By Marie-Alice McLean-Dreyfus, an intern with the Lowy Institute's East Asia Program, and Merriden Varrall, Director of the East Asia Program, Lowy Institute.
On 31 July, hundreds of Taiwanese students stormed into the Ministry of Education in Taipei protesting revisions to high school curriculum, which, according to the student protesters, whitewash Taiwan's history and ignore Taiwan's own literature and experiences.
The movement against the revisions started in February 2014 and the events of the past weeks follow on from months of smaller-scale protests where students have staged sit-ins, chanted slogans like 'oppose changes to the curriculum' and 'step down Wu Si-hua' (the Taiwan Education Minister), and petitioned ministers to withdraw the proposed changes.
These protests are significant in their own right, but what's more important is how they fit into a larger pattern suggesting a growing sense of Taiwanese identity.
Taiwan has recently seen numerous demonstrations over a range of issues, including environmental problems, media freedom and the largest – the Sunflower Movement – which occurred last year over the Cross Straits Services Trade Agreement.
Common to all of these protests is a desire to protect what is increasingly being understood as a distinct Taiwanese identity – an identity which can only be found on the island of Taiwan. Democracy is one of the key pillars of this contemporary sense of Taiwanese self. In the case of the protests around changes to the curriculum, a key concern (aside from the content) is that changes were being implemented without adequate consultation. According to protesters, in keeping with Taiwan's democratic system, any major decisions affecting the institutions or laws of Taiwan should be made transparently and with adequate consultation with Taiwan's population, and not decided solely by the executive.
This sense of rising local identity was clearly articulated by one young protester when he said at a forum hosted by the Ministry of Education in June that 'we are Taiwanese and should study Taiwan's history.' His view is reflected across Taiwan. Polls carried out by the Election Study Centre at National Chengchi University, show that close to 60% of the population identify as Taiwanese only; twenty years ago the figure was 30%.
So, what does 'being Taiwanese' actually mean?
Fundamentally, being Taiwanese means loving Taiwan as a country, a sense of attachment to Taiwan as physical place, and a desire for life to be governed by open and democratic processes. These findings can be seen in the Taiwan Social Change Survey carried out by the National Science Council in 2003. Pollsters asked 2016 people about their attitudes to identity. In response to a question on whether being 'a real citizen' meant identifying with 'our country' (meaning Taiwan), 89.5% answered this was either important or very important. When asked if to be 'a real citizen' one should respect Taiwan's political system and laws, 88% said it was important or very important.' Taiwan's successful transition to democracy is a source of great pride for those living in Taiwan and something they wish to protect.
Critics of the protests in Taiwan say the protesters are 'anti-China,' a theme picked up in Chinese media, which depicts students as naïve and ignorant. However, these criticisms miss the broader underlying concerns around protecting local identity, which are not necessarily defined in opposition to China.
For now, tensions around textbook revisions have quietened. This is partly due to talks between protesters and the Ministry of Education earlier this month which raised the possibility of future negotiations. Further protests were called off due to Typhoon Soudelor. Despite the temporary calm, the broader identity issues underlying the protests continue to simmer in Taiwan, and are likely to have implications for the elections scheduled for 2016.
The many recent protests in Taiwan are not only about the immediate issues of the environment, or trade, or education. They are indicative of how protesters wish to protect what they increasingly see as their unique Taiwanese identity and way of life. As Taiwan enters election mode for its presidential elections in 2016, understanding domestic trends underpinning Taiwanese society is key to truly comprehending the political dynamics at play in contemporary Taiwan. Taiwanese elections are often portrayed in Western media as being about unification with or independence from China. Just as it is too simple to see the protests as an expression of pro or anti-Chinese sentiment, so it is also too simple to view the upcoming elections through a lens of unification versus independence. Taiwan's political and social landscape is much more complex.