sentiments ring true. After growing disillusioned with the party’s lack of practical solutions for dealing with Beijing long term, she decided to vote for a third party candidate in the January election – a move that she says speaks to the creation of new political spaces and growing engagement among globally -minded youth.

“Taiwan is now more politically divided. But our situation is not like Hong Kong’s, and we all believe in freedom and democracy,” Chang says. “Freedom and democracy are what represent Taiwanese identity now.”

Jessie Lau is a freelance journalist from Hong Kong covering identity, human rights and politics.