News / Asia

Taiwanese Embrace Own Identity as China-Born Ruling Party Celebrates Centennial

Young performers participate in the national day celebrations of the centennial anniversary of the founding of the Republic of China government in Taipei, Taiwan, October 10, 2011.
Young performers participate in the national day celebrations of the centennial anniversary of the founding of the Republic of China government in Taipei, Taiwan, October 10, 2011.
Ralph Jennings

Taiwan’s ruling Nationalist Party and the Republic of China that it created celebrate their 100-year anniversary this week. Some of the celebratory events were designed to remind Taiwanese people that the party, better known as the KMT, was born in China and still has roots there.

Despite the common ethnicity, most of Taiwan’s public says it no longer identifies with China.

A military parade in Taipei marks the day, October 11, when the KMT overthrew China’s Qing Dynasty to establish the republic, 100 years ago.

The party under strongman Chiang Kai-shek first came here in the 1940s after losing a civil war to Mao Zedong’s Communists. After arriving on the island, Chiang squelched use of the Taiwanese dialect and tried to sinofy the island’s aborigines.

Although many Taiwanese still follow traditional Chinese values dating back hundreds of years, many more are turning away from China. Taiwanese say they are embracing a unique local identity shaped in part by a blending of Taiwan’s generations and ethnic groups.

“To me that sort of racial or ethnic distinction has fallen to the wayside more and more with the younger generation, and what has replaced it is a sort of commonality in culture and style and sort of lifestyle,” said Jay Lin, a 38-year-old managing director of a Taiwanese television content distributor.

Beijing still claims sovereignty of Taiwan, lobbies against its efforts to be recognized as a country and tries to limit Taiwan’s role in international organizations, such as the United Nations. Lin says the tense ties are a part of the new local identity.

“I think a lot of Taiwanese have grown to sort of accept and absorb that as part of who they are," said Lin. "They’re not recognized by every single country in the world diplomatically, but life goes on. Work goes on. And relationships go on.”

This year a survey by the non-governmental Taiwan Thinktank reported that just 5.7 percent of the island’s 23 million people see China as home. Those who followed Chiang Kai-shek to Taiwan from China are aging, while their juniors eagerly absorb the languages and cultural quirks of longstanding local populations including Taiwanese aborigine tribes.

Tung Chen-Yuan, a professor of development studies National Chengchi University in Taipei, says the shift began at least 20 years ago.

“I think people in Taiwan gradually see differences between Taiwan and China, particularly in value differences such as freedom, human rights and democracy," said Tung. "In addition they also see a difference of lifestyle between Taiwan and China. So gradually they keep some distance in their identity from China.”

In 1992, Tung’s university reported 26 percent of Taiwanese citizens identified themselves as Chinese. Last year, the figure had dropped to just four percent.  
Even the Nationalist party has changed its stance on Taiwanese identity. This week’s ceremonies included aborigine dancing. Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou made remarks in the Taiwanese dialect.

Parliament speaker Wang Jin-pyng of the KMT says the duality is clear.

He says most common people on the island are beyond a doubt both Taiwanese and part of the Republic of China. Those include people who came from China itself, those born on the island to Chinese heritage, citizens of aboriginal ancestry and foreign immigrants.

But China is not just part of the KMT past.

The president used Monday’s anniversary speech to advocate that Taiwan not formally break away from China and instead work on improving trade ties with Beijing to seek gains from its huge economy.

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