In the face of China invasion questions, Taiwan’s youth build resilience

In the face of China invasion questions, Taiwan’s youth build resilience
  • PublishedMarch 30, 2024

As Caleb Chang reduces chicken stock in a pot, he laments it’s “frustrating people only see Taiwan as a dangerous place”.

“I think it is hard when China uses their input to overshadow us,” says the 34-year-old from the south-western city of Tainan.

Mr Chang is a mixologist and takes great pride in using ingredients that illustrate Taiwan’s history.

His cherry float cocktail draws inspiration from a Japanese-style soda float, reflecting the historical context of Japan’s occupation of Taiwan in the early 20th century.

A man mixes a drink and a bowl of dumplings.
Caleb Chang likes experimenting with local ingredients when he makes drinks.(ABC News: Libby Hogan)

During this period, Japan embraced some aspects of Western culture and adopted American favourites such as the ice cream float.

Mr Chang connects with his roots by immersing himself in the tastes and landscapes of the self-ruled island.

“I go searching for Taiwan’s native herbs and try to get people interested in our nature, like this ailanthus prickly ash that adds a milky aroma to the top of drinks,” he says, smiling.

“Nobody thinks of nature when they think of Taiwan, but there is such an abundance here.”

It wasn’t long before the conversation with Mr Chang about the different rulers of Taiwan — from the Dutch to the Spanish and then the Qing Dynasty — turned to the possibility of war and the prickly relationship with China.

Grassy mountain ridge overlooking sea.
Mountains aren’t usually the first thing that come to mind when people think about Taiwan but locals say there are many great hiking spots.(Supplied: Calvin Lin)

Mr Chang says he doesn’t trust China after watching Beijing’s crackdown on Hong Kong, which led to a sweeping new national security law aimed at dissentients.

“I’m afraid”, admits Mr Chang, “I am not 100 per cent sure if they will or won’t [invade] but it is always at the back of your mind, I think all Taiwanese just try to cope with this threat.”

In recent weeks, the border between China and Taiwan has been tested several times.

In February, Chinese boats entered the waters around Kinmen Islands, an archipelago controlled by Taiwan that hugs mainland China’s coast.

Taiwan’s coast guard pursued the boat, ordering it to stop for inspection.

men in orange look out at sea near boat.
Taiwan’s coast guard work during a rescue operation after a Chinese fishing boat capsized near Taiwan-controlled Kinmen islands.(Reuters: Taiwan Coast Guard)

As the boat tried to flee, the chase ended in a fatal collision and two of the four Chinese passengers died.

China, which rejects the existence of the de facto sea border and claims Taiwan as its territory, issued a furious condemnation.

Taiwanese have more than just war on their minds

As China escalates its aggression at sea – alongside an increased number of Chinese jets entering Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) – life remains largely unchanged for the people of Taiwan.

While they don’t rule out the possibility of China’s invasion, many Taiwanese don’t perceive it as an imminent threat.

“It’s never taboo in Taiwan to talk about it [possible invasion], but some people really don’t like to talk about it because they think it’s pretty exhausting,” says 28-year-old administration officer Calvin Lin.

“Besides, China can just block us with policies and bully us with unfair trading policies, so they don’t even have to think about weapons which are expensive,” adds Mr Lin.

A map of Taiwan shows a dotted line extending around the island and over parts of south-eastern China, with shaded sections
A map based on a briefing from Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense in April 2023 showing Taiwan’s de facto ADIZ.(Supplied: Louis Martin-Vezian, CIGeography)

Residents in Taiwan have adapted to frequent air defence exercises, especially people living close to major air force bases where jets train to defend against sudden attacks.

Asar, a scooter rental owner in Hualien, remembers how she and her primary school classmates became accustomed to the roar of jets overhead during the air force’s drills.

“When a jet flew over the classroom, my teacher would just pause, sip her tea, and then keep going with the lesson.”

When asked about the threat of China and the recent aggressions, Asar shrugs, “let’s see”.

While some view the topic of war with complacency, others find it a difficult subject to broach.

“We all hold uncertainty in our hearts,” says 24-year-old student Ruby Chen.

two scooters drive past peach building.
Temples, including Grand Mazu Temple, dot street corners across the ancient city of Tainan.(ABC News: Libby Hogan)

Others share similar views but say they’d rather not dwell on it.

More so than the possibility of war, young people, like many around the world, are anxious about house prices, lack of wage growth, and the costs of whether to have children or not.

Some speak about a plan B, “a few of my friends choose to study abroad in Japan or Australia to give themselves choices” Ms Chen explains.

‘A new phase of history’

Ms Chen, like many young people on the island, identifies solely as Taiwanese – and is at pains to point out what makes Taiwan so unique compared to China.

“Yes, our ancestors came from mainland China but after hundreds of years we all become Taiwanese, this is a new phase of history, our freedom here is different and we have freedom of speech, which is very precious,” she tells the ABC.

The majority of Taiwan’s nearly 24 million people identify as only Taiwanese.

temples and traffic
Taipei has many old buildings which have stood the test of time.(ABC News: Libby Hogan)

According to the latest survey released by the Election Research Center at the National Chengchi University, only 2.4 per cent of Taiwanese people identify as Chinese, a record low since 1992.

While nearly 62 per cent identify solely as Taiwanese.

Ms Chen and others say President Tsai Ing-wen helped foster this strong identity through her pro-independence stance.

“As history fades, and there are over a hundred years since many of our ancestors came from mainland China, we become more separate, and we are different from the mainland, we have our freedom of speech,” says Ms Chen.

Joyce Hsieh, a student aspiring to be a teacher, noted the increased Indigenous Taiwanese history included in current textbooks compared to her primary school experience.

“Kids nowadays identify themselves more as Taiwanese compared to when I grew up,” says Ms Hsieh.

“I remember even we had this line in our homework that said ‘be a good student, be a good Chinese’ but those lines are now completely gone.”

man looking at camera in black dress with weaving.
Suming Rupi says young people in Taiwan are becoming more interested in learning about Indigenous communities.(Supplied: Suming Rupi)

Some hold negative views towards China – but not as a whole.

Most young people separate the people from the government and its policy to bring Taiwan under Beijing’s control.

While many trace their ancestors back to mainland China, Taiwan’s 16 Indigenous groups often get overlooked.

But singer Suming Rupi from the Amis Indigenous ethnic group in Dulan, in the south of Taiwan, believes there is new-found interest among Taiwanese youth to learn about Indigenous communities.

He says this is in part to embrace a stronger identity and to bring to the fore the different historical roots to mainland China.

“When I started university more people asked me about my background and there was more interest among students, so I decided to write songs about our traditions,” Mr Rupi says.

Kid walks with chips and crowds in street.
Taipei’s night markets help give the island a vibrant evening culture.(ABC News: Libby Hogan)

Taiwanese youth resilience

Mr Lin challenges the notion that Taiwanese youth are constantly fearful of China or obsessed with learning civil defence or survival skills in case there is an invasion or blockade.

Instead, he believes Taiwanese have learned to cope with the threat since childhood and choose to enjoy the present and embrace their culture.

“There’s a rock band called Flesh Juicer. They sing in Taiwanese, they don’t sing in Mandarin, so to me that’s pretty cool,” he says.

He and Mr Chang also note how proud they are of Taiwan’s progressive LGBTQ+ policies and being the first Asian nation to legalise same-sex marriage.

People enjoy Taiwan’s annual pride parade in Taipei.(Reuters: Ann Wang)

“As a gay person I didn’t feel a lot of bullying growing up or harsh stuff,” says Mr Chang.

“There’s a sense of liberty, you’re allowed to think different things, explore or stir the pot.”

Freely accessing social media is another difference he highlights compared to China.

But he says it’s both a blessing and a curse as it often impacts his mental health.

Two girls in black shorts stop at traffic lights to cross road.
Taiwanese youth embrace democratic freedoms.(ABC News: Libby Hogan)

With so much geopolitical uncertainty, Ms Chen says when she’s feeling overwhelmed, she wanders around her city’s historical quarter to unwind and connect with the past.

As she snaps a photo outside the National Museum of Taiwan Literature she reflects on the inspiration she draws from Confucius’s teachings, comparing him to Shakespeare.

“He teaches you to live with kindness and sincerity,” Ms Chen says.

“You start to realise, wow, some of these buildings, like the people, are so resilient, they are still standing tall up until this day.”


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