Taiwan’s awkward relations

“Although we speak the same language, we’re not exactly the same.” My Taiwanese friend whispers bashfully when asked her opinion on Chinese visitors from across the Strait.  Observing a group of Mainlanders milling around the entrance of Taipei 101 – Asia’s tallest building – I try to understand what she means.

Chinese tourists outside Taipei 101

Chinese tourists outside Taipei 101

Even before its official opening in 2004, Taipei 101 had become a major tourist destination for visitors to Taiwan, not least for those from across the Strait. Today, the skyscraper has become almost synonymous with Mainland Chinese visitors, to the extent that some locals wryly comment that anyone who cannot afford the plane fare to China can satisfy their curiosity about Mainlanders by riding the lifts to the 101 observation deck. My friend smiles nervously and I sense that I have asked an awkward question. “You can see for yourself,” she whispers, indicating a group of Mainlanders with a sideways glance, “we’re not exactly the same.”

Taiwan and China have been estranged since the defeated Kuomintang nationalist government fled to the island from the Mainland in 1949. While Taiwan has since emerged from a period of autocratic one-party rule to become one of Asia’s exemplary capitalist democracies, Mainland China has remained a one-party communist state, though progressive market reforms since 1978 have transformed the once insular Mainland into a global economic powerhouse, and the world’s second largest economy.

Although Taiwan and China share the same language and the same Confucian heritage, since their estrangement relations between Taipei and Beijing have been less than convivial. Beijing maintains that Taiwan is a rogue province of China and has plainly stated that the island must be reunited with the Mainland at any cost – by force if necessary. In recent years, relations between the two sides have thawed, mostly thanks to the efforts of Taiwanese President Ma Ying-Jeou, who has actively courted Beijing since his election in 2008. Although Ma’s election manifesto promised “no reunification, no independence, and no war” with China, since assuming office he has persistently nudged Taiwan in the direction of eventual unification with the People’s Republic.

Today, thanks to President Ma, Mainland Chinese tourists are an increasingly common sight in Taiwan. Direct cross-strait air links were reintroduced in 2008, together with measures allowing supervised tour groups from a select group of China’s wealthiest cities to visit the island. Despite the restrictions on visitor numbers, Mainlanders accounted for nearly half the total number of foreign tourists to Taiwan in 2011. Each day, busloads of Mainlanders pour into Taipei 101’s air-conditioned temple to consumerism, mingling with their Taiwanese cousins, and providing a unique opportunity for curious observers to spot the differences between these estranged relations.

At first glance, the Chinese and the Taiwanese seem remarkably similar. The majority on both sides speak Mandarin Chinese and their affluent middle classes share similarly expensive tastes, enthusiastically lapping up the European luxury brands on offer in the mall’s gilded boutiques. However, as my friend points out sheepishly, when one draws closer, subtle “cultural differences” begin to appear.

“For instance, they don’t have our concept of inside-voice,” my friend whispers. There’s no denying that the Mainlanders are somewhat rowdier than their island cousins. One only needs to visit Taipei’s famous Palace Museum to see the extent to which certain visitors from across the Strait struggle with the notion of silence indoors. Despite the best efforts of the guards to enforce silence, the sound world of the exhibition rooms is more reminiscent of a mahjong hall than of a world-class art gallery.

In fact, the longer I spent in Taiwan, the more I was forced to admit that the islanders are generally polite and retiring, while the Mainlanders are in general brusque and boisterous. Take queuing, for example – unlike the Taiwanese, who queue demurely in single file at every opportunity – the Mainlanders take a far more relaxed attitude to the “first come-first served” approach to queuing (as anyone who has used the Beijing subway will tell you).

One might be tempted to draw an analogy between the cultural differences that separate the Chinese from the Taiwanese, and the differences that exist between the British and the Americans; a subject which has kept stand-up comedians on both sides of the Atlantic occupied for centuries. However, in the case of China and Taiwan, the cultural rift developed over a much shorter period – albeit a period characterised by massive social upheaval on both sides.

Indeed, the recent history of the two sides has been starkly different. Taiwan never experienced the social bouleversement of the Cultural Revolution, nor was it politically isolated from the West in the way that China was before the reform era. Perhaps these historical differences and their resultant social priorities explain the differences in etiquette between the two sides.

In any event, it seems that many Taiwanese are openly derisory of Beijing’s stance on the island’s de facto independence. Despite Ma Ying-Jeou’s moves towards reconciliation with the PRC, there are those who see the cultural differences between themselves and their Mainland cousins as an insurmountable obstacle to reunification. Despite the fact that 98% of Taiwanese are ethnically Han Chinese (the ethnic group which makes up roughly 92% of China’s population), statistics from the Election Studies Centre of Taiwan’s National Chengzhi University show that the proportion of Taiwan’s population which defines itself as Taiwanese has been greater than proportion which considers itself to be to be Chinese since 2007, a trend which has continued throughout President Ma’s time in office.

Thus, it seems that for many in Taiwan, the idea of reunification remains a decidedly unpalatable prospect. Despite Beijing’s vision of a “Harmonious Society” encompassing Mainland China, Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan, there are clearly widening social and cultural rifts between the Chinese populations in these different territories. Ignoring China’s limits on political freedom, its active media censorship, rampant environmental degradation and human rights record; on a more personal level, many in Taiwan feel that reunification is impossible because, culturally, they have grown apart from their Mainland relations.

–      Views expressed are entirely the author’s own unless stated otherwise –


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