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Taiwan's Fading Chinese Identity

Identity crisis
Identity crisis
Brice Pedroletti and Florence de Changy

TAIPEI - Flags have a particular knack for causing trouble in Taiwan, the de facto sovereign island state, which is nevertheless still lacking full sovereignty and therefore does not have much say in the matter when it comes to showing off its national colors. The Republic of China (the official name of Taiwan) is participating in the Olympic Games under the name of "Chinese Taipei," with an adapted flag, different to the official Republic of China flag.

However, when the Taiwanese flag made its debut on Regent Street, next to other official emblems, it caused quite a stir: Taiwanese people in London quickly inundated social networks with photographs of the flag, praising the exceptional event.

When it mysteriously disappeared four days later, after organizers succumbed to pressure from China, enthusiasm quickly turned to dismay and even anger in the blogosphere. Due to increasing public pressure, President Ma Ying-jeou was forced to order an inquiry and has promised to hold Beijing - whose London ambassador complained to the Olympic committee about the flag - accountable.

In theory, the Taiwanese flag is only prohibited in official Olympic sites and in the street decorations around Piccadilly Circus in central London. In reality, however, the host country is doing everything it can to avoid provoking Beijing's discontent.

For Wu Chi-chung, professor in political science at the Soochow University in Taipei: "after every presidential election, the feeling of Taiwanese identity becomes stronger. It's as if the act of voting, even for a candidate of the Kuomintang (KMT; the party in power), pushes the Taiwanese people to feel even more Taiwanese." In the eyes of younger generations, Taiwanese democracy, which has been reinforced by five presidential elections, has contributed to creating a common identity.

A guardian of Chinese traditional values

Han Han, the most famous Chinese blogger best summarizes the differences between the mainland and the island state: returning dumbfounded from his first trip to Taiwan at the end of May, an act only recently permitted to Chinese tourists, he enthused over the kindness of Taiwanese people. Even his taxi driver returned his phone to his hotel after he left it behind.

In Taipei, he admits, people in the street don't feel the need to boast, whereas the Chinese are filled with pride for having hosted the Olympics and the World's Fair or for the Gucci and Louis Vuitton shops that are springing up in their towns. "Everything that we have, they have already had it. Everything that we are proud of, their taxpayers would never have agreed to. And, everything that we should be proud of, we have already forgotten," he wrote in homage to this second China, both democratic and, according to him, a guardian of "traditional Chinese virtues."

Torn between the calls for independence and the bitterness of exile (two million arrived from the continent with Chiang Kai-shek, after he was defeated by Mao in 1949), the eldest of the two Chinese republics built its own hybrid identity. However, young Taiwanese do not have this same "national" apprehension compared to their elders.

Sociologist Tanguy Lepesant, a writer on Taiwanese identity, explains that, "up until 1997, in the Chinese history and geography taught in Taiwanese schools, Taiwan was only a province, waiting to be reattached with the mainland. However, reforms turned every thing around: Taiwan became the center of a network of islands and as they started to talk about Taiwan in relation to the rest of the world, China was relegated to being a neighbor."

Democratization has helped native Taiwanese people reclaim their own fate in the past 20 years: "Under President Lee Teng-hui (1996-2000), then Chen Shui-bian (2000-2008) - both native Taiwanese - we've seen the idea of an independent Taiwan affirm itself, a multicultural nation with a rich imported culture," continues Mr. Lepesant.

Taiwanese Taiwanese

This cultural and ethnic melting pot was formed by various waves of immigration from continental China, as well as Japanese colonization and the weight of what was perceived to be a second colonization from mainland Chinese in 1949 with the arrival of the KMT. Native Taiwanese people only constitute two percent of the population.

What will be the extent of the identity transition for this Chinese island, stuck in between "neither reunification nor independence"? As strange as it may seem, a harmless question like "are you Taiwanese?" is still treacherous and laden with meaning. Its implications are subtle, especially as those who define themselves to be "Taiwanese Taiwanese" are now in the majority (with 54 percent), according to a survey carried out each year by the Chengchi National University since 1992. Those who define themselves as "Taiwanese and Chinese" remain at 39 percent, whilst those who describe themselves as simply "Chinese" went from 25 percent in 1992 to just 4 percent in 2011.

"I consider myself to be Taiwanese who speaks Chinese, and not as a Chinese person- like Americans who speak English aren't English or Canadians from Quebec who speak French are not French," explains Huang Pei-wen, an account manager who lives in Taipei. "What defines me as a Taiwanese, is the 63 years of sovereignty on the island of Taiwan, on which not one communist government has ever ruled over, nor even set foot on," he adds.

The continuing crisis in the West and China's economic health have certainly given new life to Taiwan and have favored the reelection of Ma Ying-jeou. Many, at least those with higher incomes, would identify with the popular expression in vogue: "China is my opportunity. Taiwan is my identity."

The isolation of Taiwan has rather become a unifier for the nation: the Taiwanese, whatever their political attachment, want to see their country become powerful in both regional and international matters. Having given up its seat in the United Nations to China in 1971, Taiwan today is recognized by only 23 states - many of which are only microstates in the Caribbean or the South Pacific. Taiwan is suffering from this denial of its existence.

"We have sovereignty, but we don't have a country," says the son of a diplomat who has lived both in France and in China before returning to Taipei. At the London Olympics, it will be hard to compete with the steamroller that is mainland China. Athletes from "Chinese Taipei" have only won gold twice since the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984, the first games where they participated under that name.

Hopefully, they will be more successful in London than they in Beijing in 2008, where the Taiwanese delegation only hauled in a pitiful four bronze medals. And it looks like it will after weightlifter Hsu Shu-ching won a silver medal for the island Sunday July 29.

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