Taiwan celebrated National Day on Monday, marking the anniversary of a 1911 uprising in China that ended thousands of years of imperial rule and ushered in a new republic.
It’s also commonly known as Double Tens day since it falls on Oct. 10.
The nation marks the occasion with a parade and televised speeches from its leaders, and in the evening, fireworks light up the sky in all of its major cities.
Underlying the festivities are increased concerns about Taiwan’s relationship with China as well as changes in its own national identity.
The government announced the theme of this year’s National Day would be “defense.”
“It is regrettable that, in recent years, the Beijing authorities' escalation of their military intimidations, diplomatic pressure, trade obstructions, and attempts to erase the sovereignty of the Republic of China [Taiwan] have threatened the status quo of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait and the region," Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-Wen said in an addresss to the nation.
Tsai emphasized a preference for dialogue with Beijing, saying “armed confrontation is absolutely not an option for our two sides,” but also noted that “the broadest consensus among the Taiwanese people and our various political parties is that we must defend our national sovereignty and our free and democratic way of life. On this point, we have no room for compromise.”
The message isn’t lost on Lai I-Chung, president of the Prospect Foundation, a Taipei-based think tank.
“Right now, the majority of society believes that China is a threat, and that our forces probably won't be able to defend just on our own against a Chinese attack,” Lai said. “And we need to quickly improve our capability to defend ourselves.”
For Taiwanese people, living under the threat of war with China is nothing new. But Lai said something began changing in the past 10 or 15 years, when China rapidly developed its navy and air force.
He said that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine this year has also worried people.
“So, when Putin really launched an attack on ... Ukraine,” Lai said, “the threat started to be taken more seriously by the general public here.”
Lai said that within the past year, he’s seen discussions of reforms to Taiwan’s military reserves take center stage.
“In the past, those were not even in the public discussion. And right now, they are a feature in many of the talk shows or the discussions every day,” Lai said.
Taiwan has recently announced a historic increase to its defense budget, and its Ministry of National Defense is considering lengthening the period of mandatory military service from four months to one year.
It isn’t just Taiwan’s relationship with China that’s changing. The same thing is happening with individual relationships to Chinese identity, as younger generations are figuring out new definitions of what it means to be Taiwanese.
Historian James Lin at the University of Washington said that you can see this from a poll that Taiwan’s National Chengchi University has been conducting for the past 30 years.
“We've seen a dramatic decline in those who identify as Chinese and those who identify as both Taiwanese and Chinese,” Lin said.
The poll’s most recent results, from June of this year, show that upwards of 63% of respondents identified as only Taiwanese, roughly 30% identified as both, and only about 3 1/2% identified as Chinese.
Sociologist at National Taiwan University, Ho Ming-Sho, also points out that among Taiwanese people under 40, 10% more of the respondents identified only as Taiwanese. Both Ho and Lin think it’s likely this trend will continue, as younger generations embrace a stronger Taiwanese identity.
National Day itself refers to a revolution that happened in China — not in Taiwan. At the time, Taiwan was a Japanese colony. But after World War II and the Chinese Civil War, the government of the Republic of China retreated to Taiwan, imposing their own culture on the local population. The next 40 years would be known as the "White Terror" — a period of martial law, disappearances, and executions.
But then, in the late '80s and early '90s, grassroots movements achieved a transition to democracy in Taiwan. A new generation of leaders started overhauling undemocratic institutions like the original Republic of China-imposed constitution from within.
Ho said that surprisingly, some Taiwanese people are now owning the symbols that used to oppress them.
Ho studies social movements in Taiwan, and recalls his observations of the 2014 Sunflower movement. At the time, students occupied Taiwan’s Legislature for weeks and successfully blocked a free trade agreement the government was going to sign with China. He was surprised to see many of the students bringing Republic of China national flags to the protest — to use them as a symbol of Taiwanese resistance to greater reliance on the People’s Republic of China.
“People opposed that and asserted Taiwan’s subjectivity and identity. And during that occasion, there were people who brought out our [national] flags. This was a Taiwanese identity event. People just didn’t see that as a weird combination,” Ho said.
Twenty years ago, he argued, the national flag wouldn’t have been seen by young people as representing Taiwanese sovereignty in this way.
“More and more people here in Taiwan identify themselves as Taiwanese and think of themselves as not Chinese, and increasingly see China as a hostile foreign force ... that’s trying to exterminate Taiwan's democracy,” Ho said. As a result, “they have been more willing to embrace the National Day, even though its origin has nothing to do with Taiwan.”
Under martial law, Ho said, National Day parades often featured tanks and aircraft, and tried to showcase the military’s ability to defend against Chinese attacks. Although there’s a renewed focus on defense, recent National Day parades under the democratic system have reflected societal changes by showcasing Taiwan’s own diversity.
This year, the parade’s first performance was a collaboration between a rock band that sings in Taiwanese Hokkien and a group of Amis Indigenous singers.
Historian Lin said that although the symbolism of the Republic of China still carries associations of martial law for some Taiwanese people, for many, “there's still the the idea that you can demonstrate sovereignty through a national day ... the Republic of China nonetheless represents a form of governance, where Taiwanese people are still voting for who's in power.”
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