When talk-show host Wang Ben-hu comes to town, even Taiwan's coldest winter in 10 years cannot keep the crowds at home. Wrapped in thick coats, scarves and woolen beanies against a chill wind blowing off the South China Sea, at least 3,000 residents of fishing village Tungkang huddle in the courtyard of a centuries-old Taoist temple, temporarily converted into a television studio. As if on cue, the biting wind abates, and Taiwan's most provocative TV celebrity appears with a microphone to mingle among his fans. Wang doesn't mince his words: "You people were once treated no better than dirt," he says. "You were looked down upon. Mistreated. Abused. Ignored. But now you are like shining doves leading the way forward for Taiwan." The audience rises to its feet, everybody—men, women, young and old—professing their love for Taiwan and their hatred of China, communism and anyone who supports the idea that Taiwan, an island of 23 million people that China claims as its 23rd province, is anything other than a sovereign nation.
Welcome to Taiwan's deep south, which has long had a mind of its own. It is rural, underdeveloped, and populated largely by native Taiwanese, not the mainland Nationalists who fled the Communist takeover of China in 1949 and who are concentrated in the urban, industrial north, particularly the capital, Taipei. Southerners are bitter about having been marginalized, and resent what they regard as the hijacking of their island by the mainlanders, whose obsession for decades has been to one day reunify with China under the Nationalist banner. Now, however, the south's independent streak is no longer an isolated phenomenon, but growing into an island-wide movement that is defining the presidential election taking place on March 20 and threatening to dangerously escalate tensions between the island and the mainland. "The north is the Republic of China," says Wang, 51. "Up there they are still debating whether Taiwan is part of China. But the south is the Republic of Taiwan. People here don't care what China thinks. To us, Taiwan is an independent country. It is home. And now the south's voice is finally being heard."
In Taiwan today, fewer and fewer people see themselves as Chinese. According to an annual poll taken by Taipei's Chengchi University, the proportion of Taiwan's residents who consider themselves exclusively Chinese has plummeted to 10% from 26% in 1992, while the number who think of themselves as exclusively "Taiwanese" has jumped to 42% from 17%. Meanwhile, a November poll by the island's Mainland Affairs Council reveals a similarly negative response to China's only model for reunification: the Hong Kong formula of "one country, two systems." Just 7% of respondents found that formulation acceptable, while 71% considered it unsuitable for Taiwan. Analysts on the island agree that China largely brought this problem upon itself. By blocking Taiwan's entry into almost every international organization and isolating the island diplomatically, all the while threatening it with military action if it goes its own way, China allows itself to be painted as a neighborhood bully by Taiwan politicians looking to garner support from disaffected voters. For many on the island, the final straw was the SARS crisis early last year, when China blocked World Health Organization (WHO) officials from touching down in Taiwan. The upshot was that in the early days of the outbreak, hospital administrators had to rely on the Internet to find effective measures to control the spread of the virus on the island.
Never before has Taiwan's status—sovereign state, or exiled government waiting to return to China, or renegade province bracing to be reabsorbed by the mainland—been as hotly debated on the island. A big reason is the coming vote. Last July, President Chen Shui-bian was trailing his main opponent Lien Chan, a former Vice President who leads the Kuomintang (KMT), by as much as 15% in the opinion polls. Now they're neck and neck, largely because Chen and his Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) have made Taiwan's identity the cornerstone of his re-election bid. Two weeks ago, when Chen organized a "Hands Across Taiwan" event to promote "Taiwanness," up to 2 million people linked up island-wide and shouted slogans such as "Yes! Taiwan," "Trust Taiwan," and "Love Taiwan." On election day, Chen is also holding a referendum asking voters whether the island should increase its defense budget if China refuses to remove the 496 missiles it points at Taiwan, and whether Taipei should engage in dialogue with Beijing to establish what Chen calls a "peace and stability framework." Chen says the referendum reflects the deepening of democracy in Taiwan, and that it's the first step to calling another referendum in 2006 to approve a new constitution for the island. All of this moves Taiwan steadily toward self-determination—and possible confrontation with its frustrated and affronted adversary. "China is in an impossible situation now," says Lee Si-kuen, a political scientist at the National Taiwan University who is also a member of the KMT. "Taiwan nationalism has a momentum all of its own that can't be stopped. If you love Taiwan, if you identify as Taiwanese, it follows that you reject China. That's the reality China needs to face."
The issue of Taiwan's identity has even infused the island's pop culture. In a studio-cum-hip-hop clothing store in the southern city of Tainan, Tseng Kuan-jung, alias Dog G, 25, writes and records pro-Taiwan rap. The poster boy of the DPP's southern youth vote campaign, Dog G was a struggling musician until he penned "Taiwan Song," in which he raps not in Mandarin but in Taiwanese: "Those without the fear of losing, they are the true spirit of Taiwan; those who don't agree, get out!" Dog G, whose best-selling single tells listeners to "act Taiwanese, speak Taiwanese, and to stand up and proclaim they are Taiwanese," says he wrote that song because he wanted people "to stop being ashamed of being Taiwanese."
The ethnic balance of Taiwan's politics began shifting in the early 1990s, and the effect of that shift is still being played out today. Lee Teng-hui, who became the island's first native Taiwanese President in 1988, gradually purged mainlanders from the top ranks of his party, the KMT. He got rid of what were called the "old thieves" who occupied the legislature, and made possible the election of new lawmakers, including one who would earn a reputation as an exposer of corruption and a defender of the interests of native Taiwanese: Chen Shui-bian. The media, long under KMT control, grew more liberal and began covering issues such as government corruption and the KMT's enjoyment of special privileges. A parallel change in the island's culture, a flowering of things Taiwan, celebrated these new freedoms: schools began teaching Taiwan's history, restaurants specialized in local dishes, musicians sang about political repression in their native dialect. As Taiwan became more democratic and the majority of its people acquired greater political clout, independence aspirations grew.
By playing the Taiwan identity card, Chen is not just attracting votes and riling Beijing but changing the island's political culture, too. Before, the battle lines were clearly drawn: Chen and the DPP were pro-independence, the KMT and its allies were in favor of reunification. Now, in order to stand a chance in the election, even the KMT is walking a pro-Taiwan line. The very law that Chen has invoked to hold his referendum on China's military posture was introduced not by the DPP but the KMT. The KMT, Lien told reporters recently, no longer wants to be branded as Taiwan's "reunification party." Eager to convince voters that he is sincere, Lien is using "Taiwan First" as one of his campaign slogans, and a political advertisement is running on Taiwan TV that shows him standing in his "home county" in the south of the island, even though he was born in the mainland. "His father was born here but Lien wasn't. He's trying to portray himself as Taiwanese to win supporters in the south," says Tainan county commissioner Su Huan-chih. "But people down here aren't fooled. They don't trust that his heart is really in Taiwan."
Taipei resident Chen Pei-jun, a 31-year-old biotech researcher with a Ph.D. from the University of Michigan, is the kind of voter the KMT needs to win back. As a teenager, Chen's heart belonged to China. A brilliant student, she attended the exclusive Taipei First Girls Senior High School, directly opposite the presidential office. In school she learned matter-of-factly that the red brick office, built in 1919 during the half century Taiwan spent under Japanese colonial rule, was occupied by the legitimate government of China. Each morning, on her way to class, Chen reverently observed the President's guards slowly hoisting the red, white and blue Republic of China flag. She shared the KMT dream that one day this flag would again fly over Tiananmen Square. At night she read books by mainland-born writers—wistful childhood memoirs set in Hunan or Fujian or Shanghai. "I wept," she says. "Their experience became my experience. Their China was my China. I longed to return. I was the perfect Chinese." Today Chen is remodeling herself as the perfect Taiwanese, and has given up on reunification. Her transformation began when she went to the U.S. in 1995 to study. On campus, she met students from the mainland and realized she had nothing in common with them, and bristled when they described Taiwan's President as a "provincial governor." In her spare time she read books about the island and its history, written by exiled dissidents, which were not available in Taiwan. Since returning from the U.S. in 2002, two years after the KMT was first knocked from power by the DPP, she has been filling in the gaps of what she calls her "missing years." "The KMT lied to me," she says. "I was brainwashed. They made me think I was Chinese just to further their own ends. I'm not. I'm Taiwanese."
China is out of step with these developments. It still views President Chen Shui-bian as an aberration, as if removing him from office will turn back the clock and roll forth the forces of reunification. Yet Taiwan's clear democratic desire today is to eschew the embrace of the motherland. To Beijing, therefore, the KMT's conversion—genuine or not—is a surprising, and potentially disastrous, development. Though the Communists and Nationalists were adversaries, they at least shared the same goal: reunification of China and Taiwan. Not anymore. The KMT is now, at best, the party of the status quo, well aware that plumping for closer ties with China is a sure vote loser. "The issue of reunification cannot be answered at this time," Lien Chan told Time in a recent interview. "The interests of Taiwan must be considered first." This means Beijing is in a bind even if Lien is victorious. "The Chinese leadership had expected Chen Shui-bian to try to win the election by opposing reunification," says an adviser to the mainland's Foreign Ministry. "But it's deeply concerned to see the KMT following suit." Says National Taiwan University political scientist Lee: "The only two ideologies in Taiwan now are independence and the status quo—reunification is dead."
China has made no secret of its anxiety about the election. When the National People's Congress opened in Beijing last week, Premier Wen Jiabao reiterated his offer to hold talks with Taipei if it accepts the "one China" principle, but he emphasized that "we stand firmly opposed to any form of separatist activities aimed at Taiwan independence and will never allow anyone to split Taiwan from China by any means." But the Chinese leadership doesn't know how to blunt Taiwan's growing sense of its own identity. In the past, it tried to cow Taipei by hurling invective, or—in 1996—by launching missiles into the Taiwan Strait. But during the last presidential election in 2000, Beijing's bluster backfired, helping Chen win office by making him seem like a plucky hero willing to confront the playground bully. Since then, China has been exerting its economic rather than military muscle. In a bid to win over the island's business community—which prevalently favors the political status quo but closer economic ties with the mainland—Beijing has welcomed investment from Taiwan and pushed for direct transport links. It has also lobbied governments that have influence over Taipei, such as the U.S. and French, to tell Chen to cool it. This approach has yielded some dividends for China. In December, President George W. Bush emerged from a 40-minute White House meeting with Premier Wen and declared that the U.S. opposes any move by Chen that unilaterally changes the status quo—a neat irony, given America's simultaneous enthusiasm for bringing democracy to Iraq. The following month, when Chinese President Hu Jintao was in Paris, his French counterpart Jacques Chirac joined the chorus of China well-wishers, and he called Taiwan's referendum a "grave mistake."
But even international pressure is not as effective as it used to be, not least because as Taiwan becomes a more mature democracy, its leaders—whether from the DPP or the KMT—must increasingly heed the views and needs of the majority of the electorate. With the "one country, two systems" model looking more and more unacceptable, China's best bet of cajoling Taiwan into submission might be the rich promise of economic integration. Yet even as Taiwan investment in China has swelled to a cumulative total of some $100 billion by some estimates, independence sentiment rises. A more flexible Beijing might try to offer additional sweeteners to Taipei. A foreign-policy expert in the Chinese capital suggests, for instance, allowing Taiwan to join some international institutions such as the WHO. This election "should be an overdue chance to adjust Taiwan policy," he says, "but that's not happening."
Instead, Beijing can only hope that the KMT wins—and ready its military so that it has an alternative means of ensuring that the independence movement doesn't go too far. Beijing has never ruled out retaking Taiwan by force, and years of double-digit growth in the mainland's defense spending have finally made this a feasible strategy. By settling almost all their border disputes, China's leaders can now target the country's military investment on two goals: attacking Taiwan, and deterring U.S. involvement in the conflict. Over the past 18 months, observers have detected a sharp uptick in China's military shipbuilding, especially of submarines and of amphibious landing craft capable of ferrying 400 soldiers and 30 tanks across the rough Taiwan Strait. Even more important is new technology to target U.S. aircraft carriers based in Japan. Defense experts believe China is still a decade away from being able to land troops on Taiwan's fortified shores. Nonetheless, says a Western diplomat in Beijing, "for the first time China's political leaders are at the point of having a credible military option."
China is unlikely, of course, to attack Taiwan militarily—Beijing would have too much to lose. But by showing that it has the capability to do so, it hopes to chill Taiwan's independence movement. Such brinkmanship won't work if the southern village of Tungkang is any barometer. TV celebrity Wang Ben-hu is winding down his show, but the audience is still charged. The crowd becomes so emotional that security guards muscle in to try to calm people down. An old man seated in the front row, no longer able to contain his feelings, rises to his feet and shouts, "China is China. Taiwan is Taiwan." For the first time in history, perhaps, that is something that Beijing—and the rest of the world—might have to come to terms with.