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Becoming Taiwanese: On the Emergence and Consolidation of Taiwanese Identity

Photo from the pre-elections rally in Taipei by Olimpia Kot-Giletycz

What is going on?

Over the past three decades, Taiwan’s transition from harsh authoritarian rule to a thriving democracy led to the development of a consolidated identity that is more Taiwanese than Chinese. The rise of a distinct identity is a crucial factor in electoral politics in Taiwan.

Taiwanese elections are never simply a matter of choosing a candidate from a preferred political party. Rather, electoral contests in the island country have always been an indicator of the voters’ national identity and attitudes towards cross-strait relations. While many outside observers still view the elections in Taiwan in binary terms—as a demonstration of pro-independence or pro-unification sympathies—recent elections have shown that Taiwanese voters are increasingly transgressing this cleavage. This is a product of consolidation of Taiwanese identity which makes Taiwanese people wary of increasing their country’s dependence on increasingly belligerent China.

Similarly, while the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), affiliated with Taiwanese nationalism, and the Kuomintang (KMT), appealing to Chinese nationalism, were traditionally associated with pro-independence and pro-unification stances, they have since moved beyond this dichotomy to focus on maintaining the status quo. For Taiwanese people, local identity has strengthened, and with each election, it is gradually becoming less relevant.

What is the broader picture?

Since the late 1980s, the world has been observing Taiwan’s path towards steady and robust democracy that today allows its citizens to fully participate in the democratic processes. On January 13, voters in Taiwan granted a third consecutive victory to the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). All this while 62.8 percent of people living in Taiwan perceive themselves as “Taiwanese only” (compared to 25.5 percent in 1992, the first year when the Election Studies Center at the National Chengchi University began to collect survey data on core political attitudes), and a mere 2.5 percent view themselves “Chinese only.” 30.5 percent of citizens identify themselves as “both Taiwanese and Chinese.” Crucially, the perceived connection between “Taiwaneseness” and “Chineseness” is cultural rather than political. As results of survey research carried out by the Brookings Institution demonstrate, even among those who identify as Taiwanese only, the share of respondents that see Chinese culture as close to Taiwanese culture is larger than the proportion that rejected that view. At the same time, people in Taiwan overwhelmingly reject the PRC state and view it as a hostile entity.

The process of Taiwanese identity formation has a long history. Under the Japanese colonial rule, some people in Taiwan sought to assert their distinct Taiwanese identity despite the imperial government’s efforts at forced assimilation. Following the KMT’s retreat to Taiwan in 1949, the islander-mainlander divide became a distinct feature of the Taiwanese political and ethnic landscape. The 228 Incident in 1947, when the KMT government led by mainland newcomers violently suppressed islanders’ anti-government uprising, strengthened this cleavage. Another event contributing to the rise of Taiwanese identity was the victory of Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) in the first direct presidential election in 1996 who continued Taiwan’s democratic transition. Having earned the moniker “Mr. Democracy,” Lee was the first ethnically Taiwanese politician to assume the presidency in the ROC.

School curricula also provide a window into the evolution of Taiwanese identity in democratizing Taiwan. In 1997, junior high school students in Taiwan began studying humanities using a new set of textbooks that began to provide Taiwan-related content, a stark contrast to previous material focused on the history, geography, and society of China.

At some point, Taiwan’s quest for a distinct identity began to include a focus on Taiwan’s Austronesian Indigenous Peoples. This happened much to the dissatisfaction of Indigenous peoples, who go through separate negotiations with the central government as they struggle for political and cultural recognition. While Indigenous peoples make up less than 3 percent of Taiwan’s population, the contested Out of Taiwan” model of Austronesian expansion is instrumentalized to challenge the notion of inherent “Chineseness” of Taiwanese identity.

Social mobilization against increasing Taiwan’s dependence on China further consolidated this distinct identity. This includes the Sunflower Movement in 2014, which was a response to Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) KMT-led administration’s efforts to push the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement through the Legislative Yuan in an untransparent manner. Additionally, the 2019 anti-extradition law protests in Hong Kong, which prompted a police crackdown and imposition of a National Security Law further led to consolidation of Taiwanese identity (60 percent in 2014 and the highest, 64 percent in 2019).

Why it matters?

Taiwanese narratives of identity are dynamic and constantly evolving. Taiwanese identity no longer runs along party lines, and the cleavage between “green-Taiwanese” identities and “blue-Chinese” identities is not as relevant as it was in the past. This is an important signal to both, the DPP and the KMT that they need to undergo reforms to be more effective in addressing the domestic concerns of their electorate, instead of focusing on narratives of “war and peace” or “democracy and autocracy.”