Studying Aging Chinese Nationalists in Modern Taiwan: A Lesson for Young Voters

Written by Ashley Deng-Yu Chen.

Image Credit: 107/11/14 韓國瑜 岡山造勢晚會 by Wang Fonghu/Flickr. License: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Like many others, Taiwan’s population is divided when it comes to political opinions. Yet apart from the deciding factors such as ethnic background or living environment, one must pay special attention to the obvious gap that exists between voters of different age groups. In other words, while political ideals could still be drawn according to geographical and ethnic identities, there seems to be an emphasis, placed by media and the local communities themselves, on the dividing perspectives on the nation and the functions of society according to one’s age group. Indeed, this was a finding that I came across growing up in Southern Taiwan, in the city of Kaohsiung, and throughout my fieldwork research on the presidential election in 2020.

Taiwan’s political situation has been especially complicated due to the turbulent regional history and major reforms that have taken place in the last three decades. From the relocation of the Republic of China central government to Taiwan in 1949, the Taiwanese people were ruled under martial law by the autocratic Chinese Nationalist Party Kuomintang (KMT) for nearly four decades, until 1987. It was not until the 1990s that a series of reforms were implemented in response to the anti-KMT protests and student movements. Finally, in 1996, Taiwan saw its first direct presidential election — which, at the time, was not exercised without controversies. Through these events in history, it is perhaps unsurprising that the local population in Taiwan does not have a consistent image of the nation and ideas of a “good life”. Furthermore, as Taiwan approaches the reality of an ageing society, such a phenomenon is crystalised through the polarising opinions and views on policies that continue to influence the development of the local democracy and even the direction of its strategies on international politics.

In 2020, twenty-four years after the first direct presidential election, I returned to my hometown in southern Taiwan for my thesis fieldwork. As a graduate student of anthropology, I was interested to see how the ageing supporters of Chinese Nationalism continue to form and preserve their community in modern Taiwan now that their political patron, the KMT, was no longer as powerful. Due to my existing local network and it housing the campaign headquarter of the KMT presidential candidate, mayor Han Kuo-Yu, I decided on Kaohsiung as my main field site. Thus, from December 2019, I began my three-month-long research on local supporters of the KMT party. To better compare Taiwan (or ROC) in their memories and the society they experience today, I had decided to focus on supporters of Chinese Nationalism and the KMT in their fifties and sixties. This choice turned out to be extremely helpful for my data collection. Through interviews and conversations with my interlocutors, I document how the KMT, and modern Taiwanese society were perceived among the community of older Chinese nationalism supporters today.

As a local Taiwanese in her twenties, I had always known Taiwan as a democratic and liberal nation. While I recognised that citizens are all entitled to their own opinion, I was nonetheless not prepared for the deep-rooted split among my fellow voters that surfaced even from the most straightforward conversations. The KMT supporters who had remained loyal and continued to defend the previous atrocities conducted by those in power were not in the minority. Even in the first weeks of my fieldwork, I realised that my fieldsite and interlocutors had a different conception of the country than my own social circle and age group. Among my peers, this phenomenon is often teased as having a “parallel universe.” However, what was hard for me to accept as a local and researcher were that such parallels surrounded my daily life—constantly and everywhere.

As a third-generation Mainlander-Taiwanese, I had come from a strong line of Chinese Nationalists and KMT supporters. Under the authoritarian regime, there was little choice about who you supported politically. This is even less so if you were born and raised in a family of Mainlanders who had crossed the Taiwan strait following the nationalist government. And while our views clashed after I came of age, I remained familiar with the emphasis on Chinese high culture and the idea of a greater Chinese sphere. Ironically, it was through these family bonds that I recruited most of my interview volunteers. As the election hype roamed the nation in the days leading up to the election, the KMT supporters were eager to share their side of the story. Their support of the KMT had since been transformed into a sense of patriotism for the “Chinese republic” and the traditional culture it represented. To my surprise, this observed sensation was shared across ethnic groups. In the city of Kaohsiung, I found KMT supporters ranging from second-generation Mainlanders to self-identified Hoklo and Hakka individuals. Indeed, the imagined community of Chinese Nationalism supporters today was not as homogenous as the others had assumed. 

During my interview sessions and participant-observation activities in Southern Taiwan, many findings struck me, even as a “local anthropologist”. Firstly, most of my interlocutors who had lived through the authoritarian decades under the KMT almost unanimously claimed that the current form of “democracy” and “liberal society” was not any better than the “social order” that was safeguarded by the rigid martial law order. Moreover, with the KMT losing the last general election in 2016 to the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), many supporters subsequently believed that Taiwan had since sunk into a dark ditch of “political correctness” with obsessions of LGBTQ+ rights and naive revolutionist values. And as expressed in individual and group interviews, my interlocutors believed that subjects of economic progress and social order were shifted out of focus as a result. Most significantly, many of the KMT supporters I talked to were the most offended by the DPP’s vocal approach to cross-strait relations with the People’s Republic of China (PRC). “They are playing with fire and manipulating the young generation into war,” many of them commented repeatedly in our conversations. Indeed, while President Tsai Ing-Wen and the current DPP persisted in viewing the ROC as an independent state without pushing for Taiwanese independence, the community of Chinese Nationalism supporters have concluded otherwise. In their eyes, Tsai and the DPP’s advocacy for a self-ruled ROC Taiwan was nothing but a clever disguise for their agenda for Taiwanese Nationalism.

On the other side, the narrative unfolded quite differently. Younger voters had predominantly shown their support for Tsai and the DPP. With the KMT repeatedly passing its organisational power within a small group of elite (and often elder) politicians, many younger voters expressed their scepticism towards the party and its loyal supporters. Even those who were raised in pro-KMT families were not immune to these beliefs, myself included. Nevertheless, for the most part, most younger voters in Taiwan had faith in the existing electoral functions despite their imperfections and supported the implied democratic values.

Furthermore, the Sino-centric cultural hierarchy once imposed by the KMT government was no longer around by the time we had entered school. While its impact on the local society and communities was still profound and everlasting, it has since been replaced, little by little, by emphasising local Taiwanese identity and the folk cultures that were previously overlooked and suppressed. Between the DPP and other third parties supporting a localised identity while the KMT politicians persisted on its Chinese heritage and a framework of Greater China, it was not a difficult decision for most younger voters who had grown up in a post-authoritarian Taiwan with little recognition of their “Chinese” ancestors.

From my point of view, the gap of understanding between younger and older voters in Taiwan — the latter who often continued to support the KMT — seemed to be established in the different environments we had experienced. While not the answer to all political disputes, the “clash” appeared to be the most severe between generations during this round of the election. At the same time, no one would question that emotions ran high on both sides. Among the younger voters in Taiwan, there was a sense of a reinvented nationalism. While out of the purview of my fieldwork, this new trend was built upon the traditional Taiwanese nationalism that previously advocated for the country’s independence from the ROC. Now incorporated with progressive values such as same-sex marriage, sexual reproductive rights and environmental issues, the trend—mainly advocated by smaller parties and not directly endorsed by the DPP—had attracted new supporters with a reconceptualisation of the nation. Unlike its counterpart, the traditionalist Chinese nationalism advocated by the KMT, the idea of Taiwanese nationalism was popular with the younger generation and viewed as the face of modern society. It was a new sense of patriotism that carried different values and beliefs, emphasising Taiwan as their homeland. 

At the same time, however, criticisms were made due to the many new Taiwanese Nationalism supporters’ willingness to have anything take the back seat to the underdefined nationalist ideals. Such a trait was especially apparent when specific social issues – same-sex marriage, feminist policies, foreign labour law – proved to be in the minor interest of the voters. The issues then became silenced so they would not risk potential election victories. While unfulfilled promises are certainly not unheard of in political campaigns and elections, this characteristic had left many supporters disappointed. Throughout my fieldwork and during the limited interactions I had with supporters of Taiwanese Nationalism (or of the idea of a Taiwanese nation), I am certainly curious about how this emerging form of nationalism can rise beyond these common political mistakes in the coming years. 

I also observed that the animosity between the supporters of different nationalisms in Taiwan proved to be larger than life. The distrust and mockery existing between the groups affected not only the policymaking of their preferred party but also the social views of the supporters. Even as a bystander of the nationalist competition, one would encounter incidents that did not help recruit new followers. In fact, the conflict was often so crystallised in campaigns and political debates that it seemed almost impossible for anyone to switch sides.

In the end, there is no question that a divided national imagination exists among the Taiwanese population. Yet my fieldwork findings saw that the local Taiwanese could carry on with their lives beyond the severe differences in political ideas. In practice, we tell ourselves that this is an achievement of true democracy. As a Taiwanese person, I would love to believe this was the case – but I really could not tell you for sure. We will perhaps know more about this in the coming years.

Ashley Deng-Yu Chen is a Canada-based anthropologist from Taiwan trained at the University of Ottawa. She is interested in Sexual Reproductive Health justice, the anthropological aspect of political life, and advocating for Taiwan in an international context. She tweets @a_dyc_

This article was published as part of a special issue on Taiwan ‘Between Generations’. You can find all the articles here.

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