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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Identity Issue Shapes Vote in Taiwan

Noriyuki Tajima

Dec. 22, 2015

Presidential candidates in Taiwan have less than a month left to sell their messages to voters. For the two main rivals, the race is boiling down to a debate on ties with mainland China.

Polls show the frontrunner is Tsai Ing-wen from the opposition Democratic Progressive Party. In the past, her party has called for independence from China. Tsai says she wants to preserve Taiwan's freedoms, saying "I'll win next year's race to end the Nationalist government. I'll then give a voice back to the people of Taiwan."

In October, Eric Chu said he'd run for the ruling Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang, which is seeking closer ties with the mainland. Chu said "let's forge a win-win relationship between Taiwan and the mainland through peaceful development and cooperation."

Tsai has enjoyed a consistent lead in opinion polls. A poll by a television network earlier this month showed he had a support rate of 45%, leading Chu at 22%, and People First Party's James Soong at 10%.

Tsai seems to be tapping into resentment toward the ruling party. That's because young people increasingly identify themselves as Taiwanese and are concerned about the growing influence of Beijing.

In July simplified entry procedures, making it easier for Taiwanese travelers to visit mainland China. They need only a small electronic travel permit to pass through the gates. Beijing officials say they want to promote cross-strait relations.

Business travelers have welcomed the travel cards. However, demonstrators have protested them. Travel permit systems have been in place in Hong Kong and Macau, both under Chinese sovereignty. Some residents suspect Beijing has introduced the measure as a part of its efforts to unify Taiwan with China.

The Kuomintang, has been seeking closer ties with China. Many of its members are from families of those who moved from the mainland to Taiwan when the two sides split in 1949 at the end of the Chinese Civil War.

Most of today’s younger generations were born in Taiwan and tend to think of Taiwan as completely different from China. A survey shows the number of people identifying themselves as "Taiwanese" is on the rise, and surpassed 60 percent last year. About a quarter of respondents identified themselves as "Chinese" in 1992, but the figure has fallen to only 3 percent.

One of those is Xie Zheng-hao, who says he became politically active after witnessing the Sunflower Movement last year, when students occupied the legislative building to protest a government pact with Beijing. The 25-year-old says it’s important to know Taiwan’s history in order to determine the direction the island should take.

Xie created an animated film and posted it online. It explores a century of the island’s history from the time of Japanese rule to democratization.

Until the democratization movement began, little of Taiwan's history was taught at school, because the authorities were concerned it might foment a pro-independence ideology. The animation has caught the public’s attention. Some viewers responded positively, saying it makes the history easy to understand. Others have criticized Xie for treating the sensitive matter too casually.

Presidential candidates say they’re eager to hold talks with young people and took part in a dialogue forum organized by student committees of seven different universities.

Eric Chu addressed the group, saying "I want to have the courage to face young people. I want to do so in a sincere way, regardless of whether or not you're friendly to us today."

Chen Chien-jen of the Democratic Progressive Party said "if our party comes to power, we'll create an official channel to reflect young people's voices in government policy."

It’s the first time for such an event to be held in Taiwan. Chen Chun-chun of the student committee at Taiwan University said "we're Taiwanese, not Chinese. I think there's a wide gap between the two sides when it comes to our history and social situation. I'll keep tabs on whether the candidates are trying to respond to calls from young people or are just faking it."

Young people are exploring how Taiwanese should be shaping their future. And that question is transforming the island’s political dynamics.


NHK World's Naoki Makita joined Sho Beppu in the studio. He covered the last presidential election in 2012 as NHK's Taipei Bureau Chief.

Beppu: Naoki, ethnically, people in Taiwan are overwhelmingly Chinese. But many young people don't see themselves that way. They identify as Taiwanese. It seems this tendency is hurting the electoral prospects of the ruling Nationalist Party.

Makita: That's right. After Taiwan split from mainland China in 1949, there was a big divide between the mainlanders who moved to the island and the people born there. 66 years on, the situation is very different. The descendants of those mainlanders have embraced the idea that Taiwan is distinct and separate from the mainland. That's why many are suspicious of the current Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou and the ruling party. Ma has worked hard to bridge the gap between the island and the mainland since taking office seven years ago. But far from generating a sense of solidarity, his efforts have only served to strengthen the feeling among Taiwan's youth that they have their own identity.

Analysts say this is the main reason for the surge in support for the opposition Democratic Progressive Party, led by Tsai Ing-wen. Fan Shih-ping, a professor at Taiwan Normal University, had this to say.

Fan Shih-ping: The growing sense of Taiwanese identity is showing in the polls, where Tsai Ing-wen enjoys a stable lead. At this election, there'll be 1.3 million new voters from a generation that feels very strongly about this issue. Naturally they'll have an impact on the result.

Beppu: For now the voters seem to be leaning toward the Democratic Progressive Party. If Tsai Ing-wen wins, do you think it will cause a rise in tensions between Taiwan and mainland China?

Makita: I think Tsai is keen to avoid a return to the old days, before 2008, when the relationship was strained. And many people in Taiwan want strong economic growth and stable ties. Tsai Ing-wen is well aware of these feelings among the people. She's taking a pragmatic approach toward the mainland by saying she wants to maintain the status quo. That said, Tsai is unlikely to accept the One China Policy, which says both mainland China and Taiwan belong to One China. To do so would deny the principle of independence in her party's platform. With the election just over three weeks away, the issue of self-identity for Taiwanese people seems likely to become one of the big themes of the campaign. For many, the vote will be about deciding how much distance they want to keep between themselves and Beijing.