A decade ago, the influence of Taiwan pervaded the halls of the Sacramento Chinese of Indo-China Friendship Association. Its south Sacramento temple was built with funds from Taipei. Its leaders hoisted the Blue Sky, White Sun flag of Taiwan.
But leaders now toast Taiwan’s arch rival, mainland China, and have abandoned their ties with the island.
As Chinese Americans celebrate 102 years today since the founding of the Republic of China – Taiwan’s official name – the wrangling between pro-Taiwan and pro-mainland China groups has intensified in Sacramento and Northern California.
Ever since Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist government took refuge on the island of Taiwan 64 years ago after losing the Chinese Civil War to Mao Zedong’s Communists, the democratic Republic of China on Taiwan enjoyed considerably more support from Chinese Americans than the People’s Republic of China in Beijing. That was largely due to Cold War opposition to communism and old ties from the overthrow of Imperial China.
In recent years, however, Taiwan has seen some of its U.S. support dry up as attitudes soften toward the mainland.
“The Communist Chinese did some pretty bad things,” said John Liang, vice president of the Indo-China Friendship Association, referring to campaigns led by Chairman Mao that resulted in tens of millions of deaths due to famine and political suppression.
But the rapid modernization and opening up of mainland China in the last two decades has transformed perceptions, at least in some circles of Chinese Americans.
“You have to face reality,” said Liang, whose Sacramento group celebrated the October 1 National Day of the People’s Republic of China for the first time this year. “We don’t want China to be divided.”
Not everyone is convinced. At the Chinese Benevolent Association of Sacramento, president Frank Kwong, 65, is adamant in his continued support for the Republic of China on Taiwan.
“The ROC was the first republic in Asia,” he said. “We support liberty and democracy.”
On Tuesday, Kwong led a delegation of about two dozen leaders from local Chinese groups to Burlingame, where Taiwan’s de facto consulate hosted a reception to celebrate 102 years of the Republic of China.
The event in the ballroom of an airport hotel drew 1,200 people from across Northern California. Guests feasted on dim sum alongside American staples like carved turkey. State politicians, including Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, and Controller John Chiang, posed with lion dancers before rousing the crowd with speeches in support of Taiwan.
In Sacramento, passions rolled into high gear again this month as opposing banquets and celebrations were held to commemorate the national days of the PRC and ROC. On Saturday, Kwong’s Chinese Benevolent Association organized a rally for Taiwan supporters at its I Street office, across from the Sacramento Valley Station.
A week before the pro-Taiwan event, members of the Indo-China Friendship Association hoisted the Five Star banner of mainland China for the first time at their temple on Elder Creek Road.
The stakes for the two Chinas are high. Both mainland China and Taiwan are battling for the loyalties of Chinese Americans, whose significant political and financial support are considered influential.
Mainland China regards Taiwan as a renegade province that one day must be brought into the fold. Despite a warming of relations between the two sides, the mainland has not renounced the use of force against Taiwan.
When the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association in June removed Taiwan’s flag from its offices in San Francisco for the first time, the move angered several board members and sharply divided the Chinese American community. Charles Chow, a former president of the association, contended that the move was illegal and said he has filed suit to restore the flag.
Manfred Peng, spokesman for the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in San Francisco, Taiwan’s de facto consulate, said there has been a resurgence in support for the Republic of China following the flag controversy.
“Thousands showed up to our National Day celebrations. It was a big surprise,” Peng said.
Many Chinese Americans still cling to the belief that mainland China will eventually democratize.
“I hope all Chinese can enjoy democracy and freedom – values that we have in Taiwan and the United States,” Kwong said.
As for when the two Chinese states can come to a political consensus, no one knows. People’s Republic of China President Xi Jinping called Sunday for opening a political dialogue during a meeting with Taiwanese Vice President Vincent Siew at an economic summit in Bali, Indonesia.
The proposal was met by a muted response from Taipei.
Liang, 67, said he doubts unification will occur in his lifetime.
“It’s up to the politicians to make it happen,” he said.
Editor’s note: This story was changed Oct. 12 to correct the spelling of Manfred Peng’s name.