At a barbed-wire museum where political prisoners were once held, visitors lauded Taiwan’s modern-day democracy shaped by its own national identity on the island across from authoritarian China.
Taipei’s Jing-Mei White Terror Memorial Park is a stark reminder of the island’s history as a one-party state under the Kuomintang nationalists who fled to Taiwan at the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949.
Secretive courts tried those accused of assisting the Communists across the Taiwan Strait.
“I heard people were arrested for protesting against the government,” said office worker Mars Hung, after his visit to the grey-walled former military school commemorating the crackdown between 1947 and 1987.
“We are so much freer now,” the 24-year-old said.
“To me, Taiwan stands for democracy. We don’t have so many restrictions like China. It’s a blessing to be Taiwanese, to have our free and democratic way of life.”
The island now faces an authoritarian threat from Xi Jinping’s government which has vowed to annex its smaller neighbor.
China views Taiwan as part of its territory and Beijing has conducted several rounds of war games around the self-ruled island in the last year.
Xi says Taiwan’s people — the majority of whom have roots in mainland China — are Chinese and are betraying their heritage by hanging on to independence.
But locals on Taiwan’s main island say they are their own people in a sovereign nation that has forged a unique identity defined by democratic ideals.
“I was born in Taiwan and I live in Taiwan so I am Taiwanese,” said Jing-Mei museum worker Angela Hung, 50. “It’s a free and peaceful place… I hope to continue our current way of living.”
The decades-long threat from Beijing has only strengthened the island’s distinct—and separate—identity among its 23 million people, said history student Rick Lai, who was snapping graduation photos at Taipei’s Liberty Square.
“This sense of insecurity is making Taiwanese more and more aware of who they are,” the 22-year-old told AFP.
“The constant threat has made Taiwanese ask themselves ‘who are we, what are we, what are we defending?’”
‘Free and peaceful’
Polling from the island’s Election Study Center shows that around 60 percent of residents feel distinctly Taiwanese—three times as many as in the 1990s.
Attachment to Chinese identity has fallen dramatically from 25 percent to less than 3 percent, while around a third feel both Taiwanese and Chinese.
Just a shade over one percent want to see the island unified with mainland China and the overwhelming majority reject the idea of falling under the shadow of the Chinese Communist Party.
While opposition to China can be a motivating factor, University of Missouri’s Sydney Yueh, who authored a book on Taiwan’s identity politics and culture, said the island’s “political reformation” has put in place the roots for a more open and prosperous society.
It is the strength of Taiwan’s institutions and social freedoms that allow people to “see their ways of life as different from, if not superior to, the Chinese.” Yueh said.
‘Taiwan is Taiwan’
Some in Taiwan believe their historic bond with those living across the strait cannot be ignored and say the island’s democracy is the only noticeable difference.
“I don’t think we can ever deny that we look Chinese and think like a Chinese,” said 70-year-old retired air force pilot Peter Tzeng, who identifies as both.
His words echo that of former pro-China president Ma Ying-jeou, who paid a historic visit to the mainland as sitting leader Tsai Ing-wen left for the US and Central America last month.
“We are all Chinese,” he said during his visit — the first by a former or sitting president.
Comments like that from the pro-China camp have raised concerns about next year’s presidential election.
“I am more worried about our own change of government. Such as our own political leaders, do they identify with Taiwan?” asked student Thousand Hung, 20.
For bubble tea seller Sam Chen, Taiwan’s identity is already set in stone.
“They may think we belong to them but we are separate and different… We are already independent,” the 50-year-old said.