Written by J. Michael Cole.

The trend began several years ago, and no matter how hard the current government in Taipei and the one in Beijing try to convince them otherwise, with propaganda and sweeteners, there was no stopping it: more and more Taiwanese people identify as Taiwanese rather than Chinese. Several demographic factors have contributed to this steady rise in Taiwanese self-identification, but one in particular seems to be accelerating the process: China itself.

Back in the mid-1990s, only 44 percent of people in Taiwan identified as Taiwanese and more than 30 percent thought of themselves as Chinese. Today, according to a recent poll conducted by the United Daily News, the number of people who regard themselves as Taiwanese-only is 73 percent, a new high for the pan-blue-leaning UDN poll. Those who identify as Chinese-only are down to 11 percent. Other multiyear surveys have tracked a similar progression over time.

No doubt education, especially in the last years of the Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) administration and eight years under president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁), played some role in that transformation. However, if state mechanisms (e.g., education) were sufficient to influence or shape self-identification, we would then expect that a sense of Chinese identity would have increased during the eight years of the Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) administration. Not only did this fail to happen, but self-identification as Taiwanese actually deepened during President Ma’s tenure, which suggests that self-identification occurs largely independently of efforts by the state to cultivate an identity — at least when such efforts contradict autonomous social trends.

One factor which is perhaps the most acknowledged is generation and demographic change. Over time, the number of people who had a special attachment to China because they were born there, or were the direct descendants of those who were, has fallen, and that cohort has been supplanted by generations of people who were born in Taiwan. Self-identification is therefore shaped by what one regards as “home” and is unrelated to ethnicity. This partly explains why, according to the same UDN poll, as many as 85 percent of people in the 20-29 age bracket identify as Taiwanese.

Of equal importance is the type of society in which people mature and how this contrasts with the norms that define another group, especially if the latter claims to include the former. Here it is important to point out that the only system that respondents in the 20-29 age category have known is liberal democracy, which cannot be dissociated from the definition of what it means to be a Taiwanese. For such young people, authoritarianism such as continues to exist in China cannot but be regarded as exogenous, something that cannot be said of previous generations of people in Taiwan who experienced authoritarianism first-hand. And for those older generations, authoritarianism is directly associated with China as it was from there that such a system originated before it imposed itself on Taiwanese society in the form of the KMT. So there, too, the political system that continues to exist in China, which in many ways is but the continuation of practices that were established a long time ago, is “alien” and replete with negative connotations. Very few people think back of the authoritarian era in Taiwan with fondness. In fact, even ardent supporters of the “pro Beijing” Hung Hsiu-chu (洪秀柱), the KMT’s presidential candidate before she was replaced at the eleventh hour, were adamant that “we” — the Republic of China — are not “them” — the People’s Republic of China. When I asked them where the contrast lay, almost every single one of them pointed to the differences in values and the nature of respective political systems.

Another, more recent factor that has further deepened the contrast between the two societies — and self-identification is largely a matter of contrasting oneself with the “other” — is the new narrative that the Chinese Communist Party employed to justify its continued existence following the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Increasingly, the CCP appealed to nationalism, to a narrative of past traumas/humiliations and future glories, while elevating itself as the indispensible custodian of Chinese rejuvenation. According to Zheng Wang of Seton Hall University, president Jiang Zemin (江澤民) was the architect of that transformation, in which patriotism and nationalism replaced communism and socialism as the new ideology in China.

The contrast between the Taiwanese and Chinese narratives couldn’t be starker, starting with the two countries’ markedly different experiences with the Japanese prior to and during World War II or historical traumas (e.g., the “century of humiliation” versus the 228 Massacre). With regard to future aspirations, China’s rejuvenation narrative is civilizational in mindset and global in scope, an ambition that has very little appeal among the Taiwanese, who are perfectly comfortable playing a role as a small or medium power.

The direction that the Chinese narrative has taken under President Xi Jinping (習近平), what with its extraterritorial ambitions, martial symbolism and paranoid xenophobia, has also further highlighted the fundamental differences between the two societies. Nothing better encapsulates this difference than the leader-worship that has developed around “Xi Dada” in recent months, a phenomenon that has not been seen in China since Mao Zedong (毛澤東) and which in contemporary times probably finds its only analogue in neighbouring North Korea.

This may seem trivial, but it is far from it. Behind this elevation of President Xi to god-like status lies a national narrative that reinforces the indispensability of a strong authoritarian ruler. Contrast this reverential behavior with the manner in which the Taiwanese treat their all-too-human presidents, who rather than be regarded as god-like figures are often openly mocked, caricatured, and as President Ma experienced on several occasions, the targets of shoe-throwing campaigns.

For all its efforts to “win the hearts and minds” of the Taiwanese and to foster conditions under which the Taiwanese would presumably support unification with China, Beijing — and President Xi more specifically — has been its worst enemy. And that is not because the Chinese leadership continues to believe in the fantasy of economic determinism. Rather, antipodal historical narratives, combined with the recent excesses in leader-worship and national ambitions that we have seen in China, are evidence that the two societies are defined by irreconcilable values and practices. Thus, as an object against which to contrast and define their identity, the Taiwanese find in China today the reflection of what they do not want to be.

J Michael Cole is Editor of Thinking Taiwan and a Senior Non-Resident Fellow at the China Policy Institute. Image credit: J. Michael Cole.