Taiwan: A Puzzle for Majority Nationalism?

In February 2019, the CCC hosted an international workshop on majority nationalism in plurinational states. Over two days, participants presented their findings from a diverse range of countries. Over the coming weeks, we will share a series of blogs with these findings. Today, Jean-François Dupré explores Taiwan as a puzzle for majority nationalism.

Taiwan presents a conundrum for majority nationalism and minority rights and representation: contrary to many other societies, the ethnic majority has not imposed itself as the nation’s symbolic core.

Demographically, the Hoklo, who account for over 70 percent of the population, form Taiwan’s ethnolinguistic majority. Historically, their language was the most prevalent ethnic language in Taiwanese society, hence its familiar rendition as Taiwanese. The Hakka, who, like the Hoklo, trace their distant ancestry to southern China, account for about 15 percent of Taiwan’s population, while 2 to 3 percent are of Austronesian Indigenous heritage.

Long inhabited by Austronesian peoples, and once a border region of the Qing empire, Taiwan was colonized by Japan between 1895 and 1945, and by the Republic of China from 1945 onward. During the period of Martial Law (1949-1987), Taiwan was ruled by the authoritarian émigré regime of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), in which the ruling Mainland Chinese minority—which now accounts for about 12 percent of Taiwan’s population—imposed its Chinese Republican and nationalistic ideology on the local population. Among other things, the regime imposed Mandarin and systemically discriminated against local languages and their speakers. Following democratization in the 1990s, this colonial ethnic hierarchy was not fully reversed, so that Mainland Chinese remained a culturally and politically dominant minority.

As I have argued elsewhere, identity politics in democratic Taiwan have been characterized by a form of minority outbidding in which political parties have one-upped each other in the recognition of minority cultures—namely the Hakka and Indigenous Peoples—over that of the Hoklo majority—which remained an institutionally and symbolically marginalized majority.

For the KMT, granting recognition to local minority cultures has served the purpose of reversing its legacy of authoritarianism and chauvinistic Chinese nationalism during the period of Martial Law. Conversely, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has endeavoured to revitalize local cultures and remove the Chinese cultural influence that was imposed by the KMT dictatorship, while remaining loyal to democratic principles and avoiding labels of Hoklo chauvinism, despite the fact that the Hoklo constitute the bulk of supporters and representatives of the DPP. To this end, the DPP has promoted the concept of Taiwan’s “Four large ethnic groups” and instrumentalized Indigenous cultures by presenting them as an important symbolic core of the Taiwanese nation.

Since the election of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in 2016, much has been done to carry out transitional and historical justice in accordance with democratic principles. For instance, the Hakka Basic Law was amended so as to recognize Hakka as a national language; an Indigenous Languages Development Act was passed recognizing Indigenous languages as national languages and imposing a duty on various government levels to revitalize them; and a National Languages Development Act was passed recognizing all of Taiwan’s languages as equal national languages. In this process, Hoklo culture was symbolically put on equal footing with other local cultures, but in contrast to many other cases of decolonization and nationalist mobilization, its status was not raised to the symbolic core of the Taiwanese state. Instead, Mandarin—originally a minority language—remains the de-facto language of education, administration and society in Taiwan, especially among younger generations.

Taiwan is one of Asia’s most vibrant and most diversity-celebrating democracies. The relatively short span between democratization and the development of multiculturalism makes Taiwan’s experience all the more impressive. Yet there is still room for improvement, such as granting Indigenous Peoples genuine self-government rights, and expanding the scope of sexual minority rights. Despite fierce opposition from conservative groups, the government has pledged to move forward with plans to recognize same-sex marriage, meaning Taiwan should shortly become the first country in East Asia to legislate on marriage equality. This, too, would testify of Taiwan’s general commitment to diversity and minority rights.

With limited international recognition and increasing threats of forceful annexation by China—a totalitarian state that shares none of Taiwan’s commitment for democracy and diversity—Taiwan’s achievements remain fragile. Taiwan has in many ways been a model of peaceful democratization and decolonization, and of diversity promotion. It is essential that our democracies bolster their ties with the island-nation and stand up for its continued sovereignty. 

Jean-François Dupré has recently completed an SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellowship at the School of Political Studies, University of Ottawa, and he is now teaching at the University of Hong Kong’s School of Professional and Continuing Education.

Image Credit: Lorenzoclick on Flickr

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