How social activism consolidates national identities

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As I walked down the streets in front of the Legislative Yuan in Taiwan on March 19, 2014, I felt the exuberant ambience of protest, hope and togetherness - I felt like we were part of history in the making. Thousands of people stood guard in front of the parliament building, which was occupied by students and civic groups, to voice their concerns about the government’s undemocratic approach towards a pro-China trade agreement. This was the Sunflower Movement, an important political and social turning point that unleashed a wave of activism among the youth and continues to reshape Taiwan’s politics and collective identity.  

Just a few months after the Sunflower Movement ended, the Election Study Centre (NCCU) conducted a survey on Taiwanese/Chinese identity. According to the poll results, the percentage of people identifying as Taiwanese hit a record high;  60.6 percent of respondents identified as Taiwanese, 32.5 percent as both Taiwanese and Chinese while only 3.5 percent identified as Chinese. The gap between Taiwanese and Chinese identity remains to this day. 

I remember being 9 years old and asking my parents, “ What am I? Am I Chinese or Taiwanese?” They told me I was both. Yet, when I asked my uncle the same question, I was told I am Chinese, because our grandfather came from mainland China. Twenty years later, the landscape of collective identity in Taiwan has shifted drastically. Many young people nowadays, including myself, identify with the Taiwanese community and stand with social activism that aligns with their collective identity.

When discussing the interconnectedness of identity and social activism, we cannot ignore the importance of democracy. The contribution of democracy is undeniable for it allows social movements to flourish. Since the martial law was lifted in the 1980s, the adoption of Taiwanese identity has been rising gradually.  People no longer face prosecution when they express their identity. This, in turn, shapes the Taiwanese politics with their collective identity, thus affecting generations to come. 

Similarly, the case of Hongkong provides another entry point into the intertwined nature of collective identity and social activism. The Taiwanese view Hong Kong as a cautionary tale of “One China, Two Systems”. Young people from both Taiwan and Hong Kong are anxious about the growing Chinese influence, but it is especially critical for Hong Kong, for its people fear their rights and futures are slipping away at an alarming rate. 

It’s been six months since the 2019 Hong Kong protests began. Nearly two million people joined a demonstration against a controversial extradition bill that will further erode the city’s autonomy. The protest carried on despite Hong Kong administration withdrawing the bill because the government refused to concede to the other four demands, which are: Retracting the mischaracterisation of the protests as “riots”, releasing arrested protesters without charge, an independent inquiry into police behaviour and the implementation of genuine universal suffrage.  

At the height of the protests, the Hong Kong Public Opinion Programme and The University of Hong Kong conducted a survey on the people’s self-defined ethnic identity, the same survey that has been carried out twice a year since 1997. The results showed a historic high of 76.3 percent for people who identify themselves as Hongkongers reached, 10 percent higher than the same survey conducted just six months ago.

As the protests continue to escalate, stories of police brutality and the Hong Kong government’s inability to respond to the will of the people fuel the collective identity of HongKongers and encourages the Taiwanese to stand with Hong Kong in solidarity. 

Both these cases demonstrate how collective identity and social activism fuel each other and how this interaction facilitates changes at a larger scale. It’s difficult to say what comes first, social activism or identity, but as data from both Taiwan and Hong Kong suggests, we can say with certainty that both are heavily intertwined and feed on each other. 

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