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Taiwanese national identity and the growing indigenisation movement

Image Credit: 總統府 (Creative Commons: Wikimedia Commons)

“Mr. Xi Jinping, you do not know us, so you do not know Taiwan.”

These are the bold opening remarks of a joint declaration issued in January 2019 on behalf of Taiwan’s indigenous peoples. The declaration was released in response to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s speech commemorating the 40th anniversary of the 1979 Message to Compatriots in Taiwan, in which he reiterated the goal of Taiwan’s reunification with China by “all necessary measures”. The Taiwanese indigenous peoples’ open letter to President Xi reveals not only the heightened visibility of the indigenous rights movement in Taiwan but the increasing relevance of indigenous peoples in the discourse regarding Taiwanese identity.

Related to the Polynesian ethnic group and genetically distinct from the Han people of China, the Taiwanese indigenous peoples lived in relative isolation on Taiwan for approximately 5,500 years, before the arrival of European colonisers and Han immigrants en masse in the 17th century. Generally, the indigenous peoples were either subjugated, segregated, or forcefully assimilated into Han society for much of the Qing Dynasty and during Japanese colonial rule.

Since 1949, when the Chinese Nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) party came to power in Taiwan, the status of indigenous peoples has undergone an incremental transition from a largely segregated, self-sufficient community, to a small, and often marginalised group integrated in Taiwan’s political economy.

Despite welfare schemes, affirmative action policies, and their increased political standing, Taiwan’s indigenous peoples continue to experience disproportionately negative outcomes in health, employment, and income.

In 2016, following the recent rise of indigenous rights movements and long-dormant ethnic pride, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-Wen, leader of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), apologised to the island’s indigenous peoples for centuries of injustice and abuse. This public acknowledgement of maltreatment reflects a contemporary positive shift towards recognising and embracing Taiwan’s first peoples, a movement that has been fuelled, in part, by the recent efforts to construct a reimagined national identity that is uniquely Taiwanese.

Discussions regarding Taiwanese national identity often focus exclusively on cross-strait relations and attitudes towards the PRC; and indeed, the PRC cannot be ignored in any discussion of Taiwan’s identity. Nevertheless, reducing Taiwanese identity to being categorically pro-unification or pro-independence fails to capture the depth and nuance of this people’s collective consciousness.

Taiwanese nationalist discourse and the success of indigenous rights movements have redefined the boundaries of ‘self’ and ‘other’ within Taiwan, and are now shaping a national identity centred around democracy, self-determination, and indigeneity. Within this movement, the embrace of indigenous peoples, who today make up roughly two per cent of Taiwan’s population, and their culture has facilitated the legitimisation of an identity that is uniquely Taiwanese.

This trend has manifested itself in the proliferation of Taiwanese indigenous peoples’ culture across the island. As a result, indigenous culture has received increased visibility within society, and the wellbeing of some indigenous communities has been improved through participating in operations such as cultural tourism.

However, there are concerns that despite the political and commercial success of indigenous culture, the indigenous peoples are being left behind. Indigenous peoples are often reduced to one-dimensional caricatures of athletic, exotic tribespeople with exceptional musical talent through media such as television commercials, food products, and theme parks. Meanwhile, indigenous people face real struggles such as alcoholism, lack of opportunity in rural communities, and hypercompetitive low-skilled labour markets due to the influx of migrant workers from South-East Asia.

Looking ahead, it’s crucial that as indigenous culture is popularised and incorporated into the Taiwanese identity, the autonomy and wellbeing of indigenous peoples themselves is prioritised.

In addition to the indigenous rights movement, this shift in Taiwan towards controlling their own narrative has manifested itself in various cultural outlets. For example, in 2018 the Taiwanese DPP government’s Ministry of Culture appropriated half the funds needed to create the videogame “Unforgivable”, which explores Taiwan’s history under martial law to describe the state’s path to democratisation. The game’s developer hopes to engage more youth with Taiwan’s history and encourage them to cherish their current freedoms by understanding previous struggles.

This broad indigenisation movement and search for a reinvented Taiwanese identity likely stems from multiple sources. Undoubtedly, among them is the desire to resist the PRC’s strengthened pro-unification activities. Additionally, though, today’s youth in Taiwan form the first generation to grow up in a liberal democracy unencumbered by martial law. As a result, we are witnessing the emergence of a state that no longer defines itself in relation to the mainland, and is instead beginning to look inwards and build a new identity on the foundations of democracy, self-determination and freedom.

The Taiwanese people as a whole have shifted from focussing on what they once were to thinking about who they are today and who they want to be tomorrow. This will be a crucial dynamic in the era of Xi Jinping’s PRC.

Max Collett is the China Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

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