Taiwanese youth are increasingly identifying with Taiwan and not China, but President Tsai Ing-wen must continue to grapple with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) abroad and the Kuomintang (KMT) at home, Graeme Read writes.

On 12 August Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen made her first official visit to the United States since the passage of the Taiwan Travel Act in February this year, quoting Ronald Reagan in declaring anything can be negotiated except “our freedom and our future”. While there, she visited the Los Angeles branch of the Taiwanese bakery café 85C, resulting in Chinese state-media and consumer backlash against the company for supporting Tsai and Taiwanese independence.

This is not the first time China has protested and punished perceived support of Taiwanese independence. But given the changing landscape of Taiwanese politics and concerns of increasing Chinese influence worldwide, we should remind ourselves exactly who is talking about ‘independence’ and what it all means.

The island of Taiwan was first inhabited by diverse groups of Austronesian aborigines, now officially recognised as 16 tribes of indigenous peoples. In the early seventeenth century, migrants from the southernmost part of now mainland China were established on islets and limited parts of Taiwan proper. A series of European powers then battled for colonial dominance, transforming Taiwan into an important regional trading hub. In 1683, the Qing general Shi Lang (施琅) defeated Koxinga’s (鄭成功) renegade pirate forces and conquered Taiwan for the Qing Empire. This Qing territory was ceded to Japan as a colony under the 1895 Treaty of Shimonoseki, after which followed 50 years of rapid development and assimilationist policies. The end of World War II saw Japan’s surrender of Taiwan to the now Republic of China (ROC).

Defeated in the Chinese civil war, the ROC’s nationalist government (KMT) relocated to Taiwan, resulting in the ‘white terror’ (白色恐怖) and 38 years of martial law. Eventually, following UN and US recognition of the Peoples Republic of China (PRC), the KMT government in Taiwan began democratisation and ‘localisation’ (本土化). Arriving at the present, we have the PRC internationally recognised as China, and the ROC in Taiwan as a de facto sovereign state maintaining international relations. Both claim to represent a China, and the island of Taiwan as part of those claims.

Since the end of martial law in 1987, the KMT and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) have bitterly fought as representatives of ‘pro-China’ (親中) and ‘pro-Taiwan’ (親台) political interests.

The KMT has dedicated itself to safeguarding the ROC in Taiwan and reconciling with the PRC through developing cross-strait relations. In 2014 protestors occupied Taiwan’s parliament in the 318 Sunflower student movement. The protesters halted passage of the Cross-Strait Services Trade Act, which they decried as undemocratic and ‘selling out Taiwan’ to self-interested KMT politicians and the PRC. Riding a wave of anti-KMT sentiment, Tsai Ing-wen’s DPP government swept to executive and legislative power in the 2016 elections, legitimising the protests and the broader emergence of Taiwanese-identifying youth civil activism.

Beijing has deployed ‘sharp power’ measures to curtail the rise of perceived Taiwanese separatists. It blocks Taiwan’s official representation in international organisations, protesting any act perceived to legitimise Taiwan as a sovereign entity. The PRC’s hard line is the anti-secession law, which legalises “non-peaceful means and other necessary measures” to prevent Taiwanese independence.

‘Taiwanese independence’ (台灣獨立), then, is not the claim that Taiwan and mainland China have different governments, but that Taiwan is not part of China – the formal declaration of an official Republic of Taiwan crosses this line.

Yet identity is an integral part of the sovereignty contest. While Tsai’s government advocates the cross-strait ‘status quo’ (維持現狀) and avoids independence rhetoric, it strives to diversify Taiwan’s overseas interests and create international space. The DPP and post-sunflower youth civil society continue reorientating government and society to positions of ‘Taiwanese consciousness’ (台灣意識), whereby Taiwanese identity is grounded in Taiwan-centric history. They are decoupling the KMT-ROC party-state legacy and rebuilding Taiwan from the ground up as a pluralist, democratic country.

What of Taiwanese identity? What of the constitution and national symbols? Will China invade? The ROC and KMT are far from dead, their fates intertwined. While a majority of Taiwanese may see and experience Taiwan as separate from the PRC, legal independence and a distinct ‘desinified’ (去中華) state is nonetheless an unpopular option.

For now, Taiwan is striving to both reconcile deep-seated divisions at home and maximise its international presence. Look to the Southbound Policy and campaign for recognition at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics for developments. In the words of legislator and independence activist Freddy Lim, “Every time we are asked, aren’t we afraid of war from China? Of course, we live with it every day! In all the world, we are the most experienced in dealing with this threat.”

Graeme Read is a current PhD candidate at the Australian Centre on China in the World and holds a Bachelor of Asia-Pacific Studies with Honours from the Australian National University. 

Featured Image: Maya-Anaïs Yataghène

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