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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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

For if nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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