In Taiwan, a deliberate word choice in referring to China reveals one’s position on cross-strait issues. While “the mainland” hints at the notion that mainland China and Taiwan are both regions of China, an outright “China” implies a belief that China and Taiwan are separate countries.
However, as someone born and raised in mainland China, I had never heard of this distinction. Throughout my life, the axiom that Taiwan is part of China went unchallenged. The media, textbooks, and people around me invariably depicted Taiwan “province” as a precious island riddled with extremist separatists. It was an inseparable entity in my mind. Whenever I heard of anti-China or pro-independence incidents, I was indignant. I had persuaded myself that episodes such as the Sunflower Movement protesting the passing of the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement or the victory of the more pro-independence Tsai Ing-wen in the 2016 Taiwan Presidential election, captured the estrangement of only some Taiwanese people. To me, they must have still possessed a sense of belonging to China.
As I started college in the US and came across more academic studies of Taiwan, I realized that my conviction did not stand. Statistics collected by various institutions in Taiwan all showed a drastic decrease in Chinese-only and a sharp increase in Taiwanese-only identities over the past twenty years. These studies not only shattered my long-standing perception of cross-strait relations, but also spurred my curiosity which was intensified by a sense of patriotism: Why do fewer Taiwanese think of themselves as Chinese? What created a distinct Taiwanese identity?
As most studies discuss cross-strait issues at an aggregated level and are thus detached from individual opinions, I decided to learn more about the national identities of younger Taiwanese by exploring their personal stories and perspectives. Over two months, I interviewed thirty-five students at National Taiwan University and National Chengchi (Politics) University in Taipei. I posted the recruitment information on the university’s discussion sites and these interviewees voluntarily contacted me to participate. The interviews covered a range of topics on cross-strait issues such as the past presidential election, the Sunflower Movement, and general attitudes towards China. On self-identified national identities specifically, twenty-four of the volunteers identified as Taiwanese only, and only one identified as Chinese only. Three of the Taiwanese-only interviewees stood out in particular as they substantively explored the constituents of national identities and deliberated specific reasons for a lack of Chinese identity.
Choco Yang, a fourth-year education major studying at National Chengchi University, was among the first interviewees I spoke to. He briefly introduced himself, and one of the first things he told me was that his parents were benshengren. Unlike waishengren who retreated from mainland China after losing the civil war in 1949, benshengren are those who migrated to Taiwan before the civil war and possessed less affinity to China.
I asked Choco if he identified himself as Taiwanese, Chinese, or both. He did not hesitate for a second:
“Taiwanese, of course. I am proud to be born in Taiwan.”
“Would you not be proud to be born in China?”
“To be born an unfree citizen under an authoritarian regime?” he laughed, “no way!”
To Choco, China was the People’s Republic of China. Being Chinese meant being a citizen of China. However, would choosing a Chinese identity result in his becoming an “unfree citizen under an authoritarian regime?” I doubted, because national identity differs from citizenship.
However, I soon learned that to Choco, equating national identity and citizenship was merely a statement to protest against the possibility of an imposed Chinese citizenship — a daunting yet foreseeable future if Taiwan officially became part of China.
Choco further explained that his intense rejection of a Chinese identity stemmed from an aversion to the authoritarian nature of the Chinese government — a government that encroached on individual rights and freedoms. Personally, I struggled with Choco’s unbroken faith in some rights and freedoms that I found compromisable. To me, individual rights and freedoms can reduce national efficiency.
“Wouldn’t Taiwan hope for the same rapid growth as China by only sacrificing some minorities’ interests?” I asked. I tried to refrain from defending my own views, but I couldn’t stop myself in time.
“No,” Choco was determined. He believed that national achievements were important but not supreme. “Depending on the aspect you examine, it is hard to argue that China is growing. The economic growth, for instance, is at the expense of the deteriorating air quality and unchecked corruption,” he explained.
However, the ultimate cost of encroaching on people’s rights and freedoms was a diminished sense of security. This insecurity was seen not only in people from mainland China, but also in those from Hong Kong, a special administrative region given a high degree of autonomy in China. To illustrate this, Choco used the example of Lee Bo, a Hong Kong bookstore owner who sold politically-sensitive texts that were illegal in the mainland but legal in Hong Kong. He disappeared and later re-appeared at a jail in China where he announced that he voluntarily entered the mainland for an investigation and asked the Hong Kong police not to intervene. Choco argued that Lee was coerced to fabricate a crime he did not commit and was arrested entirely for selling the books. To him, China infringed on Hong Kong’s rule of law and rights of free expression to create enormous fear among the population. If Taiwan joined the mainland, it would face the same fate.
The scandal described by Choco indeed deterred many Hong Kong bookstores from selling sensitive books. However, he was refuting the claims Lee made himself — he was fighting against me on a war over facts, an ideological war in which traditional evidence was no longer trusted because an authoritarian regime was involved. His lack of self-perceived Chinese identity, I thought, was a distorted view towards China’s political system.
Three days later, I watched a news conference held by another owner of the same bookstore, Lin Rongji. He explained that he too was put into a jail in mainland China, but was only able to come back to get bookstore-related information for the Chinese police. “I confessed to crimes that I did not commit,” he said, “I was forced to read a script provided by the police.”
I was angry at first. I was convinced Lin was lying to complicate the issue and express disdain for the Chinese government. But then I realized my double-standard — I supported every piece of rhetoric that was pro-China and disapproved of every claim that was not. I was always ready to defend my country before delving into the complexity of issues. But if patriotism is anything, it is not to blindly defend, but rather to critically examine one’s country.
When Choco texted me on Facebook and asked me what I thought about the news conference, I simply told him that I felt glad that I was in Taiwan and had the opportunity to watch it. If I were in mainland China, where the right to visit certain websites was limited, my view of the Lee Bo incident would have stayed the same.
My interview with Francine, a fifth-year French major, took place five days later. Interestingly, when asked why they had a Taiwanese-only identity, all Taiwanese identifiers had uniformly and exhaustively explained that they were not Chinese because they did not consent to the political system of China.
Thus far, Taiwanese identity was defined by, more than anything else, a rejection of Chinese politics. But Francine gave me a different explanation — she could not explain why she thought of herself as Taiwanese. “This comes so natural to me. I am always Taiwanese,” she said.
To Francine, there was rational reasoning behind a person’s self-perceived national identity. But she had never consciously questioned her conviction of being Taiwanese in the past twenty-two years of living in Taiwan.
Francine believed that national identity was linked to a recognition of a distinctive society, and argued for Taiwan’s distinctiveness from social and societal perspectives. Socially, it was easy to tell a Taiwanese from Chinese or other Chinese-speaking people from their accents, word usages, and mannerisms. In Taipei, for example, everyone sorted out their trash and recyclables carefully, a phenomenon rarely seen in mainland China. “Even though some people believe that behaviors change, changes always take time, and require awareness based on norms and beliefs that are harder to change,” she added.
To exemplify the division in beliefs, Francine focused on citizens’ interactions with their governments, arguing that Taiwanese people are more outspokenly critical and participatory, whereas Chinese people often refrain from criticizing and expect changes from within.
These social differences in behaviors and beliefs further translate into societal disparities at a systemic level. Francine listed policies concerning indigenous groups, workers’ labor conditions, and educational systems that are very Taiwan-centered. “Many say that as long as China becomes democratic, they would not mind Taiwan becoming part of China. But I do not think that Taiwan would implement tailored social policies once it becomes another province of a huge country.” Francine smiled, and continued,
“If socially and societally, China and Taiwan are so different, why should they be the same country? If I am bound by a different social and societal environment, why should I think of myself as a Chinese person?”
She threw the question back to me to ponder.
“I identify as Chinese.”
It was my last week in Taipei and I had yet to hear any one of my interviewees utter these words. I was shocked.
“What do you mean by Chinese?” I asked the third-year student at National Taiwan University for clarification.
“I am culturally Chinese and a citizen of the Republic of China, where the most authentic Chinese culture is preserved,” he answered.
In Taiwan, conformity to a singular national identity was formed both by pro-China and pro-independence groups. However, his national identity was multifaceted and not constrained to one or another.
“Interesting,” I commented. “Why is that?”
He had an emotional affinity for the mainland and its culture. His grandfather was a waishengren. When they spent time together, he would hear stories about mainland China, and learn traditional Chinese musical instruments and Chinese calligraphy. His childhood exposure to Chinese narratives and cultures also motivated him to study Chinese history and literature in college, and the more he studied, the stronger he felt to protect and promote Chinese culture.
“I was heartbroken to learn about the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976,” he said, “but during the same period, Taiwan started the Chinese Cultural Renaissance Movement to counter the catastrophic effects the Cultural Revolution had on Chinese culture.” Whether or not the movement was driven by political aims, to him, Taiwan did a better job of preserving valuable Chinese assets. Because he did not wish to see the mainland continually being stripped of its cultural characteristics, he hoped Taiwan could reunite the mainland and “revitalize the Three People’s Principles” for the whole Greater China region.
His belief that the Chinese culture in Taiwan was part of a holistic Chinese culture sharply contrasted with many other interviewees’ views that Taiwan’s Chinese culture was part of Taiwanese culture. With such a belief, his relationship to mainland China and deep interests in Chinese history and culture were unique in his hope to unite the regions and promote Chinese culture in both.
It was also shocking to me that he hoped for a unification initiated by Taiwan. I recounted how back home unification always meant China taking over Taiwan, and the reverse was never heard of. If culture is best preserved and promoted when ideas and knowledge were not restricted, I was glad to see a diversity in opinions in Taiwan.
The last day of my stay in Taiwan, I visited the Textbook Library in Taipei and found a popular Chinese poem, Nostalgia, from a widely-used Chinese primary school textbook. Reminiscing, the Taiwanese poet, Mr. Yu Guangzhong expresses his homesickness for the mainland—“… and now, nostalgia is a shallow strait. I am on one side and the motherland is afar.” I reflected on the countless conversations I had, and the various factors I learned of that helped explain a loss of Chinese identification among younger Taiwanese: some are social, some are cultural, but most came down to political differences between China and Taiwan. Despite the economic benefits constantly offered and the rhetoric “blood is thicker than water” used by the Chinese government, the formation of a distinct Taiwanese identity seemed to develop necessarily given the ever-enlarging differences between Taiwan and China. As time passed by, it was certain that the kinship and cultural ties would be looser and that a Taiwanese identity would form not so much by a lack of connection with China, but rather through a set of organic beliefs. If the true separation between Taiwanese and Chinese could be transformed into a strait though, I imagined it much deeper and wider than the Taiwan Strait separating Taiwan and the mainland today.
Yizhi Hu is an international scholar at the Kellogg Institute for International Studies. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.