The Emergence of the Taiwanese Identity ◎Ethan Yang (第三代台美人)


The One China Policy is a simply worded but profound diplomatic predicament. In 1972 the United States officially recognized the People’s Republic of China which controls what is now mainland China and severed official ties with the Republic of China operating in Taiwan. At the time of this decision the two entities both claimed that they were the official leaders of the ancient Chinese nation. Today both parties happily affirm the One China Policy, but for very different reasons. The Chinese still maintain that the inhabitants of Taiwan are simply living in a rogue province, a child that will return to the Chinese empire. Many Taiwanese on the other hand view the One China Policy as a redundant statement of the obvious, there is one China and also one Taiwan. The people of Taiwan, the Taiwanese people, Taiwanese American, all these phrases are outcomes of the emergence of a Taiwanese ethnic identity. This occurrence within the Chinese world is not an isolated incident as well. In the city of Hong Kong, which was under British control for over a century, a strong sense of identity and independence is blooming as well. When comparing these narratives with the development of ethnic identities in America, one can see a dynamic demonstration of the constructivist theory of ethnic identity politics. Due to Taiwan’s unique political environment, the shared experience of the Taiwanese people led to the creation of a new Taiwanese ethnic identity amongst individuals who historically identified as Chinese.

According to the Constructivist theories of ethnic politics, the ethnic identity is fluid and always under development. Scholars such as Kanchan Chandra hold that ethnic identity is influenced by a variety of factors, many of which are political and economic conditions. Chandra explains that “the mechanisms by which ethnic identities change are general and interconnected” (Chandra, 2012). This can be used to describe the emergence of a Taiwanese identity even though the overwhelming majority of these individuals have bloodlines dating back to the Chinese mainland. Constructivists argue that ethnic identities can be influenced by the political environment which creates shared experiences. When individuals are subject to live under a particular political regime, they share similar challenges and experiences. In the case of Taiwan, the citizens live under a liberal democracy as compared to their Chinese neighbors who live under a strict authoritarian regime. Chandra explains that, “Constructivism tells us, these challenges can be a product of the very political and economic phenomena they are used to explain” (Chandra, 2012). Under this reasoning, the shared experiences that allows Taiwanese citizens to develop a sense of identity can be attributed to the differences in political environment. This explains the common sentiment that many Taiwanese oppose rejoining China because they refuse to live under Communism or fear that their freedoms will be taken away (Van de Horst 2016). When this is combined with the unique culture that defines the Taiwanese such as food, pop culture, and norms it is understandable that 76.7% of 20-29 year olds identify as Taiwanese on the island (Salmonsen, 2018). The fluidity of ethnic identity can also be affirmed by the growing number of Taiwanese who also feel Chinese with the recent success of China’s economy. This is because certain circumstances can activate identities, usually in the individuals favor (Chandra, 2012).

The theory of Constructivism and the importance of political environments can be further supported by examining Taiwan’s history. The modern Taiwanese state was established in 1949 after the Nationalist Chinese fled to the islander after losing the Chinese Civil war to the Communist. These two factions both claimed to be the true China, with the mainland being governed under Maoist/Communist principals and Taiwan under capitalism. Prior to 1949, Taiwan was a Japanese colony which also left a visible influence on contemporary Taiwanese culture. This apparent difference of history and administrative systems when compared to mainland China aided in the development of the Taiwanese identity. The importance of administrative structures is an integral element in Constructivist theory. Chandra writes that the “processes associated with the modern state administrative centralization, the collection of statistics, taxation, language standardization, the creation of centralized education systems and military and security apparatuses can change or create the ethnic divisions” (Chandra, 2012). The juxtaposition of Taiwan’s liberal democracy with China’s authoritarian regime shows a vast disparity in political environment. Furthermore, Japan’s colonial rule created another layer of difference in political environment to that of China. The impact of colonialism and political systems is explained by David Laitin in his analysis of Yorubaland a former British colony in Africa. In his work titled “Bringing the State Back” he explains the effects of British indirect rule in Yorubaland. This distinct style of governance meant that the British created a new political order by “coercion or elite-and institutionalization of a pattern of group activity”(Laitin, 1985).  Through this style of governance, the British were able to manage their colonies but also create new ethnic divides and norms. The significance of this point can be seen in Taiwan as the presence of Japanese colonialism and later a liberal democracy most likely had a profound effect on the Taiwanese identity. This idea of the influence of political environment can be seen as recently as the introduction of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) which runs on a platform demanding stronger national identity. This differed from the pro-China stance of the Kuomintang, which was the original Chinese nationalist group that founded Taiwan in 1949. As a result, the amount people who identified as Taiwanese spiked immensely (Van Der Horst, 2016). In the year 1991, a poll showed 13.6% of Taiwan’s citizens identified as Taiwanese which is in in stark contrast to the current statistic of around 80%. Furthermore, young people feel the strongest about their Taiwanese identity which could be attributed to the current political climate and the presence of the DPP which first came to power in the year 2000 (Salmonsen, 2018). Prior to the establishment of the DPP the Kuomintang ruled Taiwan as a single party authoritarian state, now it is one of the freest countries in Asia. Laitin explains that “identities are fluid and the myths of kinship are subject to manipulation, the boundaries of ethnic identities are subject to rearticulation” (Laitin, 1985). The vast disparity in political environment created with the Chinese mainland contributed to the solidification of the Taiwanese identity.

The circumstances surrounding the emergence of the Taiwanese identity can be found in other areas of the Chinese world. One of the most emblematic examples is Hong Kong, which is a mere city that has a growing sense of independence and ethnic identity. Although China is made up of a large variety of regional ethnicities, these groups more or less identify as Chinese. Exceptions to this include Tibet which has had centuries of autonomy and are currently governed as a special autonomous zone. Hong Kong is an interesting example because unlike Tibet, it has historically been part of the Chinese empire. However, after the conclusion of the first Opium War with Britain in 1842, Hong Kong became a British Colony until 1997. The disparity between Hong Kong and the mainland reached its peak after the establishment of Communist China. During the 1970s Hong Kong was labeled as the “Asian Tiger” for its economic success while the mainland was predominantly rural (BBC, 2018). After rejoining China in 1997, Hong Kong was given a 50-year period of autonomy to aid in integration. However, the damage was already done, the political conditions surrounding Hong Kong had led to the emergence of an independent mentality. The term “Hong-Konger” began to be used to describe those who live in the city and the term is even being used abroad. In fact this sense of identity and independence is so strong that one Hong-Konger writes “I remember very clearly, at primary school, a considerable wave of pupils dropping out: their families were in a hurry to move abroad before the 1997 Handover of sovereignty to Communist China”(Lo, 2017). If ethnic identities were not fluid in the sense that Laitin and Chandra describe, one would expect the inhabitants of Hong Kong to rejoice at the prospect of returning to China. However, it is apparent that the vastly different political and economic conditions that continue to divide China and Hong Kong have created a new sense of identity. Much like the inhabitants of Taiwan, the people of Hong Kong differentiate themselves from those in the mainland even though they may have identified as Chinese before. Both Hong Kong and Taiwan are wealthy, capitalist democracies which differentiates them from the Communist Chinese. This sense of identity came to a flash point as recently as 2014 when over 100,00 Hong-Kongers took to the streets to protest the Chinese government’s interference in their democracy (BBC,2018). This conflict could be attributed to the emergence of the Hong-Konger identity which grew to value the democracy and economic freedom Hong Kong enjoys relative to mainland China. Furthermore, the lasting ethnic cleavage between Hong Kong and China is a recurring trend in British colonies as seen in Yorubaland.

If one wishes to see more examples of the ability of political institutions to influence ethnic identities, look no farther than the United States. The Harvard Kennedy School explains that “For millions of Americans, issues of racial and ethnic identification are frequently complicated, a legacy of the country’s endless waves of immigration as well as its long history of slavery and expansion into Native American lands across the continent” (Kille and Wihbey, 2015). As a result of a tumultuous racial history along with the fact that the majority of Americans can trace their roots back to immigrants, ethnic politics have been incredibly complex. In America they’re variety of strong ethnic classifications such as African American, Latino American, and Asian American which are made up of people who can trace their blood lines to other countries. However, due to the fact they live under the shared experience of the American political system, these groups developed their respective identities. These identities have been subject to a plethora of efforts to mobilize along racial lines. Examples of such efforts include the Democratic party placing a large emphasis on appealing to the Black community and the Latino American community’s mobilization on immigration reform. These political stances on key issues work to solidify the identity of the various communities along a particular set of values and viewpoints. Laitin explains such an occurrence in the creation of ethnic conflict in Yorubaland when he states: “cleavage became the dominant metaphor for political action” (Laitin, 1985). This mobilization and universal viewpoints helped solidify the idea of the African American or the Latino American. It was the unique social experiment that was the United States of America that created the political environment necessary to conceive a new set of ethnic identities. That is why the children of first generation Americans from Asia typically identify and are viewed as Asian Americans not Asian. This is why “Social scientists continue to study the impact of racial issues across diverse areas, from the way economic scarcity can influence perceptions; to issues of law enforcement and criminal justice ; to the way race can shape the mechanisms of policy and politics” (Kille and Wihbey, 2015). America is a prime example of just how quickly ethnic identities can shift and transform. The influence of the unique political environment that is the United States, provides a key insight on the development of a strong identity amongst the Taiwanese people.

At first glance the emergence of a strong Taiwanese identity on an island where just a generation ago people identified as Chinese is perplexing. However, when viewed through the Constructivist theory of ethnic politics, such an occurrence should be expected. Constructivist believe that ethnic identities are fluid, subject to such factors as politics, economic conditions, and history. When comparing Taiwan’s liberal democracy to China’s authoritarian regime there is no surprise that the inhabitants would develop very different ideas about who they are as people. Furthermore, the transformative effects outlined in constructivist theory can be seen in other areas of the Chinese world. Most notably Hong Kong where a mere city with a unique history of British colonialism and economic as well as political freedom developed a growing ethnic identity. The fluidity of ethnic politics and identity can best be examined in the United States. Here individuals with bloodlines stretching all around the world develop entirely new ethnic identities, such as the African American culture which is acknowledged and cited around the world. As outlined by scholars such as Chandra and Laitin, ethnic identities are always shifting and developing due to political and economic circumstances. The emergence of the Taiwanese identity is just another example of the relationship between ethnicity and socio-economic politics.




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