Identifying as “Taiwanese,” They “Love the Freedom”

(p. A1) CHIAYI, Taiwan — When Li Yuan-hsin, a 36-year-old high school teacher, travels abroad, people often assume she is Chinese.

No, she tells them. She is Taiwanese.

To her, the distinction is important. China may be the land of her ancestors, but Taiwan is where she was born and raised, a home she defines as much by its verdant mountains and bustling night markets as by its robust democracy. In high school, she had planted a little blue flag on her desk to show support for her preferred political candidate; since then, she has voted in every presidential election.

“I love this island,” Ms. Li said in an interview. “I love the freedom here.”

Well over 90 percent of Taiwan’s people trace their roots to mainland China, but more than ever, they are embracing an identity that is distinct from that of their Communist-ruled neighbor. Beijing’s strident authoritarianism — and its claim over Taiwan — has only solidified the island’s identity, now central to a dispute that has turned the Taiwan Strait into one of Asia’s biggest potential flash points.

. . .

(p. A8) When nearby Hong Kong erupted in anti-government protests in 2019, Ms. Li, the schoolteacher, followed the news every day. She saw Beijing’s crackdown there and its destruction of civil liberties as evidence that the party could not be trusted to keep its promise to preserve Taiwan’s autonomy if the sides unified.

Ms. Li’s wariness has only grown with the pandemic. Beijing continues to block Taiwan from international groups, such as the World Health Organization, a clear sign to her that the Communist Party values politics above people. Taiwan’s success in combating the coronavirus, despite these challenges, had filled her with pride.

. . .

“We are Taiwanese in our thinking,” she said. “We do not need to declare independence because we already are essentially independent.”

That emerging confidence has now come to define Taiwan’s contemporary individuality, along with the island’s firm embrace of democracy. To many young people in Taiwan, to call yourself Taiwanese is increasingly to take a stand for democratic values — to not, in other words, be a part of Communist-ruled China.

Under its current president, Tsai Ing-wen, the Taiwan government has positioned the island as a Chinese society that is democratic and tolerant, unlike the colossus across the strait. As Beijing has ramped up its oppression of ethnic minorities in the name of national unity, the Taiwan government has sought to embrace the island’s Indigenous groups and other minorities.

Taiwan “represents at once an affront to the narrative and an impediment to the regional ambitions of the Chinese Communist Party,” Ms. Tsai said last year.

. . .

Growing up in the 1980s, Ms. Li was faintly aware of the divide between the Taiwanese and mainlanders. She knew that going to her “mainlander” grandparents’ house after school meant getting to eat pork buns and chive dumplings — heavier, saltier food than the Taiwanese palate of her maternal grandparents, who fed her fried rice noodles and sautéed bitter melon.

Such distinctions became less evident over time. Many of Taiwan’s residents are now proud of their island’s culinary offerings, whether it is the classic beef noodle soup — a mix of mainland influences unique to Taiwan — or bubble milk tea, a modern invention.

. . .

Ms. Li points to Beijing controls on speech and dissent as antithetical to Taiwan.

She compares Tiananmen Square in Beijing, which she visited in 2005 as a university student, with public spaces in Taipei. In the Chinese capital, surveillance cameras loomed in every direction while armed police watched the crowds. Her government-approved guide made no mention of the Communist Party’s brutal crackdown in 1989 on pro-democracy protesters that she had learned about as a middle school student in Taiwan.

She thought of Liberty Square in Taipei, by comparison, a vast plaza where people often gather to play music, dance, exercise and protest.

“After that trip, I cherished Taiwan so much more,” Ms. Li said.

For the full story, see:

Amy Qin and Amy Chang Chien. “‘We Are Taiwanese’: A Rising National Identity.” The New York Times (Wednesday, January 19, 2022): A1 & A8.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the same date as the print version, and has the title “‘We Are Taiwanese’: China’s Growing Menace Hardens Island’s Identity.”)

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