Over the past 10 years, a not insignificant number of Taiwanese youth have made the jump to the Chinese mainland to pursue work or study opportunities. Although in my experience there are no reliable, accessible statistics on the number of Taiwanese people currently living on the mainland, the government has clearly made their recruitment a priority. Yet, despite a raft of official policies aimed at attracting and integrating young people from Taiwan into mainland society, many of them continue to view their sojourns here as just that: temporary experiences, after which they plan to return home to Taiwan.
Curious why so few young Taiwan people — even those who have lived in the Chinese mainland for years — are willing to settle down on the mainland, I teamed up with two mainland-based Taiwan experts, Cai Yicun and Zhang Suixin, to survey members of this group about their lives and experiences here. We began by coming up with a series of 18 indicators of integration, covering four primary categories: professional or academic integration, life integration, cultural integration, and psychological integration. We received 213 valid responses — both from Taiwanese people living on the mainland and from those who had returned to the island.
Our results show that Taiwanese youth are generally not well-integrated into the mainland’s society. To borrow a term from our study, they’re “pragmatic itinerants”: “pragmatic” because they integrate just as much as is necessary to get by, without developing psychological attachments to their new homes; “itinerants” because, unlike migrants, they have little interest in staying long-term or putting down roots. Their time in the Chinese mainland is characterized by transience, mobility, and uncertainty.
Based on their responses to our survey questions, young Taiwanese people face three main difficulties when it comes to integration.
First, despite sharing a language and numerous cultural touchstones, young people from Taiwan rarely involve themselves in the day-to-day goings on of life in their mainland communities. It’s not that they can’t get involved — they certainly have all the linguistic and cultural tools to do so — but most of them still think of themselves as outsiders.
In part, this is because their experiences in the Chinese mainland aren’t always positive. Some respondents expressed frustration at the poor quality of the mainland’s grassroots governance systems, the tendency of people in charge to pass the buck, and difficulties getting problems resolved. In particular, very few exchange students opted to stay in the Chinese mainland after graduation.
The exceptions to this rule were the children of mainland-based Taiwanese businesspeople. Growing up between the island and the mainland, they are more likely to view the Chinese mainland as their home, or at least one of them, and consequently are better-integrated.
Second, young people from Taiwan don’t necessarily share the same values as those from the mainland. Despite broad cultural similarities, there remain fundamental differences in how the two groups perceive and think about the world. For decades, Taiwan and the Chinese mainland were functionally cut off from one another and naturally developed along different trajectories. Although young Taiwanese people generally express an acceptance of mainland values, that doesn’t mean they’re willing to adapt or change their own beliefs in order to better fit in.
Finally, although young people from Taiwan express interest in and concern for local affairs and their communities, that shouldn’t be mistaken for a sense of belonging or attachment. According to our data, Taiwanese youth scored highly on two indicators: “concern for local news” and “willingness to do their part for their communities.” Some even go so far as put this care into action: donating to mainland charities and taking part in volunteer activities.
Many respondents who had returned to Taiwan also expressed an interest in one day revisiting the places they had lived while on the mainland. Yet very few of them reported an interest in staying long-term. Most respondents also said they didn’t consider themselves as truly belonging to their mainland communities.
In other words, time spent living somewhere can foster basic concern for that place, and many Taiwanese youth truly care about their mainland communities. However, they still don’t see the mainland as home. They view themselves as short-term residents of the mainland, not as migrants.
One potential solution to this problem would be to increase awareness of the opportunities on offer if they do stay. The Chinese government has invested heavily in preferential policies for attracting and retaining skilled young people from Taiwan, but many survey respondents reported they were unaware of these programs. Most told us they heard about opportunities on the mainland from their friends, while relatively few mentioned channels like job ads or social media. This greatly limits the effectiveness of current policy and suggests that perhaps the government should invest in outreach or learn how to advertise on platforms actually used by Taiwan people, such as Facebook.
Ultimately, however, if the Chinese government wants to convince young people from Taiwan to settle down in the Chinese mainland, it first needs to do a better job of promoting grassroots, people-to-people communication and exchanges. At present, local and national policy is too focused on providing opportunities for work and study. While important, this isn’t enough and does little to challenge Taiwanese people’s ingrained stereotypes of what life on the mainland is like or help them understand the cultural differences that do exist.
Steps should also be taken to increase young Taiwan people’s identification with their local mainland communities. Our study showed that, while their identification with the mainland as a whole is tepid, young Taiwanese people do care about local affairs and the communities in which they live. Perhaps by emphasizing these ties, we can help convince more of them to settle down in the future.
And it’s important to recognize that if we want them to identify with the mainland, we need to give Taiwanese youth more than just economic benefits: We have to give them rights. One possibility would be encouraging them to get involved in policy making or local consultative hearings. This is easier said than done, however, and more research would have to be undertaken before a plan could be formulated.
Earlier this month, Xi Jinping gave a speech addressed to residents of the island, reiterating that, “We cordially welcome young people from Taiwan to cherish, pursue, and fulfill their dreams on the mainland of our motherland.” If we truly want to roll out the welcome mat, however, we must first take a hard, honest look at some of the underlying barriers that prevent Taiwanese youth from integrating and work to resolve them.
This article is based on research first published in the Taiwan Research Journal, which is overseen by Xiamen University.
Translator: David Ball, editors: Yang Xiaozhou and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: Young people from Taiwan pose for a group photo during an outreach activity in Fuzhou, Fujian province, Aug. 17, 2018. Liu Kegeng/CNS/VCG)