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Taiwan-PRC relations: Familiarity, meet contempt

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14 October 2010 09:23

Peter Martin lives and studies in Taipei and blogs at www.sinocentric.co.uk.

As I said in my previous post, the sense of social distance between Taiwanese and mainland Chinese people seems to actually be growing as cross-Strait integration continues. This owes a great deal to the very process of increased cross-Strait contact, which is supposed to bring the two peoples closer together.

A pertinent example has emerged in just the last few days. A Chinese baseball team designated to play in Taiwan on 8th October pulled out of the competition as a result of the display of Republic of China (ROC) flags by Taiwanese students. The result of the incident has been the repetition on television of other perceived insults to Taiwan, including the seizing of the ROC flag by mainlanders at the 2009 Gaoxiong World Games.

Incidents like this reinforce negative images not only of the Chinese Government, but also its people. A similar argument can be made about cross-Strait travel, which is predicted to see 1.5 million Chinese visitors to Taiwan in the coming year. Media reports of mainland visitors, as well as people's first-hand accounts, tend to emphasise the 'rude' and 'uncivilized' nature of mainland visitors, who are often presented as being incapable of queuing or displaying basic manners. People's experiences often enhance the sense of distance rather than create closeness.

Economic integration, whatever its merits, does little to assuage people's fears. Many fear an influx of dangerous, low-quality products from the mainland and worry about the 'hollowing out' of Taiwan's economy as manufacturing jobs go to mainland China. DPP campaign material has emphasised the probable increases in inequality which will result from the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement with China, and the likelihood that competition for jobs with mainlanders will drive down wages for many Taiwanese and result in higher unemployment.

Opinion polls confirm these trends. A recent survey by the United Daily News showed that 47% people had a bad impression of people from the mainland and only 38% a good impression. 24% saw mainland Chinese as 'uncivilized'. Other negative impressions included 'mercantilist', 'rough', 'selfish', and 'nouveau riche'.

Other surveys show an increasing proportion of people opposed to the idea of unification. Public opinion is broadly supportive of moves to stabilize the relationship between China and Taiwan and of efforts to reduce the likelihood of military conflict, but all the evidence suggests that Taiwanese people feel less Chinese now than at any other time in modern history. This is more than just a point of interest: Taiwan is a democracy and, without public support, peaceful unification is extremely unlikely.

What explains this gap between recent political trends and Taiwanese public opinion' It's partly to do with the fact that media coverage in Taiwan closely links mainland people to the country's government, plus the fact that negative coverage is inherently more interesting to audiences, providing broadcasters with an incentive to emphasise bad news. But it goes much deeper.

Many, perhaps most, national identities develop in opposition to an external 'other', and Taiwan is no exception. China has represented that 'other' for Taiwan for at least the last 60 years. In Taiwan's martial law era, communist China represented a society which was intent on destroying China's traditional heritage; since the democratisation of Taiwan and the mainland's process of reform and opening, it has represented a developing, authoritarian country which contrasts strongly with affluent and democratic Taiwan.

Taiwanese people's sense of their identity has developed within the context of these comparisons; negative perceptions of Chinese people are hard to shake off because they are relevant not only to how Taiwanese people understand the mainland, but also to how they understand themselves.

This suggests that liberal ideas about how greater inter-societal contact creates trust between peoples is only correct in certain circumstances; it depends on the lens through which this contact is judged. In the case of Taiwanese people's experiences of the mainland, it may be better to revert to the old cliché that familiarity breeds contempt.

Photo by Flickr user 365, used under a Creative Commons license.

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