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World News

New National Identity Emerges in Taiwan

By Philip Pan, Washington Post Foreign Service

Friday, January 2, 2004

President Chen

TAIPEI, Taiwan -- Like almost all adults in Taiwan, Li Chuan-hsin grew up convinced that he was Chinese, that Taiwan was part of China and that his government was destined to take back the mainland from the Communists. These lessons were drilled into him as a child in school, as a student in college and as a young soldier in Taiwan's army.

But as a social studies teacher in Taipei's Xinpu National Elementary School, Li is passing on a different set of beliefs to his students. Ask the children in his sixth-grade class if any of them are Chinese, and they just giggle and trade puzzled looks. Ask which of them are Taiwanese, and they all shoot their arms into the air and shout, "Me!"

Textbooks that once covered only Chinese history and geography have been rewritten to focus more on Taiwan, and local dialects once banned in school are now the subject of weekly classes. Maps of Taiwan have replaced those of China, and portraits of Chiang Kai-shek, the nationalist leader who moved his government here after the Communist revolution of 1949, have disappeared from classrooms. The school even took down a sign telling students to behave like "dignified and upstanding Chinese."

The changes in Li's classroom, and in schools across Taiwan, reflect a profound shift in public opinion on this island of 23 million, one that poses a challenge for both China and the United States. After more than half a century of self-rule and democratic evolution, most people here have abandoned Chiang's dream of unification with China and see themselves as citizens of a new, independent nation with its own culture and history.

"We don't teach that Taiwan is part of China anymore," said Li, 48, a soft-spoken man who campaigned for the curriculum reforms. "We emphasize that we're Taiwanese now, and everybody accepts that."

This rise in Taiwanese nationalism could frustrate China's hopes of bringing Taiwan back into the fold by binding it to the mainland's booming economy, while strengthening the position of those in Beijing who want the military to seize the island. It is also a problem for the administration of President Bush, which has promised to defend Taiwan but is worried about getting dragged into a war provoked by Taiwanese actions.

Despite threats from Beijing and a direct rebuke by Bush, President Chen Shui-bian has refused to cancel a referendum in March, in which citizens will be asked whether Taiwan should publicly demand that China remove missiles aimed at the island.

Officials in Beijing, Washington and Taipei all say they support the status quo in the Taiwan Strait. The problem is that Taipei defines the status quo differently than the others do. While China and the United States have warned Taiwan not to declare independence, Taiwanese generally believe the island is already independent, and thus free to hold referendums, write a new constitution and take other actions that China opposes.

In effect, the span of a generation has brought a fundamental change in how people in Taiwan view themselves. Though almost everyone here is ethnic Chinese and speaks Chinese, and the island is located only 100 miles from China's southeastern coastline, polls show that a majority or near-majority of residents refuse to identify themselves as Chinese, preferring the term Taiwanese instead.

A survey by the United Daily News in October, for example, found that 62 percent of respondents said they were Taiwanese, the highest level recorded by the newspaper since it began asking the question in 1989, when only 16 percent said they were Taiwanese. By comparison, those identifying themselves as Chinese dropped to 19 percent from a high of 52 percent in 1989.

Several factors are driving this transformation. China's military threats have alienated many residents. The population of islanders with the strongest ties to China -- those born on the mainland -- is aging and dying off. And democratic reforms have given people the freedom to question Chiang's version of Taiwanese history and have inspired new pride in the island.

Bookstores that once carried only a few volumes on the island's history now offer a wide selection of titles, often more than on Chinese history. There has been a revival of traditional Taiwanese opera and puppet theater, and Taiwan's leading dance troupe uses themes about the island's early history in its performances. Interest in the island's non-Chinese aboriginal population has surged, and a novel about a 17th-century Chinese pirate considered Taiwan's founding father was a bestseller last year.

"As Taiwan has become more democratic, we have become more aware of our surroundings and our history," said Lin Mun-lee, chairwoman of Taiwan's version of the National Endowment for the Arts. "There has been an explosion of vitality in the development of Taiwanese culture."

Perhaps the most obvious sign of this is the growing use of Minnanese, the main local dialect, which Chiang's Nationalist Party banned in schools and restricted on radio and television to promote China's national language, Mandarin. Today, youngsters rap in Minnanese, politicians from all major parties deliver campaign speeches in it and characters in the most popular TV dramas speak it.

Last year, a writer named Wang Benhu launched Taiwan's first talk show requiring guests to speak Minnanese, and it stunned the television industry by becoming the island's No. 1 talk show after only six months.

Wang attributes his success to his strong emphasis on Taiwanese identity and a pro-independence tilt. "Before, the Taiwanese people didn't have a voice. . . . Now, they have a chance to speak out," he said in his studio in the southern city of Kaohsiung, a base of Taiwanese activism. "Basically, this is the mainstream now, the heart of Taiwan."

Chinese migrants began settling Taiwan as early as the 15th century, joining aboriginal tribes. The island, about the size of Maryland, was governed only loosely, if at all, by Beijing between periods of Spanish and Dutch rule, but became a Chinese province in 1885. A decade later, the Qing Dynasty ceded it to Japan, prompting an early and short-lived attempt by islanders to establish an independent Taiwanese republic.

When the Japanese went home in defeat a half-century later, at the end of World War II, residents welcomed the return to Chinese rule. But Chiang's corrupt and authoritarian Nationalist administration soon alienated them from the mainland again. In 1947, in a massacre known as the February 28 Incident, Chiang's troops killed thousands of Taiwanese to crush a protest against the military's abuse of an elderly woman.

Tensions continued when the Nationalists withdrew to Taiwan after the 1949 defeat and about 2 million refugees came with them. The island became divided between the majority people who trace their ancestry to the early Chinese settlers (today about 70 percent of the population) and the minority whose families arrived in the 1940s (about 15 percent). Ethnic Hakka and aboriginal groups make up the rest.

Chiang tried but failed to assimilate the local population, using martial law to enforce strict cultural policies and stifle any expression of Taiwanese identity. His policies helped sustain an underground pro-democracy movement. Jailed dissidents were widely viewed as Taiwanese heroes while the mainlanders who held almost all positions of power were seen as foreign occupiers. After martial law was lifted in 1987 and democratic reforms began, people openly debated Chiang's policies. Politicians competing in elections began appealing to native-born Taiwanese, who remain more supportive of independence than the Mandarin-speaking mainlanders.

"As a child, I knew neighbors who just disappeared, but my parents didn't dare talk about the White Terror then," said Chen Yichun, 50, a cab driver in Taipei, using a popular term for Chiang's crackdown on dissent. "Over the past 10 years, listening to campaign speeches, I realized the Nationalists had lied to all of us, and that I'm Taiwanese, not Chinese."

By the mid-1990s, even the Nationalists endorsed Taiwanese identity. Lee Teng-hui, the first president born in Taiwan, coined the phrase "new Taiwanese" to include the mainlanders and their children, and began the school curriculum reforms, which deepened after Chen's election. After China fired missiles near the island in 1996 to express anger with Lee, Taiwan's shift toward a national identity separate from Beijing accelerated.

Today, residents often compare Taiwan to Singapore, the city-state in Southeast Asia that is dominated by ethnic Chinese but is independent of China. Others compare themselves to Americans -- who, they point out, speak English but don't consider themselves British.

"I was born in Taiwan, I live in Taiwan and I speak a Taiwanese language, so of course I'm Taiwanese, not Chinese," said Shu Shennan, 20, a business student in Kaohsiung. "We have Chinese roots, but it would be weird if any of my friends said he was Chinese."

The glacial pace of political change in China has also alienated Taiwan, which will hold its third presidential election in March. "Look what happened with SARS," said Huang Hongyan, 66, a retired fisherman in Kaohsiung, who blames Beijing for covering up the virus and allowing it to spread to Taiwan. "We didn't fight for our freedoms for so many years just to surrender them to Beijing."

China's thriving economy has attracted as much as $100 billion in Taiwanese investment, and hundreds of thousands of Taiwanese reside at least part time on the mainland. But people here have mixed feelings about economic integration with the mainland, where average income levels are less than one-tenth of those in Taiwan. The experience of living and doing business on the mainland sometimes reinforces islanders' feelings of separateness.

"I make money in China, but I'm still Taiwanese," said a factory manager, speaking on condition of anonymity. "China is still too poor, too close-minded and too dirty."

Polls show that most Taiwanese would support independence if it could be achieved peacefully, but at the same time most also would accept unification if China and Taiwan became "compatible economically, politically and socially."

Su Chi, a senior mainland affairs official in the Nationalist Party, said the people of Taiwan have a split personality: In their hearts, they are proud Taiwanese who resent China's bullying, but their heads keep them from making a formal break with the mainland that could start a war.

For China and the United States, the problem is that Taiwanese politicians prefer to appeal to voters' hearts. The issue could decide the presidential election in March. Chen is pressing ahead with plans both to hold the referendum on the Chinese missiles alongside the presidential vote and to draft a new constitution, steps that officials in Beijing and Washington call provocative.

Zhang Dachun, a popular novelist in Taiwan who describes himself as Chinese, said Chen risks a backlash if he pushes too far. According to Zhang, many voters believe the president is fanning Taiwanese nationalism to distract voters from his poor performance in office. In some ways, Zhang said, Chen is no better than the Communists in Beijing who bluster about Taiwan because they rely on nationalism to stay in power.

"These people who want to create a Greater China and these people who want Taiwanese independence, they're both frightening," he said. "It's ethnic extremism, and it's dangerous."