TAIPEI, Taiwan — As People’s Liberation Army warplanes from China headed for Taiwan on Friday, September 1, life on the self-governing island continued as normal.
Andy Huang, a restaurateur in Taipei, said he had become desensitized to military threats from the mainland.
“I’ve heard about the Chinese invasion for 30 years,” he said.
The Taiwanese government is rushing to counter China, buying nearly $19 billion worth of military equipment from the United States and extending military conscription for men for up to a year from 2024. But many Taiwan residents island say they don’t feel the threat.
This may in part be due to the nuanced views of many Taiwanese on China. While polls indicate most islanders reject reunification, many say they are drawn to their much larger neighbor’s vibrant economy and shared language and culture. Others are simply insensitive to the idea of the threat to their garden.
Beijing claims Taiwan as its own territory, and its actions in recent years have raised concerns that it is preparing to use force in an attempt to take control of the island. Taiwan has been compared to Ukraine by US lawmakers and Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen.
The island’s political leaders did not hesitate to sound the alarm. “In order to keep the peace, we have to get stronger,” Tsai said last month at a war memorial commemorating the last battle between Taiwan and China.
Members of the public do not feel this urgency.
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Coco Wang is one of many people who feel a connection to China without considering themselves Chinese. His grandparents came to Taiwan among people fleeing the 1949 communist victory in the Chinese Civil War, which left rival governments to rule the mainland and Taiwan. Her grandparents stayed in touch with relatives in China, and she remembers the summers she spent traveling the country’s rural areas with her parents.
She considers herself Taiwanese, but worked in Shanghai for a year before the pandemic and plans to return.
The opportunities in China are far greater, she said. “There’s this feeling that if you go out there and really work at it, then you can really achieve something,” she said.
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China is Taiwan’s biggest trading partner, receiving 39% of the island’s exports in 2022 despite new trade barriers imposed amid rising tensions.
Although Wang feels drawn to China, she recognizes that it is not entirely possible to leave politics aside when working there. Her Shanghai colleagues sometimes referred to her as a “Taiwanese separatist.”
She knew they meant to joke, but it made her uncomfortable. To herself, she thought: “We are already independent. Taiwan is only Taiwan.
His point of view is widely shared.
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Since polls began in the 1990s, majorities in Taiwan have favored the status quo, rejecting both proposals for unification with the mainland and a formal declaration of independence that could result in war.
But a heavily-watched poll asking people if they consider themselves Chinese showed the island’s population is moving further away from the mainland, said Ching-hsin Yu, director of the National University’s Center for Election Studies. Chengchi. When the poll began in 1992, more than two-thirds of respondents identified themselves as both Chinese and Taiwanese, or simply Chinese. Today, nearly two-thirds identify as Taiwanese only, while about 30% identify as both.
These attitudes don’t translate directly into opinions about relations with the mainland, Yu said, but among the majority who identify as Taiwanese, there has been a subtle shift in favor of the status quo for now, but with “eventual independence”.
Huang, the restaurant owner, said he was taught in school that he was Chinese, but as an adult he came to see himself as simply Taiwanese.
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His Taipei restaurant, which specializes in Taiwanese cuisine, has a “Lennon Wall” dedicated to the now banned Hong Kong democracy movement, decorated with hundreds of Post-Its with messages from customers.
Huang closed in solidarity with protesters during Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement in 2014, when tens of thousands of people demonstrated against a trade deal with China. He says the Chinese population is being “brainwashed”.
Personally, he wants independence now, but he also said he could wait until more Taiwanese public opinion is convinced.
He doesn’t think much about the war either, he says. “Whether they attack or not is up to the Chinese leadership; there is no need for us to worry,” Huang said.
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For others, like Chen Shih-wei, cultural and emotional ties to China are very strong. Chen’s family immigrated to Taiwan during the Ming Dynasty, which ended in 1644, and he considers himself both Chinese and Taiwanese.
“I am Chinese and I am Taiwanese. It cannot be separated,” he said. “We have read the history, including the clan records, and we are clear that we came from the mainland and we are descended from people who landed in Taiwan and grew up here.”
Chen, a native of Taichung in central Taiwan, traveled to China several times as a young athlete, starting in 1990. On the mainland, he says, he encountered more similarities than differences. Chen supports reunification, but does not believe it will happen in his lifetime.
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Chen now lives in Matsu, a group of islands under Taiwanese control that are closer to China than the island of Taiwan. He said he was somewhat worried about the prospect of a conflict. “This is not what public opinion on both sides wants to see,” he said.
No one sees an easy way out of the antagonism built up in recent years, whether military, diplomatic or economic.
But Wang said the tensions are between the two governments, not between the people.
“Taiwanese and mainlanders are largely friendly to each other. Why is it like this? she says.
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