TAIPEI – Communist China’s creation seven decades ago irrevocably changed Taiwan, but Beijing’s huge celebrations this week will be met with a collective shrug on an island where people increasingly see themselves as distinct from the mainland.
After the People’s Republic of China was declared on Oct. 1, 1949, its rival, the Republic of China, set up in Taiwan — the island Chiang Kai-shek’s defeated nationalists fled to and imposed their will upon.
Taiwan remains a sore point to this day among party leaders in Beijing. It’s viewed as a missing piece of a geographical puzzle that must one day be completed, regardless of what the island’s 24 million inhabitants want.
But for younger Taiwanese such as Doris Cheng, the idea that her homeland is a part of mainland China is anathema.
“Taiwan is a country,” the 16-year-old said while taking a break from a hip-hop practice with friends in Taipei’s Liberty Square.
“Taiwan has autonomy, a government, our own people and territory,” she said.
Fellow dancer Stephanie Fu, an 18-year-old college freshman, agreed.
“I think it is natural that we see ourselves as Taiwanese, we were not born in China after all,” she said.
“There’s no sense of belonging to China,” she added. “Culturally we may be Chinese and similar, but there are still differences.”
The Chinese Communist Party has never controlled Taiwan, and mainland governments have exerted nominal control for only a fraction of the island’s history.
But Chinese President Xi Jinping has made no secret of his desire to see Taiwan brought into the mainland’s fold.
In a January speech that rattled nerves in Taiwan, he described the island’s absorption as “inevitable” and said the “problem” must not be put off for the next generation to handle.
But that increasingly assertive rhetoric from Beijing has done little to win over the Taiwanese, who have now experienced more than two decades of democracy.
According to a regular poll by Taipei’s National Chengchi University, those who identify as solely Taiwanese have rocketed from 18 percent in 1992 to 55 percent last year.
The ratio of those who see themselves as “Taiwanese and Chinese” has hovered around the 40 percent mark, while those who identify as Chinese only have plummeted from a quarter of the population to just 4 percent.
The emergence of a growing Taiwanese identity is a headache for Beijing.
But many older Taiwanese still see themselves as part of a wider Chinese family.
On the other side of Liberty Square, 56-year-old David Chang was teaching a martial arts class, with an ROC flag bandana wrapped around his head.
“We have been taught where we came from, where our blood flowed. Your nationality can change, but our blood flows from China,” Chang said.
But he said being Chinese did not mean belonging to Beijing.
“To my generation, the concept of country is stronger. We see the Republic of China as our country. This was how I was taught,” Chang added.
Hsiang Pi-chien, 100, is one of a dwindling number of people who remember the birth of the PRC. At his retirement home for Kuomintang veterans in Tainan, he recalled how he and his fellow soldiers had spent weeks in retreat to Mao’s communist forces.
It would be 39 years before he returned to his home village, when the bilateral freeze finally began to thaw. Almost all his family was dead.
“Back then China was so poor,” he recalled. “Compared to Taiwan it was like heaven and earth, there’s no comparison.”
Taiwan had undergone an economic miracle and was emerging from decades of repressive martial law toward the vibrant democracy it would become.
But China has since transformed itself into the world’s second-largest economy and a global military power, the one-party state more repressive and controlling than ever.
It is a remarkable transition Beijing will place front and center at this week’s celebrations.
Taiwan heads to the polls in January and its relationship with China will dominate campaigning. But whoever wins, it’s clear party leaders will have an increasingly tough time persuading Taiwan’s skeptical younger generations — especially as Beijing takes a hard-line stance against pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.
“I feel it is the freedom of speech,” said Fu, when asked to describe what separates the two neighbors.
“Unlike us they are unable to express themselves freely with some things, especially when it comes to politics.”
And with that she returned to her dance class.