At a Cantonese restaurant in Taipei, Harry Chen and four old friends are shouting at each other over a Lazy Susan, stopping occasionally to toast each other with Canadian whisky or translate their argument into English.
All are retired men in their 70s – the sons of Chinese nationalist soldiers – and were born or grew up in Taiwan during its brutal decades of martial law.
They are the demographic considered most likely to support the “unification” of Taiwan with China. And they do – mostly. But the issue is complicated: Taiwan functions domestically as an entirely independent country, with its own democratically elected government, currency, military and vibrant civil society.
However, the Chinese Communist party (CCP) believes it is a province of China that must be “reunified” with the mainland – peacefully by preference, but by force if necessary.
Despite threats and intimidation by Beijing and its military, Taiwan’s resistance to unification only grows stronger. More and more people are also identifying themselves as exclusively Taiwanese, not exclusively Chinese or both. More are showing support for independence.
But this month a poll in Taiwan found almost 12% of respondents still support unification. Other surveys have shown that figure to be about 5%-10%. The number has declined over the years but a stubborn segment saying yes to “one China” suggests a sizeable group of people in Taiwan are not being pushed towards independence like so many of their compatriots. Some analysts also say this group could be enough to vote hardline pro-China candidates – some of whom also have connections to organised crime – into local government.
Given the military drills and the threats to Taiwan, and the deteriorating freedoms and rights inside China, it is a fair question to ask why anyone in Taiwan would want to go back to life under authoritarian rule, decades after they left it behind.
“People’s understanding of unification has changed quite a lot over the decades,” said Jeremy Huai-Che Huang, a Taipei-based analyst.
Nowadays, people in Taiwan tend to view the prospect of unification through the prism of Hong Kong. There is little trust for President Xi Jinping’s promises – reiterated in a recent white paper – that they would retain anything close to the freedom and autonomy they have now.
Taiwanese politics is famously combative and starkly divided, operating in an almost equally partisan local media environment. The ruling Democratic Progressive party is accused by China of being secessionist and by critics of exacerbating tensions by courting global support.
The nationalist Kuomintang (KMT), the main opposition party, has an ageing base and is struggling to regain popularity while staying true to its roots. It has not been helped by a faction that Dafydd Fell, director of the Centre of Taiwan Studies at Soas University of London, said is “taking quite a strong pro-unification line”.
They are also being outflanked by fringe pro-unification parties, including some linked to the Bamboo Union alleged crime syndicate.
These fringe groups, often seen protesting or harassing pro-Taiwan delegates and events, have “disproportionate” airtime considering their almost non-existent vote, but they know how to mobilise, and some are mysteriously well-funded, says Fell.
Pro-unification people are generally thought to be concentrated among older generations, are probably KMT voters and are typically men. Huang said there are still some young proponents, including a Chinese nationalist minority, but they are often just “defeatist” and believe Taiwan would lose a conflict and should cut its losses now.
Fell outlines other influences on unification supporters, including rising nationalism and CCP propaganda and disinformation. Some supporters are driven by cynicism about divisive Taiwanese party politics and are nostalgic for the strong leadership of the CCP or martial law.There are those who have benefited economically from closer ties with China, and who “are just trying to stay out of politics … and find that kind of PRC nationalism quite annoying”, while some have spent decades in China, the US and Taiwan, and have decided they support and trust the CCP.
Chen is at the more hardline end. He said life for everyone would be better if Taiwan just accepted it was a Chinese province and its democratic government peacefully accepted the benefits of China’s economic strength and global power. “What normal people want in life is good living, peace and happiness,” he said. “People who want independence, that’s bullshit – they’re lying to themselves.”
He spoke of a stability in Taiwan that has disappeared since the 1980s democratisation. He cited the decline of the US, the growing wealth divide and Boris Johnson generally as evidence that western democracy does not work.
Many other factors and variations are also at the Taipei restaurant table. All five men identify as Chinese and believe Taiwan is part of China, citing history, ethnicity, culture and language. Two men, including Chen, are ardent supporters of Xi and the CCP. They welcome a takeover and believe life will be better for all, so Taiwan’s government should just accept it. Another said he would support unification under the CCP but not while Xi is leader, and is very worried about a Chinese invasion. Another wants unification but not under the CCP, while the fifth doesn’t think much of any option but hates the DPP most of all.
Perhaps for this group of friends, the term “pro-unification” is not as accurate as “anti-independence”.
Xi has pledged to annex Taiwan, and the white paper said this could not be left to future generations. Taiwan’s resistance is growing, as is international support for its plight and what annexation might mean for the region. The easiest option is to maintain the status quo, but for everyone at the Taipei dinner table, the idea that Beijing could ever just decide to back off and let Taiwan be is unfathomable. “Impossible,” Chen said. “This is the mission of the Chinese. Why would they change?”
Additional reporting by Chi Hui Lin