{short description of image}


World News

Taiwan puts its identity to test

By Martin Regg Cohn

Sunday, January 11, 2004

As pro-independence sentiment grows on island, referendum rumblings have Beijing furious and Washington uneasy

Taipei -- Chiu Shih-Hua works at Taiwan's fabled National Palace Museum, surrounded by the world's largest collection of antiquities showcasing China's ancient civilization. But the centuries-old Ming dynasty porcelain and ancient bronzes fail to stir her pride in the Chinese nation.

A half-century after the civil war that split China in two, Chiu identifies herself first and foremost as a patriotic Taiwanese. Like most of the 23 million people on this strategic island, she considers China as nothing more than a neighbouring country across the straits — not a once and future homeland.

"It's just another kind of culture, like American or European culture," says a defiant Chiu, 28. "We feel more Taiwanese than Chinese."

Such pro-Taiwanese sentiments, shared by a growing number of people here, show how far allegiances have shifted in East Asia — and why tensions are rising rapidly. With ordinary Taiwanese drifting further from their Chinese roots, local politicians are on a collision course with Beijing.

Taiwan's pro-independence government soon will unveil the wording of a controversial "defensive referendum" question, giving voters the chance to express their frustrations with China's deployment of 500 missiles targeting their island.

The vote is the brainchild of Taiwan's flamboyant leader, Chen Shui-bian, who hopes to profit from the referendum to bolster his flagging re-election campaign. His populist tactics have touched a chord with Taiwanese nationalists, culminating with his call last month for "a holy war of the Taiwan people against the Chinese Communists."

But Chen's antics have provoked Beijing's fury and even prompted rare criticism from the island's protectors in Washington.

The battle for the hearts and minds of Taiwan's people threatens to disrupt carefully nurtured links between this tiny economic powerhouse and the military giant next door, which is its fastest-growing trading and investment partner.

"Peace and stability across the Taiwan Straits will be determined by what happens in the next three months," admonished Wang Zaixi, vice-minister of the mainland's Taiwan Affairs Office. In a blunt warning trumpeted by official Chinese media last week, he called on Taiwan to "stop playing with fire."

The war of words has deeply unsettled the United States, which is torn between its old allegiances to Taiwan and its improving relations with the mainland.

When Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao visited the Oval Office last month, Bush obliged him by publicly condemning Taiwan's flirtation with independence: "We oppose any unilateral decision by either China or Taiwan to change the status quo," Bush said pointedly. "And the comments and actions made by the leader of Taiwan indicate that he may be willing to make decisions unilaterally to change the status quo, which we oppose."

Bush's comments came as a shock to China-watchers because it departed from his previously staunch pro-Taiwan pronouncements. But with America preoccupied by its war on terror, it needs Beijing's support in the United Nations to continue its campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, and in restraining North Korea's nuclear ambitions.

Still, a defiant Chen told supporters last month that, while he wasn't about to declare independence, he wouldn't bow to American pressure. "The United States said its attack on Iraq was aimed at bringing peace and democracy to the country," he told a rally. "But when Taiwanese want to push for a referendum, the U.S. said no. We question if the universal values of democracy, freedom and human rights have double standards."

Chen's complaints have further strained the bilateral relationship. On Friday, Taiwan was forced to cancel a planned diplomatic mission to the United States, in hopes of smoothing ruffled feathers over the referendum, when it became clear that the Americans were in no mood to hear excuses.

Chen's "defensive referendum" might seem innocuous to outsiders — who could oppose the dismantling of missiles pointed at islanders' homes? — but the consultative process has pressed Beijing's button. The Motherland has no patience with motherhood questions, certainly not a democratic exercise that could lay the groundwork for a more provocative independence referendum down the road.

Ever since the Communists triumphed in the civil war more than 50 years ago, China has considered Taiwan a "renegade province" to be reunited with the mainland, by force if necessary. Beijing relentlessly cajoles Washington and bullies Taipei to toe the line.

In a typical comment published last week by the official China Daily, Luo Yuan of the mainland's Academy of Military Sciences warned that Chen was "leading the Taiwan people down the alley of war, chaos and misery."

Last month, top generals from the People's Liberation Army were quoted in the state press as saying that "if Taiwan separatists want to gamble on it (independence), they will pay a heavy price and be defeated with shame."

But ordinary Taiwanese are increasingly oblivious to pressure tactics that only seem to backfire. With a per capita income 12 times greater than mainlanders, a robust democracy and a heightened awareness of their island's history, Taiwanese feel surer of themselves and their separate identity. When China launched a missile test off Taiwan's coast during the 1996 presidential elections to try to damage the prospects of the pro-independence incumbent, Lee Teng-hui, its theatrics merely drove more voters into Lee's camp.

Again in 2000, Beijing's bluster antagonized voters and helped Chen overthrow the pro-reunification Kuomintang (KMT) dynasty. Now, Beijing is trying to avoid making the same mistake.

And in a sign of the times, Washington seems willing to do China's bidding from afar. "This time, because they're getting smarter, they want the U.S. to play bad cop," observes legislator Fu Hsiung Shen.

America's preoccupation with its geopolitical agenda, and its impatience with Taiwan's referendum politics, have rattled Chen's Democratic Progressive Party.

"I feel that it's two separate places — two lifestyles, two different societies'

Chiang Yi-Mei, 34, Taipei museum worker

"Of course, we feel hurt," says influential DPP legislator Hsiao Bi-khim, a foreign policy adviser to the president who, like many members of Taiwan's elite, was educated in America. "It looked really bad for us, the Bush remarks."

The DPP believes Washington is penalizing it for the sin of promoting democracy. "Efforts to deepen democracy, to empower our citizens, have been seen as provocative," Hsiao complains.

But many critics believe Chen long ago crossed the line from statesmanship to populism, and argue that he is jeopardizing Taiwan's national interests. "He hopes to get some political benefit," fumes opposition leader Lien Chan, head of the KMT, which ruled Taiwan for half a century until he lost the 2000 election to Chen.

Lien, whom some polls suggest may be the next president, worries that Taiwan's "paramount" relationship with Washington has been jeopardized by Chen's brinkmanship. He also predicts a strong reaction from Beijing if the referendum goes ahead. "I call it a provocation," Lien says in an interview at the imposing KMT headquarters, a brown marble monolith that once was the seat of power here. "We believe our own interests lie in the maintenance of the status quo .... You can never push history."

But Lien concedes that the status quo is a hard sell in a dynamic, prosperous, self-confident society that leads the world in production of everything from semi-conductors to mountain bikes. "We emphasize time and again that we are the status-quo party, we are middle-of-the-roaders," he chuckles. "But you can't go to the people, the electorate, by emphasizing what you did 20 to 30 years ago without modification. It's a changing world."

Political pressures have forced even the old-line KMT to reinvent itself on the campaign trail. Lien has recently been accused of performing a policy U-turn by conceding, for the first time, that there is "one country on each side" of the strait. And after initially opposing a referendum, the KMT reversed itself and voted in support of the latest referendum legislation.

Analysts say the KMT cannot afford to ignore the seismic shifts in Taiwan's political landscape in recent years. Taiwanese nationalism, which was severely repressed under martial law in the early years of KMT rule, is blossoming on the airwaves and in theatres, textbooks and literature.

"Now, even the KMT would have to admit, to a certain extent, that you have to make the option of independence available to the people," says Tsai Ing-Wen, chairperson of the government's influential Mainland Affairs Council. "The long-term trend is that more and more people identify themselves as Taiwanese, and less and less people think of themselves as Chinese," says Tsai, who was appointed by Chen after the DPP took power in 2000.

The council has been tracking public attitudes toward ethnicity for a decade but traditionally has considered the results too sensitive to release. In an interview, Tsai revealed that fewer than 10 per cent of people identified themselves as "Chinese" in surveys last year, compared with 48.5 per cent in 1992. Last year, 46.4 per cent of people called themselves "Taiwanese," compared with only 16.7 per cent 10 years earlier.

Even the percentage of people who consider themselves "Chinese-Taiwanese" has declined from a high of nearly 50 per cent in the mid-1990s to as low as 32.7 per cent. The clear implication is that most Taiwanese have weaned themselves from the dream of reunification.

"Look at the map there," says Tsai, walking briskly to an oversized wall map in her office that shows the absurdity of Taipei's historical claim to governing all of mainland China — including the now-independent Republic of Mongolia.

"This is something we inherited from the KMT government." The fiction of "one-China" has worn thin with young Taiwanese, who are tired of carrying a passport that says "Republic of China" on the cover.

"People want to have a distinctive identity," Tsai argues. "People at the moment just want to be different from the mainland. They want to have a certain amount of distinctiveness and identity in their status, because of differences in society, economics and political development."

For political analyst Tim Ting, who heads Gallup Market Research Corp. of Taiwan, geopolitics is confronting the maxim that all politics is local. His personal view is that Taiwan is courting trouble by antagonizing both its superpower protector in Washington and its neighbourhood bully in Beijing; but his polling data shows that Taiwanese voters are revelling in their new self-confidence, which political parties must take into account.

"The referendum provides a tool to express their identity, and I think it's a good strategy (for Chen's DPP)," Ting says. "I disagree, because I think we should be smarter than that."

Recent polling shows the presidential race is close, but most analysts believe the KMT will pull ahead because it has patched up internal differences that split the vote in 2000.

Regardless of who wins, Ting says the lasting legacy of the referendum and the past four years of DPP government is a stronger Taiwanese identity that has forced even the KMT to change its colours.

"If I'm the leadership in Beijing and I look at the DPP and the KMT, they're both looking the same — I don't have any friends," Ting muses.

Back at the National Palace Museum, Chiu Shih-Hua is joking with co-worker Chiang Yi-Mei about the irony of their present situation: They earn their livings from Chinese antiquities brought over from the mainland after the civil war, yet they see themselves as thoroughly Taiwanese, with little affinity for the mainland.

"I never feel that mainland China shows friendship to Taiwan. When it comes to reunification, they are usually so aggressive," says Chiang, 34. "I feel that it's two separate places — two lifestyles, two different societies. We have very different thinking from each other."