Is Taiwan Covering over Contemporary Issues of Racism with a Veneer of Multiculturalism?

Written by Brian Hioe.

Image credit: Big brother by Alain Bachellier/Flickr, license CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Over the past four years, it has become a refrain of the Tsai administration to tout Taiwan’s increasing diversity. Namely, given increased immigration to Taiwan from Southeast Asia, one in ten children in Taiwan has a foreign parent. This is a fact that Tsai and members of her administration have taken to frequently citing, often during occasions in which Taiwan is visible on the international stage.

The Tsai administration’s motivations for pointing to Taiwan’s increasing diversity are likely driven by a desire to distinguish Taiwan from China. Tsai hopes to suggest that, unlike China, Taiwan prizes diversity. As the next generation of Taiwanese will be quite multicultural, with many children having a non-Han parent, this will be something that further distinguishes Taiwan from China.

The Tsai administration has not only sought to highlight Taiwan’s multicultural future. The Tsai administration has also sought to point to the diversity of Taiwanese history. As such, the Tsai administration has sought to highlight Taiwan’s indigenous past. Moreover, it has historically pointed to the confluence of cultural influences in Taiwan between waishengren, benshengren, indigenous, Hakka, and newly arrived “New Immigrants” in its policy and messaging.

Early actions of the Tsai administration were telling. Indeed, a performance before Tsai’s inauguration ceremony entitled “Taiwan’s Light” explored Taiwan’s past four hundred years of history since indigenous times. It also highlighted the Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese, Japanese, and KMT settlements. Tsai also apologised to Taiwanese indigenous in a historic apology on behalf of the ROC government. Some have pointed to Tsai herself as an example of Taiwan’s diversity. Tsai has a Hakka father, a benshengren mother, and an indigenous grandparent.

That being said, by utilising a veneer of multiculturalism, the Tsai administration has perhaps failed to reckon fully with contemporary issues such as racism in Taiwan. What with Taiwan becoming an increasingly diverse place, there will eventually likely be a point soon in which Taiwan will be forced to confront these issues head-on.

Such suppositions seemed to be ratified through accusations by the World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. After both the Taiwanese Government and members of the public sought to draw attention to Taiwan’s exclusion from the global health body, Tedros claimed that the Taiwanese Government was engaged in a coordinated, racist campaign to smear him.

Tedros’ accusations prompted outraged responses in Taiwan, seeing as there was no such campaign. The incident prompted Taiwanese netizens to crowdfund an ad in the New York Times, to highlight Taiwan’s solidarity with the rest of the world during the COVID-19 crisis despite its exclusion. At the same time, Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Joanne Ou raised eyebrows with a comment that about the supposed non-existence of racism in Taiwan. She stated that “The concept of racism does not exist in Taiwan. We do not have a problem of racism.”

It proves an unfortunate fact that racism does, in fact, exist in Taiwan. This is highly visible regarding longstanding, systematic discrimination against Taiwanese indigenous, and issues of discrimination against migrant workers.

Work and educational opportunities are fewer for Taiwanese indigenous. To be sure, conditions of socioeconomic inequality reflect that the average life expectancy for indigenous is ten years less than that of their Han counterparts. Migrant workers have faced abuses such as being forced to work long hours for meagre pay, with few or no days off, despite being increasingly visible in Taiwanese society. 

Taiwan’s issues with racism can further be seen in incidents of racialised violence involving police. Protests by Taiwanese indigenous in past years, such as demonstrations to call for the return of traditional territories, have seen unusually high proportions of police to demonstrators compared to Han majority protests.

Violence against migrant workers has been highlighted in incidents such as the 2017 shooting death of Vietnamese migrant worker Nguyen Quoc Phi, during which Nguyen was shot nine times. Police claimed that Nguyen had attempted to attack them with rocks. Still, they responded with overwhelming force in shooting to kill immediately. Violence against migrant workers is a particular issue regarding migrant fishermen on the high seas, with migrant workers dying in mysterious circumstances and having their bodies disposed of in the ocean. An infamous example took place in 2015 after the beaten body of Indonesian migrant fisher Supriyanto washed ashore in Taiwan after his death at sea.

What such incidents point to, then, are how references to Taiwan’s multiculturalism sometimes cover over what are deeply rooted, systematic issues regarding racism.

Insofar as how Tsai’s inauguration represents how the Tsai administration sought to make its first impression on the international world, the “Taiwan’s Light” performance demonstrates many of these issues in microcosm. The performance claimed that “religions from Western countries changed the primitive and uncultivated customs of the indigenous” and passed over violence against indigenous by ethnic Han. Likewise, the performance awkwardly combined both pan-Blue and pan-Green views of history with regards to its depiction of Japanese colonialism and the KMT’s arrival of Taiwan, with indigenous awkwardly situated during the Japanese colonial period as “heroes of the war against the Japanese.” Unsurprisingly, indigenous groups were among those with strong reactions to the performance.

The performance proved a symbol of many of the issues regarding racism that have persisted through the Tsai administration. Nevertheless,  the historical imaginary of Taiwan’s racialised past shapes present-day conceptions of Taiwan’s multiracial future.

Indeed, where history is concerned, the most politically salient racial split in the past seventy years has mostly not been with regards to indigenous or the growing migrant population from Southeast Asia. Racialised issues were primarily seen between Taiwan’s two sub-ethnic groups, the waishengren (those descended from individuals came with the KMT to Taiwan), and the benshengren (those descended from earlier waves of migration to Taiwan over the past centuries).

Waishengren constituted an economically and politically privileged class during authoritarian times, with specific careers closed off to benshengren in fields such as serving in government or holding public office. Views regarding Taiwanese sovereignty were another source of tension, seeing as many waishengren historically identified with China, and advocated for unification between Taiwan and China. But distinctions between waishengren and benshengren are increasingly blurry seventy years after the KMT came to Taiwan. As attested to by polling, more and more Taiwanese now identify with Taiwan rather than China.

Going forward, the racial split in Taiwan that will be increasingly salient may be that between Han and non-Han groups. But it is still to be seen how society will confront such issues.

Brian Hioe is a freelance translator, a writer on social movements and youth culture in Asia and founding editor at New Bloom Magazine. He tweets @brianhioe

This article is part of a special issue on racism and discrimination in Taiwan.

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