Taiwan isn’t China, and Taiwanese aren’t Chinese

DAVID CHANG/EPA/Shutterstock

Red banners congratulated students on successfully entering universities, seen outside the Jinou Girls High School in Taipei.

By Globe Columnist 

There is a moment in “1776,” the acclaimed musical about the American founding, in which Benjamin Franklin explains to the Continental Congress why he no longer thinks of himself as an Englishman. He is aggrieved that the colonists are denied the full rights of English citizens, but that isn’t the whole of it.

“We’ve spawned a new race here — rougher, simpler, more violent, more enterprising, less refined,” Franklin says. “We’re a new nationality. We require a new nation.”


I thought of that scene as I was having dinner recently with three students in Taipei. Celia Chung, Tony Chang, and Polly Cheng attend National Chengchi University, one of Taiwan’s leading institutions of higher education. I met them during a visit to Taiwan sponsored by the Association of Foreign Relations, a Taiwan-based NGO that promotes international awareness of the island’s affairs. After several days of hearing from middle-aged diplomats and civil servants, I had sought out a chance to talk with young people unconstrained by party line or official platitudes. I especially wanted to know what it meant to them to be Taiwanese.

On the rare occasions when Taiwan attracts media attention in the United States — for example, when then-president-elect Donald Trump made a point of taking a congratulatory phone call from Tsai Ing-wen, Taiwan’s president — there is always much talk of the “one China” policy, the old dogma that Taiwan and the mainland are inextricable elements of a single country.

The Communist regime in Beijing clings fiercely to that claim, in effect maintaining that Taiwan is a renegade Chinese province and not a unique country. During the decades when Taiwan was an authoritarian state under Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist Party, Taipei’s government echoed the “one China” fiction, claiming that it was the rightful ruler of all China.

Taiwan abandoned that delusion when it became a democracy in the 1980s. But relations with China still cast a giant shadow over Taiwanese politics and society. Beijing goes to great lengths to blackball Taiwan in international forums, reacting menacingly to any suggestion that Taiwan be treated as sovereign. At times it resorts to naked intimidation: In 1995 and 1996, as Taiwan prepared to hold its first freely contested presidential election, China fired missiles at Taiwan’s shores — a warning to voters not to support the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party.

At the same time, China and Taiwan are economically intertwined. China is Taiwan’s biggest trade partner, absorbing 40 percent of the island’s exports. Some 2 million Taiwanese live and work in China, and Taiwan’s foreign direct investment in China has surpassed $10 billion a year. Moreover, millions of tourists from the mainland visit Taiwan each year.


But neither China’s military stick nor its economic carrots — nor the fact that 95 percent of Taiwan’s population is ethnically Han Chinese — induces my dinner companions to describe themselves as anything but Taiwanese. None feels any emotional affinity for China. None wishes to see China and Taiwan reunited. All three reject the “One China” posture.

The rest of the world should, too.

The students I met don’t agree on everything, especially the question of how assertive Taiwan’s foreign policy should be.

Tony and Polly are offended by the diplomatic status quo — the exclusion of Taiwan from membership in most international organizations, for instance, or the refusal to let Taiwanese athletes compete under their country’s name and flag. They would like to see more pressure on China to stop demeaning Taiwan. Celia, who comes from a region of Taiwan heavily dependent on tourism, favors maintaining the status quo and not imperiling the gains Taiwan has already made. “I think China is a horrible country with a bad human rights record,” she says. But it is also a powerful enemy, and provoking it could be suicidal.

As a small island threatened by a totalitarian superpower, Taiwan’s freedom of action may indeed be limited. The failure of the United States and other industrial democracies to forthrightly confront Beijing’s bullying only compounds the problem. Yet, as with the American colonists in Franklin’s era, the more intense the threats and pressure from the mother country grow, the more distinct the sense of national separateness becomes. Taiwanese democracy has galvanized a Taiwanese national identity — one much more deeply-rooted in Celia, Tony, and Polly than it was when their parents were their age.

For 25 years, the Election Study Center in Taipei has been asking Taiwan residents whether they consider themselves Taiwanese, Chinese, or both. In 1992, only 17 percent of respondents identified themselves as exclusively Taiwanese, while 25 percent said they were Chinese. Today, after a generation has grown up under democracy, those numbers are dramatically different: Fully 58 percent of respondents now identify as solely Taiwanese, while a mere 3 percent of Taiwan’s people see themselves as Chinese. Among the young, a Taiwanese identity is now almost universal. In a 2013 poll, more than 90 percent of people under 34 identified themselves as exclusively Taiwanese.


Thanks in part to England’s perversity, American colonists metamorphosed from loyal English citizens who loved their sovereign — in 1767, Franklin still admired George III as the best king in the world — into a new nationality, requiring a new nation. Thanks in part to China’s brutal stubbornness, something similar has happened in Taiwan. Taiwan’s democratic nationhood is alive and well. But “one China” is dead, and Beijing helped kill it.

Jeff Jacoby can be reached at
Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby.