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Young people of Taiwan and Hong Kong refusing to accept the unification of 'Greater China'

When Cheuh-Yu Su was at school she blithely assumed that the average Taiwanese young person was wedded to their studies, focused on a future profession and apathetic to the tightening embrace of mainland China. Indeed, she was one of them, studying obsessively for her entrance exams, until the night her father judged that she was ready for the box of forbidden knowledge that he'd been keeping from her.

"The night I got into university my dad told me to throw out all my history books and he pulled out a box of books from a sliding shelf," says Su. "And he said: 'this is the real history of Taiwan'."  

<i>Illustration: Rocco Fazzari.</i>
Illustration: Rocco Fazzari. 

For Su, the awakening of a defiantly democratic and autonomous Taiwanese identity came as an epiphany, literally overnight. For others it came more gradually as the island's political rulers, the Kuomintang (KMT), pursued economic rapprochement with its old mortal foe, the Chinese Communist Party, with such single-mindedness that they feared the island's hard-won democracy was in danger of being sold.

But it was only in March, when they occupied Taiwan's legislative Yuan for 24 days and filled it with sunflowers, and drew 500,000 people onto the streets in solidarity, that Su and other student leaders came to believe that they could change the course of Taiwan history.

Bloodied, but unbeaten: Police take an injured man from the confrontation of pro-democracy student protesters and angry ...
Bloodied, but unbeaten: Police take an injured man from the confrontation of pro-democracy student protesters and angry local residents in Mong Kok, Hong Kong. Photo: AP

"The Sunflower Movement activated people to care about where we live and question how things are run," said Maggie Yang, who grew up in Sydney and returned to study in Taipei, before joining the movement. "I really under-estimated Taiwanese children." 

This little-known renaissance of Taiwanese identity that bloomed earlier this year helps explain the significance of what has been taking place this past fortnight, as tens and sometimes hundreds of thousands of students and supporters have poured onto the streets of downtown Hong Kong. A whole generation of the most educated residents of 'Greater China' – as investment bankers like to call it – are refusing to accept the inevitability of "unification".

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And this is more deeply subversive than it may sound.

These protesters, armed with their smart phones, sunflowers, yellow ribbons and umbrellas, are frontally challenging the logic of Chinese hegemony. They are taking aim at the Chinese Communist Party's most important asset: the story of inexorably rising power that it pushes out into the world.

The meta-narrative of ever-growing power is the drumbeat that accompanies Beijing's policies of territorial coercion across its southern and eastern seas. It is the subtext that persuades foreign governments to remain silent as Beijing abandons all restraint to subdue the restive borderlands of Tibet and Xinjiang. It is has also been the incentive for economic beneficiaries to avoid seeing, or to rationalise, or to even actively support China's underground program to degrade, dismantle and decapitate the institutions of civil society and government enjoyed by the citizens of Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Before the umbrella protests of Hong Kong it was easier to believe that it was only a matter of time before the peripheries were fully absorbed into the empire and made safe for Chinese Communist Party rule. And that's the way the way that Hong Kong's great multinational banks, the world's top four accounting firms, and even the Australian Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong still see the odds, judging by their recent statements.

"The present situation is damaging to Hong Kong's international reputation, may harm Hong Kong's international competitiveness, and is creating an uncertain environment that may be detrimental to investment, to job creation and to Hong Kong's prosperity into the future," said Austcham, in a statement on September 29 which echoed Communist Party propaganda almost word-for-word, and incited a heated internal backlash.

Geoff Raby, a former ambassador who represents Australian corporations in Beijing and sits on the board of Andrew Forrest's iron ore company, Fortescue, was empathetic with the protesters he surveyed in central Hong Kong. Indeed, their earnest faces were haunting reminders of those he'd seen a quarter of a century earlier in Tiananmen. And, to him, their hopes are as futile now as they were back then. To contemplate otherwise would not just be wrong, as he put it this week in the AFR, but "ideological". So much so that Canberra should resign itself and allow history to take its inevitable course if the People's Liberation Army is once again sent in. "It will be a time for cool reason, rather than ideological enthusiasm,"according to Raby. 

Similarly, when the Sunflower protesters occupied the Taiwanese Yuan, in response to President Ma Ying-jeoh bypassing the island's hard-won democratic institutions to sign a wide-ranging economic integration pact with the mainland, economists at ANZ felt qualified to instruct the island's misguided youth what was good for them. "The protest in Taipei may heighten the anti-Mainland sentiment that is seen in Hong Kong," they said in a research note of March 26. "Turning back such economic integration will only exacerbate the current plight of the middle class, increase youth unemployment, and lead to a loss of thousands of high quality job opportunities."

The mainlandisation of China's peripheries has been accelerating and intensifying under the emperor-like Xi Jinping ever since he assumed the presidency – the third and least important of his titles – in March last year. Raby, and the anonymous author of that Austcham statement, and the China economics team at ANZ bank all assume that China's journey to empire is inexorable, whatever speed bumps lie along the road.

But the harder Xi pushes, and the more enemy lines he crashes through, the further the goal of Chinese hegemony seems to recede. The demographics of the sunflower and umbrella rebellions put Xi's impatience in a more rational light.

Ed Wong, one of the stars of the New York Times' China team, captured Beijing's generational challenge in his reports from outside the Hong Kong government offices this week. "We don't want to associate ourselves with Communist China," a 38 year-old protestor told Wong, while surrounded by shadowy, hostile men. "We don't want to be ruled by a country that massacres its own people," said another, aged 23. "I wouldn't say I reject my identity as Chinese, because I've never felt Chinese in the first place," said 20 year-old Yeung Hoi-kiu,

The youngest protesters interviewed in that story rejected not only the form of political rule but the whole idea of pan-Chinese identity that had united both the Communist Party and its mortal enemy, the Kuomintang,  for nearly a hundred years. And that's also what's happening on Taiwan where the stakes are much greater and the resistance more advanced.

The allegiances of Taiwanese people have traditionally divided between families that arrived before and after the 1949 revolution. The new wave of immigrants were mainly KMT families who shared the same dream of pan-Chinese identity as Chairman Mao Zedong. Many of them have benefited materially from the informal united front between Beijing and Taiwan's KMT administration under President Ma Ying-jeoh.

But Cheng Wu, a political science student at National Taiwan University who was born into the KMT aristocracy with both grandfathers KMT generals, epitomises how these old distinctions are breaking down. "Originally, I thought I was Chinese," says Wu. 

Wu says his identity shifted when he watched leaders on the mainland boasting about how it would be to conquer Taiwan and make its people bow down and obey. He then discovered a new pantheon of home-grown heroes, beginning with a free speech protest leaders who martyred their lives against his own KMT.  "I realised that Taiwan and China now have very different cultures, economies and politics," he says. "Taiwan has now developed on its own. It feels like Americans are originally from England but they became American – it feels that way to me."

It is usually assumed that time is on Beijing's side but the young generations of Taiwan and Hong Kong are betting it's the other way around. While it has been Hong Kong that has captured the headlines it is Taiwan - the great unfinished business of the Communist revolution, with its population equal to Australia's - where the battle to define the values of greater China is likely to be lost or won.

On these trajectories, with a defiantly autonomous generation of Taiwanese facing off against a rich, heavily-armed and uncompromising Chinese Communist Party, veteran observers warn that the island could once again become the most dangerous flashpoint that stands between the two most important nuclear powers, the United States and China.

"Limited cross-strait reconciliation has lulled the world into complacency," says Jerome Cohen, a lawyer who is held in high esteem on both sides of the Taiwan Strait. "The low-hanging fruits of economic cooperation have all been gathered and the Mainland – now under increasingly assertive and harsh new leadership – seems less attractive than ever to most Taiwanese. In a few years 'the Taiwan problem' will again make fussing over some rocks in the East China Sea and South China Sea look like child's play."

The young protesters of Hong Kong and Taiwan are fighting to defend the institutions that have made their societies among the most prosperous, pluralistic and civilised on earth. With implications for people everywhere, they are fighting to extract a cost whenever China's current rulers attempt to make the world safer for themselves by eroding the ideals and practice of the rule of law. And the popularity and demographics of their cause suggest that the defeat of their ideals is not as inevitable as it might once have seemed.

Cheng Wu, the descendant of nationalist KMT generals, said he had a huge falling out with his parents when they learned he'd joined the protest movements. Neither of his parents would even hear him out.

But when his mother, at least, began to watch interviews he gave on Taiwanese TV, calmly and lucidly articulating the values and principles that underpinned his political position, her old nationalist defences began to soften.

" Her attitude started to change," he says. "And she's now kind of supporting my position. She thinks our generation of young people should have our own right to decide what our future should be rather than have it decided by her generation."

John Garnaut is the Asia-Pacific editor.

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