Taiwan shares the same language and traditions as China, but many of its people say they identify more with democracies like Australia than the mainland.
Taipei | “Please don’t call it the mainland,” my friend John says as we tuck into a bamboo basket of Taiwan’s famous xiao long bao soup dumplings.
“That infers that Taiwan is part of China. It isn’t.”
John, a Taiwanese accountant in his forties, has taken offence at my reference to “mainland China” in a conversation about his home’s future. He is a mild-mannered guy but easily gets riled up when the subject of China is on the table.
In Taipei, the open-air markets and street stalls now banned by over-zealous urban planners in Beijing are flourishing. AP
It is Sunday night and there is an 80-minute wait to get into Ding Tai Fung, a famous Taiwanese chain of soup dumpling restaurants that has been exported to Australia and other parts of the world.
Even as a typhoon lashes the city, the shopping malls, karaoke bars and street stalls are thriving, reflecting an economy that was spared the COVID-19 lockdowns experienced in much of the world.
Nor does this appear to be a city looking over its shoulder at Beijing’s next moves, even though China fired ballistic missiles over the capital a few weeks earlier. Taiwan is normally laid-back, despite a dark history and 70 years of sabre-rattling from Beijing. All of this means that few of its 23 million people worry about an imminent Chinese invasion.
However, the locals I have spoken with over the past week, including government officials, business leaders, a local newspaper editor, and a bunch of mates, say while they do not fear an imminent attack, there is a nagging feeling the goalposts have shifted.
Rising US-China tensions, an unpredictable Chinese leader in Xi Jinping, and the precedent set by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine are exposing the fragility of Taiwan’s unique position as an autonomous self-governed island that is not formally recognised as a country.
This situation confounds many of Taiwan’s younger population, who identify as “Taiwanese” and who have nothing in common with the 1.4 billion people living across the Taiwan Strait in China.
“Kids in Taiwan have no affiliation with China,” Catherine Hsu, a senior official at Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs told a delegation of visiting journalists, including myself, during our first day in Taipei. “The more coercive China is to Taiwan, the more opposition there is to reunification.”
This is backed up by extensive polling that shows few Taiwanese consider themselves “sons and daughters of China”, as described by Mr Xi in his 2021 reunification speech.
Despite a shared language and ethnic background, you only have to walk around the streets of Taipei for a day to realise the island has little in common with Chinese cities.
Election posters hanging from high-rises are evidence of one of Asia’s most vibrant democracies. The open-air markets and street stalls now banned by over-zealous urban planners in Beijing are flourishing, and same-sex couples walk the colourful neighbourhood of Ximending openly holding hands. Taiwanese people do not share the distrust many in China have of strangers either, and are among the friendliest in the world.
Like Hong Kongers, they have grown up with press freedom and an international education system, which means they will never accept the Communist Party’s rewriting of their history.
There is also a strong Japanese influence on the island, a contrast to China where anti-Japanese sentiment is on the rise and where a woman was taken away by police for wearing a kimono.
As the hot and sour soup arrives, John shows me a photo of his Taiwanese passport. He has been complaining about the inability to travel overseas given Taiwan is now one of the few countries in the world with quarantine rules. But he has another point to make.
Two years earlier, the government changed the fonts to make the word “Taiwan” on the document larger and more predominant while the English words “Republic of China”, Taiwan’s official name, were demoted to a smaller font off the cover.
“This was designed to stick it up to them [China]. We’re Taiwanese, not China.”
Not everyone celebrates the contrasts between Taiwan and China. “There’s no get up and go here,” a Taiwanese marketing executive named Vicki who moved back to Taiwan in May to escape Shanghai’s lockdown tells me over coffee.
Fred Him-San Chin, a former political prisoner under Taiwan’s KMT, outside his old cell at Taipei’s National Human Rights Museum Michael Smith
“I’d rather be here than China right now but people are not ambitious or driven.”
Indeed, Taiwan’s economic reliance on China poses enormous challenges for the government, as it seeks to diversify its trading relationships to friendlier countries, including Australia. This was evident in the lengths the government went to last week to host journalists from all 11 member countries of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade grouping that Taiwan wants to join.
Beijing’s crackdown on democratic freedom in Hong Kong over the past three years has brought into stark relief the sacrifices that can come with doing business with an economically powerful but untrustworthy regime.
On the last day of our delegation’s trade-focused itinerary, there was a surprise stop at Taipei’s National Human Rights Museum.
A spritely 71-year-old named Fred Chin told us a harrowing story about his torture and incarceration for 12 years, falsely accused of being a Communist by Taiwan’s former rulers, the Kuomintang (KMT).
During a tour of his old prison cell, Chin brought many to tears with stories of his imprisonment and the one time his mother was allowed to visit him.
“The KMT should have protected the people here. Instead, they used force to suppress the very humble Taiwanese,” he says, pointing to Taiwan’s dark history during a period called the “white terror”.
No one here wants to see such a history repeated if China takes Taiwan by force.
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