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Politics

Taiwan youth lose anti-China fury, 5 years after Sunflower Movement

Beijing's economic incentives sink in ahead of general elections

Taiwan's youth-led Sunflower Movement in 2014 was sparked by a services trade agreement with mainland China.   © Reuters

TAIPEI -- Five years on from the student-led movement that swept a pro-independence party into power, Taiwanese are growing less wary of mainland China as Beijing's carrot-and-stick approach taps into economic frustration among the young.

March 18 marked the fifth anniversary of the occupation of Taiwan's parliament that kicked off what became known as the Sunflower Movement. The protests were rooted in opposition to the Cross-Strait Services Trade Agreement, a deal meant to strengthen Taiwan's economic ties to the mainland. The movement marked a turning point in Taiwan's relationship with mainland China, which considers it a breakaway province.

Taiwan has long been divided between benshengren -- those with roots on the island dating back before World War II -- and waishengren, those with more recent and closer ties to the mainland. The emergence of a younger generation, born and raised under democracy and who identify themselves as purely Taiwanese, led to a cultural shift that fueled resistance to then-President Ma Ying-jeou's push for economic integration with mainland China.

Ma's pro-Beijing Kuomintang was voted out of power in 2016, replaced by the Democratic Progressive Party and President Tsai Ing-wen.

But opposition to Beijing seems to be starting to fade. In a lecture here this month, Lin Fei-fan, a leader of the Sunflower Movement, warned that Taiwan is in an "unprecedented" predicament, adding that his greatest concern is that people will lose the "desire and ability to resist."

A poll last year by National Chengchi University found that 38% of people in Taiwan consider themselves both Taiwanese and Chinese, continuing a gradual increase from the 2014 low of 32.5%.

"Taiwanese" remained by far the most popular response at 54%, but Wu Jieh-min of the Institute of Sociology at Academia Sinica in Taipei suggests that this may owe partly to respondents trying to meet polltakers' expectations of the proper answer.

Wu said identifying as both Taiwanese and Chinese can be seen as a pragmatic response, letting people stay on the good side of mainland China and even potentially reap economic benefits.

Since the DPP came to power, Beijing has sought to win over the people of Taiwan to the merits of greater economic interaction. In February 2018, China came out with 31 incentives to this end, including bolstering support for Taiwanese seeking employment on the mainland and letting island residents take mainland certification examinations.

Though these measures have not yielded a substantial increase in talent moving to the mainland, they have the potential to sway young people dissatisfied with their economic prospects here. Unemployment averaged 12% for those aged 20 to 24 last year -- well above the roughly 2% rate for those 40 and older.

Low pay among the young has become a major issue, and frustration with a perceived lack of progress under Tsai has driven some to consider crossing the strait.

"It seems like there are opportunities in China," said an employee at a real estate company in New Taipei City. The 28-year-old lamented that a monthly salary of just over 30,000 New Taiwan dollars ($973) was not enough to raise a child in Taiwan.

Beijing has also made clear ahead of next year's general election that it is willing to quash pro-independence movements with force. Chinese President Xi Jinping said in January that he seeks unification under a "one country, two systems" model like that used in Hong Kong, though the idea did not go over well with Taiwan.

"Without realizing it, we could be drawn into mainland China's orbit to the point that there will be no going back," says one DPP official.

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