East & Pacific Asia

Taiwan’s Inexorable Drift from China


In January, Chinese President Xi Jinping gave a major speech on Taiwanese unification calling it the “great trend of history,” a union which would bring some 20 million Taiwanese under the flag of a single China. That unification, however, is trending away from and not towards Xi Jinping’s ideal union, an arc that, despite its own long-game efforts, China has in some part caused. In fact, if and when unification does come, the people joining China, comprised mostly of Han Chinese, may no longer consider themselves Chinese, an inevitable result of China’s aggressive coercion and the greater trend of cultural and linguistic divergence.

Image courtesy of Voice of America, © 2014.

For the last few decades, China’s strategy has been a mix of inducements and coercion. These inducements have largely been economic, for example, renewal of cross strait commercial flights in 2003 (limited at first to Chinese New Year but then expanded) and the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) in 2010. Coercion, however, has focused on limiting Taiwan’s international space: convincing countries to not recognize Taiwan as an independent state; having Taiwan barred from international organizations; and most recently pressuring private airline companies to list “Chinese Taipei” instead of “Taiwan” as a destination. War is reserved as a last resort.

The promise of closer ties or no ties at all might work in a geopolitical vacuum, but a longstanding U.S. policy for a peaceful resolution to the question of Taiwan allows Taiwan to resist China’s intimidation. In lieu of acquiescing, Taiwan has watched China undermine democracy in Hong Kong — the “one country, two systems” prototype — crush political dissent, imprison ethnic groups in concentration camps, and snuff out the language and culture of non-Han Chinese.

Simultaneously, Taiwan has evolved a robust democracy that turns on economic and social issues just as much if not more than China’s provocations. But more importantly, the Taiwanese population consistently identifies less as “Chinese” and more as “Taiwanese” the longer Taiwan remains free. While roughly 95 percent of Taiwan’s population are Han Chinese, the same ethnic group dominating the People’s Republic of China, less than five percent of the population actually identifies singularly as “Chinese.” Instead, as shown by an ongoing study on “Trends of Core Political Attitudes” by the Election Study Center at the National Chengchi University, since Taiwan fully instituted democracy in 1996, the Taiwanese population has identified primarily as “Taiwanese.”

This identity change coincides with more direct Chinese engagement. Multiple trade, economic, education, and travel agreements have been signed between the two countries since 1996. Undoubtedly, China assumed reconnection with both the “mainland” and extended family, coupled with economic opportunity, would entice the Taiwanese. As the aforementioned survey shows, however, China’s efforts have only seemed to hasten the decline of “Chinese-ness” in Taiwan. Whatever connections the Taiwanese may have had to China at large, they seem to be getting lost. 

According to A-chin Hsiau, Deputy Director and Research Fellow at the Institute of Sociology at Academia Sinica, events prior to Taiwanese democratization undoubtedly led to a decoupling from Chinese identity. For example, Taiwan experienced a succession of isolating events – losing recognition as China in the United Nations and then de-recognition as a state by the United States and other supporting allies. This forced a reconsideration of what it meant to be Chinese in a state no longer recognized as China. Seen through this lens, China’s current coercive efforts at isolation will continue to decouple the Taiwanese from any identification with China.

Today, the Taiwanese government continues to encourage this decoupling. During Chiang Kai-shek’s dictatorial rule, Mandarin was a tool of oppression to Sinicize the Taiwanese and suppress culture: Mandarin was required in schools and government while local languages, including the second most commonly spoken language, Taiwanese[1], were banned from schools and businesses. Since democratization, however, local and native languages have been given greater status—an important step as Taiwan has lost ten of its local languages in the last century.

In December 2018, Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan passed the National Languages Development Act. The act elevates a host of endangered aboriginal languages, Taiwanese, and Hakka to national languages (Taiwan has no official language). The act is especially significant because it establishes a public television channel for Taiwanese, spoken by more than 80 percent of the population, and mandates its teaching in public schools. Beijing has long viewed any elevation of Taiwanese as provocation and support for Taiwanese independence, thus actively slowing its establishment as a national language in Taiwan. But Taiwanese has been a piece of Taiwan’s fabric since before the arrival of Chiang Kai-Shek and the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) in the 1940s. Its heightened status, and the fight to preserve aboriginal languages, has further established the island’s “Taiwanese-ness.”

Despite Taiwanese identity and language developments, it’s unlikely the Taiwanese will turn toward independence. China has long threatened war in retaliation for that particular aspiration. While the Taiwanese might drift further and further from being Chinese, they’ll only take steps unlikely to provoke Chinese retribution. For now, these steps comprise their own great trend: an enhancing of Taiwanese identity in the face of China’s attempts to isolate and suffocate the very idea of Taiwan.


[1]  Also known as Hokkien or Southern Min in English, or Táiyǔ 台語 in Mandarin/Taiwanese. “Taiwanese” is chosen here because the language is often referred to as this in Taiwan, though clearly not elsewhere that it’s spoken.

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