By JIANLI YANG
One summer day in 1998, not long after I came from China to UC Berkeley as a graduate student, I watched the Seoul Olympics on TV together with a few students from Taiwan. It was a women’s volleyball match between China and another county (I can’t remember which country anymore). Some of my Taiwanese schoolmates cheered on the Chinese team, shouting “Commies, go for it!” or “Go, mainland compatriots!”
Although we had grown up in two states that were politically and even militarily hostile toward each other—the People’s Republic of China (mainland China) and the Republic of China (Taiwan)—we culturally identified with each other and regarded ourselves as one people, or compatriots.
This is no longer the case today. The fissuring of this shared identity was clearly demonstrated by the cheers and jeers of Chinese and Taiwanese fans during the Tokyo Olympics, which ended recently.
Taiwanese fans mostly booed, instead of cheered for the Chinese teams, and vice versa. Moreover, Taiwanese celebrities who cheered for Taiwanese—their own—athletes were vulgarly attacked by Chinese netizens. Taiwanese fans also rejected the announcer’s use of the term “Chinese Taipei” to refer to Taiwan. As Taiwanese politician Twu Shiing-jer wrote in an editorial for the Taipei Times, “Taiwan is Taiwan; all other names are useless.”Beijing has been optimistic about its ability to annex Taiwan through various means—including military invasion if necessary—in order to achieve the “Chinese dream.” However, the people of Taiwan are not only opposed to the idea of a united China, but are against even identifying themselves as of Chinese ethnicity.
Taiwanese residents of Norway have been fighting with the Norwegian government over being forced to register as “Chinese” rather than “Taiwanese,” and they have now decided to take the issue up with the European Court of Human Rights. The growing assertion of a separate and distinct Taiwanese identity may become a thorn in the side for Beijing, even if it goes ahead with the invasion of the island nation.
The use of the term Republic of China (ROC) to refer to Taiwan has been rejected by the international community due to pressure from the Chinese Communist Party and its “One China” policy. The Taiwanese, however, argue that this fact alone does not mean the world has accepted the unification of Taiwan with the People’s Republic of China. The Taiwanese still view themselves as having a separate identity from PRC nationals. Although Taiwan shares many cultural similarities with China, the glaring juxtaposition of Taiwan’s flourishing democracy versus the PRC’s totalitarian regime, along with frequent military threats from Beijing, has escalated cross-straits tensions and caused the Taiwanese people to drift away and assert their independent Taiwanese identity.
A study conducted by National Chengchi University’s Election Study Center showed how the percentage of people in Taiwan who identify themselves solely as Taiwanese increased over the past three decades, while the proportion of people who call themselves both Chinese and Taiwanese has fallen substantially.
Now, nine out of 10 Taiwanese disapprove of reunification with mainland China and wish to maintain Taiwan as a sovereign state to protect their Taiwanese identity. Thirty years ago, the Taiwanese generally considered themselves Chinese. However, this perception has shifted over time, and even became a major issue during Taiwanese elections in 2009. Leading up to the elections, Gen Di, then a law student at Taipei’s National Chengchi University, emphasized the importance of having a separate identity.
“I am a Taiwanese and I wish Taiwan to be an independent country. We can only realize our political ideas within a new nation-state which is different from mainland China,” he said. Even the Kuomintang Party, which previously supported the idea of unification with the mainland, had to abandon its stance due to the changing attitudes of the Taiwanese people.
Upon coming to power in 2012, Chinese president Xi Jinping spoke about the “Chinese dream.” The state-backed Chinese Academy of Social Sciences interpreted this term as referring to China’s aspiration to strengthen itself and reunify with Taiwan. Indeed, Beijing has not been sitting by idly. In recent years, Taiwan has witnessed increasing aggression from mainland China, with Chinese air-fighters often breaching Taiwanese airspace and thousands of Chinese missiles aimed at the island.
Gen Di agreed that the fear of attacks from China is always present, but emphasized that he would be ready to go to battle with the Chinese if necessary. “We can never bring about independence without blood, without [a] fight. If there is a real war, I will give up my studies, everything, to fight,” he said.
In 2018, Taiwan passed a bill that identified languages used in Taiwan as national languages in order to preserve and promote Taiwan’s linguistic diversity. The Taiwanese have even sought to localize the Mandarin dialect spoken there. They used Zhuyin (also called Bopomofo) to transliterate Chinese characters so as to make the languages and dialects of Taiwan internationally recognizable. Tainan City Councillor Lee Chi-wei said the move would help bring global prominence to these languages and dialects, which include Taiwanese Hokkien, Hakka and the Matsu dialect. This is quite significant, since young people in Taiwan have begun to assert their separate identity even as their Taiwanese language skills have deteriorated. Now, they are opposed to being identified as Chinese. The promotion of Taiwan’s linguistic culture, along with growing recognition from the international community, will strengthen the Taiwanese people’s sense of possessing a unique identity distinct from that of their counterparts in mainland China.
Earlier this year, the Taiwanese tried to distinguish themselves from the Chinese by joining the Milk Tea Alliance, an online democratic solidarity movement. The movement, which can be described as pro-democracy, anti-authoritarian and anti-Beijing, initially consisted of netizens from Myanmar, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Thailand and was later joined by activists in other Asian countries, such as the India, Malaysia and Indonesia. The name “Milk Tea Alliance” derives from the fact that people from the abovementioned countries enjoy tea with milk, whereas the Chinese prefer to drink tea as is. The movement has led to numerous social media posts depicting Taiwan as a distinct country from China. This April, social media giant Twitter even included Taiwan’s flag in its announcement of its new Milk Tea Alliance emoji.
As the Taiwanese people’s pursuit of a separate national identity continues to grow stronger, Beijing will face an increasingly uphill battle in its quest to unify Taiwan with the mainland.
Jianli Yang is the founder and president of Citizen Power Initiatives for China. He was an eyewitness to the Tiananmen Square massacre and was imprisoned in China for more than five years. Committed to pursuing democracy in China, he is the author of For Us, the Living: A Journey to Shine the Light on Truth.
This article first appeared in Newsweek on 8/13/21