Written by Isabelle Cheng.
For most Taiwan election observers, mid-November 2019 was full of high drama and factional struggle as the Kuomintang (KMT) and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) adjusted their nominations of non-constituency legislators (bufenqu daibiao, 不分區代表) on party representative lists. It was probably less likely, though, that observer attention would be drawn to how immigrant candidates featured on the list. However, for immigrant leaders, such as the one who rang me at 2:20am on Monday 18 November 2019, the two parties’ nominations caused a strong sense of disillusionment. On the phone, she wasted no time exchanging pleasantries but was straight to the point: ‘Why wasn’t she nominated?! We’re all very upset!’
The first time she talked to me about the political participation of Southeast Asian and Chinese spouses was in April 2009 when I was introduced to her by two officers of then the newly established National Immigration Agency. A certified interpreter working with law enforcement agencies and courts, she was also the head of a grassroots organisation dedicated to improving migrant spouses’ wellbeing. At that time, she showed a strong interest in political participation, partly inspired by her relative who migrated to Taiwan by marriage and who had established a self-help organisation for fellow migrant spouses in another county.
No Self-Representation at the Legislative Yuan
Being widely known and respected, this migrant leader’s relative was mentioned to me by various other immigrant leaders from time to time over the past three years. In the summer of 2019, her relative was campaigning hard to be nominated for candidacy as a non-constituency legislator. Not naively taken for granted, her nomination was cautiously anticipated amongst a small group of immigrant leaders. However, she was not nominated. Subsequently, a commentary on a broadsheet newspaper critically evaluated the two political parties’ nomination strategies of migrant spouses, which are known as New Immigrants in Taiwan. In our conversation on the phone, my friend cited some of the key points raised by this commentary. She also re-posted her relative’s disillusion of losing the opportunity to represent immigrant voters at the Legislative Yuan. This disillusioned leader saw them being used only for vote mobilisation. Their support for the political party had been taken advantage of, but they did not receive the due reward of granting them representation at the Legislative Yuan.
The Growth of Charismatic Immigrant Leaders: a Common Trajectory
Respectably addressed as ‘president’ (huizhang, 會長) or ‘managing director’ (lishizhang, 理事長), my friend and her relative are amongst a small number of charismatic immigrant leaders whose migration to Taiwan was underlined by their empowerment and their dedication to serve. ‘We spent more time of our life in Taiwan than in our home country’ was a common expression, an understatement of their shared experiences in overcoming hardship, isolation and lack of confidence. Developing from the grassroots level and in their 40s, they boasted of an identical biographical trajectory which was punctuated by several key milestones and which led to their activism and political participation.
One of the key milestones reached at an early stage was their acquisition of Chinese language proficiency. In the mid-late 1990s when they first arrived, there were no publicly funded Chinese language classes for migrant spouses. Regardless of their education attainment in their country of origin, they often received Chinese language schooling at evening class (buxiao, 補校) run for illiterate senior citizens. By the time they completed their secondary education at evening school, they had become fluent in Mandarin and most likely were also fluent in the Taiwanese language due to the necessity of communicating with in-laws or various types of employment. Having young children, their early life was burdened by financial difficulty. To make ends meet, they ran small businesses, did piecemeal work, or undertook hourly paid employment at farms, tea plantations or at factories. For those who did not have any form of employment, they might become volunteers at schools, hospitals, Immigrant Halls (yimin huiguan, 移民會館), detention centres, police stations, public health stations or NGOs founded by Taiwanese people.
The acquisition of language proficiency, or their cultural capital, was pivotal to these leaders’ agency and empowerment. They grasped opportunities for language training and became certified interpreters working with law enforcement forces and courts. Providing such interpretation services linked them to the people in the public sector or labour migration otherwise outside of their social reach. These links opened doors for their activism. Some hosted radio programmes or staffed ‘hotlines’ for communicating with migrant workers or migrant spouses. Frequently being invited to publicly funded orientation classes, they became confident. They were invited by schools to teach their own languages and received hourly payment. These outreach experiences located them in a wider socio-political network comprising migrant workers, migrant spouses, teachers, businesspeople, civil servants, law enforcement agents and local politicians. They participated in election rallies with their fellow immigrants, some of whom were dressed in national costumes and performed on the stage set up for multicultural events. They became aware of the practice of vote buying, often via their parents-in-law, who have contact with election agents (zhuangjiao, 樁腳).
Being part of this social network nurtured my migrant leaders’ activism. They were sympathetic with migrant workers or migrant spouses who were tricked, maltreated or abused by their employers, brokers, husbands or in-laws. However, being brought up under patriarchal gender norms, they nevertheless might not approve of migrant spouse decisions to ‘run away’ from their marriage, engage extra marital affairs, co-habituating, or work in the sex industry. Activists who understood the legal implications of ‘running away’ lamented their fellow immigrants’ lack of understanding of how these acts were detrimental to their own interests. Their exposure to the complexity of Taiwan’s judicial system equipped them with critical knowledge. If their activism went as far as establishing a self-help association, they would most likely be assisted by Taiwanese activists, lawyers, accountants, academics or local politicians. They were elected by their members as the head of the organisation, served by a managing board made of Taiwanese professionals and their fellow immigrants. Learning by doing and exercising their civic skills, they applied to local governments for funding for running events or providing services to migrant clients.
No less than ten years would have passed when they became a ‘president’ or a ‘managing director’; charismatic leaders having real influence over their fellow immigrants. However, they continued to address themselves as a ‘sister’ to their fellow immigrants, a long-lasting self-identity underscored by empathy, compassion, equality and solidarity. Thanks to social media widely available on smartphone, their reputation and networking would have reached out beyond their immediate social circles or across the boundary of nationality.
Charismatic Leaders and Vote Mobilisation
Commanding trust and respect amongst fellow immigrants renders these leaders the gatekeepers of immigrant voters, a new pool of votes to be exploited by individual politicians or political parties. In the presidential and general elections of 2016, new immigrant leaders were mobilised by a political party that capitalised on their networks and tapped into this growing constituency of immigrant voters. The influence of immigrant voter ballots may be of varying proportions, depending on the level of election and the election system (e.g. winner-takes-all or single non-transferable vote). Nevertheless, immigrant voters as a whole and charismatic migrant leaders in particular attracted political parties’ attentions.
It is in this context that my friend’s relative became sarcastic about their relationships with political parties. For her, migrant spouses were like those ‘extras’ in a film shooting scene: they were expected only to be dressed in fancy national costumes at election rallies. Immigrants were so often encouraged to attend ‘leadership training’ courses that they have become ‘professional trainees’ in these courses without real opportunities to utilise their leadership skills. The two parties were not short of promises during the election campaign, but according to my interviewees, few were implemented. Insulted and disillusioned, her relative ‘quit’ this political game.
My conversation with the immigrant leader was a snapshot of the successful political socialisation of migrant spouses in Taiwan. From being wives and mothers to becoming citizens and activists and being looked up to as charismatic leaders, they have been noticed by politicians and political parties because of their potential for vote mobilisation. However, treating these leaders merely as a different type of ‘election agent’, this ‘use and dispose’ tactic seems to have backfired. It remains to be seen whether the political establishment will respect them as sophisticated leaders with their own vision and dedicated to serving their fellow immigrants, rather than treating them as exotic beauties at election rallies, as vote mobilisation agents, or as ‘professional leadership trainees’. On the other hand, their communication taking place on Line and Facebook is also a latest testament to the critical advantage of using smartphone for activism and political participation.
Isabelle Cheng is Senior Lecturer, School of Area Studies, Politics, History and Literature at the University of Portsmouth.