Taiwanese Identity and Racism in Taiwan

Written by Chieh-chi Hsieh.

Image credit: 09.18 總統接見「106年(回曆1438年)回教朝覲團」,與訪團合影 by 總統府/ Flickr, license CC BY 2.0

When the impact of COVID-19 was at its height in Asia this April, the director-general of the World Health Organisation (WHO), Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, publicly accused Taiwan of continuously attacking him with racist slurs for months. Although these accusations have been proven to be false, with the ongoing Black Live Matters campaign taking place, it does give a good opportunity to reflect on whether racism exists in Taiwan. More importantly, how this contributes to the formation of Taiwan’s identity in the contemporary epoch.

Racism: From Colonial Era to Martial Law Period

If one follows a broad definition of racism as inappropriate (e.g. less favourable or even hostile) treatment against individuals or groups based on perceived racial and/or cultural differences, racism/discrimination has long existed in Taiwan. Taiwan’s colonial past under Dutch, Spanish, Japanese rule have caused tensions between foreign and local ethnic groups (e.g. indigenous and Han ethnic groups). For instance, during Japan’s colonial rule tensions between the dominant and subordinate groups in Taiwan persisted, which gave rise to a series of anti-Japan movements such as Miaoli Incident (苗栗事件) of 1912-13 (i.e. Han ethnic group) and the 1930 Musha Incident (霧社事件) (i.e. Seediq indigenous group).

Discrimination did not end when Japan relinquished its control over Taiwan in 1945, albeit in a different form. It was transformed into a conflict between the so-called “new residents,” those who retreated with the Chinese Nationalist Party or Kuomintang (KMT) in the 1940s, and Taiwanese residents comprising of Hokkien, Hakka and Indigenous groups. For one, the KMT continued to suppress Taiwan’s local residents by imposing 38 years of martial law in the wake of the February 28 incident in 1947. In addition, discriminative measures were further institutionalised by the KMT. One notable example is that before 1992, the recruitment of civil servants via national examination was based on quotas allocated via provinces in China. Given that Taiwan was merely one of the 35 provinces stipulated in the constitution, this examination heavily discriminated against local residents in Taiwan vis-à-vis new residents. Consequently, the KMT was able to maintain a firm grip on Taiwan’s political economy utilising effective political and military control, but also with the strong backing of the bureaucratic system.

Similar to the “Hanification” process initiated when the first wave of Chinese settlers arrived in Taiwan in the late 17th century, the KMT also adopted an educational system that enshrined Confucian virtues and prohibited cultural and ethnic diversity. For instance, students were punished if they spoke their native languages, namely Taiwanese (or Hokkien), Hakka, and aboriginal tongues; pictures were produced in Mandarin with Chinese subtitles. The KMT’s thorough “re-education” policy resulted in the eventual loss of the Plains Indigenous people’s (平埔族) cultural heritage. Furthermore, the cultural heritage of Mountain Indigenous people (高山族) and languages of Taiwanese and Hakka are in jeopardy because of the same policy.

Post-Martial Law Era: Forging Taiwan’s Identity based on Diversity

The turning point for ending racism and discriminative actions came when former and late President Lee Teng-Hui won the first direct presidential election in 1996. One of the many significant contributions made by President Lee was his decision to officially incorporate native and native language education in the national education curriculum. This not only kick-started the process of forging Taiwan’s national identity but also ensured that the concept of identity was formulated on the ethos of diversity. The Democratic Progress Party (DPP) continued its policy agenda to cultivate Taiwan’s identity after winning the presidential election in 2000. Instances include numerous reforms to the education system in 2002, which changed the curriculum’s structure to lay more emphasis on Taiwan’s history and world history rather than merely Chinese history (i.e. Curriculum 95). Additionally, under the support of the Government, both the Hakka Television Station and the Taiwan Indigenous Television were launched in 2003 and 2005.

Today a fifth ethnic group, commonly referred to as “new immigrant group” (新住民), has emerged in Taiwan and is expected to play a crucial part in forming Taiwanese identity. The newly emerging ethnic group, which mainly comprise of immigrants from China and Southeast Asian nations and their offspring, currently accounts for more than 3 per cent (roughly 1 million) of Taiwan’s population, which surpasses the total population of roughly 560,000 indigenous people in Taiwan. In 2016, Lin Li-chan became the first immigrant (Cambodian descent) elected to the Legislative Yuan, whilst in 2018 Hu Ching-Hsien (Vietnamese descent) became the first immigrant to be appointed as a national policy advisor to the president. Moreover, Taiwan became the first country to include 7 Southeast Asian languages in the curriculum of schools at primary and secondary education levels in 2019. What is noteworthy is that the importance of new immigrants is a shared perception held by both the DPP and the KMT. This is demonstrated in the KMT’s nomination of Lin Li-Chan in the Party’s electoral list in the 2016 legislative election, whilst the DPP listing Lo Mei-Ling (Malaysian descent) on second place in its electoral list in 2020. These instances demonstrate that although traditional Chinese cultural remains to be the primary source of cultural heritage that formulates Taiwanese identity, the emphasis on the ethos of diversity would allow both indigenous and Southeast Asian cultural influences to play a part in this process.

Not All Sunshine and Rainbows

Returning to the point on whether racism exists in Taiwan, I still maintain that there is. In terms of racism against new immigrants and migrant works, one infamous example took place after the end of Ramadan in August 2012. This was when roughly 50,000 migrant workers from Indonesia gathered at the main hall of Taipei Main Station for Eid al-Fitr. The gathering generated complaints from commuters in which many claimed that there were excess litter and that the station is filled with heavy food smells. Local media coverage of the incident also sparked concerns for the way they titled the news by accusing migrant workers of “occupying” Taipei Main Station. What made matters worse was the decision of Taiwan Railways to set up various queuing lines to separate commuters and migrant workers. This was also criticised as racist misconduct against migrant workers. The recent discussion within Taiwan Railways to indefinitely prohibit the usage of its main hall for public gatherings under the flag of epidemic prevention led to a new wave of public outcry. Additionally, in the annual survey conducted by the Ministry of the Interior showed that 53.2 per cent of new immigrants surveyed supported their offspring to return to their home countries for employment rather than remain in Taiwan.

Although the Government has implemented several policies to preserve the cultural heritage of indigenous groups in Taiwan since 1996, some of these policies are evidently flawed. Take the example of programmes broadcast on Taiwan Indigenous Television. The satellite cable channel was launched to preserve and encourage the usage of indigenous languages. Nevertheless, the fact that there are 16 indigenous groups officially recognised by the Government, the problem of using which group’s language for television programmes inevitably arises. Furthermore, in 1974 the KMT Government disguised the purpose of setting up storage facilities on Orchard Island (or Irala)—the main residing place of the Tao indigenous group (達悟族)—for disposing of nuclear waste by stating that the site would be utilised as factories for the defence industry. Although President Tsai officially apologised for the past misconduct of the Government in 2016—and agreed to compensate the group in 2019—the issue remains to be unsolved. Moreover, television programmes on certain mass media outlets continue to reinforce the stereotype of indigenous people as alcoholics with no work ethic. Public figures, such as the recalled Kaohsiung Mayor Han Kuo-Yu and his wife, have publicly claimed that native language education is “wasting educational resources” and also made racists comments on recruiting Filipinos as English teachers in Kaohsiung. Finally, although President Chen’s policy agenda of de-Sinicisation allowed the re-emphasis of Hakka, Hokkein, Indigenous cultural heritages, his antics are often criticised as another form of prejudice against new residents who identify themselves as “new Taiwanese”.

The preceding examples show that achieving equality and promoting diversity is still a work in progress in Taiwan. Although we have witnessed the self-identification of Taiwanese people as “only Taiwanese” rise substantially due to the outbreak of COVID-19, this does not indicate that a clear perception of what we mean by Taiwanese identity is commonly shared. Indeed, there are a number of cases that show first-generation Taiwanese coming from new immigrant families sharing the self-identification as “only Taiwanese” and not “both Taiwanese and Chinese”. However, for Taiwan to formulate an inclusive national identity, we need to adhere to the ethos of diversity and embrace all ethnic groups residing on this island. Fortunately, compared to the martial law period, we have a much-improved legal framework in place for us to move together as a nation and as a whole.

Chieh-chi Hsieh received his PhD from the Department of Politics and International Studies, University of Warwick (UK). He also holds an MSc degree in International Political Economy at the Department of International Relations, London School of Economics and Political Science. You can follow him on twitter @DrHsiehCC

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

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