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The ‘New Taiwan Person’

Repressed for nearly half a century, the indigenous culture of Taiwan is finally flowering, causing the exiled mainlanders who took it over in 1949 to rethink their place in society. By's Kari Huus.
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For years after 1949, families who had lived in Taiwan for generations before Nationalist rule found themselves shunted aside by the mainland’s great ideological battle. Children were educated in Mandarin, the language of the newcomers; local mother tongues were banned in schools. But today, local Taiwanese culture is experiencing a renaissance and with it is emerging, in the words of President Lee Teng-hui, a “New Taiwan Person.”

In "Free China" — as U.S. backers of the Nationalist regime called it — those who disagreed with the government lived in fear of a midnight knock on the door, a fear they shared with political dissidents in Communist China. In the mid-1960s, during a period known as the “White Terror,” thousands disappeared and many more were arrested and tortured for their political views. The Nationalist elite controlled the top political positions, the press and historical interpretation.

Despite enormous economic success, the stresses inside Taiwan finally cracked the Nationalists’ hold on the political system in the early 1990s and led to the first free presidential elections in 1996. Taiwanese were quick thereafter to embrace their own version of history.

A people apart
Beijing says China’s rule over Taiwan dates as far back as the Yuan Dynasty, in the 12th century. But independence advocates now openly argue that China never did rule Taiwan and that Taiwan’s people are not as “Chinese” as mainland propagandists would like to pretend.

Centuries ago, the island had an aboriginal culture of Malay and Polynesian descent. In the 17th century, the Dutch and Portuguese had colonies here, and the imported Chinese laborers — all men — intermarried with locals, forming the basis of the majority of today’s population. According this version of history, it was only in 1887 that China declared Taiwan a part of its territory in an effort to stem Japanese expansionism, say independence activists. But when that failed, China ceded Taiwan to Japan in perpetuity.

The Japanese held Taiwan for 50 years, until their defeat in World War II. In the years immediately after, Allied Forces backed Chiang Kai-shek’s temporary occupation of Taiwan. But according to pro-independence legal experts, the Nationalists never had a legal basis to stay.

“In 1949, Taiwan did not “split off from China”, but was occupied by the losing side in the Chinese Civil War,” according to a 1999 white paper endorsed by 18 overseas Taiwanese associations.

‘New Taiwan people'
The revival of interest in Taiwan’s indigenous culture is no mere fad. Some primary schools have started offering local Taiwanese and aboriginal dialects — all will be required to do so by 2001. Museums and festivals celebrate indigenous cultural rites. The media has also changed: Formosa Television broadcasts in Taiwanese and newspapers have changed their names to reflect the times, the China Post is now the Taiwan Post, for example.

One of Taiwan’s biggest current sensations is the pop singer Ah-Mei, dubbed the “Taiwanese Madonna.” Ah Mei, an aboriginal Taiwanese, is a tough, gangbusters rocker — a departure from Taiwan’s China doll image. (And in a reminder that politics can’t compete with teen hormones, Ah-Mei also drew massive crowds in recent performances in mainland China.)

While many people in Taiwan still identify themselves as Chinese, that doesn’t necessarily mean they want a political union with their race. Their I.D. cards no longer identify them as mainlanders, and many prefer to speak Taiwanese.

Businessmen have fully capitalized on their ties to the mainland, setting up some 30,000 firms there and investing some $30 billion. But after the sentimental rush to the mainland to visit long-lost relatives in China, many Taiwanese lost interest.

A Taipei taxi driver, who said he went to see his half brother in Fujian province when travel restrictions were lifted, left unimpressed. It was fine, he said, but he’d never stay.

“Standards are too low. It’s too chaotic. No one follows rules,” he said. Asked about Beijing’s threats to invade Taiwan if it declares independence, he said, “We have weapons. If they hit us, we attack Shanghai. No problem.”

Political about-face
Nor is the change just cultural. In the race for local offices, Nationalist Party candidates are suddenly campaigning in Taiwanese and watching Taiwanese opera to show their sympathy with the broad population.

Nationalist presidential candidates, though careful not to say they are for independence from China, still must cater to their constituency’s growing sense of Taiwanese identity. Thus, President Lee’s declaration in July that from now on Taipei must have equal “state-to-state” status with Beijing in any negotiation. It triggered a firestorm in Beijing, but played well in Taiwan.

Lee’s chosen successor, Lian Chan, will be forced to follow suit if he wins the presidency. And even the opposition, led by James Soong, a mainland-born Nationalist politician who is thought to be more pro-Beijing, is choosing his words carefully. He says Taiwan has always been sovereign, but the Taiwan people’s interests should not be used as a political bargaining chip. The one pro-unification group, a splinter of the Nationalists called the New Party, has only marginal public support.

If polls are to be believed, the presidential race could come be a photo-finish between Soong and Chen Shuibian, of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party. As a former lawyer for Taiwanese political prisoners, Chen’s credentials make him a hero to many today, where they once made him a political pariah.