Digital Culture, Memory & Heritage, Representation

Understanding contemporary Chinese national identity formation through Taiwan

Andong Li

Scholarship of nationalism studies has been trying hard to respond to the paradox that nationalist sentiment sharply surges in many countries while the world is becoming more digitalised and globalised. It seems to be increasingly obvious that the cosmopolitan promise of globalisation and digitisation has failed, and cross-Strait (Chinese mainland-Taiwan) relations might be a ‘great’ case to exemplify this argument. However, an abstract definition of the ‘Chinese nationalism’ as top-down, arbitrary brainwash would be nothing but an oversimplified moral judgement that prevents observers from nuancedly understanding people’s everyday experience of the Chinese nation. Therefore, my PhD research takes the perspective of national identity formation on the individual level to investigate how individuals nationalise themselves in socio-cultural contexts. From this point of view, there is no singular ‘Chinese nationalism’ but heterogenous ‘Chinese nationalisms’ dependent upon the national identity-making of individuals.

The Chinese mainland and Taiwan have long been separated after World War II, with barely any channel for people-to-people exchanges until recent years. The internet, especially social media, provides platforms for people from both sides to directly communicate with each other. Social media also give voice to individuals, enabling them to make public their own narrative about Taiwan. The growing amount of user-generated content may indicate a ‘decentralization of history’ which challenges the official historical narrative. On the other hand, China and Taiwan agreed on group travel permits to Taiwan in 2008 and individual travel permits in 2011. Although the number declined from 2016 when the independence-leaning politician Tsai Ing-wen became the president, the Chinese mainland has always been the top source of tourists to Taiwan since 2010. Unprecedently since 1949, permission to travel to Taiwan brings sharply increasing opportunities for Chinese people to set foot on Taiwanese soil, providing them with embodied experiences of the island that one could rarely have in the past.

Considering these increasing opportunities, my research sets out to investigate how university students in the Chinese mainland make sense of their national identity by remembering and imagining Taiwan through two interrelated foci: everyday uses of social media (as mediated memory) and travel to Taiwan (as embodied memory). As mentioned above, these two aspects become salient ways of encountering Taiwan in the global-digital age.

In July 2019, I conducted my pilot research in Beijing where I did eight in-depth interviews and two focus groups with eight university students (four are undergraduate, the other graduate). Four of them have been to Taiwan. The pilot research looks at how they remember and imagine Taiwan through social media and tours, what is the relationship between these two forms of encounter, and how they make sense of their national identity by remembering and imagining these encounters. Interview questions are regarding the ways they get to know Taiwan, their memories relevant to Taiwan, their impressions on Taiwan and Taiwanese people, and their opinions on cross-Strait relations. Preliminary findings of the pilot research may be helpful to explain the paradox I described at the beginning – the tension between globalisation, digitisation, and the rise of nationalism.

Whereas social media and transnational tourism do provide mainland Chinese university students with more possibilities to interact with Taiwan, frequent interactions do not necessarily lead to mutual understanding. Instead, these interactions could also be chances to discover conflicts and reproduce nationalist sentiment. In terms of social media, more university students tend to critique highly militant and nationalist comments online while they also stand for unification between the mainland and Taiwan. All the informants find the discussions on social media about Taiwan quite political and aggressive. Seven of them express negative feelings to the ‘little pinks’ (nationalist young people who defend the government and actively engage in online communities of popular culture) on social media, but they also think that Taiwanese people and government have been increasingly unfriendly than before.

In terms of travel, more university students are inclined to remember their tours to Taiwan politically, regardless of whether their experiences are politicised or not. This reveals that experiencing and remembering the experienced are two separate steps. The latter is not time travel to the exact past but the reconstruction of the past at present. For example, most informants in group discussions claimed that Taiwanese people were ‘too easy to be satisfied with little happiness (小确幸)’ and lacked ‘entrepreneurial spirit’. These critiques are framed into a hierarchy that celebrates and reconfirms ‘the modern Mainland’, as one of the informants put it, ‘after going to Taiwan, I feel like Taiwanese people are really nice, but Taiwan is under-developed and inconvenient, not as modern as my expectation… the pace of life there is so slow. It is not suitable for young people to live in such an atmosphere. In the mainland, things are much better.’

Globalisation and digitisation should be understood not as cosmopolitan forces against nationalism, but as socio-cultural contexts that cultivate a certain kind of nationalism. These contexts influence individuals’ national identity formation along with other non-negligible contexts in China, which I am not able to demonstrate further in just one article. For instance, the party-state-leading patriotic education launched in 1994, the introduction and generational re-interpretations of the western concept ‘nation’ in the modern history of China, and more recently the trade war between China and the United States – all of them are significant elements in the shaping of Chinese national identities.

Drawing on Taiwan as a lens for examining contemporary Chinese nationalism, I provisionally propose a term ‘empathetic nationalists’ to conceptualise the paradoxical mindset of nationalised individuals in global-digital China. Being open-minded thanks to globalisation and digitisation, some well-educated, middle-class young people now have more chances to encounter Taiwan and the world – either digitally or bodily – but are still nationalist. Those ‘empathetic nationalists’ adopt a comparatively mild version of nationalism, sticking to ‘One China principle’ (the principle insists that the People’s Republic of China is the only sovereign state under the name of China, and Taiwan is an inalienable part of China) while empathising but not accepting Taiwanese people’s national identification.