When Li Yuan-hsin, a 36-year-old high school teacher, travels abroad, people often assume she is Chinese.
No, she tells them. She is Taiwanese.
To her, the distinction is important. China may be the land of her ancestors, but she was born and raised in Taiwan, a home she defines as much by its verdant mountains and bustling night markets as by its robust democracy. In high school, she 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 says. “I love the freedom here.”
Well over 90 per cent 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 – along with 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, the island into its political orbit. China’s leader, Xi Jinping, warned in October against a 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 per cent 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 Centre at National Chengchi University in Taipei. Only 2 per cent identified as Chinese, down from 25 per cent 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.
Wang was nine when she landed in Taiwan in 1948, one of the 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 recognised 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 recognise her as such?
“There is no more hope,” Wang recalls 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 almost every day.
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 Organisation – a clear sign to her that the Communist Party values politics above people. Taiwan’s success in combatting the coronavirus, despite these challenges, filled her with pride.
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.
For young people like Li, it would also be unnecessary. Independence to them is not an aspiration; it is reality.
“We are Taiwanese in our thinking,” she says. “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 speciality 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.
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 sort that pleased the Taiwanese palate of her maternal grandparents, who fed her fried rice noodles and sauteed bitter melon.
Such distinctions became less evident over time. Many of Taiwan’s residents are now proud of their island’s culinary offerings, such as the classic beef noodle soup – a mix of mainland influences unique to Taiwan – and bubble milk tea, a modern invention.
In Taiwan’s efforts to carve out a distinct identity, officials also revised textbooks to focus more on the history and geography of the island than those of the mainland. In school, Li learnt that Japanese colonisers – whom her grandmother, Wang, so often denounced for their wartime atrocities – had been crucial in modernising the island’s economy. She and her classmates learnt 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 says. She cites 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’s 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, which she had learnt 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 says.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times