The Debate

Reconceiving Taiwan as a Pacific Island Country

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The Debate

Reconceiving Taiwan as a Pacific Island Country

The claim “Taiwan has always been Chinese” is simply untrue and anachronistic.

Reconceiving Taiwan as a Pacific Island Country

Performers symbolizing Taiwanese culture during Tsai Ing-wen’s inauguration ceremony.

Credit: The Diplomat

Taiwan has long been automatically situated within the “Greater Chinese World,” an imperialist ideology that takes the effects of thousands of years of Chinese colonializations as the essence of this island. Although one might recognize that the Republic of China (ROC), the state that has been governing Taiwan and its surrounding islands since 1945, is a sovereign state in any definition you could find in a political science textbook, one is still mostly likely to see Taiwan as a culturally and socially Chinese state. This is not only because the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has never ceased to claim Taiwan as part of its territory and denies the very existence of ROC, but also because prior to its democratization in the late 1980s, Taiwan was under one-party rule and martial law by the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT). After its exile from the mainland, the KMT never ceased claim to the entire territory of China and saw itself as the legitimate government of China.

During the longest period of martial law in world history, the KMT violently repressed, imprisoned, and killed protesters within Taiwan, and effectively acted as the sole spokesperson of the Taiwanese people. During the third wave of democratization in the 1980s, the first opposition party — the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) — was founded in 1986. The next year, Chiang Ching-Kuo, then president of the ROC, finally ended martial law. Instead of founding a new country under a new constitution, the ROC remains, and its constitution remains, with a few amendments in the spirit of democratization added. While the DPP recognizes the ROC as a sovereign country named Taiwan, the KMT has insisted on unification with China.

This is a sketch of contemporary history of Taiwan from the statist perspective. While the PRC claims Taiwan as part of its territory, it has never established sovereignty over or governed Taiwan. Since 1945, the ROC has been a de facto sovereign country whose governing territory covers Taiwan and its surrounding islands. While the PRC’s claim to Taiwan is illusory, the ROC’s governance of Taiwan has also long been disputed. The ROC “took over” Taiwan after the Japanese surrendered in 1945, ending 50 years of Japanese rule in Taiwan. Prior to Japan’s colonization, although the erstwhile Qing Empire in China had incorporated Taiwan into its territory and established former rule in Taiwan, Taiwan remained largely autonomous and indigenous. In other words, as many historians have pointed out (for example, see Chou Wan-Yao’s An New Illustrated History of Taiwan), the Qing’s sovereign claim over Taiwan was more nominal, rather than effectual.

This is to say that the claim “Taiwan has always been Chinese” is simply untrue and anachronistic.

Taking a less state-centric perspective, approximately 1,200,000 people exiled to Taiwan, many of whom were related to the KMT between 1945-1950, altered the demographical composition of Taiwan to a certain degree. Before then, the majority of population of Taiwan were settlers from south of Hokkien, and Canton to a lesser degree. These people, who were ethnically Han, had been in Taiwan for hundreds of years and had built a collective consciousness as Taiwanese over time. They constituted over 90 percent of Taiwan’s population. The new settler/refugees, however, largely identified as Chinese.

Before Han settlers came to settle and cultivate land in Taiwan, Taiwan, a pacific island, was home to diverse indigenous groups. While early Han settlers dispossessed indigenous peoples and assimilated them, they also forged various affective, erotic, social, and political alliances and relations with indigenous peoples. Especially as early Han settlers were overwhelming male, many established sexual relations with and married indigenous women. As many scholars of settler-colonialism (like Richard White, Ann Stoler, and Michael Witgen) have pointed out, sexual relations have much broader social and political impact beyond sexual partners. This was also the case in Taiwan.

It is often argued that indigenous peoples became largely sinicized, to the extent that they often lost their traditional territory, cultural practices, and writing systems. Yet it is equally the case that these Han people were indigenized. Together they forged an “imagined community,” to use Benedict Anderson’s words, through these tense and tender ties. This is not to deny the atrocities brought by settlers to the indigenous peoples of Taiwan, but to affirm that amidst violence, war, sexual aggression, and so on, there was a collective imagining of a common Taiwanese identity.

Long before the ROC and its subjects came to Taiwan, over centuries, Taiwanese peoples from many origins and ethnicities had already lived as Taiwanese, an identity that was anything but Chinese. And this collective identity, despite KMT’s 40 years of one-party authoritarian rule, resisted and persisted. Indigenous peoples and groups today still have vibrant and lively cultures and social and political organizations. Indigenous ancestry is widely being acknowledged. Indigenous peoples continue laying claims to traditional territory, hunting rights, and state recognition. In recent years, broader alliances between radical pro-independence activists and indigenous activists have been in the making. This new “chain of equivalence,” to quote Ernesto Laclau and Chantel Mouffe, rejects the Chinese-centric ideology and conceives Taiwan as its subject, and most of all, an indigenous island.

Under this framework, the ROC is a Chinese settler-colonial state that imposed itself on Taiwan and exerted political control over Taiwan and its surrounding islands. Thus it is mistaken to treat Taiwan simply as an extension of China (the PRC) or regard it as an imperial periphery of China. We need to recognize Taiwan as a Pacific Island country and revive its vibrant indigenous cultures as the common root of Taiwan.

Resisting Chinese imperial claims does not call for us to revive Cold War-era binary rhetoric or force us to align with conservative forces that are hostile to China over trade issues. Realists and pessimists make it seem like China’s growing power and its hold on other global powers are going to continuously circumscribe Taiwan’s international space and eventually will render Taiwan invisible. However, I believe that such aggression and conservative resurgence are signs of a fear of global insurgent politics and transnational decolonizing movements. In other words, they are mere reactions against leftist movements that have challenged and addressed racial, gender, sexual injustice, and capitalist exploitation on a global scale. Therefore, we should instead align Taiwan’s struggles with progressive decolonial and independence movements across the globe.

Although still working with the constitutional framework of the ROC, the current president of Taiwan, Tsai Ing-wen (whose paternal grandmother is Payuan, an indigenous people), is the first government official of the ROC to issue an official apology to indigenous peoples for governmental oppression and injustice, as part of her agenda to push for transitional justice. Along with her other diplomatic endeavors, such as building stronger relations with other South Pacific Islands countries, such as Palau, the Solomon Islands, and the Marshall Islands, this can be seen as Taiwan’s attempt to defy the old China-centric ideology as well as a realist discourse that solely focuses on the consequences of “the rise of China,” and rediscover itself as a Pacific Island country.

Janice Feng is a Ph.D. student in Political Science at the University of Michigan. Her research focuses on settler-colonialism, feminist and queer theory, and contemporary democratic theory.