The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Taiwan’s ‘born independent’ millennials are becoming Xi Jinping’s lost generation

Protesters in Taiwan attend a rally against the candidate for the conservative, pro-China KMT, Han Kuo-yu. (Yimou Lee/Reuters)

TAIPEI, Taiwan — The prospect of a “one country, two systems” arrangement for Taiwan — bringing the democratic island under Chinese control while largely preserving its autonomy — has never seemed realistic to lawyer Hsu. Nor to YouTube satirist Sandra Ho, reporter Vic Chiang or activist Miao Poya.

A generation of young Taiwanese, who like to say they were “born independent,” have never thought their homeland could be subsumed into the People’s Republic of China the way Hong Kong was in 1997.

These sentiments have hardened during Hong Kong’s crackdown on pro-democracy protesters, and look set to propel Taiwan’s independence-leaning president Tsai Ing-wen to reelection next month — a result that seemed unlikely as this year dawned.

With Tsai’s reelection, the divide between millennials who want an independent Taiwan and older generations who have generally been more amenable to Communist-run China will only grow wider. Perhaps irrevocably so.

“Taiwan has not been ruled by China for one day or for one minute or even for one second in our lifetimes,” said Miao, a 31-year-old pro-independence member of Taipei’s City Council, adding that her conservative father is more bothered by her stance toward China than by the fact she’s lesbian.

“So it’s very natural for us young Taiwanese to say we are Taiwanese. We share Chinese culture, but so do people in many other countries, like Singapore and Malaysia,” she said in an interview.

To illustrate the cultural difference, she notes: “In Taiwan, we don’t worship our president, we criticize our president.”

Millennials like Miao represent a nightmare for Chinese leader Xi Jinping, who has vowed to bring Taiwan under Beijing’s control.

Unlike many of their grandparents’ generation, who fled the Communists on the mainland seven decades ago, or their parents, who grew up under authoritarian rule, young Taiwanese have never known anything other than democracy and pluralism. They say they feel culturally closer to democratic Japan or South Korea, or even the United States, than to the People’s Republic, where Xi has tightened controls over almost every aspect of society. Certainly, they do not bow to his calls for the “unification” of greater China.

Taiwan’s tea party aims to burst Beijing’s one-China bubble

In Taiwan, generational differences in thinking about China have sharpened with the irrepressible protests in Hong Kong, which began with an extradition case involving Taiwan but have morphed into a broader, existential clash between freedom and authoritarianism.

“We are different [from mainlanders] in terms of our mind-sets,” said Hsu, a 26-year-old attorney who asked to withhold her full name because her family members travel to China. “For me, I have never thought that ‘one country, two systems’ was anything I would ever want.”

Although Xi and the Communist Party have ostensibly implemented that framework in Hong Kong, the real target has always been Taiwan, analysts say.

Xi's threat shifts the dynamic

Taiwan has been politically separate from the mainland since the nationalist Kuomintang, or KMT, fled to the island when the Communist Party established the People’s Republic of China in 1949.

The party has wanted control of Taiwan ever since, but no Chinese leader has been as vocal in this desire as Xi. In a speech this year, Xi said the division could not “be passed on from generation to generation,” adding that China would not rule out using military force to take Taiwan.

That alarmed many here, helping to shift public opinion ahead of presidential and parliamentary elections Jan. 11. It put an unpopular Tsai, of the Democratic Progressive Party, on an upward trajectory that was bolstered by her government’s legalization of same-sex marriage in May and turbocharged a month later when the protests erupted in Hong Kong.

Conversely, the candidate for the conservative, pro-China KMT, Han Kuo-yu, has experienced a steady decline in support since he was seen entering the Communist Party’s liaison office in Hong Kong in March.

Han has had to back away from the idea of “one country, two systems,” saying the mechanism espoused by Beijing would come to Taiwan “over my dead body.”

“It’s a big concern to all of us, no matter what party you belong to,” said Jason Hsu, a lawmaker for the KMT.

“This wave of democracy is not stopping,” he said. “There is no going back. The KMT is also realizing this. We can have different opinions in how we deal with China, but we all have concerns about democracy.”

China wants Hong Kong’s loyalty and love. What it’s getting: Distrust and disdain.

The change in Taiwan’s political dynamics has happened quickly.

“The Hong Kong situation has sent a strong message to Taiwan, especially to the younger generation, that ‘one country, two systems’ is not feasible, that it can’t work in Taiwan,” said Wu Jieh-min, a sociologist at Academia Sinica, the national academy of Taiwan. “That’s in stark contrast to what Xi Jinping has said. The Hong Kong people are really helping us to fend off China.”

Some 60 percent of Taiwanese ages 20 to 34 now support full independence, up 10 points from a year ago, according to an Academia Sinica poll.

“We are an independent country with our own culture and values,” said Chiang, a reporter for Business Next magazine.

He was one of the millennials who spoke to The Washington Post over dinner at a Taipei restaurant known as a haunt for democracy activists, journalists and academics.

Together, they described the impact of Hong Kong’s troubles on Taiwanese who were “born independent.”

“It was my first time to see and smell tear gas, to see blood on the streets,” said Will Yang, a 34-year-old journalist who has been to Hong Kong three times, including for pivotal local elections in November. Not so long ago, Yang described himself as “Chinese in Taiwan” but began to call himself Taiwanese around 2014.

An island in limbo

For many, the Hong Kong situation doesn’t change their minds about China. They already knew what China was like, said Ho, who works for YouTube channel EyeCTV, a wordplay on the mainland propaganda channel CCTV.

But Hong Kong’s turmoil is influencing centrist voters. “People here see the videos of police hitting protesters, how they are treating Hong Kong citizens, and it makes Taiwanese people think about these things,” Ho said.

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In addition to swaying people with wavering opinions on how to deal with China, Hong Kong’s revolt has helped millennials explain their fears to their parents and crystallize their desire for an independent Taiwan.

“Before, when it was more subtle, it was very difficult to talk to the older generation about China,” said Hsu, the lawyer. “They would just say, ‘Why do you dislike China so much?’ But now China has ruined Hong Kong, such a developed society with a rule of law, in a second.”

EyeCTV, which has a “Daily Show”-style format and is wryly sarcastic about China, provides another way to enlighten them, Ho said. “There is a gap between us and our parents,” she said. “They don’t listen to us and we don’t have the patience to explain all of this to them. But they can watch our show and it dawns on them.”

Chiang says his father, who has KMT shirts for every day of the week, has come around a little since the Hong Kong protests began. “He sees the bad side of the Chinese Communist Party for the first time, but he also thinks that [Tsai’s party] is pushing us to the brink of war,” Chiang said.

For now, Taiwan’s legal and diplomatic limbo — only 15 countries recognize the island as a nation — has an impact on people’s lives.

The well-traveled people around the table reported passport problems in places including Kosovo, Bolivia and Bangladesh.

“Now, our country is not ‘normal,’ ” Ho said. “We are trying to normalize our country.”

Alicia Ying-yu Chen contributed to this report.

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