Taipei calls for international support as Beijing intensifies pressure on self-ruled island, which it claims as own.
Taipei, Taiwan – Independent theatre producer Lin Chihyu, 29, originally planned to travel to Vietnam with her maternal grandfather to attend a friend’s wedding ceremony before Taiwan held general elections in January.
But five days before the poll she changed her mind and decided not to book her flight.
“If there’s no Taiwan, I feel it will be very hard to have another place in Asia that has this degree of freedom,” said Lin, who voted for incumbent Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in the capital Taipei.
“Only Taiwan that allows you to be that free for saying [what you want to say].”
A democratic political system with a high degree of freedom has fostered a generation of young people increasingly proud of their Taiwanese roots, creating a generational shift that is likely to become an increasing issue in the island’s future politics.
“It is fascinating how Taiwanese who were born even 10 years apart can have such different life experiences,” said Margaret Lewis, an expert on Taiwanese politics and a law professor at Seton Hall University in New Jersey.
“People my age remember martial law and were old enough to vote in the first direct presidential election [in 1996]. People 10 years younger might have vague memories of authoritarian times, but they came of age in a free and democratic Taiwan,” 44-year-old Lewis added.
In a survey on changes in Taiwanese and Chinese identity among people on the island, National Chengchi University’s Election Study Center found that as of June 2019 about 57 percent of people identified as Taiwanese, while 37 percent said they were both Taiwanese and Chinese. Only 4 percent said they were Chinese while the rest chose not to answer.
Meanwhile, a survey from the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy found 82 percent of respondents aged between 20 and 29 were willing to defend Taiwan if “China uses force against Taiwan for unification”.
The Republic of China (ROC) was originally established in 1912 in mainland China. After being defeated by the communists in the civil war in 1949, however, its nationalist leaders relocated to Taiwan, where they set themselves up in power.
The victorious communist, meanwhile, set up the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and considers Taiwan part of its territory. It has not ruled out the use of force to incorporate it with the mainland.
Another young person who backed Tsai was Cathy Chan, a 23-year-old master’s student at the National Taiwan University, who went home to Taoyuan in northern Taiwan so she could vote.
“When studying in Japan, many people thought that Taiwan was China,” Chan told Al Jazeera, explaining some of the frustration she feels at others’ lack of knowledge about her homeland.
“I want to confidently tell everyone that I am from Taiwan. And Taiwan is a beautiful democratic, free country.”
Timothy S Rich, an associate professor of political science at the Western Kentucky University (WKU), who has studied Taiwanese electoral politics and public opinion, said younger Taiwanese were “far less likely” to see themselves as Chinese other than in a broad acknowledgement of cultural similarities.
“They see Taiwan as a sovereign state separate from China,” he added.
Austin Wang, an assistant professor at the department of political science at the University of Nevada, told Al Jazeera that a growing sense of unique identity has become one of the most significant trends in Taiwan in the last 30 years.
He said while the older generations still see themselves as part Chinese, and unification an opportunity to resolve China’s so-called “century of humiliation” – the term used in China to describe the period from the middle of the 19th century when it was dominated by Japan, Russia and European powers – young people have different ideas.
“For the young generation who only identifies themselves as Taiwanese, they mostly see the case of Hong Kong [protests] as the example [of Chinese rule],” said Wang, who has studied Taiwanese politics and political psychology, adding the youth are mostly against China’s unification.
“Even though the former KMT authoritarian regime tried to persuade Taiwanese people to be Chinese, the de facto separation had made Taiwanese and Chinese people different in many aspects,” he added, referring to the then-ruling Kuomintang party that imposed martial law on the island from 1949 to 1987.
That authoritarian system had a significant effect on Taiwan’s older generation, many of whom remain reluctant to speak freely.
Chen Yi Chun, 29, who works in a bookshop, said her mother told her every day not to write “careless” posts on politics on her Facebook.
“Once we this generation were born, we had this freedom right away, so there’s no way for us to understand what they were scared of,” Chen said. Taiwan’s “unification” with China would be a “very scary thing”, she added.
Rich of the WKU noted that young people were also less likely to have “emotional attachments to China” and would find it easier to assert their Taiwanese identity.
The shift has left the KMT, with older leaders and a platform seen as supportive of unification, on the back foot.
“Whereas in the not so distant past, the party could position itself as the party of political and economic stability, it now often looks out of touch with Taiwanese society,” Rich told Al Jazeera.
This month the party appointed a new leader.
Johnny Chiang, 48, is the youngest person ever to hold the post, but even as the party faces the reality of Taiwan’s generational shift, its traditionalists remain reluctant to change.
Chiang will also need to tread carefully with China.
“If China perceives Chiang as seeking to adjust the fundamental tenets by which the KMT conducts cross-strait relations, in jettisoning the 1992 Consensus, it may seek to sabotage him,” Brian Hioe, an expert on Taiwanese politics and founding editor of New Bloom, a Taiwan-focused cultural and political magazine, told Al Jazeera, referring to the so-called agreement with Beijing that there is only “one China” but with each side having its own interpretation of what “China” is.
While concerns about high property prices – an apartment in Taipei is typically 14.5 times higher than the median annual household income – and the economy might prove fertile ground for the KMT, many young people remain behind the reform-minded Tsai.
“Issues that may have been difficult to pursue earlier, from refugee laws to free trade agreements, are likely on the table,” WKU’s Rich said.
“I also expect that more broadly Tsai and the DPP will be more assertive on responding to China,” he added.
For people, like Chen, that would be a welcome development.
“I believe that Taiwan will become a better country,” Chen said. “As a citizen, I will use my life’s strength to make Taiwan an existence that is sufficient to prove that democracy and freedom are the least lethal, but most effective, weapons against hegemony.”