International shift toward China heightens search for identity in Taiwan

Taiwan is at a critical juncture: Deterioration of cross-Strait relations would hurt Taiwan with stock market losses, but Taiwanese aren't willing to get too cozy with China.

Pichi Chuang/Reuters/File
A man dressed up as the god of fortune greets people in front of a monitor showing stock market prices inside a securities bank in Taipei, Taiwan, in this January 30 file photo, on the first day back to work after the Lunar New Year holidays.

When the Taiwanese team won first place at a computer game tournament in October in front of 900,000 online viewers, it meant a lot to 21-year-old Huang Chia-fu in Taipei.

Mr. Huang says the League of Legends win in Los Angeles was like a warm glow had beamed down on Taiwan at a critical juncture in its political history.

“Only through events like those can Taiwan show other people it’s an autonomous place,” says Huang, a university student who worries that his island will otherwise be cloaked by its old archrival China as it increasingly depends on the $7.4 trillion Chinese economy.

Huang is not alone: Although China and Taiwan have been ruled separately since the 1940s, when the nationalists fled there after losing the Chinese civil war, China sees the island 100 miles offshore as part of its territory to be taken back someday. Many Taiwanese fear that move will come sooner rather than later if economic relations grow too fast. And an international shift toward China, if only economic, has set off a dogged new effort in Taiwan to show the world that it’s unique, despite shared ethnic roots.

“Taiwanese fully understand the increased dependence on the Chinese economy. Any deterioration of cross-Strait relations is unthinkable because it would hurt Taiwan, with stock market losses,” says Joseph Cheng, political scientist at City University of Hong Kong. “But they are certainly very eager to maintain their identity.”

About 45 percent of people surveyed by a polling agency at National Chengchi University in Taipei favored the pace of new relations with China, down from 48 percent in an earlier poll, according to results released this year. Those saying relations are forming too fast rose from 26 to 32 percent between the two surveys.

Informal victories for Taiwan, such as the computer game championship, tickle the island’s public as they give the country credibility. Sports heroes such as Taiwan-born, No. 1-ranked LPGA golfer Yani Tseng and NBA basketball star Jeremy Lin, whose parents are Taiwanese, serve the same cause.

Otherwise, Taiwanese worry that outsiders will consider Taiwan and China as one and the same.

The Taiwanese government has picked up its public relations campaigns. Forty activities this month in Hong Kong, for example, will showcase Taiwan’s independent films and booksellers, cultural assets of interest in the Chinese territory, but hard to find in the mainland.

“We are resolved to use our culture to pursue dialogue with Hong Kong,” says Lee Ying-ping, director of the Kwang Hua Information and Culture Center under Taiwan’s government offices in Hong Kong. 

Taiwan reaches out to other parts of the world also, including the United States, that it feels are important for international recognition. However, Hong Kong matters in particular because it has legally fallen under China's rule since 1997 and Beijing is struggling to instill a sense of pro-mainland nationalism. If Taiwan's outreach is more effective, it would certainly frustrate China.

Taiwan is democratic, while China is not, and people here are more civil than counterparts in China, locals often gripe. Taiwan has unique entertainment, superheroes, and food, they argue.

The Tourism Bureau steers foreign visitors to watch only-in-Taiwan aboriginal dances and try recipes such as oyster omelets and pineapple cakes, indigenous to the island.

Non-profits are also taking up Taiwan’s cause. Wang Dan, a student leader during the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests in Beijing, last year founded the New School for Democracy to teach online classes from his base in Taipei. The courses cover Taiwan’s open political system, something he’s quick to point out that’s missing in China.

Across town, the Taiwan UN Alliance organizes annual rallies to advocate a seat for Taiwan in the United Nations. China bans Taiwan now, saying it lacks sovereignty. The alliance has recruited 5,000 members with its sights on 10,000.

“China’s effort to take over Taiwan appears to be soft on the surface, so activism is quite urgent,” says alliance secretary-general Lo Kung-kuang.

Meanwhile, China is busy trying to win over Taiwanese for a peaceful, willing reunification. Two years ago the Communist leadership asked Taiwan to sign an agreement directing the two sides to develop a joint culture and link up their creative industries. Taiwan’s cultural minister called the deal off in August, leaving civil groups to form those links on their own.

Beijing may fight back by buying Taiwanese media or paying them for favorable coverage, Mr. Cheng says. “China certainly cares,” he says. “China certainly wants to win the hearts of Taiwanese people.”

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