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Push for Separate Identity Becomes Key Issue in Taiwan Elections


The push for a separate identity has become the central issue in the run-up to Saturday's national elections in Taiwan, where polls have indicated growing support on the island for eventual independence from China.

It was only a few years ago that speaking the Taiwanese dialect was banned in schools and public places. Taiwan - the island's government said - was China.

The goal of Taiwan's leaders - anti-Communist refugees who came from mainland China in 1949 - was to one day return to the mainland, chase out the Communists, and unify China once again under one government. The government in Beijing, in turn, has insisted that Taiwan belongs to China, and that unification under Communist rule is it unshakable goal.

In Taiwan, the ideal was gradually abandoned, as Taiwanese-born children of the mainlanders came of age and saw little tangible connection to their roots.

Gen Di, 24, is a law student at Taipei's National Chengchi University. Sipping coffee during a break between classes, he ponders on what it means to be Chinese. His ancestors came from the mainland and he speaks Mandarin, but he says his ties to China are only cultural at most. "I am a Taiwanese and I wish Taiwan to be an independent country," he says. "We can only realize our political ideas within a new nation-state which is different from mainland China."

His view is common among young people in Taiwan. A number of polls taken over the past 15 years have shown a growing percentage of those surveyed saying they consider themselves "Taiwanese" rather than "Chinese."

It is this trend that incumbent President Chen Shui-bian has seized on in his reelection bid. Mr. Chen, a former Taipei mayor whose pro-independence Democratic People's Party was once outlawed, also is pushing a referendum that seeks to further galvanize pro-independence sentiment by asking voters whether Taiwan should boost its defenses if China threatens an attack.

Those who support the referendum say they do so because of China's threats to invade the island if it declares independence.

At DPP campaign headquarters in Taipei, legislator Bi-Khim Hsiao says Beijing has helped fuel the nationalist sentiment that is driving Chen Shui-bian's campaign. "The identity issue has been complicated by China threatening Taiwan," she says. "Whenever the situation seems tense, or whenever we hear more threats, then the pro-Taiwan voice will be stronger."

Ms. Hsiao, who is 30 years old and U.S.-educated, says her family has been in Taiwan for generations. She resents that she was not allowed to speak the Taiwanese dialect while growing up. "My generation was taught that we are Chinese and that our home is in mainland China, not Taiwan. We were taught about Chinese geography, Chinese history, and nothing about Taiwan," she says. "It's arising out of this sense that we need to fight such oppression, such suppression of our mother tongue, of our own identity." Ms. Hsiao says she is proud that the Taiwanese dialect is now heard in television ads and popular music.

The opposition Kuomintang party, which upheld the ideal of eventual unification during its 51-year rule of Taiwan, has recently abandoned that position, saying unification should not be the only option.

Professor Szu-yin Ho is a political scientist and advisor to KMT presidential candidate Lien Chan. He says party officials understand that Communist China's wish to establish rule over democratic Taiwan is not marketable after more than a half century of separation. "Why would anyone on this island think that their [China's] way of life is preferable to our way of life? We can elect our president," he says. "I really don't think China can have that luxury in the foreseeable future. The people here are masters of themselves. Why bother changing or finding a new master to govern us, if not enslave us?"

Many Taiwan residents, including many business leaders, however, oppose the president's pro-independence stance. They say it risks a confrontation with Beijing that could be economically damaging at the least, and at the worst very bloody.

China has said it will not interfere with Taiwan's elections, but has not backed off its earlier threats to use force if the island moves toward independence.

Law student Gen Di says he has lived with the fear of a Chinese attack all of his life. He said that if China wants to fight, so does he. "The first page of American history is the independence war. We can never bring about independence without blood, without [a] fight," he says. "If there is a real war, I will give up my studies, everything, to fight."

The United States, eager to avert a confrontation in the Taiwan Straits, has urged both sides to tone down the rhetoric. In December, President Bush called on both Taipei and Beijing to avoid taking any unilateral action that would change the status quo.

Polls have shown Mr. Chen and Mr. Lien in a virtual dead heat. That has made politicians more desperate to garner votes of the estimated 10 percent of Taiwanese voters who say they are still undecided.