Luke Chang, who has voted only for Republicans, stayed home on Election Day for one reason – he didn’t like Donald Trump.
But when President-elect Trump picked up a phone call from Tsai Ing-wen, the president of Taiwan, in a move that enraged China and upended decades of American foreign policy, Chang changed his mind.
“The call showed China that Trump won’t listen to them,” said Chang, 63, owner of Taiwan Best Mart in downtown Sacramento. “Once he is inaugurated, he will put more pressure on China.”
Taiwan and mainland China split in 1949 when the Nationalist government led by Chiang Kai-shek lost a civil war to Mao Zedong’s Communist insurgency. Chiang relocated his government to Taipei, vowing to one day recover the mainland, while Mao founded a new regime in Beijing.
Today, the democratic government in Taiwan is still officially called the Republic of China, while the Communist regime in Beijing is known as the People’s Republic of China.
Sacramento’s Taiwanese community is watching Trump with excitement or apprehension, depending on whom you ask. Diehard advocates of declaring a Taiwanese republic, such as Chang, are basking in the new stature that Trump has bestowed on Taiwan. Diana Lee, a retired Sacramento County accountant who favors the status quo of de facto independence for Taiwan under the Republic of China moniker, worries that Trump might sell out the island in the negotiation room.
Since 1979, the U.S. has adhered to the “one-China policy,” Beijing’s theory that Taiwan is somehow a part of mainland China, though the island of 23 million people has never been governed by the Communists.
In a television interview last week, Trump said, “I don’t know why we have to be bound by a one-China policy unless we make a deal with China having to do with other things, including trade.” Beijing viewed Trump’s comments as encouraging Taiwan to pursue formal independence.
“Trump is a businessman,” said Lee, 67, who thinks the president-elect is using Taiwan as a bargaining chip. “He knows Taiwan is Communist China’s bottom line.”
She added, “The tough talk will get China to negotiate on other things. In the end, Taiwan will be the victim.”
The political status of Taiwan is a deeply divisive issue, even among the Taiwanese. Polling has shown that most want to maintain the status quo, for fear of offending Beijing, which has threatened military action to bring the island under its control.
In Sacramento, the divisions are evident in the form of two community organizations that serve the Taiwanese American population. The Greater Sacramento Taiwanese Association is dominated by “pro-green” members who favor official Taiwanese statehood. The Sacramento Area Formosan Association’s members are largely “pro-blue,” who want to retain the status quo and seek closer ties with the mainland. Green is the color of President Tsai’s pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party, while blue is the color of Chiang’s Kuomintang or Nationalist Party.
It is hard to say how many Taiwanese live in Sacramento County because so many apparently list their ancestry as Chinese on census forms. There is no category for Taiwanese, which must be written in.
About 2,100 Sacramento County residents recently told the census bureau that they were born in Taiwan. But just 800 residents said they were of Taiwanese ancestry. Statewide, about 40 percent of California residents born in Taiwan listed their primary ancestry as Chinese, according to a Bee review of census data.
The census data provides a glimpse into the polarizing identity crisis facing Taiwanese, both at home and abroad. While Taiwanese people are ethnically Han Chinese, a growing number of people on the island regard themselves as exclusively Taiwanese. Some native Taiwanese, such as Taiwan Best Mart owner Chang, want to sever all connections to China. In contrast, those who fled from the mainland in 1949 and their descendants tend to oppose formal Taiwanese statehood.
Sophy Chung, 68, of Elk Grove was born in Nanjing on the mainland and brought to Taiwan by her father, a soldier in the Kuomintang army. She views Taiwan’s current president with skepticism.
“Putting Taiwan on the map is great, but if president Tsai uses the call to push Taiwan independence, that would be bad,” Chung said.
Vicki Beaton, a longtime Sacramento community leader and reporter for the Chinese-language daily World Journal, fled her hometown of Tianjin in northern China under the nose of Communist soldiers, making stops in Tsingtao and Shanghai before arriving in Taiwan by boat.
Beaton, 82, considers herself both Chinese and Taiwanese. To her, the flag of the Republic of China – “Blue Sky, White Sun and Wholly Red Earth” – represents prosperity, freedom and liberty. She regards Taiwan as the true heir of the Chinese nation, noting that Taiwan still writes with traditional characters and pointing to a trove of artifacts from ancient dynasties brought to Taipei by the Kuomintang.
“If Chiang Kai-shek didn’t bring these relics, they would have been destroyed in the Cultural Revolution,” Beaton said, referring to a political campaign by Mao to stamp out Chinese traditions that resulted in the death and imprisonment of millions on the mainland.
The younger generation in Taiwan, however, is quickly moving away from a Chinese-centric identity, turned off by the mainland’s authoritarian government. Nonetheless, Beaton hopes the two sides will eventually reconcile, describing the mainland and Taiwan as “long-lost brothers.”
But if mainland China doesn’t democratize, Taiwan wouldn’t be inclined to unify.
“We are very happy maintaining the status quo,” Beaton said.