Taiwanese or Chinese? An island state’s shifting identities

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It is January 16, 2016, and 56-year-old Liu Tao-shan is sitting quietly in his living room in Taichung, Taiwan. The television in front of him is showing the results of Taiwan’s 14th presidential election. The Democratic Progressive Party candidate Tsai Ing-wen has beaten the Kuomintang’s Eric Chu and the People First Party’s James Soong with 6.89 million votes, marking the third time power has changed hands on the island since democratic elections were introduced in 1996.

“I feel very confused,” Liu confesses.

Liu’s father was a supporter of Chiang Kai-shek and retreated to Taiwan in 1949 after Chiang lost out to Mao Zedong’s Communist forces in the Chinese civil war. Growing up receiving a patriotic education, Liu has always believed that he is a Chinese national living temporarily on the island of Taiwan.

“I believe the Republic of China is the legitimate regime that represents China, and some day we will recover the mainland,” Liu says.

With the passage of time, however, the political and social gap widened across the Taiwan Strait. Liu admits he has been constantly forced to reconsider who he is.

“Nowadays when people speak of ‘China’, they meant the People’s Republic of China instead of the Republic of China,” Liu says. “I grew up seeing them take away the right to represent China one step at a time. I’ve been constantly thinking about this question. Now I see myself as both Chinese and Taiwanese.”

Liu Tao-shan

Liu Tao-shan. Photo: Asia Times/Liu Hsiu Wen

Under the military rule of Chiang’s Kuomintang, reinforcing Chinese identity was essential to its “one China” vision.

To promote Chinese nationalism, education and propaganda were used to stifle local culture and erase 50 years of Japanese colonial rule on the island. Local languages were banned in mass media or during school lessons.

“The emergence of a separate Taiwanese identity was restricted for a long time by the island’s authoritarian political system,” says Tsai Chang-yen, an Assistant Professor at National Taiwan Normal University’s Graduate Institute of Political Science.

Martial law was declared in Taiwan in 1949. Emergency powers were placed in the hands of the president and the formation of new political parties was banned. Constitutional rights relating to freedom of speech, press and assembly were denied.

Criticizing the government, discussing the notion of Taiwanese independence, or showing interest in China’s Communist party might lead to charges of sedition.

These years were known as Taiwan’s “White Terror.” Thousands were arrested, imprisoned, “disappeared,” or executed for their real or perceived opposition to the government.

Read: Thirty years on, memories of martial rule in Taiwan

Members of a Taiwanese independence group march with flags around the group of pro-China supporters holding a rally calling peaceful reunification, in Taipei, Taiwan in this file photo dated May 14, 2016. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

Members of a Taiwanese independence group march with flags around a group of pro-China supporters holding a rally calling for reunification, in Taipei, on May 14, 2016. Photo: Reuters/Tyrone Siu

Martial law was lifted in 1987 and political reforms have opened doors to more nuanced examinations of Taiwan’s modern history. Today, Taiwan is a vibrant example of a full-fledged Asian democracy, but the legacy of that authoritarian period lingers in certain aspects.

Li Wen-chi was born in 1986. He grew up in a transitional period when Taiwan was experimenting with democracy and moving out of the shadows of its authoritarian past.

“We rarely talk about politics back at home, just like every other normal Taiwanese family,” he says. “Back in the days, people avoid asking questions and giving opinions – to protect themselves. The rule still stays in my family. My political education all came from textbooks.”

Li remembers that, in elementary school, his third grade geography teacher asked him to draw “a map of our country.” “The answer includes the whole of mainland China,” Li laughs. “In textbooks, mainland China is still where we lost to the Communist Party and [the place we] will someday reclaim.”

Students only started to learn more about Taiwan’s history under the presidencies of pro-Taiwan KMT leader Lee Teng-hui (1988-2000) and DPP president Chen Shui-bian (2000-2008), and when Taiwanese history was separated from China-centered ideology and became required reading, from 1997, in the curricula of primary and secondary schools.

republic of china map

An official map of the Republic of China. Photo: Flickr

Against this backdrop, Li admits he grew up with rather a vague understanding of his identity.

In 2012, he went to pursue a Masters Degree in comparative literature at the University of Edinburgh. It was the first time in his life he had the opportunity to meet people from China – and also the first time he was called Chinese.

“I think meeting someone from China made me draw a line between what’s ‘us’ and what’s ’them,’” Li says. “People’s false recognition will also quickly make you understand who you really are. My Romanian room-mate presumed I’m a Chinese the first day we met. I told him no, I’m a Taiwanese.”

According to polls conducted by the Election Study Center at National Chengchi University, in recent years there has been a growth in the number of people who identify themselves as Taiwanese.

Back in 1992, only 17.6% of respondents identified themselves as Taiwanese. This figure rose to 58.2% in 2016. The number of respondents identifying themselves as exclusively Chinese was 25.5% in 1992, but fell to 3.4% in 2016.

Syaru Shirley Lin, a professor at the University of Virginia and the Chinese University of Hong Kong, has long studied the links between Taiwan’s identity and policy making. She says the shifting of identity might be due to several factors.

In the republic’s early days, identity was largely defined in terms of ethnicity, she says. “Those who had been in Taiwan before 1949 were the Taiwanese, and those who came after 1949 were the Chinese,” Lin explains. “But in the past 30 years, the term Taiwanese has gradually diminished its ethnic tone, and expanded into discussions based on values and way of life.”

For younger generations, the questions of “whether I am a Chinese or a Taiwanese” is “simply not applicable anymore.” “They just naturally consider themselves as Taiwanese,” Lin says.

In a 2013 study by Academia Sinica, more than 90% of people aged under 34 identified themselves as exclusively Taiwanese.

Events have provided a further stimulus. People who identify as Taiwanese increased, from 2008, under the administration of the pro-China Ma Ying-jeou. “People think Ma didn’t prioritize Taiwan’s interests,” Lin says. “That posed a threat to Taiwan’s values, thus giving rise to the Taiwan identity.”

Lien

Lien Chen-jie. Photo: Asia Times/Liu Hsiu Wen

Lien Chen-jie was born in 1996, the year Taiwan held its first direct presidential election. He has considered himself Taiwanese ever since he can remember, he says.

But Lien’s exploration of his identity doesn’t stop there and he has been active in expressing it via politics.

In 2014, students and civic groups occupied Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan and, later, its Executive Yuan to protest against a trade pact with China. Later known as the Sunflower Movement, protestors believe that the economic benefits offered by closer ties with China pose a serious threat to Taiwan’s political future.

“I started to read comments and debates on the Internet, some of which were very local centric,” Lien said. “It was a turning point for me. I became convinced that the Republic of China is also a foreign regime. It doesn’t equal to and should not represent Taiwan. I hope that Taiwan can decolonize from the Republic of China and be independent as soon as possible.”

political activist su beng

98-year-old political activist Su Beng gives a speech on March 30, 2014 during the Sunflower Movement. The banner reads “Taiwan is not China.” Photo: Wikipedia Commons

Born in 1990, Jay Lin has a similar background to Lien’s. While identifying himself as a Taiwanese, however, he considers the debate over independence a false one, branding it an “impossible” aim.

“If we are to completely remove ties with China, we still need to depend on other powerful nations, like Japan or the United States,” he says. “This isn’t true independence.”

Lin says Taiwan has always been a multicultural society and has always accommodated people from different places. To discuss “who are the Taiwanese?” means abandoning that tradition, he believes.

“Can we be an inclusive society that welcomes everyone and respects every culture and history? This is my imagination of the future.“

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