By Ben Blanchard
KAOHSIUNG, Taiwan (Reuters) - Tsai Chin-sheng's voice rises with emotion when asked whether he feels Taiwanese or Chinese. Then he utters the response that Beijing fears most.
"Of course I'm pure Taiwanese. I'm not Chinese. We are not a province of China. We are our own country," Tsai said in thickly accented Mandarin through teeth stained red from chewing betel nut, a popular stimulant.
"We have democracy and human rights here. What the hell does China have to offer?" added Tsai, an enthusiastic supporter of Taiwan's Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which hopes to unseat the China-friendly Nationalists in presidential elections on January 14.
"Maybe the Chinese tourists who come here now can learn a thing or two from us and apply it when they go home," said the businessman, a resident of southern Taiwan's balmy port city of Kaohsiung, a DPP stronghold and pro-independence hotbed.
China claims Taiwan as its own, to be taken back by force if necessary, though the two have been ruled separately since defeated Nationalist forces fled to the island in 1949 at the end of a civil war with the Communists.
Decades of dictatorship and repression followed by a gusty uptaking of democracy have engendered not only pride at Taiwan's generally smooth transition to rule by the ballot box, but also a growing feeling of distance and difference from China.
Many Taiwanese look with nervousness, if not fear, at China, where the ruling Communist Party remains unmoved by calls for political liberalization.
Taiwan's free-wheeling press covers the island's politics in a critical way unthinkable for China's stodgy state-controlled media, and giving ink to Chinese dissidents and unrest in the mainland that would never make it past Beijing's censors.
This open debate helps reinforce the deep unwillingness in Taiwan to be absorbed politically by China, and the popular feeling that the island is very different from the mainland and this is something to be cherished and protected.
The sentiment is felt particularly keenly in Kaohsiung, one of the main heartlands of Taiwanese cultural identity and where, in 1979, rights activists held a landmark rally which helped spark Taiwan's eventual democratic transition.
"We can talk to China but it must be on the basis of equality, as nation-to-nation," said Hsiao Chuang, a supporter of opposition presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen, out pressing the flesh on a trendy Kaohsiung shopping street.
"Ma Ying-jeou stinks. He wants to sell us out to China," he added, referring to the current president, who signed a series of landmark economic deals with China after taking office in 2008, sparking a rapprochement between the two sides.
China has recently hinted those deals could be at risk if the DPP does not adopt a more positive policy toward Beijing.
The party has sought a more moderate line. It no longer openly backs independence which earned Chen Shui-bian, president from 2000 to 2008, such enmity from China.
But some DPP supporters in Kaohsiung don't seem to have got that message, or at least don't believe the softer stance.
"I will vote for them because they will make us independent," said taxi driver Chen Wen-ling. "Native Taiwanese have to vote for the DPP. It is our duty."
STATUS QUO PREFERRED TO INDEPENDENCE
Most Taiwanese, though, say they would rather maintain the status quo of de facto independence as the "Republic of China" than declare formal independence and risk a Chinese attack.
But they show little enthusiasm to join up with their ethnic kin across the narrow Taiwan Strait, even if ancestrally many can trace their origins to the province of Fujian, which faces Taiwan and shares the same main dialect.
Even among Nationalist Party supporters, there is little willingness to accept that they are Chinese, apart from culturally or historically.
The Nationalists, who once tried suppressing Taiwan's own cultural identity, are also now trying to portray themselves as Taiwanese, hoping to win the voters' hearts.
Though friendly to China, Ma has resisted any efforts at opening political dialogue with Beijing or committing himself to making a decision on Taiwan's future status.
He has been successful at identifying himself with Taiwan, learning to speak the island's predominant Hokkien dialect and portraying himself as a "new Taiwanese," despite not being born on the island, a source of suspicion for some.
MA SUPPORTERS KEEP LOW PROFILE
In Kaohsiung though, most Ma supporters keep a low profile.
One exception is Yang Yu-mei, who runs a shop selling clothing decorated with Republic of China flags and displaying several pictures of her meeting Ma. Brushes with DPP supporters, whom she says sometimes kick the flags outside her store, have not dampened her ardor.
She is so keen on the Nationalists that her mobile phone ringtone is former president Chiang Ching-kuo, who fostered Taiwan's transition to democracy in the 1980s, leading a crowd shouting "Long Live the Republic of China!"
Still, even she is lukewarm on getting any closer to China.
"The current status quo is best. We don't want war with China," said Yang.
"I am a citizen of the Republic of China who lives on Taiwan," she added. "We can say and do what we want here without the fear of anyone looking over our shoulder, and that is very important."
China has hoped that with closer economic links, and with the series of trade agreements signed by Ma, the island will start to feel more positive about Beijing.
While Taiwan's airlines, hotels and major corporations have certainly benefited, many ordinary people say they have felt little impact.
The media has lapped up stories of mainland tourists being too noisy, jumping queues and generally behaving badly. It's something that plays well in the pro-independence south.
"I've seen no benefit from them being here," complained Huang Hsiao-yan, a cook at one of Kaohsiung's heaving night markets. "The mainland tourists buy only fruit or trinkets. They don't eat here. I don't like them at all."
The once heavily industrialized Kaohsiung has lost many of its companies and factories to China, drawn away by a massive population and low manufacturing costs.
The effect can be seen on the city's sleek new subway network, where it is easy to find a seat even at rush hour. Many would-be commuters have long since decamped to China to work.
"Business has not been good in Kaohsiung for many years now. Everyone has gone to China," complained bar owner Landy Hsu.
"The only Chinese tourists we see around here are men asking us if we have any women, if you know what I mean," piped up her friend and colleague Melody Chin.
When it comes to China, the crucial aspect for many in Taiwan is they want the right to decide their own future.
"You can't choose your relatives, but you can choose whether to spend time with them," said Kaohsiung gallery curator Jemmy Chu, overseeing an exhibition on 100 years since the fall of China's last emperor and establishment of the Republic of China.
One day, perhaps, China could have a democratic revolution too, he added.
"At the moment China is like a bad grandmother who you would not want to have anything to do with. That could change. People complain about China but the Taiwanese have short memories. We were once exactly like them and we were able to change."
(Editing by Brian Rhoads and Jonathan Thatcher)