Singer Deserts Chang's flag show sign of Taiwanese identity among young

Some mainlanders condemn such displays, but decades of separation have affected the young

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 November, 2013, 5:39am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 November, 2013, 5:39am

At her concert in Manchester, England, last week, Taiwanese singer Deserts Chang held aloft the flag of her homeland and proudly declared: "I am always happy to introduce where I'm from and what I am."

It was a poignant moment, particularly for her numerous Taiwanese fans abroad, who regularly have to explain where exactly they are from and why most of the world does not recognise the Republic of China.

But as usual, where the Taiwanese flag goes, controversy followed.

After the concert, a number of mainland Chinese took to social media to condemn the singer's actions, with one concert attendee accusing her of being disrespectful to their feelings. In particular, mainland internet users took issue with her description of the red, white and blue banner as a "national flag".

At the centre of the flare-up lies the diverging sense of identities of people in Taiwan and on the mainland.

Chang exemplifies a younger generation who grew up alongside Taiwan's democracy. Educated in an open system and removed from the legacies of the Chinese civil war, hers is a generation that increasingly identifies with Taiwan.

Unlike their parents and grandparents before them, few members of this younger generation feel an emotional bond with mainland China.

Fewer still call it home.

Experts in cross-strait relations say Beijing is becoming increasingly concerned that if Taiwan's people continue to develop a unique identity, then the hope for "reunification" could become impossible.

Such thinking is probably behind the recent calls by President Xi Jinping and other top mainland officials to start political talks between Beijing and Taipei.

In a poll conducted by Taiwan Indicators Survey Research in August, 97 per cent of respondents identified themselves as Taiwanese, but only 44 per cent as Chinese.

"All the research over the past 20 years has shown a clear trend: Taiwanese identity has grown continuously," said Tanguy Lepesant, a sociologist at National Central University in Taiwan.

For many, "'Taiwanese' refers to a political community limited to the territory of Taiwan and its population, whereas 'Chinese' means a sense of belonging to the Chinese civilisation in a very broad sense", he said.

It is a notion echoed by many Taiwanese.

"Although our ancestors and cultural heritage came from China, after 50 years of separation, we have already developed our own culture," said Michael Lee Zhen, a Taipei-based tour guide. "We are different: more disciplined, more polite."

Likewise, Jon Yao, a 23-year-old engineer from central Taiwan, said: "I don't really feel close to China even though we are all from the same tribe, maybe even the same land.

"After decades and decades, our style and personalities have become different," Jon said. "A good comparison is the relationship between the US and the UK; that is pretty much like Taiwan and China."

The Republic of China government established itself in Taipei after fleeing the mainland during the Chinese civil war in 1949. Both the ROC and the People's Republic of China claim to be the legitimate representative of all China, although the PRC has succeeded in diplomatically isolating the ROC from the wider international community.

For many, the emergence of this identity is inextricably linked with Taiwan's democratisation over the past 20 years.

"Politically, it is clear that the people of Taiwan have a strong civic identity," said Donald Rodgers, a Taiwan expert at Austin College in Texas. "In this sense, Taiwanese identity means that they believe they are a sovereign state and that they have democratic rights."

According to Wu Chengqiu, a professor of international politics at Fudan University in Shanghai, Taiwan's democratic system has provided an institutional foundation for a separate identity. The growth in Taiwanese identity is understandable considering the economic, political and cultural differences between the mainland and Taiwan, Wu said.

For Yao, the engineer, Taiwan's unique geopolitical status has itself played a key role in shaping his identity. When travelling abroad, Yao must constantly explain that he is neither from mainland China nor Thailand - a procedure that reinforces his own sense of identity.

"When people see my passport, some will say: 'You're from China.' So I just explain to them how different we are," Yao said.

"Even if they don't have any idea what or where Taiwan is, that is OK; it's their loss for not knowing such a great and beautiful country," he said.