It might be the effects of the economic downturn, but there is something rather strange about the dwindling role of ethnicity in political discourse in recent months.
True, when cash is a problem, people tend to fine-tune their priorities and focus on what really matters — and this might help to extract nonsensical ethnic politics from day-to-day political activity.
But the fact remains that the administration of President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) has an agenda that bodes ill for people who identify culturally or ethnically as Taiwanese. Normally the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) champions the response to this agenda, but of late the DPP has been struggling to champion anything.
So, for now, economics rules the roost, and anyone who wants to mobilize support on any other issue is going to struggle for attention.
There has been a vivid exception to this trend in recent days. The Council of Indigenous Peoples (CIP) turned up the heat last week in dismissing a campaign by Pingpu (highly assimilated Aboriginal groups) representatives for official recognition — hence denying them eventual government funding of various descriptions.
The problem is that Council Minister Chang Jen-hsiang (章仁香) rejected the claims in an obnoxious manner that was both troubling and entirely unsurprising: For months she has been under fire from Aboriginal constituents and even members of her own party, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), for her mediocre management skills and the callous conduct of her aides.
The minister’s problem now is that the Pingpu groups in question are sufficiently proud to demand recognition for its own sake, not just the financial benefits that would flow from it.
By conducting herself in such an insulting and high-handed manner, this minister is exhibiting not only a willingness to deny the historical record (the last speakers of certain Pingpu languages have all but died out, which is nonetheless proof of a living legacy), but also to dabble in the ugliest of exclusionary ethnic tactics.
The facts are these: The minister’s own Amis ethnic group contains no shortage of people who fail to speak their people’s native language yet identify and live as Amis in Aboriginal communities. Meanwhile, among the Amis, some deny their Aboriginality and seek to integrate with the Han majority through marriage for personal reasons. Neither circumstance refutes the existence of an ongoing Amis cultural legacy and identity, nor does it prevent people from claiming benefits that the law affords Aboriginal people.
There is more than enough scholarly research to demonstrate that Pingpu traditions survive in Tainan County among descendants of the Siraya people, and that Pazeh people in the region of Puli (埔里), Nantou County, for example, retain a compelling identification with a culture that as recently as 60 years ago formed definable communities.
Chang’s political power does not derive from Aboriginal activism or the influence of the church but from family and KMT patronage. Her father was one of the most powerful Aboriginal politicians of his era, and it was his connections that helped her to rise to the top. Predictably, now that she has made it there, Chang has shown precious little enthusiasm for pursuing legal and administrative reforms necessitated by passage of the Aboriginal Basic Act (原住民族基本法).