In Taiwan's south, calls for independence from China entrenched as poll looms

TAINAN, Taiwan (Reuters) - In a gritty suburb of Tainan in southern Taiwan, a city known for its fierce anti-China sentiment, Huang Hsien-ching was stacking election flyers and inspecting campaign trucks rigged up with megaphones before Saturday’s islandwide elections.

Taiwan's Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Chairperson and presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen greets supporters at the end of a campaign rally in Wuchi district, Taichung city in central Taiwan January 12, 2016. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

As a rookie candidate for the fledgling Free Taiwan Party - one of a number of smaller, radical groups advocating independence from China - Huang, a family doctor, says he’s put $30,000 of his savings and his career on the line to try to fight back against what he sees as an increasingly assertive China.

“More and more people want independence in Taiwan,” said Huang, 61 with a buzz cut, in his campaign office fronted by a giant billboard of himself holding his arm aloft with the logo of a bird in flight.

“China is suppressing Taiwan internationally and they don’t treat us as equals. Independence is the only way for us to develop and move forward,” added Huang, who grew up in Tainan, a trading port that in centuries past was ruled by a succession of powers including the Spanish, Dutch, Japanese and Chinese.

Huang’s rhetoric is exactly the kind of thing Beijing hates the most. China has warned repeatedly it will never tolerate independence for an island it considers a rebel province and has not ruled out the use of force to ensure eventual unification.

In cities, townships and villages across the mountainous island of 23 million, deep-rooted ideological differences shaped by Taiwan’s fraught history with China will once again play out at the ballot box.

Nearly seven decades of historical enmity between China’s Communist Party and the Nationalists (KMT), who escaped to Taiwan after the Chinese civil war, have made independence, or unification, a core issue.

More radical, anti-China voices like Huang’s persist even with the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) expected to sweep in a new president and parliamentary majority on Saturday, and potentially reshape relations with China.

During a campaign rally through the streets of Tainan in the DPP’s traditional stronghold of southern Taiwan, tens of thousands thronged the streets, set off firecrackers, waved flags and cheered as DPP presidential frontrunner Tsai Ing-wen, likely to become the island’s first woman president, swept by in a motorcade.

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“Taiwan and China, we’re brothers for sure, but we’ve already divided into two families,” said prominent Taiwanese rapper Dwagie, who turned up for a Tsai campaign pitstop at an ornate ancient temple in Tainan with a few friends.

“Independence is an ambition for the future but it’s not possible in the current situation. We should focus on the economy first,” said Dwagie, who raps in Taiwanese Hokkien, a language highly symbolic of the island’s distinctiveness, rather than Mandarin, the official language in both Taiwan and China.

The DPP says only the people of Taiwan can decide its future. China takes that to mean it wants independence.

But for Fu Chien-feng, another rookie Tainan parliamentary candidate on the other end of the political spectrum, engagement with China is a historical imperative.

A 57-year-old former journalist now contesting a legislative seat for his China Unification Promotion Party, he concedes he has little chance, but feels his minority pro-China voice remains important.

“If we can have a ‘one country, two systems’ arrangement like in Hong Kong and it is in Taiwan’s interest, I think we should consider it,” he said in his office in Anping district, close to the ruins of the historic Dutch-era Zeelandia Fort.

The former British colony of Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997 under the so-called “one country, two systems” formula. China has held it out as a solution for Taiwan, but both the KMT and DPP have rejected the model.

“If Tsai Ing-wen pushes for independence, we’ll be punished by China economically,” Fu said. “Look at the West and how it now engages and co-operates with China. How is it possible that Taiwan, with the same language and culture, doesn’t do the same?”

But back in Dr Huang’s office, surrounded by rice and flax fields and fish farms, he says a democratic, free and open Taiwan can’t accept rule by an authoritarian regime.

“We must pay whatever price to achieve independence ... even if it means war with China,” Huang said.

“I don’t trust China. Look at Tibet, Xinjiang, and now Hong Kong,” he said, referring to the recent disappearances of five Hong Kong booksellers amid speculation they may have been abducted and detained by Chinese authorities. China has so far not commented on the possible fate of the men.

“We don’t want Taiwan to become a place without freedom of expression, where booksellers go missing. We don’t want this kind of country to take over.”

Editing by Ben Blanchard and Nick Macfie