Will the Sunflower Movement change Taiwan?

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The question of Taiwan's future has divided families, as Cindy Sui reports

Breakfast at the Wangs' on a Sunday: it's a lesson in how attitudes in Taiwan towards China have changed significantly in just three generations.

Mother Josephine's parents fled to Taiwan from China with the retreating Nationalist party after it lost the civil war to the Communists in the late 1940s. They believed the Republic of China and mainland China were part of the same country and that is what she was taught.

Father Clyde worked for years at Taiwan's agency promoting trade, including with China. He and Mrs Wang believe Taiwan must have good relations with its biggest trade partner and former enemy, which wants Taiwan to be reunified one day. They don't support unification or independence, but maintaining the status quo.

But son Kevin, 30, strongly feels Taiwan is a separate country and must assert its independence or risk being swallowed up by China.

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Kevin Wang wants independence for Taiwan

"My parents still think we are Chinese. In university I began doubting what I had been taught was correct," Kevin said. "Now I believe Taiwan should be independent in all ways possible.

"The current government of the Republic of China in Taiwan is still inextricably tied to the concept that we are a part of China, so we need to cut the umbilical cord."

People like Kevin have joined the so-called Sunflower Movement, which last year occupied parliament for 24 days sparking the largest anti-China demonstration in years.

They blocked the legislative approval of a controversial trade deal with China and forced the government to agree to a new law allowing more public oversight of negotiations with Beijing.

'Protecting identity'

Though activities on the one-year anniversary in March were relatively small, and parliament is once again occupied by legislators, it's far from business as usual.

The movement has made many people feel that they, not just the government or ruling Kuomintang (KMT) party, should have a say in what kind of relationship Taiwan develops with China.

It has also contributed to a major defeat for the pro-China ruling party in November local elections. If it further fuels fears about China and dissatisfaction with the KMT, it could help the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) win next year's presidential race.

At the same time, it is pushing for reforms to Taiwan's referendum law to make it easier for referenda to pass.

Sunflower leaders say this will advance Taiwan's democratisation and safeguard its sovereignty by allowing the people to directly decide issues, including Taiwan's separate identity and relationship with China.

"If recognition of Taiwan's identity can be protected, then that will further Taiwan's self-rule. This is very important to us," said Sunflower leader Lin Fei-fan.

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Lin Fei-fan says defending Taiwan's identity is key

But not everyone supports the movement.

Though many deals have been signed with China in recent years, including some widely considered beneficial to Taiwan, would-be agreements are now on hold indefinitely.

This is causing concern from not only businesses such as banks that need greater access to China's market, but others who also believe it's crucial for the small island of Taiwan to have stronger ties with China, especially economic ones.

That includes Jen-Hsuan Hsieh, a recent university graduate. "The whole world is trying to understand China. We should do the same," she said.

"Even if you consider it your enemy, you should still understand your enemy well."

A freelance interpreter, she is looking for work in China, where the opportunities are greater and wages higher.

She's not alone. A recent survey showed about one third of Taiwanese in their 20s and 30s want to work in China; more than in previous years.

That raises the question of whether time is on China's side or Taiwan's.

With time, Taiwan's economy and people's livelihoods may become more interlinked with China, making it easier for Beijing to push for unification.

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Jen-Hsuan Hsieh says many people lack an understanding of China and act out of fear

But with time, Taiwanese people could grow even more adamant about the island's separate entity. A survey conducted late last year by the local China Youth Corps found nearly 90% of junior and senior-high school students regarded themselves as Taiwanese, rather than Chinese.

'Peaceful way'

Some suggest that if China becomes democratic, and its average living standard reaches Taiwan's level, differences between the two sides will be blurred, and if its people understand more about Taiwan with time, their views about unification may weaken, making such a debate unnecessary.

For now, Beijing is watching the Sunflower Movement closely. However, it may be unsure how to react, partly because it's no longer about dealing with one political party versus another, but many civic groups and individuals driving the movement.

So far, it has mainly suggested reaching out to Taiwan's young people.

Taiwan's President Ma Ying-jeou insists his pursuit of better relations with China is the right course, saying when he took office in 2008, tensions were high, making Washington worried.

"What we're doing now is creating a multi-win situation. For first time in history, the United States can maintain peaceful and friendly ties with Taiwan and the mainland at the same time. What we're doing is for the benefit of Taiwan."

Back at the Wang home, the family avoid discussing the issue of Taiwan's sovereignty or Kevin's part in the movement until they are asked. But it's clear he wants to become more involved.

"Maintaining the status quo will inevitably mean reunification with China. What a lot of people in our generation are pushing for right now is de jure independence, formal independence," he said.

His parents accept that his generation will ultimately decide their society's future; they just hope it makes the right decisions.

"We don't know what's going to happen in a couple more generations," said his father, Clyde. "I don't think it's a good idea to antagonise China and to provoke war across the strait."

"What I like to see happen in the future is eventually this historical problem will be solved in a very peaceful way."