Erin Jory | East Asia Fellow
President Tsai Ing-wen’s tactful promotion of the indigenous narrative has been central to her re-election victory and in gaining support for Taiwan independence.
Since Tsai’s first election victory in 2016, tensions in the Taiwan Strait have risen considerably. In attempting to diplomatically isolate Taiwan from the international community, China has moved to persuade diplomatic allies of the island to switch allegiances. China’s attempts to infiltrate Taiwan’s social media platforms and online news outlets in the lead up to the elections, as well as its crackdown on the ongoing protests in Hong Kong, sends a clear message to Taiwan to drop any aspiration towards independence.
Despite China’s claim over Taiwan, over the past four centuries the island has been subject to not only Chinese rule but also to various other colonial regimes.
The first three administrations that occupied Taiwan were relatively brief and controlled only parts of the island. The Dutch East India Company occupied Taiwan for 38 years (1624-1662), the Spaniards for 16 years (1626-1642), and the Chinese Zheng family for 22 years (1662-1683). In the 1640s, Fujian settlers drove out the European occupiers and formally brought Taiwan under Chinese administration for the first time, under the Qing Dynasty.
The Qing ruled the island for the next two centuries (1684-1895). Following Japan’s defeat of China in the Sino-Japanese war in 1895 it annexed Taiwan and unified the island in unprecedented ways. The Republic of China (ROC) replaced Japanese rule after Japan’s defeat in the Second World War.
Following the ROC’s defeat in China’s Civil War (1927-1949), a massive wave of political migrants fled communist rule on mainland China to Taiwan. For communities already living in Taiwan however, the new ROC government did little more than change the face of the coloniser.
For much of Taiwan’s colonial history, discourses about the island’s ethnic diversity had been suppressed. The ROC administration under Chiang Kai-shek forced all ethnic communities to regard themselves as part of the larger Chinese civilisation. The ROC government prohibited Taiwanese from speaking Hokkien, the language spoken then by 90 per cent of the population, and instead made Mandarin the national language.
Since Taiwan’s democratic transition in the 1980s however, there has been a growing awareness of the ethnic diversity of the island. Today, there are at least four social groups trying to co-exist on the island. These include the indigenous communities, the Hakka, the Hokkien-speaking communities, and Mainlanders or waishengren (‘outside province people’), meaning those who migrated to Taiwan following the Chinese Civil War.
The 1970s and 1980s saw the rise of the ‘Hometown Literature’ movement led by authors, poets, dramatists, musicians, and publishers. It aimed to establish a distinct Taiwanese cultural identity that existed apart from the colonising efforts of China and Japan, highlighting the importance of minority groups, especially the indigenous communities which made up two per cent of the population.
Unsurprisingly then, the island’s unique history of colonisation and complex identity played a significant role in the outcome of the 2020 elections. Whilst various factors underlie Tsai’s re-election, the narrative of Taiwan’s distinct nationalism, influenced by the growing awareness of the island’s history of colonisation and indigenous population, was central to her victory. In contrast to the opposition leader Han Kuo-yu, of the Kuomintang Nationalist Party, who has sought to promote ethnic Han culture, Tsai has tactfully promoted Taiwan’s ethnic diversity and religious groups.
Over the years of her presidency, Tsai has increasingly sought to appeal to different ethnic communities. Tsai’s apology to indigenous communities in 2016 immediately following the inauguration of her Presidency marked the first time in Taiwan’s history that a leader had apologised for the mistreatment of its indigenous population. This brought indigenous issues to the forefront of political discussions.
Central to Tsai’s 2020 election campaign has been to address the rising threat from China to reclaim the island. Whilst Tsai has been careful to avoid friction with the mainland, she has never publicly acknowledged the One China Policy. In support of Tsai, and in response to a speech by President Xi Jinping in 2019 threatening the use of military force as a means for the unification of Taiwan with China, Taiwan’s indigenous people issued an open letter to the Chinese leader. The letter asserted that the various indigenous tribes of Taiwan who have inhabited the land for 6,000 years, “do not share the so-called Chinese nation's monoculturalism, unification, and hegemony.”
In this way, the indigenous narrative has become a unifying symbol justifying Taiwan’s move towards independence and retaliation against Chinese nationalism and unification talks.
Ultimately, Tsai successfully leveraged the island’s history and unified Taiwan’s ethnic diversity and religious groups under a new brand of Taiwanese nationalism. Despite the domestic and international political pressures, Tsai’s victory sends a clear message to China and the international community that the Taiwanese people have a separate identity.
Erin Jory is the East Asia Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.