On a drizzly Tuesday night earlier this month, Chen Li-hung, a celebrity news television host, strode onto a stage in Changhua, in central Taiwan, and launched into a passionate speech, feeding red meat to his Democratic Progressive Party’s assembled faithful.
“My parents are from mainland China,” he told the crowd. “Yet I was born in Taiwan. I grew up in Taiwan. So why did the teachers in school tell me I am still Chinese? Since my youth, I have felt that I am not Chinese, I am Taiwanese!” He ripped into the incumbent president, Ma Ying-jeou. “Eight years ago, President Ma won himself a pretty nice electoral victory, but he is walking us closer and closer to China, and has Taiwan gotten any better?”
For hours, speakers like Mr. Chen raised the crowd to a fever pitch. Then Tsai Ing-wen, the party’s presidential nominee, arrived to cool them down.
Ms. Tsai, a former law professor and trade negotiator, let her surrogates fire up the base during the election campaign that ended on Jan. 16 in victory for her and her party. She knew that if voters detected too much populism, they would have turned on her. And she realized that Beijing and Washington watch her words closely.
The range in performances between Mr. Chen and Ms. Tsai helps explain the Democratic Progressive Party’s crushing margin of victory two weeks ago over Mr. Ma’s Kuomintang party, which lost both the presidency and, for the first time, Parliament. The rally highlighted why, with this election, China has lost Taiwan for good.
When the Kuomintang was defeated in a civil war by Mao’s Communists in 1949, its leadership retreated to Taiwan with millions of mainlander refugees like Mr. Chen’s parents, establishing an independent authoritarian government that gave way to democracy in the 1990s. Since 1949, Beijing has claimed Taiwan as a wayward province that must be reunited with the mainland, peacefully if possible but by force if necessary. The United States is Taiwan’s security guarantor, but also wishes to avoid offending Beijing and has been unsympathetic to Taiwanese leaders who rock the boat. Taiwan’s voters punish candidates who needlessly provoke China, or alienate Washington.
Beijing has pursued a decades-long strategy of patience and economic courtship, hoping that Taiwan would peacefully rejoin the mainland. And the Taiwanese do want stable, functional ties with China. Polls show most Taiwanese favor the status quo of de facto independence, without any official declaration that would enrage Beijing and possibly provoke an invasion.
But with the mainland’s economic miracle running aground, many Taiwanese are questioning the wisdom of lashing themselves to the mast. The Taiwanese worry that Mr. Ma’s rapprochement with Beijing has gotten too close, without enough trickle-down benefits to average Taiwanese. A free-trade bill that would have opened sensitive industries, such as media, to mainland Chinese ownership, stalled in Parliament in 2014 amid student protests, which became known as the Sunflower Movement.
Meanwhile, the Taiwanese see an increasingly repressive mainland government across the strait — and want no part of it. President Xi Jinping’s crackdown on dissent and nationalist appeals to the glory of Chinese culture are uncomfortable reminders of Taiwan’s own experiences under martial law.
But it was the sentiment expressed by Mr. Chen during the rally that suggests why, unless Beijing resorts to force, the China-Taiwan divorce could be permanent. Polls show that the generation of islanders who identify as “Chinese” is fading, and more people are identifying themselves as “Taiwanese.” Decades of de facto independence have whetted Taiwanese appetites for the real thing. Polls show most Taiwanese are unwilling to rejoin even a democratic China.
These feelings will deepen as a younger generation of Taiwanese finds its political voice. Indigenous identity and attachment to liberal civic values are strongest among the increasingly assertive youth, whose Sunflower Movement spawned the New Power Party, which in coalition with Ms. Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party toppled several Kuomintang incumbents in the election.
Still, while Taiwanese may increasingly identify with a unique local culture — and the passion of someone like Mr. Chen — for now they prefer Ms. Tsai’s more measured public persona. A cerebral technocrat, she is different from the earthier elders in her party, some of whom started their political careers in Kuomintang prisons.
Even as Ms. Tsai’s surrogates played the identity card, her campaign stressed economic competence and promised no formal independence, a position meant to avoid offending Beijing and Washington. Yet Ms. Tsai’s party platform still advocates independence, and her victory will give her power to entrench Taiwan’s separateness with subtle policy tweaks.
The Pacific Rim’s shifting politics may tilt Washington’s calculus as well. Since the Nixon administration, Washington has prioritized a realpolitik relationship with Beijing over any attachment to Taiwan. America’s current stance toward China’s claims on Taiwan is implicit acquiescence. But Beijing’s growing assertiveness along its periphery has raised alarms for American allies in Tokyo, Seoul and Manila, all of whom are watching to see how China tests America’s defense commitments to Taiwan.
Ms. Tsai will not miss chances to remind Washington of the importance of that alliance. Her party intends to use its parliamentary majority to navigate Taiwan into the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an agreement that will hedge the island’s economy away from China and bind it more closely to America and its regional allies.
As Mr. Chen finished his stemwinder, the finale of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony blasted over the speakers. “Protect our way of life, uphold our character ... come out to vote!” he implored. “Let’s give the Democratic Progressive Party a powerful start to its time in office!”
Taiwan’s voters have done just that, pushing Beijing’s dream of reunification even further from reach.
Nick Frisch is an Asian studies doctoral student at Yale’s graduate school and a resident fellow at Yale Law School.