P-I Focus: Independent-minded youth hold future of Taiwan in their hands

While the United States has been preoccupied with terrorism and the Middle East, a crisis has been brewing in the Taiwan Strait that could dwarf any the world has seen since World War II.

China is steadily increasing its military and economic powers in the region, forcing Asian countries to bend to its will, with the goal of dominating Asia. Given that scenario, an independent Taiwan, which China considers a breakaway province even though Taiwan has been under the control of the mainland for only four of the last 100 plus years, is unacceptable to Beijing.

China does everything it can to stop Taiwan from gaining international recognition or even participating in international forums and organizations. For example, despite the need for all Asian nations to work together to combat avian flu, China has blocked Taiwan’s efforts to join the World Health Organization. So, while China is expanding in the region, it is focusing more and more on reuniting Taiwan with the mainland, peacefully if that’s possible, but with force if necessary.

The United States is all that stands in the way. If China used force against Taiwan, something it has said it is prepared to do if Taiwan declares itself a sovereign nation, the United States could be dragged into a monumental battle. Meanwhile, Taiwan’s leaders are careful not to offend China by talking too loudly about declaring it a totally independent nation although it is forcefully pursuing recognition from more nations. Currently it is recognized by only 26 countries, most of them recipients of Taiwan development aid.

The current leaders of China and Taiwan are fairly content to allow Taiwan to continue as it is today, in a gray area — not functioning under the government of the mainland but not a wholly independent nation, either. But what about the future? The younger generations will decide Taiwan’s future. And that decision will be of great concern to a United States that is obligated by treaty to provide for the defense of Taiwan. What are the attitudes of Taiwan’s young people toward reunification and mainland China?

To answer that question, I recently spent two months traveling throughout Taiwan, talking with young people from 13 to 30. Their answers, overall, show an attitude in stark contrast to the conciliatory attitude of Taiwan’s top political parties and suggest a much more forceful stand for independence, one that would bring Taiwan into sharp conflict with China. I did formal interviews with 50 people, from Taipei, the modern capital in the north, to Tainan, the ancient capital in the south. My subjects, for the most part, were high school and university students but also included young workers and business people. The interviews were in English, which is widely spoken, and even when language was somewhat a barrier, many of the young people were still eager to express their views.

Of the 50 people, only six said they would like Taiwan to become part of mainland China.

Irene Jun, 26, a university student from Gaosheng, in southern Taiwan, was typical of this group.

“I would like Taiwan to become part of mainland China because China is a growing country and it would give Taiwan a better position in the world. I like the people and the culture of China.”

This attitude was often reflected among the small-business people I met in Taiwan. Many said they thought reuniting with China was the best future economically.

Three people in the survey said they were indifferent toward China and reunification.

Yung Ying-Ho, 19, a university student in Taipei, was typical of this group.

“I don’t think much about Taiwan becoming part of China. I don’t care. Maybe Taiwan will be completely independent in the future, but I don’t worry about it. I think Taiwan can be different maybe, maybe join China later on. I love Taiwan, but I think it could be better. I think China is not so bad, but they need change — more freedom.”

However, 41 of the 50 people interviewed said they did not want Taiwan to become part of mainland China. Of those 41, 17 of these wanted to maintain the “status quo.”

This interview in Taipei with Chiu Li-Ting, 18, who had just graduated from high school and is planning to go to a university is typical of the attitude of those wanting to keep the status quo.

“I don’t want our country to become part of China. I don’t really like China. We are a democracy and they are communists. I think their thinking is different than ours. I don’t feel good or bad toward them, I just feel that they are different. But I don’t want Taiwan to declare itself totally independent because I think, if we really announce to the world that we are totally independent, then I think the men of China will attack us.”

But 24 of the 41 who don’t want Taiwan to become part of mainland China said they wanted Taiwan to become “totally independent” even if it meant going to war with China.

Jimmy Lin, 19, a university student in Tainan, was typical of that group.

“I don’t want Taiwan to become part of mainland China. In my opinion, the Taiwan people have the right to manage our government. Looking at history, I don’t think mainland China has the right to do this. I want Taiwan to declare its total independence. I hope that one day that will be true. I consider myself Taiwanese, because now Taiwan has been independent of China for more than 40 years, and the culture is totally different. So, I think we have the right to say that we can be independent. But I am worried that there will be war.”

Min Hui Lin, 30, who works in finance in Tainan, was even more forceful about independence.

“I don’t want Taiwan to become part of mainland China. We are democratic and China is not. I would like Taiwan to declare that it is totally independent. I’m not afraid of any threats of war from China.”

While not scientific, I believe this survey indicates that the future of Taiwan belongs to those who want independence from China, a move that China has said would spark war.

And if war comes, who will support Taiwan? Lo Chih Cheng, the executive director of the Institute for National Policy Research in Taipei, said the United States is obligated by treaty to provide Taiwan with defensive capabilities against an aggressor. Beyond that, no one is certain what the United States would do.

“Some people believe that the U.S. is committed to security and stability in the Taiwan Strait, but in terms of what the U.S. would do in specifics, when it comes to a real scenario, nobody knows,” Lo said in an interview in July. “I think the U.S. has been very concerned about the growing military power of China, especially the balance of power toward Taiwan, but so far the U.S. has done very little to address the imbalance.”

President Bush, in his second inaugural speech, said that “it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world. This is not primarily the task of arms, though we will defend ourselves and our friends by force of arms when necessary.”

The youth of Taiwan, a nation of 23 million people with an only recently thriving democracy, appear willing to stand up to the might of the People’s Republic of China, a nation of 1.5 billion people. It won’t be easy. But as Bush also said in his inaugural speech, “The difficulty of the task is no excuse for avoiding it. America’s influence is not unlimited, but fortunately for the oppressed, America’s influence is considerable, and we will use it confidently in freedom’s cause.”

The democratic future of Taiwan may well depend upon the United States living up to those words.

(P-I foreign desk editor Larry Johnson spent two months in Taiwan on a Fulbright research grant.)

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