As Taiwan Develops, can Racism and Discrimination be Avoided?

Written by Milo Hsieh.

Image credit: #336 Anti-Racism by Yasmeen/Flickr, license CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

To what degree is race-based discrimination an issue in Taiwan? The answer may differ depending on those asked.

Social discrimination: Intentionally Racist, or Simply Ignorant?

To the World Health Organization Director Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus—who was made into an effigy by anonymous Taiwanese comic artists in April over the WHO’s continued exclusion of Taiwan—yes, Taiwan’s government allegedly sponsored racist attacks against him. One the other hand, to the group of Taiwanese influencers—who came under attack later in June after wearing blackface to imitate the dancing coffins viral video—no, as clearly many in Taiwan overreacted. They felt that, without having racist intentions, they were “unfairly made a target” and were misrepresented by the “media in Taiwan.”  This is not the first time individuals and/or organizations in Taiwan have come under fire. Indeed, Singer James Hsiao also wore blackface in October 2019, dressing up as Will Smith for a Christmas party.

Furthermore, during his 2020 presidential campaign, the former Kaohsiung Mayor Han Kuo-yu once called Southeast Asian workers “chickens” and “Marias.” This is a derogatory name for Philippine workers in Taiwan. One should also point out that just a few years ago in 2016, a group of high school students dressed up in Nazi uniform – with their history teacher as Hitler performing the Seig Heil salute – for a school event.

These cases underline how cultural insensitivity still permeate Taiwan. At the same time, those taking offence often react by initiating public conversations on topics such as “whether Taiwan should tolerate blackface in context of ongoing riots in the US” and “why it’s important to eliminate racist sayings towards Southeast Asian migrant workers” in Taiwan. These efforts may be the necessary steps Taiwan needs to take as it attempts to become more international.

Economic Discrimination

Similarly, conscious economic discrimination continues to exist in Taiwan. Migrant workers, particularly those from Southeast Asia, form a significant part of the Taiwanese workforce. About one in 33 employed in Taiwan are foreign workers, 90% of which come from Southeast Asia. Their number stands at a little more than 700,000 in 2019, which is more than double the number ten years ago. Thus, Migrant workers are increasingly important in Taiwan’s economy. As Taiwan’s birth rate continues to remain one of the lowest in the world, an ageing society is starting to form. Migrant workers are increasingly taking up high labour-intensity in factories, on fishing boats, at elderly care centres, and in more visible parts of Taiwan’s society such as in food services.

Still, despite their growing importance, the progression of their rights remains stagnant. Jobs put migrant workers in conditions, making them vulnerable to workplace accidents and abuses.

The profit-centric broker system, which brings most migrant workers to Taiwan, continues to charge high fees, and often offer little support in cases of workplace accidents. Employers frequently attempt to silence migrant workers and coerce them to waive their legal rights after cases of workplace accidents. However, More recently, these conditions are beginning to be highlighted to the Taiwanese public. The collapse of a bridge in Nanfangao in October 2019 – killing six migrant workers – demonstrated how migrants working atop fishing boats are often demanded by employers to live in dire living quarters on poor quality ships.

An attempt by the state-run Taiwan Railways Administration in May to permanently ban people from sitting down in the checkerboard square of the Taipei Main Station faced a public backlash when proposed. The move, which was rescinded after sit-ins by protesters, was seen as a way to ban the use of public space by migrant workers, who frequently gathered indoors at metro stations during holidays.

Can the Fight Against COVID-19 Result in Discrimination?

The COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic is, in fact, starting to highlight several other groups in Taiwan that are vulnerable to discrimination. Chinese spouses and students, as well as the expat community who work white collar jobs, are also becoming the likely victims of a now tightly controlled border. Foreign nationals with Taiwanese work permits continue to face issues. Such difficulties can hinder family meetings as pandemic laws result in travel restrictions, along with mandatory, police-enforced fourteen-day quarantines. Furthermore, as a new school year is about to begin, Taiwan is slowly opening up to receive foreign nationals as students. Still, an adversarial relationship with Beijing continues to obstruct opening up to Chinese students.

As quarantine-waived foreign official visits from countries such as Japan and the United States are being advertised as political successes by the current DPP administration, questions arise over whether discriminatory border policies and exceptions are justified. 

Unequal Power

Moving forward, different groups vulnerable to racism and discrimination have different platforms, and levels, from which to speak. Migrant workers are beginning to form large political protests to voice out their demands. Still, having done so twice within the past year in December 2019 and May 2020, their demands continue to fall on deaf ears. This is because although Taiwanese may give symbolic, social support, it does not translate into substantive material support for policy change.

PRC nationals, especially spouses and family members of Taiwanese nationals, continue to fall into an ambiguous class of people that are treated with neither the same rights as foreigners nor Taiwanese nationals. Their rights continue to shift around as amendments are made to the single law governing the special relationship between Taipei and Beijing. They shift between being seen as a potential national security threat or compatriots, depending on which political party is in power.

When Will Discrimination End?

What exactly is discrimination (and racism) remains a topic for discourse in Taiwan. Some steps are being taken on the everyday basis as headline-making gaffes bring attention to why certain expressions, policies or practice are discriminatory and/or racist.

Addressing discrimination in Taiwan will be a complicated process that is much influenced by the current political environment just as much as its history. There is still much divide over what Taiwan itself should be politically – and not all would embrace a future without those perceived as “true Taiwanese” as its leaders.

For Taiwan, ending discrimination, social or economic, is not yet at the top of the list of public concerns. Pragmatically, politicians have little incentive to fight for people without votes and who are not constituents. 

Despite so, a vibrant civil society and a free press continues to detect, monitor, and publicize injustices. This may be a unique Taiwanese characteristic compared to its neighbours in the long term. All in all, discrimination and racism are still commonplace in Taiwan. Still, although the room for intentional discrimination and racism is narrowing, the real challenge will be whether there is enough political will to make life better for those vulnerable.

Milo Hsieh studies international relations at American University. He is a freelance journalist based in Washington, DC. He tweets @MiloHsieh

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

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