The contrast between Taiwan’s National Day celebrations on Thursday and China’s just 10 days earlier could not have been starker. While in Beijing, president Xi Jinping trumpeted China’s resurgence as a major power with a massive military parade, Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen urged her people in Taipei to stand together to ensure their country’s survival.
Beijing is, once again, likely to denounce Ms Tsai as a “Taiwan independence” zealot. But her rallying cry points to something different: An attempt to overcome the rifts and confused identity that colonisation and an authoritarian past have left in Taiwan’s society.
Beijing’s insistence on ignoring Taiwan’s history, and the framing of the conflict in China’s terms by many foreign governments and media bode ill for lowering tensions, analysts warn.
“The disconnect between the international and local discourse about Taiwan is in part the success of China’s narrative about what it calls the reunification of China,” says Natasha Kassam, a Senior Fellow at Lowy Institute, the Australian think-tank, who researches public opinion in Taiwan.
International news reports frequently claim that Taiwan “broke away from the mainland at the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949”. Beijing “has shaped international discourse to the extent that many observers will talk about China’s plans to ‘reunify’ or ‘retake’ Taiwan without acknowledging that Taiwan has never been a part of the People’s Republic,” says Ms Kassam.
For starters, the country whose founding anniversary Taipei celebrates is the Republic of China (ROC), the state created in the first Chinese Revolution in 1911. Taiwan was at that time not part of China but a Japanese colony.
Neither the ROC’s ruling party, the Kuomintang, nor the Chinese Communist party viewed Taiwan as part of China during this period. It was not until 1943 that the CCP reversed course.
In 1945, after Japan lost the second world war, the KMT took over Taiwan and fled to the island four years later upon its defeat in the Chinese Civil War.
By imposing martial law, persecuting local elites and imposing a Chinese nationalist ideology on the Japanese-educated population, KMT rule quickly sparked resentment. It also gave rise to an independence movement in which today’s ruling Democratic Progressive party has its roots. But this movement had nothing to do with the People’s Republic of China — it was aimed at shaking off Taiwan’s ROC.
Therefore among many Taiwanese, the ROC, its national hymn and the flag fail to arouse much patriotic feeling. But as Beijing threatens to attack if Taiwan formally declares independence, the unloved republic remains a shell for the island’s de facto statehood that it cannot cast off.
While ROC-centred patriotism still runs strong in the KMT, KMT politicians acknowledge China’s hostile treatment of Taiwan has undermined Chinese identity in the broader population.
“Since the 1980s, Taiwan’s gradual international isolation created an internal feeling of insecurity,” says Chao Chien-min, a professor at Chinese Culture University in Taipei and a policy adviser to KMT presidential candidate Han Kuo-yu. “Therefore, if the People’s Republic of China represents China, then the proportion of Taiwanese willing to recognise that they are Chinese naturally goes down.”
When Taiwan democratised, the lines between the KMT and the DPP were drawn along quasi-ethnic dividing lines — Chinese versus Taiwanese identity — and those rifts resurface in every election. The need to overcome these fissures for the sake of surviving as a nation was the core of Ms Tsai’s message this week.
“Though disputes have risen in our society […], I am certain that we can find the greatest common denominator among us through dialogue,” she said. “No one has a patent on the Republic of China, and no one can monopolise Taiwan. The words ‘Republic of China (Taiwan)’ are not the exclusive property of any one political party, and that is the overwhelming consensus of Taiwan society.”