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Taiwan centenary runs into identity problems

Taiwan is celebrating the centennial of its republic's birth during a revolution in China — but a lack of interest by its own citizens shows the self-ruled island's evolving sense of identity and its changing relations with the Communist mainland.

The centennial marks the events set in motion in 1911 when revolutionaries overthrew the Qing dynasty's imperial rule on the mainland. The Republic of China was established 2 1/2 months later, but its government fled in disarray to Taiwan in 1949 following the victory of Mao Zedong's Communists over Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalists in the Chinese civil war.

During the Republic of China's first 20 years on the island, many major countries outside the communist bloc viewed it as China's legitimate government. Its own leaders encouraged the belief that they would soon return to the mainland in triumph.

But those dreams evaporated amid Communist China's rising power, and over the years almost all of Taiwan's key diplomatic allies — including the U.S. and Japan — abandoned it in favor of Beijing.

Today, most Taiwanese see mainland China as a separate entity, albeit with inextricable and often-fraught links to their democratic island.

Taiwan's changing sense of identity has led many of its 23 million citizens to give the Republic of China's centenary events less than a rapturous welcome.

An inaugural fireworks display on New Year's Eve failed to inspire much enthusiasm, and most of the local press comment on the celebrations has dealt with the appropriateness of including well known Communist leaders in the ROC's pantheon of most important people — a controversy more reflective of domestic political rancor than true nationalist pride.

It's not that Taiwanese don't want the ROC's existence to continue indefinitely. Most do. But the organic connection to the mainland enshrined in its still existing 1947 constitution leaves them shaking their heads.

"I don't think the ROC needs to include the mainland because that is impractical," said 31-year-old computer engineer Peric Shen. "The two sides across the (Taiwan) Strait can cooperate with each other, but they don't have to include each other."

Shen's sentiments — which polls show reflect some 80 percent of Taiwanese opinion — are at odds with insistent Chinese efforts to encourage the island's formal unification into the People's Republic, the ultimate aim of its Taiwan policy for the past six decades.

"The mainland is the main body of China of which Taiwan is a part," said Ma Min, president of Huazhong Normal University in the central Chinese city of Wuhan. "As a historic issue, the two sides should absorb the wisdom and the legacy of their predecessors and gradually realize economic and political unification through dialogue."

Ma, an expert in modern Chinese history, acknowledged the importance of the event that gave the ROC its birth — an uprising by revolutionaries inspired by Nationalist icon Sun Yat-sen against soldiers loyal to the imperial Qing dynasty on Oct. 10, 1911.

But his listing of the key Chinese events of the last 100 years conspicuously ignored the ROC's founding and underscored the main reason why the Beijing government is ignoring its centenary.

Taiwanese themselves have mixed feelings about the Republic of China, reflecting both political tendencies and differences between the island's main communities.

So-called "mainlanders" — survivors and descendants of the 2 million Nationalists who followed Nationalist Gen. Chiang Kai-shek across the 100-mile- (160-kilometer-) wide Taiwan Strait after the civil war — tend to see more meaning in it than the majority community of native Taiwanese, whose ancestors arrived on the island from the Chinese mainland in the 17th and 18th centuries.

"The Republic of China came to Taiwan in 1949 and became part of the history of this land," said Tsai Ing-wen, chairwoman of the main opposition Democratic Progressive Party, whose platform formally espouses independence. "We understand and respect this historical fact, and we believe we can only change the system that has existed for over 60 years through democratic mechanisms."

One of Tsai's major concerns is that Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou, one of Chiang's Nationalist successors, will lead the island down a path ultimately resulting in its absorption by the mainland.

While Ma has made major efforts to heal the historic rift between Beijing and Taipei during his 2 1/2 years in office, he insists his initiatives are purely economic and that discussions on unification with China's Communist leaders will not take place as long as he remains in office.

Still, his refusal to rule out more general political talks during a possible second term suggest to his detractors that unification may no longer a question of if, but rather one of when.

That kind of outcome would clearly be unacceptable to the great majority of Taiwanese, who strongly favor an open-ended continuation of the island's self-ruled status, even while sometimes disagreeing on what precisely it should be called.

"My country is the Republic of China on Taiwan," said Stella Tsai, a 30-year-old bank employee. "The mainland is not included. It is an enemy of our republic."

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Associated Press researcher Yu Bing in Beijing contributed to this report.