Far Eastern Economic Review
A separate identity for Taiwan shakes up politics at home and overseas:
• It counterbalances closer economic ties to China
• Beijing's "one country, two systems" formula is increasingly unrealistic
• It puts Washington on the spot as Taiwan's protector


The Strait Grows Wider

A growing sense of separate identity among people who identify themselves solely as Taiwanese is central to the island's presidential election--and is likely to thrive as a major issue long afterward

By Jason Dean/TAIPEI
Issue cover-dated March 04, 2004

MORE THAN a million Taiwanese will join up on February 28, if all goes to plan, to form a human chain stretching 500 kilometres from the island's northern tip to a spot near its southernmost point. Organized by backers of President Chen Shui-bian, participants will link hands at 2:28 p.m. and chant slogans directed at China, including "We want peace, not missiles," and "We want to have democracy, not to be annexed."

The event will be part campaign rally for Chen's re-election, and part memorial for the killing of thousands of native Taiwanese in a crackdown by Kuomintang (KMT) soldiers from the mainland on demonstrations that began on February 28, 1947. But it will also provide a vivid demonstration of a blossoming national identity in Taiwan, a sense among a growing portion of the island's 23 million people that it is a separate country from China and deserves to be seen as such.

The development of this Taiwanese identity, and Chen's attempts to tap into it, are at the centre of the island's presidential election on March 20. But the prominence of the identity issue in this election only points to a longer-term trend that is likely to continue whoever wins. Polls show that the percentage of people on the island who identify themselves as Taiwanese now far exceeds that of people who say they are Chinese. And interviews by the Review in recent weeks with about 60 would-be voters from more than half of Taiwan's 25 counties and municipalities bear out a sense of separate identity that, while not universal, is strong and growing.

"The recognition of our national identity is Taiwan's most important issue. It's the root," says Chou Tze-chin, a 30-year-old software engineer at the Taiwan government-funded Industrial Technology Research Institute in Hsinchu county, a 90-minute drive from Taipei. Like almost all Taiwanese adults, Chou was taught in school that he was Chinese, and that Taiwan is part of China, notions that he has since come to reject. "The economy is important, but the national-identity issue has to be solved before anything else," he says, to the nods of two friends over lunch at a staff café.

In the presidential race, Chen has tried to rally such voters by insisting that Taiwan reject China's claims to sovereignty over the island. Chen's pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party won power in 2000, ending 51 years of KMT, or Nationalist Party, rule over the island despite securing fewer than 40% of the votes after a split within the KMT.

This time round, Chen is pushing an election-day referendum and other measures that China opposes because, he says, they will bolster Taiwan's democracy and make it a "normal, complete, and great country." Those efforts may not be enough to win him the election. His tough stance toward China has frustrated some centrist voters, as well as many in the business community. Lien Chan, his KMT opponent, has emphasized Taiwan's relatively poor economic performance during Chen's term, and argued that the president's stress on sovereignty and identity issues has prevented negotiations with mainland China on direct transport links and other important economic issues. Independent polls show Lien with a slight lead in the race.

Nevertheless, the rise of this separate Taiwanese identity is a force that people outside Taiwan, from Beijing to Washington, will increasingly need to reckon with long after this election. It acts as a counterweight to rapidly accelerating economic integration between the two sides. Taiwanese companies have invested $100 billion in China over the last decade and a half, and more than a third of the island's exports now flow across the Taiwan Strait. Many people--including China's leadership--believe the booming trade and investment is pulling Taiwan inexorably closer to China, making eventual unification more likely.

But the burgeoning of a separate Taiwanese identity casts doubt on that theory. At the very least, it suggests that China's approach to the Taiwan issue has proved ineffective, and needs to be rethought. Beijing has insisted for years that Taiwan must reunify under a "one country, two systems" framework, a formula that has been used for Hong Kong but that was originally conceived for Taiwan. But polls suggest that the notion is wildly out of touch with reality in Taiwan. A November survey by the government's Mainland Affairs Council found that just 7.4% of respondents supported the idea of "one country, two systems," and 71.4% rejected it.

People who embrace a separate Taiwanese identity don't necessarily advocate sharp moves to cement Taiwan's independence--such as abandoning the island's official name, the Republic of China--something that Beijing has threatened war to prevent. Polls show that the vast majority of Taiwanese, 80% according to the Mainland Affairs Council, prefer to maintain the more ambiguous status quo.

But those numbers also mask the fact that for many on the island the status quo means a Taiwan that is separate, sovereign and equal--a definition vastly different from the one held in Beijing. "We've always been suppressed by China. I'm sure Chen Shui-bian is the only one who can change that," says Tom Peng, a KMT member and the former head of Dah-tan, a village in Taoyuan county just a kilometre from the waters of the Taiwan Strait. Peng says he supports ending a ban on direct transport links with China, something that the business community eagerly awaits, but only if it doesn't require accepting China's claim to sovereignty over the island. "We should negotiate with them on an equal basis."

The shift toward a Taiwanese identity is evident in a poll carried out twice a year for more than a decade by the Election Study Centre at Taipei's National Chengchi University. When the poll was first taken in June 1992, 26.2% of respondents identified themselves as Chinese, 17.3% said they were Taiwanese, and 45.4% saw themselves as both (the remainder declined to respond). In the most recent poll, in June last year, the portion of people saying they are Taiwanese had jumped to 41.5%, while those identifying themselves as Chinese fell to 9.9%. The number who said both dropped slightly, to 43.8%.


Numbers like these have forced even the KMT to adapt its position. The late Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek's party, which fled to Taiwan amid civil war with the Chinese communists in 1949, insisted for decades that Taiwan should some day rejoin the mainland. It only officially abandoned the idea of retaking mainland China in 1991. In the current campaign, however, Lien and other senior KMT officials have said they no longer believe reunification with China is the only option, and that eventual independence could also be considered.

That sentiment is evident among many KMT members, too. In southern Taiwan's Tainan county, Hu Ya-hsiung has an unenviable job: running the KMT-led presidential campaign in Chen's hometown. Sipping tea and smoking cigarettes, Hu says he thinks the KMT-led opposition will do better in this election than in the last, because many voters are more concerned about unemployment than they are about standing up to Beijing. That doesn't mean Hu wants to be part of China. "If the conditions were right, I don't think anyone would oppose independence," he says. "I think the possibility of unification is quite small."

Twenty minutes down the road, Kao Hsing-siung is attending a campaign rally for Chen. Hundreds of people, many of them farmers, mill around in pink campaign hats, waving green DPP flags. Chen bounds to the stage amid a cacophony of air horns and cheering, and delivers a feisty, shouting speech, saying that "our national sovereignty is something we can never give up." Afterward, as campaign workers clean up, 62-year-old Kao says: "I support A-bian [Chen] because he will protect Taiwanese people and our future generations."

While Chen's tough rhetoric has put off some mainstream voters, it has attracted some new ones. Chiu Chin-chi, who works for a company that sells kitchen utensils in central Taiwan's Changhua city, voted for Lien in the last election, even though her brother helped campaign for Chen. She did so in part because Lien had the backing of former President Lee Teng-hui. But Lee, who helped push the idea of a native Taiwanese identity during his time in office, was ejected from the party in 2001, and Chiu thinks the KMT now leans too far toward China. "Taiwan's future is something we should decide," says the 50-year-old. "Supporting Chen Shui-bian means supporting Taiwan. Supporting Lien Chan means supporting China."

Chen's critics argue that the growth of a separate Taiwanese identity is a product of his leadership, and that of Lee before him. Both men have certainly supported the trend, encouraging the use of the Fukienese dialect, which people on the island call Taiwanese, and removing traces of Chinese rule, such as the portraits and statues of Nationalist leader Chiang that were once ubiquitous in schools and government buildings.

But there are other forces at work independent of presidential actions. The older generation of people who came from China with the KMT in the 1940s is dying off. Younger people generally have no personal connection to China. The popularity of spoken Taiwanese is as much commercial as it is political, as is clear from its use in television advertisements and by teenage rap groups. "The help of politicians may accelerate this trend," says Lu Ya-li, a veteran political analyst in Taiwan and a professor at Chinese Culture University in Taipei. "But it's quite a natural one, even without any political manipulation."

Indeed, perhaps the most alarming sign for mainland China in the long run is that the Taiwanese identity appears strongest among the young. Recent election surveys show Chen consistently outpolls opponents in the 20-29 age group.

At a coffee house on the campus of central Taiwan's National Chung Cheng University, so titled after a local version of Chiang Kai-shek's name, 10 students sit down one afternoon to talk politics. In their mid-to-late 20s, three will vote for Chen, one for the KMT and one won't vote. The rest say they are undecided. All advocate maintaining the status quo for now, instead of independence or unification with China. When asked who feels Chinese, however, only one hand goes up. Two say they are both Taiwanese and Chinese. The remaining seven say they see themselves as strictly Taiwanese. "We need to deal with our national identity now," said 27-year-old Liu Chung-lin. "Otherwise, it will always be an issue."

Chiu Piling contributed to this article