The reshaping of Taiwan’s identity

By Zane Kheir  / 

Sat, Dec 05, 2015 - Page 8

Taiwan is often thought of as an ethnically homogeneous nation that is inherently linked to the polity of China. In reality, the myth of Taiwan’s homogeneity and its historical status as part of China’s cultural and political realm could not be further from the truth.

Throughout history, much of Taiwan’s regional geographic importance and socioeconomic development has been characterized by waves of migration. For thousands of years, Taiwan was thought of by Chinese and European explorers as a mysterious island inhabited by Austronesian peoples that had connections with other tribes in the Philippine island of Luzon. There are also historical records indicating that these inhabitants had the capability to cross the Taiwan Strait and land on the southern Chinese coast. Modern-day observation of Taiwanese Aboriginal traditions — the significance of crafted knives, facial tattoos, culinary techniques and languages — reveals striking similarities to the indigenous groups of the Philippines and Indonesia, supporting theories that Taiwan was the homeland of the “Proto-Austronesian” macro group of peoples.

Throughout the 17th century, Dutch colonialism in southern Taiwan fueled large-scale migration to Taiwan to supply much-needed labor for the proliferation of the Dutch East India Company’s global trade network. Dutch and British colonial governments in Indonesia, Malaysia and Burma employed similar strategies of recruiting Chinese and Indian workers to fill labor gaps and bolster their systems of colonial capitalism. Due to Taiwan’s close proximity to the southeastern coast of China, recruiting workers from labor-rich China was an obvious choice for the colonial officials.

Most of the Han Chinese workers who migrated to Taiwan during the Dutch and Qing colonial eras were men. Although some men returned to China to start a family, many men married indigenous women of Taiwan’s western plains, creating culturally mixed households. The eras of Japanese colonization and authoritarian rule by the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) were troubling to the creation of Taiwan’s local identity. The KMT’s China-centric education policy clearly aimed to homogenize all Taiwanese under a unitary Chinese identity at the expense of Taiwan’s diverse Hoklo, Hakka and Aboriginal cultures.

In more recent years, several policies implemented by former presidents Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) and Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) allowed for the free expression of local Taiwanese cultures and languages. One of the less China-centric policies implemented by Lee was the “go south” policy (南向政策), a long-term economic plan of further integration with Southeast Asia. By the 2000s, as Taiwan’s negative demographic trends became more pronounced, a larger number of Southeast Asian migrants were recruited to work in Taiwan as factory workers and domestic helpers. Unlike the pre-modern context, most of Taiwan’s migrants today are women from Southeast Asia, many of whom came to Taiwan to marry Taiwanese men, primarily in rural and suburban areas.

Since the start of President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) administration in 2008, Taiwan’s foreign policy and economic alignment have shifted gears dramatically toward integration with China. Even though Taiwan’s largest foreign community is composed of Southeast Asians, many of whom are married to Taiwanese and have children in Taiwan, economic integration with China has put relations with ASEAN on the back burner. Close economic and social relations with Southeast Asia is now more important than ever before, and Taiwan is in a position to utilize the social relations of its migrant community.

While Ma was busy preparing for a historic meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平), Democratic Progressive Party Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) proposed a “new southward policy” (新南向政策) not only to revive the foundation of the “go south” policy, but also to build new social and educational ties. Tsai has also taken the initiative to meet with Southeast Asian migrants, and women in particular, to show her commitment to make Taiwan more ASEAN-oriented if she becomes president. Tsai has also placed emphasis on “Taiwan’s new children” (新台灣之子) and said they would be valuable assets to lead Taiwan toward closer ties with Southeast Asia. Making allies with the nation’s rapidly growing migrant community was a smart move by Tsai and the DPP.

According to the National Immigration Agency, Taiwan now has more than 200,000 residents from Indonesia, 160,000 from Vietnam and 120,000 from the Philippines, mostly residing in cities and counties that are heavily affected by demographic decline. Most importantly, the number of schoolchildren with a non-Taiwanese parent has grown dramatically, with the Ministry of Education reporting that, last year, 10.28 percent of students in primary and secondary schools had a non-Taiwanese parent.

Just because Taiwan has a Chinese ethnic majority does not mean it is forever doomed to play second fiddle to China. Other nations and states in Southeast Asia, such as Singapore or Penang, have Chinese ethnic majorities, but maintain their own distinct Southeast Asian identities, characterized by migration. Taiwan has already proven itself as an attractive destination for Southeast Asian migrants. With the next election approaching, Taiwan is at a crucial juncture and needs to rethink how to characterize itself, as an offshore province of China, or as a diverse regional hub of migration.

Zane Kheir is a PhD student of Asian studies and migration at the National University of Singapore.