As a once-in-a-century pandemic grips the world, China has once again become the target of intense scrutiny and fierce criticism. Controversies and conspiracy theories regarding the origin of epidemic have brought the relations between the United States (and the rest of the West) and China to the lowest point in their relations since the Mao era.

Reports of racial incidents against Chinese and other Asians in the West have made many weary.

One of the big controversies related to this pandemic has been the World Health Organization’s wobbly handling of the Taiwan issue. WHO has refused to acknowledge that Taiwan exists as a separate entity, going so far as calling it “Taipei and environs”. One its leading epidemiologists, Bruce Aylward, hung up the phone when a journalist from Hong Kong constantly questioned the WHO’s stance towards the self-governing island.

Taiwan’s response to the WHO has been, to put in simple words, “Taiwan is not China”, a stance repeated from its President to its energetic YouTubers. Hong Kongers and other overseas Chinese communities agree.

Why does a Chinese-speaking country whose official name is the Republic of China so aggressively reject the label of being associated with China. Why is everyone in Hong Kong — and elsewhere — cheering them on?

Long before the pandemic started, a revolutionary trend had already begun in Taiwan, Hong Kong and other overseas Chinese communities to stop identifying with China and forge a new common identity. This has accelerated in the past few years and will perhaps become permanent after this pandemic, as the world splits into two camps, pro- Chinese Communist Party and anti- Chinese Communist Party.

But perhaps it is worth looking back to find answers as to why this trend has arisen.

For many years even after the founding of Communist China in 1949, the CCP had no control of “Chinese identity”. The Kuomintang regime in Taiwan aggressively aimed to portray itself as the model anti-Communist and legitimate government for all Chinese worldwide. For many decades during the Cold War, Taiwan was called “Free China” by the West.

Generalissimo Chiang pursued an intense campaign to preserve what he deemed to be traditional Chinese culture in Taiwan as a direct response to the Cultural Revolution that was raging across the Taiwan Strait in Mainland China.

Up until the 1970s, Taiwan succeeded in representing itself as the true China and retained the allegiance of many overseas Chinese, especially ethnic Chinese communities in the US and the West. Most Taiwanese at the time also held steadfast to the belief that they were Chinese; they were just waiting to rescue their compatriots on the other side under the yoke of Communism.

At the same time, the CCP has became very successful in winning the hearts and minds of ethnic Chinese in Southeast Asia as well as Macau and to a less extent, Hong Kong. Mao, a fanatical supporter of worldwide revolution, aggressively targeted overseas Chinese communities and sent agents everywhere from Burma to Malaysia to start the violent struggle for power. The vast majority of Communists and Communist sympathisers in Southeast Asia were ethnic Chinese — which resulted in tragic anti-Chinese pogroms in Malaysia and Indonesia.

Singapore: de-Sinification

However, Singapore, under Lee Kuan Yew, was aggressively anti-Communist and locked up many Chinese Singaporeans. He unwittingly made Singapore the first majority Chinese community to undergo “de-Sinification”.

Lee promoted English as the common language to replace the Chinese dialect of Hokkien, which was the most widely spoken language on the island at the time. He eliminated Chinese-medium learning in almost all Chinese-founded schools, even closing down Nanyang University, the largest Chinese-medium private university in Southeast Asia. He forced it to merge with the University of Singapore and adopt English-medium learning.

This was partly because Nanyang was deemed by the government to be a hotbed of Communist activity and Chinese nationalism. Being “Singaporean” now trumped racial considerations, as Lee promoted a multiracial nation focused on a common goal, instead of looking back at the motherland.

Hong Kong: free and Chinese

Meanwhile in Hong Kong, a radically different “Chinese” identity arose. Hong Kongers took pride that they had been educated by the British system, like Singapore. But they pursued a cultural Chinese identity.

For decades after 1949, Hong Kong was the only place which had freedom of speech and cultural prosperity in the entire Sinosphere. Only in Hong Kong could banned books be published, could all forms of arts be pursued without censorship, and could people from both sides of politics coexist. An explosion of creativity followed, making Hong Kong the “Hollywood of the East”; Cantopop stars took Asia by storm, much like K-Pop today.

Hong Kongers were Chinese, but different. They retained the traditional writing system, which had been abolished on the Mainland. They understood both the East and the West and they combined the best of both to forge a new identity.

At the time, Hong Kongers dreamed of using their experience to change the motherland, culminating in the 1989 protests, where Hong Kongers dreamed of a democratic and unified China.

The year 1989 was perhaps the high-water mark of Chinese identity amongst overseas Chinese communities. Everywhere from Taipei to Hong Kong to LA, ethnic Chinese rallied to the cause of a free, democratic China. Protest rallies, fundraisers and concerts were filled with patriotic messages and dreamy slogans. But 1989 was also the year when those dreams proved to be a bubble and changed overseas Chinese identity forever.

Forging a Taiwanese identity

Starting in the 1990s, as Taiwan slowly crawled out of its dictatorship shell, a quest for local Taiwanese identity and Taiwanese independence began.

Many Hokkien and Hakka-speaking Taiwanese locals questioned their similarity with the Mandarin-speaking Kuomintang loyalists who had crossed over to seek refuge after the Communist takeover. They also questioned the decades-long practice of suppressing Taiwanese identity and the promotion of northern Mandarin over local southern Chinese languages by the KMT regime.

After the Democratic Progressive Party came to power in 2000, radical changes to the curriculum in schools were made. The longest rivers in the Republic of China (Taiwan) was no longer the Yangtze and the Yellow River, and its highest peak was Yushan in central Taiwan.

Chinese history became less important and Taiwanese heroes who fought against both the Japanese and the KMT slowly got promoted. Twenty years on, surveys of Taiwanese under the age of 30 showed that they almost unanimously identified themselves as Taiwanese instead of Chinese, with an ever-shrinking minority in the older populace still hanging onto a Chinese identity.

Taiwan decided to stop being Free China and start being itself. It cut ties with overseas ethnic Chinese associations in the West. Slowly but surely overseas Chinese associations reconsidered their position of flying the ROC flag instead of the PRC flag.

Mainland Chinese migrants became the majority of ethnic Chinese living in the West and PRC embassies actively cultivated overseas communities. Taiwan’s influence shrank to a minimum. As a result, simplified Chinese writing now dominates in Chinatowns around the world, with Taiwanese and Hong Kongers being marginalised.

Perhaps the most radical change came in Hong Kong, where for decades pro-democratic Hong Kongers hoped to make China free and use Hong Kong as the source of change. In 2008, Hong Kongers’ Chinese pride reached a peak during the Beijing Olympics and the Wenchuan earthquake. Hong Kongers donated billions to the earthquake afflicted regions and cheered on for Team China in the Olympics – which would be absolutely unimaginable today.

But after the Umbrella Revolution of 2014 failed and as cross-border tensions between Mainlanders and locals rise, Hong Kong has also done a complete U-turn and rapidly abandoned its Chinese identity.

Most Hong Kong youths, with their worldview minted by the 2019 anti-extradition protests, have turned their backs on China. Anyone speaking Mandarin is subject to intense suspicion and discrimination. Calls for Hong Kong independence are growing louder and louder, as agitation against the folks “to the north” reached eruption point.

Chinese identity is not Communist

What can we conclude from this wave of de-Sinification amongst ethnic Chinese communities? Perhaps the answer is that the CCP has permanently changed what it means to be Chinese. In today’s China, many are victims of the CCP regime, but many others are its accomplices. Chinese people suffer from the worst censorship, an inhumane birth policy and massive surveillance. But many of them, brainwashed for generations, are also cheerleaders for Communism and its version of nationalism. Nearly 100 million are members of the Communist Party. The CCP is like a snake that has deeply bound itself to a human body. It has hijacked and poisoned Chinese identity; one can only be a good Chinese if one supports the CCP.

Over decades the CCP has reduced traditional Chinese culture to a shell of its former self. It has corrupted the language through its Simplified Chinese characters, exterminated local dialects and folk culture, and poisoned minds against scapegoats like religion, Japan and the West.

And that is why Taiwan, Hong Kong and other overseas Chinese communities want to opt out. They can’t accept that being proudly Chinese means loving the CCP. Thus they are shedding the toxic label of Chinese identity altogether to avoid being infiltrated by Communism.

This all started in Singapore and is now being completed in Hong Kong. It is a great tragedy to the Sinosphere, but it will accelerate as the People’s Republic of China looks increasingly like a high-tech version of the Soviet Union. Culturally, they are Chinese and they always will be; politically they want to get rid of the Chinese connection. This writer believes that the Party does not, and must not, represent China.

But unless a majority of people inside China realise this, the kidnapping of China by the current regime will continue and the hearts and minds of ethnic Chinese overseas will be lost, perhaps forever. No self-deceiving maneuvers from the WHO can change that.

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William Huang is a product of the one-child policy as he is the only son in the family. Born and raised in China, it is only when he went overseas to study that he had an epiphany, realizing just how much...