Since the end of Japan’s rule of Taiwan in 1945, China has been the a shadow that loomed over Taiwan’s historical trajectory, as a source of both a threat of authoritarian rule and the not-so-subtle efforts to eradicate Taiwanese culture and identity. The very need for democratization came from a desire to overcome the one-party state under the Chinese Nationalist Party (Kuomintang, KMT), which brought with it an exiled government whose aspirations were ultimately in China. And since democratization, Taiwan continues to struggle to shake off the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) insistence that a democratic and “Taiwanese” Taiwan is a threat to its plan for unification and national revival.

As a result, Taiwanese youth today, who have grown up in a fully-functioning democracy, have developed a suspicion of the KMT as well as the PRC in defense of their identity and democratic values. For Taiwanese millennials, Taiwanese identity has become synonymous with democracy, and the Chinese are not seen as “brothers” but “others.”

The KMT Regime from China

The antipathy of Taiwanese youth stems from historical events that were seen as part of the ongoing tension between China’s desire to suppress Taiwan, and Taiwan’s desire for independence. The KMT brought authoritarian rule from China to Taiwan, and after their defeat in the Chinese Civil War, they saw Taiwan as a base from which to launch the eventual retaking of the Chinese mainland. The wants and needs of the Taiwanese themselves were never an important concern for the regime led by Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek.

In an effort to gain effective control of Taiwan, between 1947 and the late 1980s the KMT violently and forcibly instituted military rule on the island. During this period of martial law, the KMT suppressed Taiwanese culture and identity by replacing the Taiwanese language with Mandarin, censoring freedom of speech and press, imprisoning citizens suspected of promoting Taiwanese culture, and denied local Taiwanese from higher public office, reserving these only for the Chinese who fled with the party after the war. In many ways, rule by the Chinese KMT was indistinguishable from that of the previous 50 years of Japanese colonial rule. As a result, the KMT’s repression of Taiwanese culture and identity for forty years inevitably led many Taiwanese to associate “China” and “Chinese culture” with authoritarian rule and repression.

After martial law was lifted in 1987, Taiwan took tremendous strides towards democracy under the leadership of then president Lee Teng-hui, who, despite being a member of the KMT, understood that true democratization had to include “Taiwanization.” During Lee Teng-hui’s presidency, Taiwan underwent a period of localization in which Taiwanese culture, beliefs and values were promoted and encouraged. For the first time, Taiwanese-born citizens had meaningful political representation.

However, Lee’s desire to promote Taiwanese identity was not without reprisal from the KMT. After Lee’s successor lost the presidential race to his more pro-Taiwan opponent, Lee was ousted from his own party, and was blamed for his strong support for “Taiwanization,” which caused the KMT’s election losses. Ironically, the KMT’s choice to remove Lee only served to further separate Taiwan and China, as it clearly exemplified for Taiwanese citizens that the KMT’s priority was closer ties with China and not consolidating democracy in Taiwan.

Wild Lily vs. Tiananmen

While President Lee played a crucial role in Taiwan’s democratization, the impetus for political reform came from below. Popular activism in defense of Taiwanese democracy has been essential, particularly amongst Taiwanese youth who have been at its forefront. One of the first manifestations of youth pushing political change was the Wild Lily Movement in late March 1990. The students that led this movement argued that true democracy would be unachievable as long as Taiwan’s National Assembly and parliament were still dominated by KMT holdovers, particularly because, at the time, the president and vice-president were elected by the National Assembly. Within four days of the initial sit-in at the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial in Taipei, thousands of students traveling from all over Taiwan peacefully protested for the dismantlement of the National Assembly.

Due to the influence and determination of the students during the Wild Lily protest, Lee Teng-hui met with the students and agreed to the students’ demands. To a large extent, the popular pressure created during the Wild Lily Movement enabled Lee Teng-hui to advance the democratization process in the face of the opposition of his fellow KMT party members, as the latter innately understood that democratization necessarily would result in a loss of political power for themselves. Recognizing the fundamental role played by the Wild Lilies at this crucial point in Taiwan’s history, the plaza in front of the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial was renamed Liberty Square, and calls came to change national Youth Day from March 29th (commemorating the Second Guangzhou Uprising against the Qing Dynasty) to one that honored the achievement of the Wild Lily Movement: March 21st.

While Taiwan’s political reform continued to progress towards a fully functioning democracy, China continued to be governed by a one-party system which fought democracy and independence. The massacred ordered by the Chinese Communist Party during the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989 contributed to the desire of young Taiwanese to further dissociate themselves from China. For three weeks, tens of thousands of student protesters peacefully stood in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square — and in many other Chinese cities — advocating for democratic reforms. However, Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping eventually called in the troops, who drove tanks over the protesters as well as opened fire on them. The gruesome actions of the Chinese military at the command of government resulted in over 10,000 people’s arrests, 7,000 injuries, and an estimated death toll of 300 to 1,000 people. This response by the Chinese Communist Party painfully and publicly reflected the extent to which the Chinese regime would go to suppress democracy.

The actions taken by the Chinese government evoked public outrage in Taiwan. Dr. Lin Tsuang-kuang writes in the Taiwan Communiqué, “Dynasties may change, but the ruthlessness and cruelty with which each government rules China has remained pretty much the same since antiquity.” There also were uncomfortable historical parallels made between the events of Tiananmen Square and the infamous 228 Incident, when in 1947 KMT officials — who had recently arrived from China — initiated a violent repression of Taiwanese protests.

Echoing this sentiment, following the death of the journalist and activist Cheng Nan-jung, who after being arrested for advocating Taiwanese independence set himself on fire rather than face imprisonment, his wife Ms. Yeh Chu-lan addressed the Taiwanese people stating, “I want to ask you to dry your tears. I want you to turn your concern to the goals that Cheng Nan-jung pursued in his life. That is to work for Taiwan independence because independence is the only road to Taiwan’s survival, and to fight for one hundred percent freedom of speech.”

While the events of Tiananmen Square occurred almost 30 years ago, the tragedy still resonates for the Taiwanese people and serves as a source of suspicion towards the Chinese regime. The Taiwanese people worry they will meet a similar fate for their continuous fight for democracy and independence. Despite the Chinese Communist Party’s promises of “One Country, Two Systems,” the memory of Tiananmen Square, and subsequent efforts to suppress political reform, affirmed the notion that Taiwan and China were moving down two different paths, and unification with China could not coexist with Taiwanese democracy.

China Not Winning Any Friends

The Chinese Communist Party — like the Chinese Nationalist Party — also understood that democracy would deepen the wedge between Taiwan and China, and was therefore a direct threat to perceived fundamental Chinese interests. As such, the Chinese government stepped in to “promote” unification as the KMT slowly began to lose its monopoly of political power in Taiwan. For instance, during the 1996 election—which was Taiwan’s first direct presidential election—Beijing engaged in a “campaign of psychological warfare” and threatened the use of military force in response to any formal declaration of independence, as well as firing practice missiles near the coast of Taiwan to make its point clear. Gwenyth Wang, a political scientist from University of Warwick, distinctly remembers her parents telling her they would not run away, as Taiwanese people should show the world confidence and solidarity: “If we don’t stay and defend our democracy, who else will?” In defiance of the CCP, Taiwanese voters made Lee Teng-hui the first democratically-elected president in Taiwan’s (and the ROC’s) history, giving him 54% of the vote.

The Chinese government in Beijing was slow to learn their lesson and continued to exert considerable pressure on Taiwan, which proved counterproductive as Taiwanese voters elected Chen Shui-bian of the Taiwan-centered Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) as president in the 2000 elections. Chen’s official policy was “Four Noes and One Without,” which offered a series of pledges designed to placate Beijing, such as not to declare formal independence and not to change Taiwan’s official name from the “Republic of China” to the “Republic of Taiwan.” Moreover, in a further attempt to appease Beijing, Chen promised not to disband the National Unification Council set up by his predecessor. However, “the Four Noes and One Without” did not elicit any reciprocal easing of stance from Beijing, which continued to threaten Taiwan with military force. During the 2004 presidential election, China enacted the Anti-Secession Law in an attempt to influence voters; the legislation eventually passed by the People’s Republic of China formulated China’s willingness to employ “non-peaceful means” if Taiwan attempted “secession” from the People’s Republic of China.

Despite China’s attempt to interfere yet again with Taiwan’s free democratic process, Chen Shui-bian and Vice President Annette Lu were re-elected, defeating a combined opposition ticket between the pro-unification KMT and People’s First Party. While Chen only won by 30,000 votes, he commanded the support of the majority of Taiwanese between the ages 20 and 29; polls demonstrated a rise in Taiwanese identity and its connection to democracy, and China correspondingly was increasingly seen as the “other.”

The Second KMT Regime

Despite this consistent and significant rise of Taiwanese identity, the KMT returned to power in 2008, mainly due to corruption scandals surrounding Chen Shui-bian’s presidency. Reflecting the public’s fears about the KMT’s pro-China inclinations, the inaugural address of the successful KMT candidate – Ma Ying-jeou – stated his intention to uphold and stabilize the status quo: “no unification, no independence, and no war.” While Taiwanese citizens desired stability, they were not in favor of unification. The status quo was meant to maintain Taiwan’s de facto independence and its democratic institutions. However, while President Ma purported to have the same interests as the Taiwanese people, his true motive was to gradually join Taiwan and China through “soft power” and economic ties, a position Beijing supported.

Given their concerns about Ma’s intentions, Taiwanese citizens, particularly millennials, watched their new president closely. Many of the youth did not share Ma’s view of Chinese identity. As noted by the political scientist, Gwenyth Wang, “former President Ma Ying-jeou came from a different time and mentality than that of the younger generation. His textbooks said China was part of the “Republic of China;” and focused more on the history and geography on China; mine taught me the Indigenous peoples of Taiwan and the impact from the times when Taiwan was occupied or colonized by the Dutch and Japanese. We look at Taiwan from very different perspectives.”

In addition, Ma was born to two Chinese parents in Hong Kong, and while Ma claimed to be born in Hong Kong as well, it was widely speculated that, in fact, he was born in Shenzhen. While Ma tried to represent the “softer face of old Chinese interests,” Taiwanese citizens were concerned that Ma’s outward support of democracy and Taiwan was not completely sincere, and this eventually led to the Wild Strawberry Movement.

The spark for this new student movement was a visit by the Chairman of the Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits (ARATS), the Chinese organ dealing with Taiwanese affairs. On November 6th, 2008, young Taiwanese students participated in sit-ins and other forms of protests; a movement that would last until early January. As protesters did not wait for the approval of the authorities for their actions, they found themselves forcibly removed by the police, which only underlined the need to defend democracy from KMT-China collusion. The situation was further exacerbated when police attempted to prevent protesters from waving Taiwanese flags, while allowing for others to wave the flag of the People’s Republic of China.

On December 7th, 2008, over 5,000 participants, guided by student leaders, engaged in an unapproved march on the presidential palace. Later, on December 11th, the police brutally disbanded protesters during a sit-in, despite the protesters putting up no resistance. On December 24th, 2008, after nearly two months of protests, Ma was forced to reform the Assembly and Parades Law, create new regulations for police officers, and draft a law allowing people to protest without prior government approval — though many saw these reforms as inadequate. The Wild Lily Strawberry Movement reaffirmed that, for Taiwanese youth, the fight for democracy and freedom would always be a main concern.

While Ma was reelected in 2012 to the relief of China, there was a notable decline in his share of the vote. His victory was attributed to an older demographic who, unlike the younger generation, desired stability – which they equated with maintaining an economic and relational status quo with China. This is likely due to the fact that the older generation’s formative years were during the White Terror and Martial Law period, which likely made many of them more cautious than the younger generation that grew up in the more open society of a democratic Taiwan.

“While many boomers tend to prioritise economic growth over national autonomy, millennials say otherwise.” As Freddy Lim, one of Taiwan’s most well-known musicians and one of Taiwan’s members of parliament for the New Power Party, stated: “The younger generation is totally different from their parents. We call them the tianran du or ‘natural supporters of Taiwanese independence.’ They were born in a country of democracy and freedom. To them, it’s not even a question: Taiwan is independent.” The generational and conditional nature of President Ma’s support would be exposed once he was seen to cross a “red line.”

The Sunflower Movement

That red line proved to be the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement (CSSTA), which shined a bright light on Ma’s willingness to prioritize closer ties with China at the expense of Taiwan’s transparent democratic process. The CSSTA agreement crystallized the ongoing concern that Taiwan’s level of economic dependence on China would lead to a loss of free speech and democracy. Such concerns were nothing new: In a debate with Ma in 2010, Tsai Ing-wen stated that a “proposed trade deal with China will make Taiwan lose its independence in cross-strait relations and become a Chinese parasite.”

On March 18, 2014, the Sunflower Movement erupted. The movement, while enjoying broad support across generations, was commonly known as a student-led movement due to its extensive student participation and leadership. Young Taiwanese were continuously at the forefront of the movement, propelling their ideas forward through the use of social media as a means of organizing protest and spreading vital information. The Sunflower Movement, which lasted twenty-four days, saw the participation of over 50 civic organizations, which rallied against the CSSTA through peaceful protests. On March 30th, two of the movement’s most prominent student leaders, Lin Fei-fan and Chen Wei-ting, organized a protest outside the Legislative Yuan. The protest, which attracted over 350,000 participants, had government transparency as its central goal.

The movement ended only after legislative speaker Wang Jin-Pyng released a statement that the CSSTA would be sufficiently reviewed before being enacted. The Sunflower Movement was conspicuous for its articulated desire for Taiwanese independence, for the key role of Taiwanese youth, and it planted the seed for subsequent movements. As a result of the Sunflower Movement, Taiwanese citizens vocally rejected China and the KMT and signified to the failure of Ma’s “soft power” approach towards closer ties with China.

The political climate surrounding the desire for Taiwan’s democracy translated into Taiwan’s distancing itself from China, and consequently also a rejection of the Chinese Nationalist Party. In 2016, Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party – who lost the 2012 election to Ma – was elected president over the KMT candidate Eric Chu; becoming in the process the first woman to be elected president in Taiwan. The election result, which also gave the DPP a majority in parliament, (DDP won 68 seats in the 113-seat Legislature) represented the power and influence of Taiwanese youth, who gave the DPP a chance based on the same passion and pride for Taiwanese democracy and identity. Interestingly, of the 113 representatives elected, 43 of them are first time legislators.

The 2016 presidential election saw significant action on the part of Taiwanese citizens between twenty and twenty-nine years old. For instance, while only 66.2% of the total population in Taiwan voted, 74.5% of those who voted were Taiwanese youth. Tsai received 71% of the vote for those between the ages of twenty and twenty-three, and an astounding 80% of the votes for people between the ages of twenty-four and twenty-nine. On May 20th, 2016, Tsai during her inaugural address showed her gratitude towards Taiwanese youth. “When its young people have no future, a country is certain to have no future.”

China, realizing the failure of its “soft power” partnership with the KMT, returned to “hard power” threats. The first manifestation of these renewed threats was over the so-called “1992 Consensus” which China attempted to use as a political weapon against President Tsai. The 1992 Consensus refers to an agreement that the KMT and China claims to have made in 1992, where both Taiwan and China agrees that Taiwan is part of China (the KMT also claims that Taiwan is free to insist that “China” means the Republic of China government in Taiwan, a claim Beijing has not confirmed). While Tsai says that there were negotiations in 1992 between the two sides, she has not officially reaffirmed the 1992 Consensus.

China, which has adamantly insisted that affirmation of the 1992 Consensus be the precondition to any talks or goodwill from China, has since excluded Taiwan from various world events such as the World Health Assembly and the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) in March of 2016.

But just like the 1990s, Beijing’s policy backfired, as China’s neo-colonial threats ironically served to emphasize just how different China is from Taiwan, unintentionally strengthening Taiwan’s identity. As Gwenyth Wang stated in an interview, “I will argue, the consensus is not a fixed idea, but an evolving idea which is open for different interpretation.” Additionally, a poll conducted by Taiwan Brain Trust showed that 49.4% of Taiwanese Citizens support President Tsai’s position on the 1992 Consensus, while 25.5 percent do not. Nonetheless, if the status quo was to become untenable — due to Chinese pressure — many Taiwanese, according to one poll, would support outright independence.

Parting Ways

Proof of this shift towards an increasingly distinct Taiwanese identity can be seen in opinion polls as well as public statements by Taiwanese citizens. Ironically, China’s efforts to punish and suppress Taiwan’s democracy and social movements have only inflamed Taiwanese youth more. Taiwanese youth are deeply determined to maintain their Taiwanese identity, and are willing to continue to fight until complete independence is obtained. For example, a poll carried out by the National Chengchi University in 1992, revealed that only 17% of Taiwan’s population identified as Taiwanese, while 25% identified as Chinese and 46% identified as both. By 2015, the same poll showed that 59% of Taiwanese citizens identified as Taiwanese, 33% identified as both Chinese and Taiwanese and only 3% of identified as Chinese. The change in percentage of Taiwanese identifying citizens rose 42% while the percentage of Chinese identifying citizens decreased by 22% in 23 years, indicating an increasingly popular desire to be regarded as a separate entity from China.

Politically, in 2003 60% of Taiwanese citizens wanted to unify with China. However, in 2016, only 33% of Taiwanese citizens reported supporting unification. The polling numbers is consistent with the notion that China’s suppressing Taiwanese identity has not produced the intended results, as an anti-China sentiment is increasing. The strong-willed Taiwanese youth has lead people like Taiwan activist Gerrit van der Wees to write “Chinese leaders can threaten, coerce and even invade, but they have lost the ability to persuade.”

The difference in priorities, and values, and lifestyles between Taiwanese and Chinese youth just underlines how difficult it is for China to win over Taiwan. Beijing appeals to an ethnic Chinese nationalism for legitimacy, which has no resonance for the Taiwanese millennials who take great pride in their universal democratic values. The latter also feel a sense of frustration over Taiwan’s marginalization on the world stage — as a result of other countries conceding to China’s demands to delegitimize Taiwan internationally. This marginalization is also reflected in media coverage of China, Taiwan, and particularly when dealing with Cross-Strait issues. “For too long”, says Dr. Wang, “the international mainstream media have only focused on China and ignored the thriving democracy next to it.”

While Taiwan doesn’t receive the international recognition it deserves, there is one group that understands and appreciates Taiwan’s position: Hong Kong millennials. Like Taiwan, Hong Kong has seen the participation of many students in pro-democracy protests — the most notable being the Occupy Central/Umbrella Movement protests of 2014, which attracted international attention and support. Amongst the younger generations in Hong Kong, frustration and anxiety about their future as part of China — despite the official “one country, two systems” policy — have led some to support independence for Hong Kong as the only way to protect their local culture and freedoms. The Chinese Communist Party’s failure to smother these concerns through “soft power” has led to increasingly vocal threats, the ejection of pan-democrats from Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, and even the imprisonment of the student leaders of the Umbrella Movement as part of the preparations for President Xi’s visit to the city. Shared concerns about Beijing’s threat to the democracies of Hong Kong and Taiwan have led to calls for greater cooperation between young activists. As a way to continue to develop these ties, Executive Chairman Chairman Huang Kuo-chang of the New Power Party, has encouraged the creation of a Taiwan-Hong Kong group in the legislature. Will Taiwan and its student movements serve as the proverbial “City Upon a Hill” to inspire their peers in Hong Kong to believe in the “Democracy Dream”?

The author would like to thank Dr. Gerald Blaney for his advice and assistance in editing this paper, and to Ms. Gwenyth Wang for sharing her insights.


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(Feature photo by Alysa Chiu)


Dahlia Gottlieb

Dahlia is a senior at Ethical Cultural Fieldston School in New York City. She is passionate about social justice and civic engagement, and is deeply interested in the role that student movements play in effecting social and political change.

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