The tempests in a teacup we are seeing these days make me nostalgic for 1997. That was the year that Diana, Princess of Wales, died in a car accident and Mother Teresa died, but also, of the past 14 years, this was the year that relations between ethnic groups in Taiwanese society were at their most stable.
If we take the number of times the media mentioned "ethnic conflict" as an index for measuring changes in the relations between ethnic groups, we find that in two of Taiwan's most important print media, the China Times and the United Daily News, the term "ethnic conflict" was mentioned in their articles only eight and six times respectively in 1997.
In the 13 years between 1994 and last year, the average number of times each paper used the term was more than 50. The most it was used was in 2004. Articles in these two papers mentioned it as many as 145 and 109 times respectively.
The year 1994 was an important watershed in the development of democratic politics in Taiwan. In that year, elections were held for the provincial governor of Taiwan and for the mayors of Taipei and Kaohsiung. It was at that point that ethnic politics were brought onto the central political stage.
In the 13 years since 1994, Taiwan has held three presidential elections, four legislative elections, three elections for mayors and city counselors, four elections for mayors and city counselors of Taipei and Kaohsiung, and one for provincial governor.
In each of those elections, "ethnic conflict" has been the focus of attention of opinion, and it was also one of the most important bases that politicians built on to generate support.
From 1994 to last year, the number of times the media used the term "ethnic conflict" peaked five times, namely in 1995, 1998, 2001, 2004 and last year. In the first four of these years, there were legislative elections. That usage of the term also peaked last year in relation to the "anti-corruption" movement against President Chen Shui-bian (
We can look further into how different kinds of elections influenced media reports. In years where there were no legislative elections, the China Times and the United Daily News mentioned "ethnic conflict" 36 and 40 times respectively.
In years with legislative elections this jumped to 90 and 74 times. Looking at the average per month for each paper, the number was higher for years with legislative elections than for years without, especially in November. In years with legislative elections the number of times the term "ethnic conflict" was mentioned was three times as high as in years without such elections.
The number of times the term was mentioned in years with no presidential election was 47 and 48 times respectively, while for years with a presidential election this was 71 and 58 times. Each time there was a presidential election, the number of times these two papers mentioned "ethnic conflict" in their articles started increasing from January onward, and peaked in March.
In comparison, legislative and presidential elections have the most influence on the use of the word "ethnic conflict" in the media, while the influence of elections of mayors and county commissioners is the smallest. This difference can help us understand the phenomenon of ethnic conflict in Taiwan.
First, the meaning and importance of the subject of ethnicity is different in different kinds of elections. In elections for mayors and county commissioners, taking a position on ethnicity is not a very effective way of attracting candidates or voters, so there were less articles about "ethnic conflict" around such elections.