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Global Economy

'We are a country': Taiwanese embrace distinct identity

Ken Young and Kylie Wang, hosts of a popular daily news podcast, say they feel Taiwanese and not Chinese — a belief shared by many young people on the self-ruled island.

Beijing views Taiwan as part of China and has intensified pressure on Taipei in recent years, pushing political tensions between the two to dizzying heights.

For younger Taiwanese people, the growing antagonism has cemented a distinct identity rooted in democracy — and not China’s authoritarianism.

“For me, identifying myself as a Taiwanese means all the things that I am proud of,” 38-year-old Young told AFP.

“We support human rights, we support LGBT rights, you know, and we support freedom of speech,” said the podcast host, wearing a black baseball cap with “Taiwan” embossed in red across the front.

For decades after Taiwan split from the mainland in 1949, when nationalist forces lost a civil war to the communists, people on the island saw their leaders as the true representatives of all of China.

But as Taiwan moved from an autocracy to democracy in the 1990s, “a strong civic identity” was forged through “the process of democratisation”, Wu Rwei-ren, an expert on Taiwan’s history at Academia Sinica, told AFP.

“It’s not based on race or blood but… on the sentiments that we are a country with democracy, freedom, human rights and the rule of law, and we can participate in the political decision-making,” Wu said.

A recent poll released by Taiwan’s National Chengchi University shows that less than three percent of people on the island identify as Chinese, a record low, down from nearly 26 percent in 1992.

Over 60 percent identify as solely Taiwanese.

“China’s increasingly aggressive policies” have resulted in Taiwanese people seeing it as foreign and even as “an enemy country,” Wu said.

Administrative assistant Lin Yu-han, 22, worries Taiwan could go the way of Hong Kong, where Beijing’s sweeping national security law has criminalised dissent and created an environment of fear.

“What has been happening in Hong Kong has made me realise how terrible China is. I don’t want Hong Kong’s today to become Taiwan’s tomorrow,” Lin said.

Beijing has vowed to seize Taiwan one day, by force if necessary. President Xi Jinping recently said the island’s unification with China “will be fulfilled”.

But most Taiwanese reject the possibility of being ruled by Beijing, with less than eight percent in support of gradual or swift unification.

Tensions have intensified since Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, who views the island as a sovereign nation, came to power in 2016.

“We want to protect the right to love our democracy, our freedom,” podcast host Wang said.

“I keep on saying I am Taiwanese because we think that the more people see themselves as Taiwanese and love our country, love our land, that can protect us from being invaded.”

Liljay Chen, 36, fronts a hip hop band that performs at street protests and runs a business selling pro-independence T-shirts and baseball caps.

“I am Taiwanese, I am not Chinese. Taiwan is a country and China is a country. We are equal,” he told AFP at his store.

On display is a red baseball cap reminiscent of the hats worn by former US president Donald Trump. This one reads: “Make China Lose Again”.

Other products sport slogans such as “Taiwan independence” and “Taiwan is not part of China”.

“For young people, the main difference between Taiwan and China is the freedom to create freely and free access to any social media,” Chen said.

For some older residents, however, there is no conflict in being both Taiwanese and Chinese.

“I identify myself as Chinese by blood and culture as my grandparents and parents came from China. I am also Taiwanese since I was born and raised in Taiwan,” said Hu Min-yueh, 56, a pastor and the grandson of a well-known general who came to Taiwan in 1949.

But for many younger people, the island’s historical connections with China do not define them.

“I am Taiwanese and we are a country,” said student Ayden Lai, 17, while taking a break from dance practice with his high school friends.

“I think most young people don’t feel any attachment to China.”


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