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‘We are Taiwanese’: China’s growing menace hardens island’s identity

No, she tells them. She is Taiwanese.

To her, the distinction is important. China may be the
land of her ancestors, but Taiwan is where she was born and raised, a home she
defines as much by its verdant mountains and bustling night markets as by its
robust democracy. In high school, she had planted a little blue flag on her
desk to show support for her preferred political candidate; since then, she has
voted in every presidential election.

“I love this island,” Li said. “I love the freedom
here.”

Well over 90% of Taiwan’s people trace their roots to
mainland China, but more than ever, they are embracing an identity that is
distinct from that of their communist-ruled neighbour. Beijing’s strident
authoritarianism — and its claim over Taiwan — has only solidified the island’s
identity, now central to a dispute that has turned the Taiwan Strait into one
of Asia’s biggest potential flashpoints.

To Beijing, Taiwan’s push to distinguish itself from
the mainland poses a dangerous obstacle to the Chinese government’s efforts to
cajole, or coerce, Taiwan into its political orbit. China’s leader, Xi Jinping,
warned in October against the trend he sees as secession: “Those who forget
their heritage, betray their motherland and seek to split the country will come
to no good end.”

Most of Taiwan’s residents are not interested in
becoming absorbed by a communist-ruled China. But they are not pushing for
formal independence for the island, either, preferring to avoid the risk of war.

It leaves both sides at a dangerous impasse. The more
entrenched Taiwan’s identity becomes, the more Beijing may feel compelled to
intensify its military and diplomatic campaign to pressure the island into
respecting its claim of sovereignty.

Li is among more than 60% of the island’s 23 million
people who identify as solely Taiwanese, three times the proportion in 1992,
according to surveys by the Election Study Center at National Chengchi
University in Taipei. Only 2% identified as Chinese, down from 25% three
decades ago.

Part of the shift is generational — her 82-year-old
grandmother, Wang Yu-lan, for instance, is among that shrinking minority.

To Wang, who fled the mainland decades ago, being
Chinese is about celebrating her cultural and familial roots. She paints
classical Chinese ink landscapes and displays them on the walls of her home.
She spends hours practicing the erhu, a two-stringed traditional Chinese
instrument. She recounts stories of a land so beloved that her grandparents
brought a handful of soil with them when they left. She still wonders what
happened to the gold and silver bars they had buried beneath a heated brick bed
in Beijing.

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Wang was 9 when she landed in Taiwan in 1948, part of
the 1 million or so Chinese who retreated with the nationalists during China’s
Civil War with the communists. The island is about 100 miles off China’s
southeastern coast, but to many of the new arrivals, it felt like another
world. The Chinese settlers who had been there for centuries — and made up the
majority — spoke a different dialect. The island’s first residents had arrived
thousands of years ago and were more closely related to the peoples of Southeast
Asia and the Pacific than to the Chinese. Europeans had set up trading posts on
the island. The Japanese had ruled over it for 50 years.

Wang and the other exiles lived in villages designated
for “mainlander” military officers and their families, where the aroma of
peppercorn-infused Sichuan cooking mingled with the pickled scents of
delicacies from southern Guizhou province. Each day, she and other women in the
village would gather to shout slogans like “Recapture the mainland from the
communist bandits!”

Over time, that dream faded. In 1971, the United
Nations severed diplomatic ties with Taipei and formally recognized the
communist government in Beijing. The United States and other countries would
later follow suit, dealing a blow to mainlanders like Wang. How could she still
claim to be Chinese, she wondered, if the world did not even recognize her as
such?

“There is no more hope,” Wang recalled thinking at the
time.

Wang and other mainlanders who yearned to return to
China had always been a minority in Taiwan. But a few generations later, among
their children and grandchildren, that longing has morphed into a fear of
Beijing’s expansive ambitions. Under Xi, Beijing has signalled its impatience
with Taiwan in increasingly menacing ways, sending military jets to buzz
Taiwanese airspace on a near-daily basis.

When nearby Hong Kong erupted in anti-government
protests in 2019, Li, the schoolteacher, followed the news every day. She saw
Beijing’s crackdown there and its destruction of civil liberties as evidence
that the party could not be trusted to keep its promise to preserve Taiwan’s
autonomy if the sides unified.

Li’s wariness has only grown with the pandemic.
Beijing continues to block Taiwan from international groups, such as the World
Health Organization, a clear sign to her that the Communist Party values
politics above people. Taiwan’s success in combating the coronavirus, despite
these challenges, had filled her with pride.

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Watching the Tokyo Olympics last year, Li felt
indignant that athletes from Taiwan had to compete under a flag that was not
their own. When they won, the song that played in venues was not their anthem.
Rather than Taiwan or Republic of China, their team carried the name Chinese
Taipei.

Taken together, these frustrations have only steeled
the Taiwanese resolve against the Chinese Communist Party. The global criticism
of China for its handling of COVID-19 and its repression at home rekindled a
long-standing debate in Taiwan about dropping “China” from the island’s official
name. No action was taken, though; such a move by Taiwan would have been seen
by Beijing as formalising its de facto independence.

To young people like Li, it was also unnecessary.
Independence to them is not an aspiration; it is reality.

“We are Taiwanese in our thinking,” she said. “We do
not need to declare independence because we already are essentially
independent.”

That emerging confidence has now come to define
Taiwan’s contemporary individuality, along with the island’s firm embrace of
democracy. To many young people in Taiwan, to call yourself Taiwanese is
increasingly to take a stand for democratic values — to not, in other words, be
a part of communist-ruled China.

Under its current president, Tsai Ing-wen, the Taiwan
government has positioned the island as a Chinese society that is democratic
and tolerant, unlike the colossus across the strait. As Beijing has ramped up
its oppression of ethnic minorities in the name of national unity, the Taiwan
government has sought to embrace the island’s Indigenous groups and other
minorities.

Taiwan “represents at once an affront to the narrative
and an impediment to the regional ambitions of the Chinese Communist Party,”
Tsai said last year.

Many Taiwanese identify with this posture and have
rallied around the countries willing to support Taipei. When Beijing imposed an
unofficial trade blockade to punish Lithuania for strengthening ties with
Taiwan, people in Taiwan rushed to buy Lithuanian specialty products like
crackers and chocolate.

Democracy isn’t just an expression of Taiwan’s
identity — it is at its core. After the nationalists ended nearly four decades
of martial law in 1987, topics previously deemed taboo, including questions of
identity and calls for independence, could be discussed. Many pushed to reclaim
the local Taiwanese language and culture that was lost when the nationalists
imposed a mainland Chinese identity on the island.

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Growing up in the 1980s, Li was faintly aware of the
divide between the Taiwanese and mainlanders. She knew that going to her
“mainlander” grandparents’ house after school meant getting to eat pork buns
and chive dumplings — heavier, saltier food than the Taiwanese palate of her
maternal grandparents, who fed her fried rice noodles and sautéed bitter melon.

Such distinctions became less evident over time. Many
of Taiwan’s residents are now proud of their island’s culinary offerings,
whether it is the classic beef noodle soup — a mix of mainland influences
unique to Taiwan — or bubble milk tea, a modern invention.

In Taiwan’s effort to carve out a distinct identity,
officials also revised textbooks to focus more on the history and geography of
the island rather than on the mainland. In school, Li learned that Japanese
colonizers — whom her grandmother, Wang, so often denounced for their wartime
atrocities — had been crucial in modernizing the island’s economy. She and her
classmates learned about figures like Tan Teng-pho, a local artist who was one
of 28,000 people killed by nationalist government troops in 1947, a massacre
known as the 2/28 Incident.

Now, as China under Xi has become more authoritarian,
the political gulf that separates it from Taiwan has only seemed increasingly
insurmountable.

“After Xi Jinping took office, he oversaw the
regression of democracy,” Li said. She cited Xi’s move in 2018 to abolish term
limits on the presidency, paving the way for him to rule indefinitely. “I felt
then that unification would be impossible.”

Li points to Beijing controls on speech and dissent as
antithetical to Taiwan.

She compares Tiananmen Square in Beijing, which she
visited in 2005 as a university student, with public spaces in Taipei. In the
Chinese capital, surveillance cameras loomed in every direction while armed
police watched the crowds. Her government-approved guide made no mention of the
Communist Party’s brutal crackdown in 1989 on pro-democracy protesters that she
had learned about as a middle school student in Taiwan.

She thought of Liberty Square in Taipei, by
comparison, a vast plaza where people often gather to play music, dance,
exercise and protest.

“After that trip, I cherished Taiwan so much more,” Li
said.

© 2022 The New York Times Company

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