25.02.2024

As Taiwan’s government races to counter China, most people aren’t worried about war

As People’s Liberation Army fighter jets from China sped toward Taiwan on Friday, life on the self-governing island carried on as normal.

Andy Huang, a restaurateur in Taipei, said he has become desensitized to military threats from the mainland.

“I’ve been hearing about China invading for 30 years,” he said.

Taiwan’s government is racing to counter China, buying nearly $19 billion in military equipment from the U.S, and extending military conscription for men to a year starting in 2024. But many on the island say they don’t feel the threat.

That may be partly due to the nuanced views many Taiwanese hold of China. While polls indicate most people on the island reject reunification, many say they are attracted to their much larger neighbor’s dynamic economy, and its shared language and culture. Others are simply numb to hearing about the threat in their backyard.

Beijing claims Taiwan as its own territory, and its actions in recent years have led some to fear it is preparing to use force to try to take control of the island. Taiwan has been compared to Ukraine by American lawmakers and Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen.

The island’s politicians have not been shy about sounding the alarm. “In order to keep the peace, we need to strengthen ourselves,” Tsai said last month at a war memorial commemorating the last time Taiwan and China battled.

Members of the public don’t feel that urgency.

Coco Wang is one of the many people who feel a connection to China without considering themselves Chinese. Her grandparents came to Taiwan among people fleeing the 1949 Communist victory in the Chinese Civil War, which left rival governments ruling the mainland and Taiwan. Her grandparents kept in touch with relatives in China, and she remembers summers traveling through the country’s rural areas with her parents.

She considers herself Taiwanese, but worked in Shanghai for a year before the pandemic and is thinking of going back.

The opportunities in China are so much bigger, she said. “There’s this feeling that if you just go in and you really work at it, then you can really achieve something,” she said.

China is Taiwan’s largest trading partner, receiving 39% of the island’s exports in 2022 despite new trade barriers imposed amid rising tensions.

While Wang feels drawn to China, she acknowledged that it is not entirely possible to leave politics at the door when working there. Colleagues in Shanghai occasionally called her a “Taiwanese separatist.”

She knew they meant it as a joke, but it made her uncomfortable. To herself, she thought: “We are already independent. Taiwan is just Taiwan.”

Her viewpoint is widely shared.

Since polling began in the 1990s, majorities on Taiwan have said they favor the status quo, rejecting both proposals for unification with the mainland or a formal declaration of independence that could mean war.

But a closely watched poll question that asks people whether they consider themselves Chinese has shown the island’s population growing further from the mainland, said Ching-hsin Yu, the head of National Chengchi University’s Election Study Center. When polling began in 1992, over two-thirds of respondents said they were both Chinese and Taiwanese, or just Chinese. Today, close to two-thirds say they are just Taiwanese, w and around 30% identify as both.

Those attitudes don’t translate directly into views on relations with the mainland, Yu said, but among the majority who identify as Taiwanese there has been a subtle shift toward favoring 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 came to consider himself just Taiwanese.

His restaurant in Taipei, which specializes in Taiwanese cuisine, has a “Lennon Wall” dedicated to the now-banned Hong Kong democracy movement, decorated with hundreds of Post-It notes with messages from patrons.

Huang shut down in solidarity with protesters during Taiwan’s Sunflower movement in 2014, when tens of thousands demonstrated against a trade deal with China. He says the Chinese population is “brainwashed.”

Personally, he wants independence now, but he also said he can wait until more of Taiwan’s public is convinced.

Nor does he think much about war, he said. “Whether they attack or not, that’s for China’s leaders to decide; it’s pointless for us to worry,” said Huang.

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’m Chinese and I’m Taiwanese. This can’t be separated,” he said. “We’ve read the history, including the clan records, and we are clear that we came from the mainland, and came from people who had landed in Taiwan, and grew up here.”

Chen, who is from Taichung in central Taiwan, traveled to China many times as a young athlete, starting in 1990. On the mainland, he said, he encountered more similarities than differences. Chen is pro-reunification, but doesn’t believe it will happen in his lifetime.

Chen now lives in Matsu, a group of Taiwanese-held islands that are closer to China than the island of Taiwan. He saids he is somewhat worried about the prospect of conflict. “This is not what the public on both sides want to see,” he said.

None see an easy way out of the accumulated antagonism of the past several years, whether military, diplomatic or economic.

But Wang said the tensions are between the two governments, not between people.

“Taiwanese and mainlanders are largely friendly to each other. Why is it like this?” she said.

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