Wed, Oct 26, 2011 - Page 3 News List

FEATURE: Warming ties with China stoke Taiwan’s identity crisis

By Ben Blanchard  /  Reuters, Greater Kaohsiung

A man walks past a row of Republic of China flags in Taipei on Oct. 14.

Photo: Pichi Chuang, Reuters

Chin-sheng’s voice rises with emotion when asked whether he feels Taiwanese or Chinese. Then he utters the response that Beijing fears most.

“Of course I’m pure Taiwanese. I’m not Chinese. We are not a province of China. We are our own country,” Tsai said.

“We have democracy and human rights here. What the hell does China have to offer?” said Tsai, an enthusiastic supporter of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which hopes to unseat the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) in presidential elections on Jan. 14.

“Maybe the Chinese tourists who come here now can learn a thing or two from us and apply it when they go home,” said the businessman, a resident of Greater Kaohsiung, a DPP stronghold.

Decades of dictatorship and repression followed by a gusty uptaking of democracy have engendered not only pride at Taiwan’s generally smooth transition to rule by the ballot box, but also a growing feeling of distance and difference from China.

Many Taiwanese look with nervousness, if not fear, at China, where the Chinese Communist Party remains unmoved by calls for political liberalization.

Taiwan’s free-wheeling press covers the nation’s politics in a critical way unthinkable for China’s stodgy state-controlled media and giving ink to Chinese dissidents and unrest in China that would never make it past Beijing’s censors.

This open debate helps reinforce the deep unwillingness in Taiwan to be absorbed politically by China and the popular feeling that Taiwan is very different from China and this is something to be cherished and protected.

The sentiment is felt particularly keenly in Greater Kaohsiung, one of the main heartlands of Taiwanese cultural identity and where, in 1979, rights activists held a landmark rally which helped spark Taiwan’s eventual democratic transition.

“We can talk to China, but it must be on the basis of equality, as nation-to-nation,” said Hsiao Chuang, a supporter of DPP Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), out pressing the flesh on a trendy Kaohsiung shopping street.

“[President] Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) stinks. He wants to sell us out to China,” he said of the president who signed a series of landmark economic deals with China after taking office in 2008.

China has recently hinted those deals could be at risk if the DPP does not adopt a more positive policy toward Beijing.

The party has sought a more moderate line. It no longer openly backs independence, which earned former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) such enmity from China.

However, some DPP supporters in Kaohsiung do not seem to have gotten that message or at least do not believe the softer stance.

“I will vote for them because they will make us independent,” taxi driver Chen Wen-ling said. “Native Taiwanese have to vote for the DPP. It is our duty.”

Most Taiwanese, though, say they would rather maintain the “status quo” of de facto independence as the Republic of China, than declare formal independence and risk a Chinese attack.

However, they show little enthusiasm to join up with their ethnic kin across the narrow Taiwan Strait, even if ancestrally many can trace their origins to Chin’s Fujian Province.

Even among KMT supporters, there is little willingness to accept that they are Chinese, apart from culturally or historically.

The KMT, who once tried suppressing Taiwan’s own cultural identity, are also now trying to portray themselves as Taiwanese, hoping to win the voters’ hearts.

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