INTERVIEW: Taiwanese dilemma: identity, economy, China

Taipei Times
Date: Dec 16, 2016
By: The New York Times

New York Times (NYT): Your book deals with the seeming contradiction of China and Taiwan developing closer economic ties, even as Taiwanese culture moves further away from China’s. How have those trends managed to emerge simultaneously?

Syaru Shirley Lin (林夏如): Once China began to open its economy in the post-Mao era, cultural similarities and a common political objective of creating “one China” led to an explosion of economic relations across the Strait. The Chinese economy was highly complementary to Taiwan’s, and a majority of Taiwanese considered themselves “Chinese.” Today, more than two-thirds of Taiwan’s outward foreign direct investment is to China, which is also Taiwan’s leading trading partner.

However, as cross-strait economic interdependence grew and as Taiwan began to democratize, the residents of the island began to debate what it meant to be Taiwanese, a topic that had been taboo for four decades under the authoritarian Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) government. At first, Taiwan’s economic policy toward China oscillated between extreme restriction and extreme liberalization. Some Taiwanese believed supporting economic liberalization with China was a way of promoting unification, while supporting economic restriction with China was equivalent to preserving a separate Taiwan, whether that be simply autonomy or outright independence.

As Taiwanese identity has consolidated, with more than 90 percent of Taiwanese believing they are in some way “Taiwanese,” a consensus has emerged that some degree of economic interdependence with China is unavoidable, but that overdependence is risky. The extreme economic policy options have therefore lost support.

However, support for closer economic relations does not extend to sociopolitical integration. In fact, only 1.5 percent of Taiwanese support immediate unification with China, with even less support among young people. But if Taiwanese identity is threatened, it can become salient again, and extreme options may re-emerge. This was the case in 2014 when Taiwan’s largest student protest — known as the Sunflower movement — successfully opposed a service trade pact that had been negotiated with China.

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