Ocean of differences lie across Taiwan Strait

Island natives split over Chinese heritage

August 25, 1999|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

TAIPEI, Taiwan -- On one level, they spoke the same language. On a deeper level, they couldn't communicate at all.

That is how Chiang Pei-ling recalls her experience with several mainland Chinese students during an exchange program a few years ago. At first, they chatted comfortably. When the topic turned to politics, though, they argued over the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown -- which one mainland student insisted had never occurred.

"We were surprised," says Chiang, now a 25-year-old law student here at National Chengchi University. "We have more differences than things in common."

More and more people on this island seem to feel the same way and that could make Beijing's already difficult drive for reunification even more so. Despite sharing the same tongue and a similar culture with China's 1.2 billion people, Taiwanese are rapidly developing their own national identity apart from the mainland.

Last month, President Lee Teng-hui continued to assert that identity when he said that Taiwan and China should negotiate their differences as equals on a "state-to-state basis." Furious at what they see as a further drift toward independence, Chinese officials signaled that they are considering military force to bring Taiwan to heel.

That may intimidate people here, but it probably won't change their minds. Increasingly, people in Taiwan consider themselves part of a democratic, island-nation with its own distinct history and political culture.

Although the terms are not mutually exclusive, more and more identify themselves as "Taiwanese" rather than "Chinese" in public polls. Since 1992, the percentage of those who say they are Chinese has dropped from 44 to about 13 while those who say they are Taiwanese have risen from 17 percent to about 39 percent.

"As long as Taiwan is left alone, it will develop its own national character," says Mau-kuei Chang, a research fellow in the Institute of Sociology at Taiwan's Academia Sinica.

The issue of national identity is among the hottest in political and daily life here. Since the end of martial law, the island's 22 million people have struggled to figure out who they are in a world where most countries don't recognize their political existence.

Although Taiwan is a de facto independent country, China has viewed it as a rebel province since Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek fled here in defeat at the end of China's civil war a half-century ago. Beijing has threatened to bring Taiwan back into the fold by force if necessary.

Split population

The issue of identity is rooted in the island's bloody provincial history and tortured relationship with the mainland. Since the late 1940s, the people of Taiwan have roughly fallen into two categories: Taiwanese, whose families have lived here for generations, and so-called mainlanders, those who fled the civil war and their descendants.

Although a small minority, mainlanders took control of the island and repressed the majority Taiwanese through jailing, torture and execution. Until 1987, the Nationalists ruled under martial law.

Mainlanders on the island traditionally supported reunification with China under the notion that Nationalist troops could retake the giant landmass. Taiwanese, most of whom had never set foot in China, generally supported independence.

Identities have grown more complicated since then and no longer fit such easy stereotypes, but dividing lines quickly emerge in conversations around the capital.

During a study break at a local university library, graduate student Chang Shih-lung talks about the ancient Chinese culture he identifies with and the current political system he abhors. Chang yearns to stroll through Beijing's Forbidden City some day, admiring the graceful tile roofs and the multicolored flying eaves the emperors built.

He wants to do it as a tourist, though, not as a citizen.

The difference between the authoritarian system there and the democratic one here trumps any cultural connection, Chang says. He sees China not as his homeland, but a patchwork of territories held together by force.

"I think `Chinese' is just a word," says Chang, 27, who describes himself as "Taiwanese under China's shadow."

Nationalist scion

Wang Kao-cheng, a 39-year-old legislator, sees himself very differently: Chinese first and Taiwanese second. He works for the New Party, an opposition party that promotes reunification.

If Wang worked on the mainland, he would be in jail by now; opposition politics are banned there. That, however, does not diminish his love for China.

Wang's father, a soldier with the Nationalist army, came to Taiwan in 1949. Like all children of his era, Wang was taught that Taiwan would eventually take back China.

Through family tradition and literature, Wang feels a link with the mainland that subsequent visits have only strengthened. He recalls being moved at the sight of West Lake, a placid body of water in the eastern city of Hangzhou with lotus flowers and willow trees that has inspired Chinese poets.

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