A merged Chinese-Taiwanese flag. Image: iStock/Getty Images
Taiwan has strict limits on Chinese involvement in Taiwan companies. Photo: iStock/Getty Images

After falling for four years, the number of people in Taiwan who consider themselves solely “Taiwanese” has again risen, according to a survey released on July 10 by the Election Study Center of National Chengchi University.

The poll asked 7,380 respondents “Do you consider yourself to be ‘Taiwanese,’ ‘Chinese,’ or both?” The majority (56.9%) of those polled identify as exclusively Taiwanese, up from 54.5% in 2018 and 55.5% in 2017, but down from 58.2% in 2016 and 59.5% in 2015.

The Cambridge English Dictionary defines identity as “who a person is, or the qualities of a person or group that make them different from others.” In the latest poll, a mere 3.6% identified simply as Chinese, while 36.5% of respondents consider themselves both Taiwanese and Chinese.

The poll was first conducted in 1992, when only 17.6% of respondents identified as Taiwanese, 25.5% referred to themselves as solely Chinese, and 46.4% considered themselves both Taiwanese and Chinese. In 2005, for the first time, a greater number of respondents considered themselves exclusively Taiwanese rather than both Taiwanese and Chinese.

In 2014, and under President Ma Ying-jeou of the pro-China Kuomintang (KMT), Taiwanese identity peaked at a historic high of 60.6%. For the last four years, and following the elevation of Tsai Ing-wen and her Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) to the presidency in 2016, Beijing stepped up its efforts at extinguishing Taiwanese identity, by threatening the profits of multinationals who refer to Taiwan on their websites as a country separate from China and by blocking entry of Taiwanese journalists and nationals to United Nations-affiliated organizations. Beijing has also directed “red media” in Taiwan to divide public opinion, in an attempt to win more hearts and minds for the pro-Beijing camp. Some of these efforts may have paid off – from 2014 to 2018 those identifying as solely Taiwanese fell 6.1% while those identifying as Chinese remained flat and dual identity grew – though there are competing theories as to why someone once identifying as Taiwanese would then switch to a dual identity. 

Yet despite Beijing’s best efforts to influence identity on Taiwan, this latest poll appears to show their efforts are no longer as effective and/or may have gone too far. The tick upward (2.4%) in the awareness of an exclusively Taiwanese identity can plausibly be attributed to the recent anti-extradition bill protests in Hong Kong highlighting what is seen by many as the folly of China’s proposed “one country, two systems” approach to Taiwan, and the strong response by Ms. Tsai to the annual “Message to Compatriots in Taiwan” by Chinese President Xi Jinping in January, which again failed to renounce the use of force while pursuing the “peaceful reunification” of the island.

While extrapolation is often flawed, and there is always a margin for error, it appears the long-term trend would favor greater Taiwanese identity to reflect the fact that the majority of the island’s people have over time grown accustomed to their freedoms, including those of assembly, speech and being able to choose their own leaders. For these reasons, should Beijing continue its gradual reduction in Hong Kong of those same freedoms which Hongkong citizens used to enjoy while continuing efforts to extinguish any Taiwanese identity, animosity toward Beijing will only grow. So too may the numbers of those proudly and defiantly identifying solely as Taiwanese.

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