Webcast Recap

Speakers: Melissa J. Brown, Stanford University; J. Megan Greene, University of Kansas; Emerson Niou, Duke University; Steven Goldstein, Smith College

Ethnic issues are a crucial part of the Taiwanese cultural and political milieu. The development of an "indigenous" ethnic minority movement in the 1970s and the liberalization of media and political laws in 1987 have encouraged ethnic groups to define and emphasize their position in Taiwanese society. This has led to contestation over the definitions of what "makes" Taiwan, as political actors increasingly ask their differing constituents to stand up and be counted as "real Taiwanese." On April 27, speakers at an Asia Program event examined the drivers of ethnic nationalism in Taiwan, as well as ethnicity in the context of Taiwanese education, party alignment, and cross-Strait relations.

Melissa J. Brown of Stanford University noted two common misperceptions relating to national identity. Firstly, she stressed that ethnicity is not necessarily based on culture or ancestry, and is instead derived from identity markers such as clothing, skin coloration, dialect, and surname. Secondly, she noted that ethnic identity is not necessarily a result of birth, and ethnic identification may change according to political motivation. Brown also stressed that although some see ethnic identity as a political ploy, it has very real effects on people's responses to policy decisions.

For example, Han Chinese residents of Taiwan—those who at some stage in the past migrated from the Chinese mainland—can further be differentiated according to the time their families arrived on the island. "Mainlanders" who migrated to Taiwan in order to flee communism helped the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) consolidate control over the island after 1945. Meanwhile, Hokklo and Hakka majorities, whose migration to Taiwan took place before the Japanese gained control of the island in 1895, were treated as second class citizens from 1945 until the 1980s. As Taiwan developed economically and engaged more with the outside world, however, a reversal in the political positions of these ethnic groups accompanied a movement to emphasize Taiwan's distinctiveness from the mainland.

J. Megan Greene of the University of Kansas examined the representation of ethnic identities in Taiwanese classroom education. During Taiwan's period of martial law between 1960 and the 1980s, the KMT attempted to strengthen Taipei's claim as the one true government of all of China. Educational strategies for shaping ethnicity were therefore employed in an attempt to construct Taiwan as "Chinese." Education was conducted in Chinese, and students faced punishment for using local dialects. There was also a heavy focus on mainland China in history education and systematic efforts to introduce the Taiwanese population to "high" Chinese culture. Monuments and museums depicted positive images of the mainland, and state agencies incorporated the word "China" into their official names to show that the KMT had not renounced its claims.

This focus on China shifted after 2000, when the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) took office. The DPP cultivated popularity by appealing to a sense of an indigenous Taiwanese identity and revised educational materials to emphasize Taiwan's differences from the mainland. During the DPP's time in office, more of the island's own history was integrated into the official curriculum, and the term "Taiwan" was used in official nomenclature. However, instead of focusing solely on the construction of a monolithic "Taiwanese" identity, the government emphasized the multicultural and international experiences of many Taiwanese to differentiate them from mainlanders.

Nevertheless, the search for a different Taiwanese identity has not necessarily led to greater support for independence from the mainland. Emerson Niou of Duke University pointed out that it is not exactly clear what the Taiwanese who strive for independence want to be independent from. Do they want an independent culture, economic independence, independence from the Chinese Communist Party, or for Taiwan to have its sovereign status fully recognized in the international community?

According to Niou's own public opinion surveys, for example, the number of people in Taiwan who identified themselves as "Taiwanese" rose from 32.6 percent to 41 percent from 2003 to 2008, with a drop in the numbers of those considering themselves "Chinese" (9.6 percent down to 4.4 percent) or of dual "Chinese/Taiwanese" (57.8 percent down to 54.6 percent) identity. While many think that either independence or unification may be possible in the future, however, 87.8 percent support the status quo in relations with the mainland for the time being. In fact, 74.6 percent think that Taiwan is already "an independent country and its name is the Republic of China."

In fact, as Stephen Goldstein of Smith College confirmed, public opinion in Taiwan has been less hostile towards communist China since the inauguration of the current president, Ma Ying-jeou of the KMT, who has encouraged increased ties with the mainland. While the DPP was successful in highlighting the differences between Taiwan and the mainland, Goldstein noted that the younger generation who were primarily exposed to the DPP's attempts to construct a Taiwanese identity, is made up of open-minded pragmatists. Older Taiwanese, for example, are more strongly committed to independence than their younger compatriots.

According to Goldstein, a number of factors influence the discussion of identity and cross-Strait relations in Taiwan. Older supporters of independence are dying off. At the same time, neither advocates of independence nor those of unification have the majority, and maintaining the status quo has become the dominant theme in managing the relationship with the mainland. The balance of opinion in Taiwan therefore lies predominantly with the pragmatists. Goldstein explained that young Taiwanese are attracted to the mainland as a vibrant, "happening" place. While there may be new understandings about what it means to be Taiwanese, this attraction to the mainland suggests that there will be little support for de jure independence in the near future.

Drafted by Bryce Wakefield, Asia Program Associate.
Robert M. Hathaway, Asia Program Director. Ph: (202) 691-4020