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World

Historic Shifts In Public Opinion Made Election Firsts Possible In Taiwan

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The election of a new president and government in Taiwan is raising alarms in China. For the first time, all of the branches of government in Taiwan - a place Beijing considers a breakaway province - are run by a party with no historical links to mainland China. NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Taipei on historic shifts in public opinion.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: This year's election produced another milestone of sorts. It's the first time Taiwan's voters have elected a lawmaker who fronts a death metal band.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUPREME PAIN FOR THE TYRANT")

CHTHONIC: (Singing in foreign language).

KUHN: Freddy Lim sometimes appears on stage in Gothic face paint as he growls out vocals with his band Chthonic. He also helped found the New Power Party, which allied itself with President Tsai Ing-wen and helped her win by courting younger voters. Tsai and her party started out advocating independence for Taiwan from China but has since backed away from that. The younger generation, Lim says, feels it no longer needs to fight for independence.

FREDDY LIM: (Through interpreter) To these youth, independence is the natural state of affairs. Taiwan to them is already independent, and they're just thinking about how to make this independence more beautiful, natural and normal.

KUHN: Taiwan can't move towards formal independence by, for example, changing the country's name from the Republic of China to, say, the Republic of Taiwan. China has threatened to invade the island if they do that. Huang Guochang, the head of the New Power Party, says that 20 years of democracy and Taiwan-centric policies mean that formal independence is no longer a pipe dream. It is something Taiwan must at least prepare for.

HUANG GUOCHANG: (Through interpreter) The overwhelming majority of Taiwanese believe that Taiwan's future should be decided by the 23 million people of Taiwan. Less than 10 percent of the people support unification with China.

KUHN: Mainland Chinese commonly base their identity not on where they were born but where their ancestors came from, often centuries ago. Young Taiwanese generally identify with where they were born, a political philosophy called nativism that has been gaining ground in Taiwan for decades.

(CROSSTALK)

KUHN: At a Taipei cafe where young folks meet to discuss current events, I met 22-year-old college student Lin An-tung. She speaks Chinese and she is ethnically Chinese, but she says it doesn't matter. Taiwan absorbs all sorts of elements from outside the island, some Japanese, some Chinese, some American.

LIN AN-TUNG: (Through interpreter) Which of my roots I should trace is not important to me. My roots are in this land. Our culture is an amalgam of influences, and that's just fine.

KUHN: Lin's friend Ch’en Hao-t’ing is 27. He says that many young Taiwanese were inspired by protest movements, such as the 2014 Sunflower Movement. Students occupied Taiwan's legislature that year to protest the passage of a trade pact with mainland China.

CH’EN HAO-T’ING: (Through interpreter) China says they want us to reunite with them. But why would we want to go backwards from our relatively free environment to their conservative, authoritarian one?

KUHN: Lin Cho-shui is a veteran pro-democracy activist. He was arrested in 1987 for his activism. He says that back then he was fighting for democracy against the dictatorship of the then-ruling nationalist government, a struggle young people today have not had to face.

LIN CHO-SHUI: (Through interpreter) Folks then said that democracy is enough. We don't want independence. But I always thought this was problematic. Taiwan's experience is precisely that the two are inseparable.

KUHN: Lin adds that it took a long time for Taiwan to become democratic. He advises folks anticipating Taiwan's complete independence to be patient as that could take even longer. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Taipei. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.