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Taiwan Wants — And Has — Independence: Here’s Why

New Taiwan F-16V fighter jet. Image Credit: ROC government.
New Taiwan F-16V fighter jet. Image Credit: ROC government.

In a June 23 article titled “Why Does Taiwan Want Independence?” Ruodan Xu rightly argues that “Taiwan’s opposition to reunification [sic] with mainland [sic] China is far from ambiguous.” Although the author is right to point out that “only 0.8 percent support immediate reunification, while the vast majority favor the status quo,” his explanations for this growing opposition to unification with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) are at times partly right, and quite frequently downright wrong, telling us more about the author’s worldview and education than the actual state of affairs in the Taiwan Strait.

Xu is partly correct in arguing that higher standards of living in Taiwan compared with those in the PRC have contributed to a sense of “otherness.” However, that claim provides an incomplete picture of the reasons why the people in Taiwan — or the Republic of China (ROC), as it is officially known — have increasingly regarded themselves as distinct from the Chinese polity. The author only mentions Taiwan’s democracy in passing, while making no reference to major developments in China, such as the Tiananmen Square Massacre of 1989 and, after a brief flirting with limited liberalization (not in the political sphere, however), the tightening of authoritarian rule in China, particularly under Xi Jinping. As such, even if, in GDP terms, China eventually surpassed Taiwan, China’s appeal would conceivably remain limited. Yes, economic factors would make China more attractive as a place to work, study and invest, but the widening gap in political systems, mores and way of life would overcome that economic determinism.

It is also very telling that the author makes no mention of Hong Kong, whose travails have spelled the end of the “one country, two systems” formula and severely undermined the appeal of the so-called “1992 consensus,” as well as the widespread repression of the Uyghur people in Xinjiang. While and of themselves the fates of these two sub-groups in China probably are not sufficient to account for the desire for independence among the people of Taiwan, there is no denying that Beijing’s treatment of such minorities provides an important subtext and reminder that the Taiwanese, who would themselves become a minority after unification with the PRC, would also become subject to some form of repression by the center.

Another missing element in Xu’s explanation is the fact that support for independence or the status quo in Taiwan (as against support for unification) has continued to deepen under administrations that both promoted a more Taiwan-centric history and school curriculum (Chen Shui-bian, 2000-2008; Tsai Ing-wen, 2016-present) and those that pushed for a return to greater China-centrism (Ma Ying-jeou, 2008-2016). Particularly among young Taiwanese, the Ma administration’s flirtations with the PRC triggered a response by Taiwanese academics and civil society, culminating in the Sunflower Movement’s occupation of the Legislative Yuan in 2014, and gave expression to the fears that surrounded closer ties — economic, social, cultural and political — with a PRC that, no matter what, would remain in a position of power in that binary relationship.

Yet another shortcoming in Xu’s piece is definitional: by ostensibly regarding Taiwanese independence as a matter of Taiwanese identity, he leaves out the very large segment of people in Taiwan who, while identifying as ethnically Chinese, are nevertheless opposed to unification. For many of them, the Taiwanization of school curricula under Chen, Tsai, and Lee Teng-hui before them, may have been disturbing (if not to the young among them, then at least to their parents and grandparents, who for historical reasons have a closer identification with China). And yet, the other half of the independence movement in Taiwan — that for ROC independence, or “huadu”) — overlaps with Taiwanese independence (“taidu”) not so much over ethnic identity as in the values that unite them. Both movements are united in their support for democracy, varying levels of liberalism. And both are equally united in what they oppose — that is, unification on PRC terms and, consequently, a dilution of what it means to be a citizen of the Taiwan/ROC political entity. This, in a nutshell, is civic nationalism, one that, moreover, increasingly recognizes the rights of Taiwan’s first residents — the Aboriginals.

Evidence that independence — of the taidu or huadu types — is now a nearly universal sentiment in Taiwan is the problems that political parties which promote unification with China have encountered in the past decade. Parties that espouse such an ideology, such as the New Party and the China Unification Promotion Party (CUPP) are unelectable and often regarded with derision or, more charitably, as historical relics. And while the main opposition party, the Kuomintang (KMT), does contain some elements who continue to hew to the unification line, such individuals are increasingly regarded as outliers within their own parties. In late 2015, the KMT even went to the extent of switching out its candidate for the 2016 presidential elections because her pro-Beijing ideology was evidently undermining the party’s appeal. In the 2020 elections, the KMT’s erratic pro-Beijing candidate, Han Kuo-yu, was also regarded the more mainstream elements within the party as an outlier; many of those, the “pillars,” as they are known, dragged their feet our simply refused to mobilize for him. In that election, President Tsai was re-elected with a record-breaking number of votes. And while Han received a very respectable number of votes, many of those ostensibly came from voters who found his populism appealing and refreshing, while others voted for him because they and their families always vote KMT, no matter what. Many, however, chose not to cast a vote for the president, and only checked the boxes for the party vote and legislative seats.

Even when, not so long ago, the KMT was more comfortably ensconced and seemed unbeatable, its negotiators were nevertheless unable to see eye to eye with their Chinese counterparts. They could not even agree on the terminology to use to describe the relationship between Taiwan and the PRC. Those very individuals today will admit (often in closed-door settings rather than publicly), that the situation has only gotten worse today, as if the two sides were on different planets altogether.

The KMT — the party of “mainlanders” and the supposed ideological ally of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) — also knows that if it is to have a chance to win elections, it, too, must reflect the wishes of the people of Taiwan, the taidu and the huadu, whose overlap has created a large middle in the political spectrum (one that arguably President Tsai was especially good at capturing). Anyone who has listened to KMT Chairman Eric Chu’s remarks during his recent trip to the U.S., or to his predecessor, Johnny Chiang’s, seemingly flip-floppy language on China and the “1992 consensus,” will know that the KMT is also ultimately committed to huadu or the status quo, although for various reasons (including the grip that elder party members continue to have on the party) it not willing to spell that position out as vocally as has Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). It is no surprise, though, that in recent years the CCP has begun to express frustration with the KMT’s inability to deliver on unification — that’s because in a democratic system, it simply can’t. Not just because of taidu elements, but also the huadu who also object to the idea of Taiwan, or the ROC, being annexed by the PRC.

Like many in the PRC, Xu attributes growing animosity between Taiwan and China to supposed U.S. machinations. While U.S. support for Taiwan, both politically and in the form of security “guarantees,” has given the people of Taiwan the space and umbrella they need to consolidate their democracy and express their desire for an independent way of life, to claim that such support is the cause of rising tensions in the Taiwan Strait misstates the issue. In fact, one could safely argue that even without U.S. protections, opposition to unification with the PRC would continue to flourish. What that American support has done is limit the likelihood that China could arrest such trends in Taiwan by use of force. But let us be perfectly clear here: the people of Taiwan are independent actors, not passive objects to be utilized by external forces.

Thus, it isn’t so much U.S. support for Taiwan that has “fueled hostilities” between Taiwan and China as the fact that the refusal of the people of Taiwan to surrender to Beijing’s ambitions, to allow their political future to be hijacked by economic determinism, has led to greater animosity on China’s part. A free people’s desire to be left alone and not to be subjected to authoritarian control isn’t “hostility.” It is, rather, a universal right. And if Beijing were to tone down its rhetoric and be more accommodating to the people of Taiwan, it would likely see those hostilities much reduced — with or without the U.S. in the background. Unfortunately, we are unlikely to see this kind of political sagacity as long as Xi remains in power, and there is no certainty that his successor will be any more enlightened on the matter.

Xu is right when he says that the situation is not simple. He just doesn’t appear to be willing to admit just how complex it is — or simple, for that matter, if one were to acknowledge the reality that Taiwan/ROC is already independent.

J. Michael Cole is a Taipei-based Senior Advisor for the International Republican Institute’s Countering Foreign Authoritarian Influence (CFAI) portfolio, as well as Senior Fellow with the Global Taiwan Institute in Washington, D.C., and the Macdonald-Laurier Institute in Ottawa, Canada. He is a former intelligence officer with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS). You can follow him on Twitter: @JMichaelCole1.

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J. Michael Cole is a Taipei-based Senior Advisor for the International Republican Institute’s Countering Foreign Authoritarian Influence (CFAI) portfolio, as well as Senior Fellow with the Global Taiwan Institute in Washington, D.C., and the Macdonald-Laurier Institute in Ottawa, Canada. He is a former intelligence officer with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS).