How and Why Racism and Discrimination will eventually Fade in Contemporary Taiwan: A Brief Introduction

Written by Ji-Ping Lin.

Image credit: 總統代表政府向原住民族道歉 by 總統府/Flickr, license CC BY 2.0

Like other immigration countries, a crucial feature of Taiwan’s past developments since the 16th century was an entangled history of “love and hate” within and among different ethnic groups. In the past four hundred years, the ethnic groups in Taiwan include the island’s indigenous peoples, the Dutch and Spanish in the 16th century, Han immigrants (mainly ethnic Minnan and Hokka) before 1895, Japanese immigrants in 1895-1945, Chinese Mainlander immigrants in 1949-50, and American and Japanese business immigrants after the 1960s, and contract foreign workers from ASEAN countries since the early 1990s. Racism and discrimination did exist in Taiwan during different development eras, leading to numerous bloody ethnic confrontations and persistent ethnic tension. The most significant ethnic confrontations and tension included: (1) the Dutch, Taiwan indigenous peoples, and Han immigrants before 1895; (2) the Japanese, Taiwan indigenous peoples, and Taiwanese in 1895 and 1945; and (3) Chinese Mainlander immigrants and Taiwanese in 1945-1990 (the period of White Terror). Here, the term ‘Taiwanese’ refers to Minnan and Hokka ethnic group and serves as a symbol of ethnic identity that first appeared in the Japanese colonial period of 1895-1945.

Although ethnic integration had played a crucial role in promoting ethnic harmony, ethnic relations in Taiwan was typified by hates” outweighing “loves.” Nevertheless, such a situation changes in the late 1980s and the 1990s. Indeed, Taiwan’s political, socioeconomic, and cultural systems began experiencing several fundamental transitions; a transition from authoritarian to democratic polity, from a planned economy to globalised one, and from close to open and multi-culturalism society. These transitions have a profound impact by gradually changing the thoughts of ordinary people, particularly the young generation. This is not to say that the transition toward democracy immediately leads to a country’s immediate openness towards new immigrants. As a matter of fact, ethnic identity (Taiwanese identity vs Chinese identity) was one of the top public issues between 1990 and 2016. During that time, we witnessed countless public debates, including severe oral violence. However, although ethnic issues are highly controversial, no major physically violent confrontations have since occurred.

The Taiwan Government has also taken official actions aiming to heal wounds of past bloody ethnic confrontations. These including a national apology to the victims of (1) the 2-28 massacre in 1947, (2) the “white terror” during the martial law period in the 1950s-80s, and (3) Taiwan indigenous peoples suffering during the past four hundred years. Although controversial at the beginning, these official actions, in the end, have the effect of promoting inter-ethnic dialogue and reflection. These, in turn, lead to ethnic reconciliation and the fading-out of racism and discrimination. In effect, a new type of ethnic relations is being shaped, with “loves” gradually outshining “hates” in comparison to conventional ethnic relations.

Below I use two marginalised ethnic groups to demonstrate how and why racism and discrimination have faded off over time, and a new pattern of ethnic relation has emerged in Taiwan. The first is Taiwan indigenous peoples (thereafter TIPs) and the other ASEAN contract immigrant workers.

The current TIP population amounts to around 570 thousand persons who make up about 2.5% of the whole population of Taiwan. TIPs had long been marginalised in various aspects of developments due to institutional constraint. Such a dire situation resulted in TIPs having a lower socioeconomic status than ordinary people, along with having less education, higher unemployment, and a shorter life span. It thus leads to a long-standing racial stereotype about TIPs and thus discrimination, regardless of the fact TIPs are proven to be diligent workers. Since the early 1990s, evidence shows that ordinary people have gradually acknowledged and appreciated TIP’s various contributions. Large scale official efforts have been made to improve TIPs’ income level, health, education, employment, and social mobility, etc. As a result, inequality between TIPs and ordinary people has started to narrow, and conventional discrimination against TIPs has begun fading. What is more, change in ethnic discrimination can be best demonstrated by the fact that contemporary TIPs practice more exogamy than their parents. This suggests an increasing level of ethnic integration between TIPs and ordinary people.

Because of labour shortages and rising wage levels, Taiwan opened the door to the international labour market in the early 1990s by allowing less-skilled foreign contract workers, mostly from ASEAN countries, to work in Taiwan. The onset of immigration of ASEAN contract workers into Taiwan could best be explained by the dual labour market theory of migration. ASEAN immigrant workers mainly work in the secondary labour market. On the other hand, because of self-consciousness inflation, native-born workers started rejecting to engage in low-skilled, low-pay, and fewer prestige jobs in the secondary labour market.

In the early period of ASEAN immigration in the 1990s, ordinary people in Taiwan did have discrimination more or less against ASEAN immigrant workers. The leading cause of discrimination originates from self-consciousness inflation and ignorance of native-born workers and employers about ASEAN countries. However, the contributions of ASEAN immigrant workers are finally being acknowledged and appreciated as an essential source of manpower supply in mitigating Taiwan’s ageing population ageing low fertility issue. Furthermore, the Taiwan Government has also taken various measures to improve working condition and labour relation for immigrant workers. For example, immigrant contract workers are allowed to change employers and to be covered by National Health Insurance. Because of the integration of ASEAN immigrant workers in Taiwan helps to promote a mutual understanding between Taiwan and ASEAN countries, discrimination gradually disappears. ASEAN customs and culture have now been widely accepted as part of Taiwan.

In the end, racism and ethnic discrimination never disappear in contemporary Taiwan. But they have been fading off to a large extent, as Taiwan becomes fully democratic, open, and multi-culturalism. People in Taiwan may not like or accept a particular aspect from a given ethnic group, but they mostly have learned to tolerate and respect different ethnic groups. Thus, I would like to conclude that racism and ethnic discrimination have experienced a substantial transition in contemporary Taiwan, a transition from “hates” outweighing “loves” to “love” outshining “hates.”

Ji-Ping Lin is an associate research fellow of Research Center for Humanities and Social Sciences (RCHSS), Academia Sinica, Taiwan. Her primary research speciality includes migration studies, data science, and scientific computing.

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

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