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Society

What Life Is Like As A Taiwanese Living In Mainland China

Tensions between Taiwan and China have ratcheted up over the last two years, peaking with Nancy Pelosi's visit to Taiwan in August. The Taiwanese who have lived peacefully on the mainland for many years are now questioning their place in an increasingly hostile environment.

photo of a puddle in a street in Shanghai

Street scene in Shanghai

Michelle Zhang

SHANGHAI — Weng was invited to a party by a mainland Chinese friend on the night that U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi arrived in Taiwan in August. The theme of the party was different from the previous ones: "Welcoming Taiwan back to China and celebrating the reunification of our country."

China has of course long claimed ownership over Taiwan, but relations between the two have deteriorated further since Pelosi's visit, which prompted China to conduct military exercises in areas that overlap with Taiwan's territorial waters.

The situation has made life difficult for Taiwanese people like Weng living on the mainland. In response to the party invitation, Weng responded with a joke. “Haha, what if Taiwan is not going back, wouldn't that be a slap in the face?”

He is 37 years old and has lived in China for 16 years. He had even bought an apartment at the request of his ex-girlfriend’s parents and settled down here.

On the same night as Pelosi's plane landed, the internet in China was abuzz with emotional posts: "When Pelosi arrives in Taiwan, it is time for the unification of the motherland", "Unification of Taiwan by force", "No one will be left behind on the island", "the unification of the motherland is unstoppable" ... The top 10 trending topics on Sina Weibo (China’s equivalent to Twitter) were all related to Pelosi's visit to Taiwan, with "#Taiwan media reports Pelosi landing at 22:00" receiving nearly 1.3 billion views in one night.


That night, when China announced a series of joint military operations around the island of Taiwan, one person I spoke to received a flood of WeChat messages from mainland friends, all expressing concern: "Are you okay? How is your family in Taiwan?" Another received a number of messages from friends in China suggesting that he should bring his family to China and return to Taiwan when the storm has passed.

After Taiwanese President Tsai Ing Wen's re-election, the COVID–19 outbreak, Pelosi's visit to Taiwan, after the ongoing military drills to lock up the island, one third of Wang’s Taiwanese friends have left the mainland, and many who had planned to come to China have changed their minds. According to the data released by Taiwan's General Accounting Office, 242,000 people went to work in mainland China in 2020, down 153,000 from the previous year, a decrease for the seventh consecutive year.

The continued deterioration of cross-strait relations has caused Taiwanese living in mainland China to increasingly feel the friction and mistrust that comes with this identity, and has prompted them to re-examine their life choices.

Hostile turn

Chen's four-year-old daughter was having trouble at kindergarten.

She was singled out by children of the same age in her class and told, "We want to destroy the Taiwanese." The scene, which took place at a private kindergarten in Shanghai in March 2022, made Chen feel doubly ridiculous. 38 years old, Chen moved to Shanghai in 2014 and currently works in a management position in a foreign company.

"Before I came, my elder sister who works in Shanghai warned me that independent thought and criticism of the government are red lines over here, and that a lot of things cannot be said casually. I've been living over here for eight years now, and I'm actually mentally prepared for and accepting many things." Still, he said, his daughter's situation at the kindergarten was beyond his imagination.

The trend of "strong Mainland and weak Taiwan" will continue.

Lin remembers that the mainland public has shown a very friendly side to her for a long time in the past, a friendliness that is curious about people from areas they consider to be more developed, and wanting to learn something from each other.

Lin, a stage actress, moved to Shanghai alone in 2016 because of the lack of job opportunities available in mainland China back home. Many of her colleagues would reach out to her for a chat, asking friendly questions about the differences she felt on both sides of the border. In that friendly atmosphere, she found that some Taiwanese around her would even take advantage of the friendliness of the mainlanders to get positions that did not match their abilities as well as extra help. "Some people would just beg in a Taiwanese accent, and many of their mainland friends would be happy to offer help on either life or work."

Tsai's stand

But things have changed these past two years. As a number of Taiwanese living in mainland China have reached a consensus on this point, namely that the end of 2019 and the beginning of 2020 was a turning point.

2019 ended with the six-month-long campaign against legislative amendments in Hong Kong extending into Taiwan's presidential election. Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen repeatedly announced her solidarity with Hong Kong, and the DPP adapted the slogan "Hong Kong today is Taiwan tomorrow".

On the day the election results were announced with Tsai's re-election, China's state newspaper The Global Times published an editorial saying that no matter how much uncertainty there is in the Taiwan Strait situation, one thing is certain: the trend of "strong Mainland and weak Taiwan" will continue, with the mainland's comprehensive power becoming stronger and stronger, and the gap between Taiwan's power and that of the mainland will only continue to widen day by day.

Chen felt that this split rose steeply in early 2020. "At that time, many articles began to openly use emotive words like 'unification of Taiwan' and 'annihilation of Taiwan'. My apolitical friends and colleagues have also started discussing the topic in the past year or two, and the words they use are becoming more emotionally provocative." He feels sad, "I have been working in Shanghai, which is a very civilized and modern city, and if Shanghai people think this way, then people elsewhere will probably have an even more intense attitude."

Rehearsing for national day celebrations in Taipei

Daniel Ceng Shou-Yi/ZUMA

Double identity

In June 2022, Weng was forced to break up with his long-term girlfriend of nearly three years. The girlfriend and her parents are both civil servants in a southwestern province in mainland China, and her family believed that Weng's Taiwanese identity would affect their family's official career. After struggling again and again, the girlfriend chose to side with her parents. After the two separated, the girl's parents even sent a message to Weng, thanking him for sparing their daughter.

Weng moved to Mainland China in 2006, attracted by the huge consumer market and rapid economic growth in mainland China. Since then, he has moved around four cities, working for Taiwanese, Chinese and foreign companies, and is now starting his own business in both Chengdu and Beijing. He says that he has a general impression of Mainlanders as friendly and straightforward, and that life on the mainland is indeed very convenient. But in the past two years, cross-strait relations have been so "tense" that he seems to be a walking "human target".

I feel like a second-class citizens here.

"In foreign companies, it's fine, but in private companies, I'm often asked whether I support 'unification' or 'independence'," he says. Even on the night of Pelosi's visit to Taiwan, a reporter sent him a direct message asking which side he would support if the two sides of the Taiwan Strait went to war. Instead of replying directly, Weng expressed his hope in social media that the two sides of the Taiwan Strait would live in peace and not go to war. He then saw that journalist wrote: "I support the country to recover Taiwan by force."

When Taiwanese arrive in the mainland, one question would face them all: are you pro-unification or independence? Even though Weng really wants to integrate into Mainland Chinese society, he still finds himself treated differently: he needed additional documents when taking the train and checking-in in hotels, and even when doing COVID tests. And people would force him to say "Taiwan is a part of China". As another Taiwanese put it, "I feel like a second-class citizens here."

For some Taiwanese whose families are from Mainlander backgrounds, they have always felt their situation to be a delicate issue regardless of geopolitical trends. "The identity of our generation is very embarrassing, as the Taiwanese do not consider us Taiwanese and the Mainlanders do not recognize us as Mainlanders. In any environment, we need to change our roles accordingly." But many of them still prefer Taiwan despite Mainland China's rapid economic development.

Second-rate in Shanghai

Weng is determined to stay here. He even applied for Chinese nationality and to join the Chinese Communist Party, but received no reply. "I just want to be acknowledged that I am part of them after living here for 16 years." When it comes to the increasing tension between the Straits, he is indifferent. "Just no war, co-exist peacefully, let me make my money here."

After working in Shanghai for six years, Lin decided to leave. She said she loved living in Shanghai, but she felt herself not competitive enough to work in the industry. According to her, top talents from Taiwan would still be top talents when they came to Mainland China, while second-rate people would become third-rate in here. "There are so many talented people here (in Mainland China) that Taiwanese people do not have an advantage now.

Chen agrees. "The golden times when the Mainland could offer much opportunities to Taiwanese are gone. Now the Mainland's local talents have matured." He decided to move back to Taiwan after experiencing Shanghai's lockdown. But he has his concerns: Taiwanese who know of his work in China sometimes deliberately ask him about his work there, and he usually responds briefly with "just fine", but he is still inevitably accused of "betraying Taiwan".

"Nationalism has risen to a stage where many people have become irrational, thinking that there is only A and B in the world and no C. Coupled with provocative media coverage , many Taiwanese will think that people like us who have worked on the mainland are just traitors to Taiwan."

Chen would prefer to be a global citizen as opposed to being completely rooted in Taiwan. "If there were opportunities in Singapore, the U.S. or Europe, I would definitely choose those places."

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