Understanding New Residents’ Voting Preferences in Taiwan: the Case of Mainland Spouses

Written by Lara Momesso and Grace Lee.

Image credit: Taiwan 2016 presidential election by Studio Incendo/Flickr, license CC BY 2.0

Never before have new residents been so important in the electoral campaign debate as in the last few years. Not only they are seen as potential voters by mainstream parties, but they also have organised collectively to support their favourite party in the electoral campaigns. More recently, new residents have stepped into politics by running for elections as candidates in legislative elections.

It is interesting to reflect on how the new democracy of Taiwan has integrated its new residents into the political processes. In a bipartisan political environment shaped by the issue of independence/unification, new residents seem to also have polarised along the same division. It is believed that mainland spouses vote disproportionally for the Nationalist Party (KMT) due to their connections with mainland China, whereas Southeast Asian spouses, having no particular emotional or material links with the Mainland, are more likely to support the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). Clearly, the two parties have capitalised on this ethnic and national division for some time. In determining their proportional candidates for the approaching elections, both parties decided to include an immigrant whose ethnicity/nationality would represent their main supporters: the KMT nominated a marriage migrant from mainland China, Niu Chun-ru, and the DPP nominated a Malaysian migrant, Luo Mei-ling.

If this approach based on ethnic/national identity seems to reflect main trends amongst new resident communities, our observations in the field also suggest that new residents may be less monolithic they seem. For instance, if we look at the specificity of Mainland spouses, it is true that ideology, Chinese patriotism and nationalism above all, plays a crucial role in shaping the direction of their political sentiments. Hence, many Mainland spouses who have a strong pro-unification ideology are KMT supporters. On the other hand, we also noticed that the whole picture seems to be less fixed and homogenous than it is presented. A series of other factors, beyond ideology, may shape their voting preferences, in favour or against the KMT.

Firstly, many Mainland sisters tend to share conservative values, not only with regard to cross-Strait relations, but also other issues such as marriage equality and environmental protection. These themes tend to be more prevalent in the KMT manifesto than the more progressive DPP.

Another important factor often overlooked in political debates is migrants’ life cycles. Most marriage migrants, despite coming from China and maintaining links there, have lived in Taiwan for a long time and have made Taiwan their home. These migrants think of themselves as Taiwanese citizens, rather than just immigrants. Many Mainland sisters are tired of listening to a narrative that seems to acknowledge only their identity as migrants or citizens of the other side of the Taiwan Strait. As an informant who had lived in Taipei for more than a decade argued, “I represent a woman in her middle age, I am also a mum, a parent.” Although this woman still voted for the KMT, she justified her vote in light of the economic and social policies that she regarded as important for the future of Taiwan and which would assure good conditions for her Taiwanese son. Similar to this woman, parenthood seems to be a crucial feature for many new residents who have children born into Taiwan’s next generation. This last example alerts us to the fact that new residents are increasingly thinking as any other Taiwanese citizen, rather than as a migrant minority.

For marriage migrants, the political background of the family they marry into also plays a role in shaping their political preferences. In our conversations with Mainland sisters, it clearly emerged that, especially in the first years after arrival, wives may follow the husband’s suggestion for whom to vote. While it may be easy to guess the political preferences of husbands from earlier cross-Strait marriages – which often involved veterans of the Nationalist Army and supporters of the KMT – such political preferences are less predictable with more recent marriages. Some women we met were married with men who supported the green camp, which caused different outcomes. Some couples did not interact on political matters due to diverging opinions, whereas others showed a degree of influence on the way the Mainland spouse thought about Taiwan.

These conditions sometimes generated unexpected situations. For instance, the new resident community noticed that a Mainland spouse is a member of the DPP New Residents Affairs Committee. Despite her aim to bring a voice of mainland spouses to a party that has no such representation, this young woman has been broadly criticised by other sisters from Mainland China because she joined the “enemy” side.

However, she was not alone. Another Mainland spouse and DPP supporter once explained, “Lupei won’t openly join the DPP, but there are many spouses who have a perspective like mine, who are not focused on supporting either the DPP or the KMT, but who love Taiwan. This is a different group of people. These people think that they are part of Taiwan, and they support Taiwan, and so they don’t care which government is in power as long as they work for their people.” Many reasons could contribute to these unusual positions. Besides personal experiences and family background, the will to see a female president in Taiwan was also listed as a decisive factor: “In the last elections I voted for Tsai Ing-wen. Not because I like the DPP or because I want the DPP to be in power, but because I wanted Taiwan to have a woman president.”

The narratives of the sisters we met in our fieldworks seem to offer a heterogeneity of approaches to and understanding of Taiwan politics. Experiences such as long-term residence in Taiwan, acquisition of citizenship and parenting may push migrants to develop more sophisticated reasoning behind their political stances and go beyond ideology on independence/unification. Until recently both parties could capitalise on the ethnic/national variable to define their approach to new residents. In the near future, however, this approach may become less effective and both DPP and KMT may have to search for new ways to reach these new citizens of Taiwan.

Lara Momesso is a Lecturer in Asia Pacific Studies at the School of Language and Global Studies at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan). She is also a Research Associate at the Centre of Taiwan Studies at SOAS (the University of London, UK), an Associate Fellow at the European Research Centre of Contemporary Taiwan (University of Tuebingen, Germany) and is an elected executive board member of the European Association of Taiwan Studies (EATS). Since 2018 she is Deputy Director of the Northern Institute of Taiwan Studies and of the Lancashire Centre of Migration, Diaspora and Exile at UCLan.

Grace Lee arrived in Hualien twenty-two years ago as a marriage migrant from Sichuan Province. After the first thirteen years at home caring for family responsibilities, she started working as volunteer in various local NGOs. She later became a member of the Foreign Spouses Care and Guidance Fund and currently works as a social worker and leader of the Boai Wholistic Development Association of Hualien that reaches out migrants.

From December 16th 2019 till January 6th 2020, researchers from the European Research Centre on Contemporary Taiwan (ERCCT) and Taiwan Studies Program (TSP) present a joint special issue on the forthcoming presidential election that will be held on January 11th 2020.

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