Taiwan, Identity Politics and China

11 December 2006

Taiwan, Identity Politics and China

By Gwynne Dyer

“My generation has had really painful experiences over the past six years, because you suddenly realise you are nobody,” explained Andrew Yang, head of the Chinese Council for Advanced Policy Studies, in Taipei earlier this year. “My parents come from mainland China, so in their eyes I am a second-generation mainlander. I mean, I was born here; I’m part of the society. I was really astonished to see that people are treating me like a second-generation mainlander….The identity issue is very polarising here.”

Identity politics were very much in evidence last Saturday, when Taiwan’s two big cities voted in mayoral elections that were widely seen as a trial run for the key presidential elections in early 2008. The ruling Democratic Progressive Party should have lost by a landslide, given the under-performing economy, high unemployment and constant crises with mainland China since it won power at the national level six years ago, not to mention the corruption scandal that has engulfed President Chen Shui-bian’s own family. But it didn’t.

The DPP didn’t win by a landslide either, but it did manage to get 41 percent of the vote even in Taipei, the traditional stronghold of the opposition Kuomintang (KMT), and it won, although by the margin of barely a thousand votes, in the southern port city of Kaohsiung. And it always wins in rural areas, which weren’t voting this time. There will be a recount in Kaohsiung, but the fact is that even when the pro-independence DPP fails to deliver the goods on every front, it still commands the support of about half the population. That is identity politics at work.

The fundamental divide in Taiwan is between the “mainlanders,” descended from those who arrived on the island as refugees in 1949 when the KMT lost the Chinese civil war to the Communists, and the “Taiwanese” whose Chinese-speaking ancestors migrated to the island three or four centuries ago.

The refugees arrived with an army and a ruthless party apparatus that was modelled on the Soviet Communist Party (even though they were ideologically anti-Communist). So the KMT took over the island and ruled it under martial law for the next forty years, even though the mainlanders amounted to no more than 15 percent of the population.

During all that time, the principal goal of the government was to reconquer the mainland and reunite China under KMT rule. Native-born Taiwanese were excluded from senior positions, and protesters were killed or jailed: almost all the DPP’s leaders are former political prisoners. Martial law ended in 1987 and Taiwan is a democracy now, but the attitudes shaped by that long ordeal live on.

The native-born Taiwanese, although ethnically Chinese, were not in favour of uniting with the mainland even before the Communists took over there. Taiwan was a Japanese colony for half a century before 1945, and was handed over to China after Japan’s defeat without consultation. But rule from the mainland lasted for only four years before the island became the Kuomintang’s last stronghold, and KMT rule turned many Taiwanese against mainlanders in general. So the idea of an independent Taiwan, however impractical, has great appeal to the DPP’s supporters.

It was the advent of democracy and the rise of the DPP that inaugurated the past decade of recurrent crises between Taipei and Beijing. Seen through mainland eyes, the KMT was an enemy who nevertheless agreed that there was only one China, and so was within the pale. The DPP, by playing with the idea of legal separation and a Republic of Taiwan, was threatening the sacred unity of China and so was utterly beyond the pale. Yet the DPP cannot stop playing with that idea, because that is its main appeal to those who identify themselves as Taiwanese.

Since Chen Shui-bian won the presidency for the DPP in 2000, the crises and the danger of actual military clashes across the Strait of Taiwan have been getting steadily worse. China has no credible military capability to invade Taiwan, and will not have for many years, but it passed a law last year saying that it would use “non-peaceful means” if Taiwan actually tried to secede. A crisis that would draw in the United States and tumble China and America into a cold war is not hard to imagine.

So most outsiders have been quietly hoping that the KMT, now reformed and genuinely democratic, will win back power and drop the independence talk: the status quo of “one China, two governments” would be perfectly acceptable to Beijing. And it looked as if the DPP was bound to lose in 2008, because the economic downturn, the open hostility of Beijing and its own internal scandals had left it without a leg to stand on.

Last weekend’s elections in Taipei and Kaohsiung prove that that is not so. Outside of Taipei (where most of the mainlanders settled), the DPP can still count on identity politics to deliver enough votes to keep it in the running. And that means that the crises may not end after 2008.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 7. (“During…supporters”)