By Xiaoying Zhou
It was the very first day of Cross-Strait Exploration Project (CEP), a weeklong camp in Hong Kong aimed at promoting mutual understanding among youth across the Taiwan Strait. CEP was first started by a group of overseas Taiwanese and Mainland Chinese college students in 2009. The program aimed for participants to bond through a series group activities such as research projects, and then gradually approach thorny issues in a more trusting space.
But even before any jokes had been cracked at the festive welcome dinner, the bomb had already detonated.
“So what’s your view on Taiwan becoming independent? Do you think you’ve considered how Taiwanese themselves feel when you insist on reunification?” Shun-yu Jhou, a Taiwanese theatre student, asked Lin Yang, a devoted Chinese Communist Party member, while the rest of the table fell silent.
Lin’s name had been circulating well before the welcome dinner began. Everyone had read in the program handbook that he was a graduate student at the Party School of Liaoning Province in northeastern China, a school generally considered to be “red,” since it is designed to train future party officials.
Like Lin, Shun-yu has her own strong political opinions. She is an especially staunch defender of Taiwan’s independence and identifies herself as “green,” as the vernacular goes in Taiwanese politics. She claimed she was poking Lin just to see how a Chinese Communist Party member would respond to this kind of question. It wasn’t to be confrontational, she insisted.
“I just wanted to provoke his thought,” Shun-yu explained, “I know what it’s like to come from a background like his, because I’ve seen worse… you know, people brainwashed by the Communist government and whatnot.”
Shun-yu was referring to a Mainland Chinese girl she had met in Thailand a year ago, at a camp for theatre-lovers from all over the world. To celebrate their diversity, organizers asked participants to draw up maps of their own countries and present them in front of everyone else. All was well until the Mainland Chinese girl went to Shun-yu, “demanding” that they join efforts to make a map together, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. She did it so naturally, Shun-yu says, and with so much confidence that Shun-yu simply couldn’t believe it.
“Why in the world would I want to work on the same map with you?” Shun-yu resisted indignantly.
Not understanding such a response, the girl was stunned and burst out crying after Shun-yu’s vehement protest. Taiwan had “always been a part of China,” or so she had always been told in classrooms.
“The ignorance…” Shun-yu shook her head as she continued. “I have since calmed down quite a bit, definitely not as radical as before. I know that some Mainland Chinese seriously have no idea how Taiwanese feel about this issue, and how intensely we can feel about it. Now I try to explain why I disagree with them before asking questions or saying no.”
Such divergent views stem from differing perspectives on the region’s history, and roughly seventy years have passed since people from either side had a chance for genuine communication.
On August 15, 1945, Japan’s surrender officially ended the Second World War. In China, the departure of a common enemy led to the collapse of the coalition between the Communist and Nationalist parties. A civil war between the two parties ensued. Under Mao Zedong’s leadership, the Communist red army captured Nanjing, capital of the Nationalist Republic of China (ROC), and established the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in Beijing. Meanwhile, the Nationalist army retreated offshore to Taiwan. It was supposed to be a temporary stay, and Chiang Kai-shek, the leader of the Nationalists believed they would be able to retake the Mainland from the Communists soon after.
Chiang couldn’t have been more wrong. Today, the rhetoric of “re-conquering the Mainland” has long lost its enchantment among even the most steadfast supporters of the former Nationalists. To many Taiwanese, the influx of millions of Nationalist soldiers in 1949 was itself no more than an invasion, and Chiang’s ambition but the dream of an intruder. For many Taiwanese, all they want is independence, though even that is too extravagant a demand in the eyes of a “red” Mainland Chinese.
But Lin is no ordinary “red” Chinese. Unlike the Chinese girl Shun-yu met at theatre camp, Lin was quite unfazed by his neighbor’s bluntness, and didn’t break down in tears. He had never been abroad, but he was an avid enough Internet surfer to know the general Taiwanese take on Taiwan’s independence.
“I avoided answering the question directly because I knew we would disagree, and there was no use arguing about it on the very first day of camp,” Lin told me after the camp, “I knew we chose the same field research topic and needed to work together during the next few days. I didn’t want to make things awkward.”
In 2007, while still a freshman at Yunnan University, in China’s southwest, Lin passed a rigorous training and observation period to become an official member of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Lin was always actively involved in school activities, the same way his dad joined in China’s national adoration for Mao Zedong forty years ago. In 1974, Mr. Lin (Lin Yang’s father) joined the Communist Party while still a seventeen-year-old. Mr. Lin still continues to hold the Little Red Book as an object of worship today.
But even Lin admits that things have changed since then. “I mean I’m not really shocked that most people are joining the Party now because that can get them better work placements at state-owned enterprises after they graduate.” Lin took a deep breath as he went on, “Most people have lost their faith in communism.”
Shun-yu may not agree with the beliefs of the party that Lin and his father so respect, but claimed that she completely understood such perspectives and how they arose.
“We just have different backgrounds, and we each have our limitation when we look at things. I have since talked to a few other Mainland Chinese friends who believe that the CCP can help promote China’s democracy through its internal democratic reform. I doubt it’s going to work, but I admire them for their faith in what the Party tells them.”
I asked her what she thought her limitation was, coming from her own Taiwanese perspective.
“Oh, I don’t know, most Taiwanese are so used to associating Mainland China with bad human right records and whatever else is negative. So often we just take the politicians for their words.”
The influx of misbehaved Mainland tourists doesn’t help, either. For Shun-yu, getting out of that kind of binary thinking and habitual antagonism started with the realization that her own government is far from perfect.
An architecture major in college, Shun-yu switched to experimental theatre as a graduate student. “People have such a limited understanding of theatre… but even for the audience it’s not at all a passive activity,” Shun-yu explained, “You see, it’s the same for politics. You’d think of politics as a politicians’ game where some truly care for the people and some do not. But the truth is, everyone is a part of it and you can’t just trust the government to change on its own. You don’t get change unless you ask and press for it.”
This is where Shun-yu and Lin differ the most. For Lin, his dad is living proof that Communist Party members don’t have to be elitists or social climbers who want to take advantage of their Party membership, so he channels his political faith into active participation and reshaping of the ruling Chinese Communist Party. Shun-yu, on the other hand, has learned to distrust her government, and is an eternal outsider of Taiwanese politics, constantly going onto the streets to push for change.
Lin seeks change through the existing system, while Shun-yu believes that the only effective change comes from outside the system. Despite their political differences, Lin and Shun-yu both researched the same topic during CEP, investigating government policies regarding Hong Kong farmers and their land. Each pushing their own domestic governments for reform, Lin and Shun-yu may very well find more common ground as time goes on.
Xiaoying Zhou ’14 is a philosophy major in Branford College. She participated in the Cross-strait Exploration Project in the summer of 2013. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.