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Across The Strait: What Still Divides China And Taiwan

March 22 protests in Taipei City, Taiwan
March 22 protests in Taipei City, Taiwan
Wang Tao*

On March 18, hundreds of Taiwanese university students stormed and occupied the Legislative Yuan, the island nation's parliament. Five days later, they joined other civic groups and invaded the Executive Yuan, before being evicted forcibly by the police.

In technical terms, the demonstrators were protesting the unilateral decision of Taiwan's ruling party to pass the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement without a proper clause-by-clause review of the deal. But the unrest is part of a broader series of questions about the economic integration of Taiwan and mainland China.

Many have argued that as the cross-strait exchanges open up, Taiwan's overall economy will benefit from sharing trade profits with China. Since Taiwan has yet to obtain a trade partnership with any other huge market, relying on China is the only option for it to boost its economy.

Beijing knows that it can rely on Taiwanese businessmen who do business in China pushing the Taiwanese authorities to support trade with China. In other words, economic integration will inevitably lead to closer relations politically.

But in fact that "economic integration will lead to political integration" is a rather shallow rationale that overlooks the complexities and history of cross-strait relations.

On the one hand, even if Taiwan’s overall economy benefits from the trade agreement, the biggest beneficiaries will be a small minority of wealthy capitalists. Small business owners and the employees at the bottom of the ladder will be victims.

Whereas China has an authoritarian system that can enforce its trade policy with little resistance, the Taiwanese people assume that markets will be open and democracy ensured. An important affair such as signing a pact which will have a huge impact on Taiwan will certainly cause a public backlash if the democratic process is not followed. The unprecedented protests against this trade pact shows the strength of such public opinion.

Identity geopolitics

On the other hand, Taiwanese people’s resistance to economic integration with China has gone beyond simple considerations of political and economic interests. The psychology of the Taiwanese public is crucial. Being the small neighbor of a rising giant inevitably triggers deep anxiety among all walks of life. Even if Taiwan has no choice but to follow the cross-strait economic integration in liberalizing its trade, over-reliance on mainland China economically — at the expense of political independence — is undoubtedly unacceptable for a lot of Taiwanese people. With the strenghtening of economic cooperation, such a mood of rejection should be expected to rise only further.

What this implies most importantly is that the cross-strait economic integration does not somehow spur Taiwan's society to identify with mainland China. On the contrary, along with the growing economic reliance on China, the Taiwanese identity is strengthened instead.

In a book published in 2012, entitled National Identity and Economic Interest: Taiwan's Competing Options and Their Implications for Regional Stability, several Taiwanese scholars reached similar conclusions.

As Michael Danielsen pointed out in one chapter of this book, the reason why cross-strait economic integration doesn't lead to a common identity is related to Taiwan's democratization. Through democratic politics, Taiwan has gradually formed an independent local consciousness. Ethnic group consciousness in the Taiwanese society is still highly fragmented, making it is very difficult for President Ma Ying-Jeou and his Nationalist party to build a Greater China consciousness.

Even if part of the Taiwanese people support further cross-strait economic cooperation, they will still differentiate economic interests and cultural identity. Moreover, as labor and class divisions grow, people at the bottom of Taiwan's society may be pushed further toward Taiwanese nationalism.

Within the academic community, the definition of Taiwanese identity and Chinese identity has itself long been a controversial concept. And it has become more and more apparent through various studies of the issue that the cross-strait economic ties have never been a simple economic issue.

To a certain degree, Taiwanese protests against the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement proves that Taiwan and China getting closer in economic relations doesn't necessarily lead to a sense of common identity. On the contrary, if politicians handle the situation inappropriately this is likely to bring about Taiwanese nationalism and cause relations across the Taiwan Strait to deteriorate.

Whether for China or Taiwan, future cross-strait interactions should never be guided solely by economic interests. Meanwhile, the undeniable fact that China's rising economic and political influence is making the cross-strait relationship unbalanced means that the two governments across the Taiwan Strait must remain on equal status when they sit down at the negotiation table.

*Wang Tao is a Chinese researcher at Cornell University.

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