For all the focus on how Donald Trump’s phone call with Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen has outraged China, the point of view of the country whose leader was on the other side of the phone has been neglected.
The Taiwanese people have lived for centuries in the shadows of foreign powers, having faced colonialism, invasion, and martial law, before winning democracy. Now, they face missiles pointed at them from an ascendant Communist state intent on eventually conquering them.
For Taiwan and its new pro-independence president, speaking directly to America’s incoming leader was a bold display of its autonomy in the face of Chinese threats.
It wasn’t an overnight shift in Taiwanese policy, but rather the culmination of a trend that has been underway for years. And Taiwanese millennials have played a significant role in that change.
Millennials helped propel Tsai to a resounding 25 percent victory in January’s general election and gave her Democratic Progressive Party its first legislative majority in history.
The youth, known as the “strawberry generation,” made their mark felt in 2014 when student protesters invaded the legislature and occupied it for a month. They attempted to block a trade deal the Kuomintang (KMT) was trying to push through with China. Later that year, the KMT was wiped out in the mayoral elections.
When I visited Taiwan in November 2015, protests were taking place over then-president Ma Ying-jeou’s meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, which broke a precedent of 66 years. Ma, who has been described by China’s Vista magazine as one of the most friendly Taiwanese presidents to China, ensured his party would lose after meeting with President Xi just two months before the election. In response, incensed members formed the Free Taiwan Party, whose main goal was Taiwanese independence.
It is instructive to consider Taiwan’s history to understand the controversy over Taiwan’s status. When the Kuomintang (Nationalists, in English) lost control of mainland China to the Communists in 1949, they fled to Taiwan and took millions of soldiers, officials, and social elites with them. The Republic of China, as Taiwan is officially known, never gave up its claim to sovereignty over all of China.
However, Taiwan was already populated by millions of people who had immigrated to Taiwan from southeastern China between the 1600s and 1800s. The majority ethnolinguistic group, the Hoklo (or Min Nan), saw the “out-of-province” KMT veterans as occupiers, no different than the Dutch or the Japanese, who had invaded in 1895. For 38 years, until 1987, the KMT ruled by martial law and arrested hundreds of thousands of independence activists.
In the democratic era, voting has been divided along ethnolinguistic lines. The Hoklo support the DPP, while Hakkas, a subgroup of Han Chinese, and Aborigines join “out-of-province” people in voting for the KMT.
The DPP’s first president, Chen Shui-bian, was elected in 2000 on what the Taipei Times called a “divide-and-conquer” strategy. DPP politicians used to speak Hoklo dialect rather than Mandarin and push an agenda that critics called “Hoklo chauvinism.” In short, it’s “the idea that the Min Nan [Hoklo] ethnic group are the true masters of the islands,” National Taiwan University professor Huang Min-hua explained to me in an interview in November 2015.
Tsai Ing-wen is a different kind of DPP leader. She’s a descendant of Hakka people and went directly to Hakka communities to campaign. She speaks Mandarin and is emblematic of a shift in Taiwan towards less emphasis on ethnolinguistic identity.
“It is a factor that is more and more becoming irrelevant,” Huang said, noting that children and grandchildren of KMT veterans grow up with no connections to China. “They were born in Taiwan, they grew up in Taiwan, their parents also grew up in Taiwan. … So the identity here for the new generations basically, I would say, is mostly pro-Taiwan.”
Huang also said that Hoklo exceptionalism is on the wane, as is Hakka and Aborigine ethnic identity.
This change is best exemplified in a 2014 survey by National Changchi University, which found that 60 percent of citizens identify as “Taiwanese” compared to roughly 18 percent in 1992. In the same poll, just under 4 percent identify as “Chinese.”
The new generation of Taiwanese is transcending the old ethnic dividing lines of the past and uniting in a shared Taiwanese identity. They’re now increasingly unified as they fight to maintain their freedom.
The Taiwanese have stood dignified as the world shifted its focus to the China. For decades, most countries engaged in a game of semantics to deny the reality of Taiwan. Its athletes can’t use their own flag in the Olympics. China exerts economic pressure to prevent its entertainers and business people from asserting their identity. Just before the election, China humiliated a 16-year-old singer, pressuring her into filming a hostage video apology, just because she held her flag in a photo with Korean bandmates.
If you want to talk about provocation, consider how China had Taiwanese citizens suspected of fraud in foreign countries like Kenya. While some of whom had already been acquitted in Kenyan courts, they were extradited from Kenya to China to face charges.
The citizens of one of the oldest democracies in East Asia are happy to have the incoming leader of the free world show their country the respect of acknowledgment—even if they don’t know where it will lead.
Trump’s call with President Tsai was so popular that the New York Times quoted one fund manager saying, “I think the president-elect has won the hearts of us Taiwanese.”
A biologist I had met earlier, who has worked with the government, summarized Taiwanese sentiments perfectly by email, “From the Taiwan side, I think most people are cheerful for the conversation. … As you know, Trump had a bad reputation, but people still like him. Why? Because he is telling something that is true.”