Why Taiwan’s Democracy is Not the Fundamental Barrier to Unification

With a shared history, culture, and language, some view Taiwan’s democracy as the main barrier to unification across the Strait. While the adoption of democratic political institutions has certainly made it harder for Taiwan to unite with China, it is democratization’s social impact and influence in forming a distinct, separate, Taiwanese national identity, and subsequent Chinese hostility towards it, that is the real fundamental barrier to unification. This emphasis on a separate Taiwanese national identity includes a shared perception amongst Taiwanese that their country is independent and distinct from China.

Democratic principles, such as freedom of speech and support for human rights, have greatly informed the formation of Taiwan’s national identity. Media censorship, restrictions on nongovernmental organizations and various cases of detainment of human rights activists in China, including the recent detainment of Taiwanese human rights activist Lee Ming-che[1], make Taiwanese people more convinced that there is a huge gap between being “Taiwanese” and “Chinese”. Taiwan’s society is proud of its embrace of rule of law, human rights, and freedom.  The national Taiwanese identity is often associated as being “progressive” and “democratic”, while viewing the “Chinese” identity negatively as “repressive”, “violations of human rights”, “authoritarian” and “anti-freedom of speech”.

A majority of the people in Taiwan, especially the younger generation, identify themselves as Taiwanese and not Chinese. [2] Even if China democratizes and there is no difference of political systems across the strait, most people in Taiwan would not see it as a reason for unification; it makes no sense for two democratic countries to become one country simply because they’re both democracies. Over 70% of Taiwanese people view Taiwan as an independent country under the name Republic of China. [3] The results from a survey conducted by the National Chengchi University’s Election Study Center show that, in 2016, 58.2% of the people in Taiwan identify themselves as Taiwanese, which had increased considerably compared to the 17.6% in 1992. [4] Corresponding to the upward trend of the Taiwanese identity, 25.5% of respondents had identified themselves as Chinese in 1996, and the number decreased to 4.1% in 2016. While some argue that there is still a considerable number of people in Taiwan who consider themselves both Taiwanese and Chinese (34.3% in 2016), the different meanings of the word “Chinese” makes it tricky to decipher what people in Taiwan really mean when they identify themselves as “Chinese”. While the word “Chinese” now has a strong political connotation as someone who is a citizen under the People’s Republic of China (PRC), it could also be interpreted as ethnically Han-Chinese (which over 95% of Taiwan’s population are) or as a citizen from Republic of China, Taiwan. It could be possible that, when people consider themselves both Taiwanese and Chinese, they refer to the fact that they think of themselves as Taiwanese but also ethnically Han-Chinese, which is not associated with People’s Republic of China. Setting aside the complexity of how people in Taiwan interpret the word “Chinese”, there is no doubt that more and more people in Taiwan are embracing a common Taiwanese identity.

Lastly, hostility and pressure from China has deepened the mistrust and resentment of people in Taiwan towards China, creating another fundamental barrier to unification. China’s continuous actions to demonstrate its refusal to accept the reality of a separate Taiwanese identity and Taiwan’s de facto independence have been counterproductive, pushing Taiwanese people further away from the possibility of unification. Aside from the fact that China had increased more than 1600 ballistic missiles aimed at Taiwan during the term of a president that was considered to have the closest cross-strait ties[5],  various episodes hinting of Beijing’s ill-intentions have isolated the people of Taiwan from China. The video of the apology of Tzu-yu Chou (a Taiwanese singer in a South Korean girl group who was forced to apologize after waving the Republic of China flag on a Korean variety show and thus leading to China’s boycotting of her agency JYP Entertainment[6]) on the eve of Taiwan’s 2016 presidential elections and the Chinese delegates’ disruption of the Kimberley Process (an international conference to end global trade of conflict diamonds) opening ceremony to force the invited Taiwanese delegation to leave[7] are just some examples of how Beijing’s act of oppression outside the political arena has angered Taiwan’s society. In comparison with previous DPP president Chen Shui-bien, Tsai Ing-wen has been viewed to be more rational and cautious when it comes to dealing with cross-strait relations. Despite Tsai’s willingness to cooperate and continue dialogues with Beijing seen as a major concession domestically, Beijing decided to freeze official cross-strait negotiations and instead choosing to communicate with KMT chairwoman Hung Hsiu-Chiu. [8] Replacing communication with the democratically elected president of the Taiwanese society with Hung, who was ousted as KMT’s 2016 presidential candidate after her controversial pro-unification stance that alienated her from the Taiwan public, is viewed as a disregard for the will of the Taiwanese people that will only isolate Taiwan even more.

In conclusion, even in the event of China’s democratization, there is still little incentive for Taiwan to accept unification as sharing the same political system doesn’t equal to shared identity and values, nor will it erase the recent history of Beijing’s hostility and pressure that deepens Taiwan society’s mistrust and resentment towards China.


Photo Credit: https://qzprod.files.wordpress.com/2017/01/rtx2uyf7-e1483422219944.jpg?quality=80&strip=all&w=5736

Chris Buckley, Austin Ramzy. (2016, 1 17). Singer’s Apology for Waving Taiwan Flag Stirs Backlash of Its Own. Retrieved from New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/17/world/asia/taiwan-china-singer-chou-tzu-yu.html?_r=0

Fang-Yu Chen, Wei-ting Yen, Austin Horng-en Wang and Brian Hioe. (2017, 1 2). The Taiwanese see themselves as Taiwanese, not as Chinese. Retrieved from Washington Post: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2017/01/02/yes-taiwan-wants-one-china-but-which-china-does-it-want/?utm_term=.aa6e5f34d327

Glaser, B. (2017, 1). Managing Cross-Strait Ties in 2017. Retrieved from CSIS.

Gramer, R. (2017, 5 2). Chinese Delegation Blows Up at Anti-Conflict Diamond Meeting to Sideline Taiwan. Retrieved from Foreign Policy: http://foreignpolicy.com/2017/05/02/china-delegation-taiwan-australia-conflict-minerals-meeting-one-china-policy-diplomatic-dispute-kimberley-process/

Nancy Tucker and Bonnie Glaser. (2011). Should the United States Abandon Taiwan? The Washington Quarterly, 34(4), pp. 23-37.

Taiwanese / Chinese Identification Trend Distribution in Taiwan(1992/06~2016/12). (2016, 8 24). Retrieved from Election Study Center, N.C.C.U.: http://esc.nccu.edu.tw/course/news.php?Sn=166

Taiwanese rights advocate Lee Ming-che held in China. (2017, 3 29). Retrieved from BBC News: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-39428220


[1] (Taiwanese rights advocate Lee Ming-che held in China, 2017)

[2] (Fang-Yu Chen, Wei-ting Yen, Austin Horng-en Wang and Brian Hioe, 2017)

[3] (Fang-Yu Chen, Wei-ting Yen, Austin Horng-en Wang and Brian Hioe, 2017)

[4] (Taiwanese / Chinese Identification Trend Distribution in Taiwan(1992/06~2016/12), 2016)

[5] (Nancy Tucker and Bonnie Glaser, 2011, p. 8)

[6] (Chris Buckley, Austin Ramzy, 2016)

[7] (Gramer, 2017)

[8] (Glaser, 2017, pp. 11-12)


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Abby Fu

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