Photo by Achim Raschka
Asia-Pacific / Cultural Identity

Why Taiwan’s Millennials Are Challenging Cross-Strait Identity

“I am but a shadow in this strange land, a lone shadow, with no fear of death” thrashes masochistically out of the throat of a gentleman wearing steampunk-ish shoulder pads as his Skrillex-shaven mullet trembles in a smoky breeze. Freddy Lim, the lead vocalist of Taiwanese “blackened death metal” band Chthonic, is also the co-founder of Taiwan’s newest political force, a third party called the New Power Party (NPP). Aptly dressed for battle in Chthonic’s music videos, Mr. Lim is leading a spectacular charge across Taiwan’s political landscape. Burgeoning cross-strait trade with Xi Jinping’s increasingly oppressive China has heightened anxieties of Chinese interference in Taiwan’s de facto sovereignty, especially among Taiwanese millennials. Dissatisfaction with Taiwan’s long term prospects culminated in the historic termination of the Kuomintang’s (KMT) 66-year-long grip on legislative authority. On February 1, alongside four other candidates from the NPP’s debut campaign, Mr. Lim began a four-year term as a member of Taiwan’s 113-seat, unicameral Legislative Yuan. Behind the NPP’s unanticipated triumph stand young voters with new notions of national identity who feel betrayed by the KMT and poorly represented by the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). Taiwan’s legislators, who averaged 52 years old last session, were raised in an era of fledgling national wealth dominated by the KMT’s one-party, propaganda-imbued rule. Voters under 30 were raised in one of the world’s loudest democracies and most dynamic economies, which altered their experience of living in Taiwan and what it means to be Taiwanese. Mr. Lim and the NPP seek to represent these blooming conceptions of national identity, which are poised to flourish as the shadow of Taiwan’s past wanes.

Capitalizing on a youth disillusioned with the KMT is Taiwan’s president-elect Tsai Ing-Wen of the DPP. For months leading into the election, Ms. Tsai consistently polled among 20- to 30-year-olds at over four times the rate of her closest competitor. This is only the second time in Taiwanese history that the presidency will be controlled by a member of an opposition party. The first to dethrone the KMT, former president Chen Shui-Bian (also of the DPP) served an ineffective two-term stint from 2000 to 2008 that led straight to a twenty-year sentence in Central Taiwan’s Taichung Prison on corruption charges. (He was recently released on medical parole). The DPP not only survived the fallout from Chen Shui Bian’s scandalous tenure, but also recovered from it emphatically, taking back the presidency and gaining a majority in the Legislative Yuan. The historic election signals a marked reversal of support for growing ties with China, the hallmark of incumbent Ma Ying-Jeou’s legislatively thin presidency.

Under Ma Ying-Jeou, Taiwan signed over 20 separate trade agreements with China and cross-strait trade has increased by over 50 percent. When Ma Ying-Jeou took office in 2008 there were no direct transport links between Taiwan and the mainland; now there are over 290 weekly flights. Although expanding trade with China was a driver of Taiwan’s economic growth over the last eight years, people in Taiwan are beginning to perceive it in a more insidious light. The mainland is the destination for 41 percent of all Taiwanese exports; when Hong Kong is added, that figure comes close to 63 percent. But Taiwan accounts for only 4.3 percent of China’s external trade. The imbalance creates a dangerous leverage that enables China to paralyze Taiwan’s economy. This unlikely scenario is the most extreme case of Beijing’s capability to influence Taiwanese affairs, which people in Taiwan fear is growing alongside cross-strait trade. Concern over political meddling from the mainland is most sharply felt by Taiwan’s youth. In 2014, students stormed and occupied the Legislative Yuan for 23 days in protest of the imminent passage of the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement, which the KMT rammed through with questionable parliamentary procedure, in what has become known as the “Sunflower Movement.” The movement was led by university student groups and supported by secondary school students; reportedly, university and graduate students even offered high-schoolers free on-site tutoring if they came to support the demonstrations, since attendance would likely cause high-schoolers to miss their after-school tutoring programs that are the educational norm in Taiwan. Unprecedented activism has left Taiwan’s millennials with a heightened political awareness and forced conversation on the complex and oft-ignored question of national identity.

Taiwan’s official version of its identity can be found in the basis of all cross-strait relations, the so-called “1992 Consensus,” which established that there is only “one China.” But what that means is intentionally open to interpretation. Cleverly reconciling the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) view of Taiwan as a breakaway province and the KMT’s view of itself as the legitimate government of China, the consensus implies reunification in the long term. Because Taiwan’s citizens identify as either Chinese, both Chinese and Taiwanese, or completely Taiwanese, stances on reunification are inextricable from national identity. Former president Chen Shui-Bian once went so far as to say that Taiwanese politics are without the question of left or right, but only the question of unification or independence.

Although accommodating the CCP’s toothless assertions seemed pragmatic in 1992, China is now becoming alarmingly aggressive in its intent to fulfill its political narrative. Facing slower growth, the sick man-turned-superpower has increasingly relied upon nationalism to maintain domestic support. President Xi Jinping has stoked patriotic passions by embroiling China in geopolitical showpieces like the recent military build-up in the South China Sea within what is known as “the nine-dash line,” a contentious nautical border that the CCP has claimed since it came to power in 1949. China has also become more overt in its desire to subjugate Hong Kong’s politics under Beijing. In 2014, the Chinese government announced that all chief executive candidates for Hong Kong’s 2017 elections would be selected by a notoriously pro-Beijing nomination committee rather than direct voting as had been previously promised. Hongkongers’ outpouring of outrage became known as the “Umbrella Movement,” during which tens of thousands of peaceful protesters occupied Hong Kong’s most highly developed districts, shutting them down for almost two months. Just five months after the tumult of the Sunflower Movement subsided, Taiwanese people were again prompted with the central question of their national identity: The “one country, two systems” framework crumbling in Hong Kong is China’s proposed blueprint for reunification. Protesters in Hong Kong garnered backing from across Taiwan’s political spectrum. President Ma Ying-Jeou expressed his support for the occupiers in an official statement, and student activists waved umbrellas around Taipei in solidarity. As liberty in China regresses under Xi Jinping’s regime, the prospect of reunification may sail over the horizon and vanish all together.

Although reunification may be the central question of national identity, identity is comprised of a lot more than politics. Taiwan’s population is 95 percent Han Chinese and speaks Mandarin, but does not write with the simplified characters devised by the CCP. Taiwan has been considered part of China since the late 1600s. But since Taiwan was politically separated from the mainland in 1895 by the Japanese and again by the KMT in 1950, its development has taken an alternate trajectory. While decades of enormous growth have lifted China from poverty into the middle income range, Taiwan’s impressive success story has made the island nation one of the world’s most highly developed; Taiwan’s gross domestic product per capita is on par with Germany and its health care system is considered one of the world’s best. In addition to presiding over the country’s development into an economic powerhouse, the KMT’s one party rule over Taiwan gave way to political liberalization in the 1980s and 1990s, capped off by the first democratic presidential election in 1996. As demonstrated by their extraordinary activism, younger generations intuitively regard civic participation as fundamental to their identities. While people in Taiwan actively participate in the democratic creation and recreation of the nation, people on the mainland can only reaffirm the CCP’s increasingly oppressive national narrative. Free speech fosters more than loud politics: Taiwan’s flourishing movie, television, and music scenes play an outsized role in the Chinese speaking world. Across the strait, CCP censors regularly wrangle with the political sentiments of Taiwanese superstars with massive Chinese followings. Simply put, the experience of growing up in Taiwan is staggeringly different than being raised in China, and the gulf is growing wider.

The population of old-timers in Taiwan who were born in China and remember the KMT’s retreat from the mainland is rapidly declining. A fading proximity to elders who struggled against the CCP for control of the mainland distances millennials from the two entities’ shared history. However, younger generations have experienced increasing exposure to mainlanders since travel opened up. Almost four million visited Taiwan in 2014. Notorious for loud talking, smoking, littering, and a general lack of courtesy, throngs of Chinese tourists are a sort of funhouse mirror for Taiwan’s millennials. Easily distinguished discrepancies in social mannerisms harden the growing sentiment that the Chinese and Taiwanese identity have become irreconcilable.

Polling from this election cycle shows that the number of people in Taiwan identifying as completely Taiwanese reached a record 61 percent, while the number of those identifying as solely Chinese has continued its decline to a record low 3 percent. In 1992 these numbers were 18 percent and 26 percent, respectively. At the crest of this surge is Mr. Lim’s NPP, which seeks a more radical agenda repudiating the 1992 Consensus and advocating for Taiwanese independence. The NPP traces its origins directly to the Sunflower Movement. Its Chief Executive, activist academic Huang Kuo-Chang, was one of the movement’s key leaders. Incorporating Internet celebrities and its own notoriety, the party’s campaign thrived upon the support of younger generations. In a country where party allegiances run deep and politics are often a lifelong career (Mr. Lim defeated a three-term, veteran KMT lawmaker), the success of the NPP, composed of outsiders, is reflective of the dissonance between the trajectory of Taiwan’s China policy and the evolution of Taiwanese identity. By channeling the empowered enthusiasm of Taiwan’s millennials discovered during the Sunflower Movement, the NPP aims to represent a conception of Taiwanese that is rooted as much in perspective on China as it is in the uniquely vibrant political life and energetic culture that millennials have created and shared in.

On February 1, the lead singer of what has been called the “Taiwanese Black Sabbath,” a leader of the Sunflower Movement, a former TV presenter, an information technology saleswoman, and a political scientist took their seats in the Legislative Yuan. What these NPP legislators can achieve is likely minimal, but what they symbolize is gigantic: the traction of younger voices frustrated with threadbare mainstream politics misaligned with their Taiwanese identity. As the now-laughable notion that Taiwan’s government is the legitimate government of the mainland has disappeared as identities have shifted away from Chinese, the sustained trend toward the completely Taiwanese camp may precede a policy shift towards independence.

Despite China’s persistent threats that a declaration of independence would lead to a full-fledged invasion, a claim backed up by an arsenal of missiles trained upon Taipei, 21 percent of people living in Taiwan support independence. Without the threat of catastrophic violence, that number would likely reach a majority. While Xi Jinping will not back down from China’s stance, the reasoning behind it is beginning to make less sense. When cross-strait tensions flare up, it’s over the smoldering ashes of an unfinished war between the CCP and KMT, but the KMT and Taiwan are no longer synonymous, as the island will be ruled by a unified DPP government.

One of the NPP’s most ambitious objectives is the complete dissolution of the KMT. Although the party has repeatedly apologized for past wrongdoings, the KMT’s first decades in Taiwan are remembered for cruel crackdowns during a 38-year-long martial rule, scarcely studied in the English-speaking world, known as the White Terror. During the terror, the KMT executed over one thousand political dissidents and imprisoned one hundred forty thousand more. The KMT has offered over $850 million in compensation to victims’ families and dedicated a museum, monuments, and a national memorial day to remembering the White Terror, so it would be unfair to overlook its attempts to atone for a brutal past. But it is not enough for the NPP. Scholarship on the KMT’s oppression is spotty due to a lack of access to records buried in willfully neglected government archives. Just last week, a cache of heartbreaking letters authored by dissidents awaiting execution were finally delivered to their intended recipients sixty years after being written. Despite the party’s efforts towards reconciliation, the KMT is still purportedly the world’s wealthiest political party, with over $760 million in declared assets, and it has refused to sort its ill-gained accumulations from one-party rule out of its portfolio. To generations that never experienced martial law, any legacy of autocratic atrocity is an affront to beloved democracy, which some believe would be cleaner if the KMT were gone all together.

As the momentum behind new conceptions of Taiwanese identity builds, the NPP could see their unlikely dream achieved in the long run. (The KMT controls only 31 percent of the Legislative Yuan this term.) Ms. Tsai has pointedly avoided endorsing the 1992 agreement that establishes “one China.” A Taiwan where the KMT and its claims over the governance of China exist only in history books may give the CCP an exit strategy from its plan to fulfill its political narrative. As the Taiwanese identity represented by parties like the NPP becomes more firmly rooted in Taiwan, the CCP could come across an opening for a low-cost pivot and use its acquiescence to Taiwanese independence as a diplomatic bargaining chip. The prospect of unification has set beyond the horizon, but a speculative glimmer of independence rises. All it may take is for Taiwan’s youth, like Freddy Lim, to keep screaming out who they really are.