What it means to be Taiwanese
China's rising pressure on the island it regards as a 'renegade' province is contributing to a rising tide of Taiwanese nationalism
“I’m proud to say I’m Taiwanese and I live in a free country,” said Taiwanese Deputy Foreign Minister François Chih-Chung at a recent meeting with the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy, a non-profit, non-partisan organization based in Taipei charged with promoting democracy worldwide.
That combination — a sense of Taiwanese identity and pride in being one of Asia’s most vibrant and viable democracies — is precisely what China is aiming to erase and replace with its “One China” policy, Beijing’s hard-line stance that it is the only China the world should recognize.
Beijing has long regarded Taiwan as a renegade province that it will eventually through diplomacy or force bring back into its sovereign fold. With its rising clout and influence, China is now pressing nations, corporations and organizations to either stop dealing with Taiwan as a state or face economic consequences.
While some multinationals have bowed to the pressure, the intimidation campaign seems to be having the opposite effect in Taiwan itself, where surveys show rising popular resistance to so-called “reunification” and a strongly emerging national identity as Taiwanese rather than Chinese, especially among a younger generation.
Taiwan, the island where China’s previous ruling regime sought refuge after being defeated by Mao Zedong’s communists back in 1949, is still officially known as the Republic of China.
But Taiwan is no longer governed by the old Kuomintang, which also claims China is one inseparable country but that it rather than the communists are its rightful rulers. Rather, the Democratic People’s Party (DPP), which advocates for independence from China and promotes a separate Taiwanese identity, is in democratic charge.
Since the DPP won the 2016 election, China’s efforts to isolate Taiwan have been the most intense in decades. Beijing has also ramped up provocative military drills, raising concerns that China may yet opt for reunification by force rather than through gradual diplomacy and economic integration.
Indeed, China is ramping up pressure on foreign businesses in unprecedented fashion. In April, the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) sent a letter to 44 airlines asking them to stop describing Taiwan as a country and instead refer to it as a province of China.
In a strongly worded statement ten days later, America’s White House dismissed the request as “Orwellian nonsense”, adding that President Donald Trump “will stand up for American resisting efforts by the Chinese Communist Party to impose Chinese political correctness on American companies and citizens.”
Some of those global airlines have since shifted to refer to “Taiwan, China.” As of late May, the CAAC said that 18 global airlines had complied with the request and that “the remaining carriers had requested extensions of up to two months due to technical reasons.”
Other foreign companies with big business interests in China have also complied with Beijing’s anti-Taiwan directives and stopped treating the island state as a separate political entity.
On May 14, for example, the US clothing retailer Gap posted on China’s Weibo microblogging website an apology for having sold T-shirts overseas with “an erroneous design map of China” that failed to include Taiwan as part of its territory.
China is also pressing to win over the dwindling number of countries that maintain full diplomatic relations with Taiwan. That number was 23 a decade ago but is now down to 18 after the Dominican Republic and Burkina Faso broke off relations with Taipei and instead recognized Beijing in May.
Those who still recognize Taiwan include six island nations in the Pacific Ocean, Swaziland (now known as Eswatini) in Africa, ten countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, and the Vatican in Europe.
But while China’s campaign to isolate Taiwan is working with certain countries, carriers and corporations, it is also contributing to what was already a rising tide of Taiwanese nationalism.
The island was ruled continuously by the Kuomintang from 1949 until 2000, when the DPP formed its first government. While retaining the name the Republic of China, the DPP also used Taiwan. In 2007, the DPP called for a new constitution for “a normal country” that aimed to make Taiwan a state separated from China.
That did not happen because the Kuomintang was elected back to power via a democratic election the following year. The new president, Ma Ying-jeou, then initiated more contacts with the mainland and reaffirmed his party’s commitment to the “One China” policy.
But it was under Ma’s administration that Taiwanese identity began to flourish, perhaps precisely because of his pro-Beijing stance. A survey by Taiwan’s Election and Democratization Study (TEDS), a research project supported by the Ministry of Science and Technology, showed that 37% of citizens identified as “Taiwanese” in 2001, but that by 2015 that figure had soared to 64%.
In a 2016 survey conducted by the National Academy of Taiwan, 75% of respondents said they would never want to be unified with China, even if the mainland caught up with Taiwan’s higher level of economic and political development.
In another TEDS survey conducted the same year, 50% said they preferred “total independence”, while 34% were in favor of a “mid-way solution” which would maintain the status quo of neither unifying with the mainland or declaring independence.
Only 17% of the same survey’s respondents said they wanted to be part of China under the “one country, two systems” model now employed in former European colonies Hong Kong and Macau. The number of pro-independence respondents was even higher among youth, with 55.4% of the 18-34 age group favoring independence from China.
Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, may be 62 but she was born on the island and appeals strongly to this increasingly nationalistic youth set. She is also the first Asian head of state or government who is a woman but not a widow, daughter or sister of a former male politician.
She is also a product of the dramatic democratization Taiwan has undergone over the past two decades, a shift from hard-knuckled authoritarian rule under the Kuomintang to a model Asian democracy and exemplary economic development story as one of the world’s top 20 trading nations.
Even the Kuomintang, despite its “One China” policy and previous authoritarian ways, has transformed into a democratically “normal” political party that contests, loses and wins general elections.
So why do so many Taiwanese not feel a motherland affinity towards the mainland? A fragmented history is one reason.
Taiwan was under Chinese emperor rule until the Qing dynasty ceded the island to Japan in 1895 after a brief war between the two countries. It was only after Japan’s defeat in World War II that the island was reunited with China.
Shortly thereafter, in 1949, the mainland was overrun by Mao’s communists and Taiwan was all that remained of the Republic of China under the Kuomintang. From that reading of history, Taiwan has been ruled from the mainland for only four years since 1895.
From 1949 until democratization began in the late 1980s, a minority of Mandarin speakers from the mainland dominated politics at the expense of Taiwanese who speak a dialect similar to the one spoken in China’s Fujian province. There are currently 23 million people living in Taiwan, including around half a million who belong to Aboriginal tribes.
So it is not only because Taiwan is a democracy and China is not that Taiwanese people feel they are different from the mainland. Many of them see no more reason to be united with the mainland than an Irishman would be for his country to rejoin the United Kingdom, from which it separated in 1921.
But Beijing remains undeterred and has ramped up threats of reunification by force as its military might grows. In 2005, it enacted an Anti-Secession Law which provides a legal basis for China to use “non-peaceful means and other necessary measures” to unify Taiwan with the mainland.
China increased its annual defense budget by 8.1% this year, consistent with President Xi Jinping’s military modernization campaign that aims to transform the People’s Liberation Army into a “world-class” force by 2050. A prime target of that growing force projection capability is nearby Taiwan.
Of course, it remains to be seen whether China will invade Taiwan or be content with isolating it from the wider world to break down Taipei’s resistance to what Beijing views as “reunification.” But if recent public surveys are an accurate measure, most on the island – like François Chih-Chung – are proud to be Taiwanese.