Taiwan’s democratization at first facilitated the making of de facto statehood but later hindered its completion by obstructing the path to its claimed objective of a truly multicultural nation.
Taiwan’s democratization has implied a “double political engineering” — on the one hand, a nationalist redefinition of the citizenry, which was constituted by the involuntary combination of various human groups on the island in the aftermath of World War II as a civic and multicultural Taiwanese nation; and on the other through the “naturalization” of the émigré state (the Republic of China) into a newly formed Taiwanese nation. The former was founded upon the articulation and eventual acceptance of the theses of “New Taiwanese” (新台灣人論) and the “four major ethnic groups” (四大族群論), while the latter was achieved through regular legislative and presidential elections together with amendments to the ROC Constitution. In this sense, we could conclude that democratization was indeed the final step in the making of a Taiwanese nation-state, at least a de facto one.
There is an inherent theoretical contradiction in the “double political engineering.” While the thesis of “four major ethnic groups” posits that the four categorized ethnic groups are/should be equal members of the civically defined Taiwanese nation, they are far from equal in terms of population size and political-economic-social-cultural strength. Furthermore, the elections of the president and parliament imply majority rule. These two conditions combined actually mean that political power can only be won by either the advantaged minority, i.e., waishengren, or the disadvantaged majority, i.e., benshengren (Hoklo and Hakka combined), and that the most disadvantaged extreme minority, i.e., yuanzhumin, would become a permanent outsider irrelevant to the presidency and a permanent trivial minority in the legislature, despite the granting of overrepresentation to aborigines.
Nevertheless, this theoretical contradiction did not emerge as a salient political issue in the process of democratization during which the dominant Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) served as a common enemy for non-KMT forces. In the late 1980s and 1990s, a strategic alliance was formed between settler-based Taiwanese nationalism and aboriginal nationalism. Under this alliance, aboriginal nationalism provided Taiwanese nationalism with certain “pure” and “authentic” symbolic elements of Taiwan that were perceived as having nothing to do with “Chineseness” in order to counteract the émigré-centric ethnic and assimilationist Chinese nationalism. In exchange, Taiwanese nationalism promised aboriginal self-government once it obtained power. There was a big leap forward in realizing aboriginal rights during the first Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) period (2000-2008), given the party’s power was highly restricted due to its lack of a parliamentary majority and the proactive or passive resistance from KMT strongholds in the judiciary, military, and bureaucracy.
As part of a “United Front” by the DPP to draw a small but reliable group over to its side during its troubled second term, the Chen Shui-bian administration proffered goodwill toward Indigenous people with the passage of The Indigenous Peoples Basic Law in 2005 and the special chapter for aboriginal nations, including the mapping out of aboriginal self-government, within the failed “New Constitution of Taiwan.” During the KMT restoration (2008-2016), the settler-based Taiwanese nationalism – including its main political vehicle, the DPP – and aboriginal nationalism returned to the alliance that had been formed in the 1990s to counteract the dominance of the KMT.
The second DPP period that began in 2016 has produced a brand new political structure in which the KMT has seen its support erode to a new low, while the DPP has both regained the presidency and won a legislative majority for the first time (the DPP holds 60% of the seats, and the ideologically aligned New Power Party an additional 5%). An urgent Machiavellian question emerges from this new political structure: given the DPP’s newly found dominance and the marginalization of the common enemy, will it treat its minor ally as disposable or honor its promises?
Raising this question is not to speculate about whether the DPP will “cash” one of its “electoral checks” or not. The pending question is particularly noteworthy because it arises from an unprecedented political structure in the modern history of Taiwan. The DPP’s overwhelming electoral victory in 2016 brought about a historic change to the triangular political structure constituted of foreign rulers, settlers, and Aborigines that was first established in Taiwan during the early 17th century. The historic change to the structure makes the multiculturalist commitment a political decision of constitutional significance for the newly formed Taiwanese nation-state, rather than merely a usual “electoral check” waiting to be “cashed.” To better understand the constitutional meaning of multiculturalism in the making of the Taiwanese nation-state, we must first review the configuration of the triangular relationship that defined the modern history of Taiwan.
Under the triangular political structure, successive foreign rulers, namely the Dutch VOC, Qing local officials, Japanese colonial officials, and the émigré KMT, held, one after another, a dominant position at the top, while the Hoklo and Hakka settlers and the Austronesian aborigines were ruled separately at the bottom of the triangle. The stability of successive foreign regimes depended, to varying degrees, on the successful implementation of “divide and rule” upon settlers and aborigines by way of manipulating hatred and tensions that arose between the groups in their competition for resources and land.
The stability of successive foreign regimes depended, to varying degrees, on the successful implementation of “divide and rule” upon settlers and aborigines by way of manipulating hatred and tensions that arose between the groups in their competition for resources and land.
“Divide and rule” was typically manifested in the way that foreign rulers co-opted the numerically inferior but valiant aborigines to secure their minority rule over the more numerous settlers. The configuration of the relationships between these three types of historical actors was repeatedly revealed in warfare, where aboriginal warriors joined forces with foreign soldiers in suppressing the uprisings of settler farmers or militiamen. The earliest prototype of the “foreign ruler-aborigine alliance” appeared during the Guo Huaiyi Rebellion against Dutch rule in 1652. During this incident, 120 well-equipped Dutch mercenaries joined forces with 600 aboriginal headhunting warriors to pacify a rebellion involving 5,000 settler farmers, killing up to 4,000 in the process. The Lin Shuangwen Rebellion against the Qing rule in 1787-88 was another similar case, after which the Qing even institutionalized the alliance by co-opting lowland aboriginal tribes to act as guardians of boundaries that limited the expansion of Hoklo and Hakka settlement. Even as late as the Japanese takeover of Taiwan in 1895, some aboriginal warriors in central and southern Taiwan responded to the call of the Japanese army to eliminate the remnants of the settler militiamen resisting the Japanese takeover.
As the settlers greatly outnumbered aborigines and, more crucially, the modern Japanese state cracked down and prohibited all private military forces on the island, the expression of aboriginal hostility against the settlers evolved from “warfare” to “competition.” Aborigines tended to compete with settlers by allying themselves with foreign rulers or influential foreign forces. Historically, at least three types of competition between aborigines and settlers can be identified.
The first was competition over conversion to Christianity: in contrast to the settler population that generally lacked interest in Christianity, mass conversions occurred among lowland aborigines in late 19th century and again among highland aborigines in the first two decades after WWII.
The second was competition to assimilate as Japanese. The Takasago Giyutai (高砂義勇隊, literally, aboriginal volunteer corps) was the most prominent example of assimilation. According to the testimony of some veterans, the Takasago Giyutai incubated a belief that its soldiers were expected to swiftly climb the “ladder of civilization” and become “authentic” Japanese. In the view of the aboriginal soldiers, this elevated them above the settlers in the social hierarchy, and even above inexperienced Japanese soldiers, since they had displayed their bravery by enlisting in the Japanese army and fearlessly fighting for the emperor.
The third was electoral competition through aboriginal support for the KMT: aboriginal support for KMT candidates in local elections during the authoritarian period can be partly explained by the fact that the KMT was the only viable option, but aborigines have continued to overwhelmingly support the KMT at all levels of elections since the 1990s.
Considering the four-century long history of the “foreign ruler-aborigine alliance,” the alliance between the settler-based Taiwanese nationalism and aboriginal nationalism formed in the late 1980s was indeed an unprecedented endeavor. Within the triangular political structure in which the current foreign ruler (i.e., the KMT) held a dominant position at the top, multiculturalism served as the bond of solidarity for the alliance between Taiwanese and aboriginal nationalisms which had to overcome historical hostility, mutual mistrust, and hostile competition between settlers and aborigines under the divide and rule strategies of foreign rulers. That is to say, multiculturalism was the bridge linking the aspirations of Taiwanese and aboriginal nationalisms, forming the common ground that bound their efforts to overthrow the ethnically-defined “authentic” Chinese nation officially imposed by the KMT and replacing it with a civically defined multicultural Taiwanese nation-state. In this sense, honoring the multiculturalist commitment is not just an “electoral check” to be cashed but rather a fundamental political decision of constitutional significance for the newly formed Taiwanese nation-state, in the context that the DPP as the main political vehicle of settler-based Taiwanese nationalism gained an overwhelming victory in the 2016 election. As a challenging party that based its ideological legitimacy on civic and multiculturalist Taiwanese nationalism, the DPP cannot preserve this legitimacy without sticking to its promise to aboriginal nationalists. More importantly, the civic and multiculturalist Taiwanese nationalism as the guiding principles for the newly formed Taiwanese nation-state cannot but become a set of self-defeating discourses if the DPP fails to uphold its promise to the aboriginal minority after gaining a dominant political position and replacing the most recent foreign ruler from the top of the triangular structure.
Structures and institutions
The core of the question is not to query the DPP’s sincerity in keeping its word. To better understand the realities in the new political structure, we need to consider the question institutionally and structurally. Institutionally, democratization implies majority rule; structurally, the DPP is a settler-based party, and settlers constitute the absolute majority of the national population. Considering these two facts, the real question becomes: will the DPP honor its multiculturalist commitment if its main constituency considers it against their interests? In fact, any party which is based on the support of the majority group and operates in a majority-rule democracy will have the same difficult decision to make. Therefore, the real question can be reframed as follows: is a reversal of a commitment to multiculturalism following the emergence of the new political structure a side effect of democratization? From this perspective, we can see the paradoxical effect of democratization in the making of the Taiwanese nation-state: Taiwan’s democratization at first facilitates the making of a de facto Taiwanese nation-state, but later hinders its completion by obstructing the path to a truly multicultural nation.
Is a reversal of a commitment to multiculturalism following the emergence of the new political structure a side effect of democratization?
The analyses above seem to suggest that prospects are dim for aboriginal nationalists. Ironically, however, the side effects may be alleviated to some extent by one major congenital deficiency in the newly formed Taiwanese nation-state — fortunately or unfortunately, depending on one’s perspective, the unresolved de jure statehood of Taiwan places some limits to the extent that multiculturalist nationalism may be blocked, because the DPP, when facing the inherent defects of the nation, is compelled to take both proactive and reactive measures.
In terms of proactive efforts, the unresolved de jure statehood signifies that Taiwan’s international personality still lacks external legitimacy, namely, recognition from major states and formal participation as a member state in international organizations. In the face of this difficulty, the DPP has had little choice but to resort to its civic and multiculturalist national discourses to define Taiwan’s nationhood and justify its distinctness, thereby differentiating itself from the Chinese nationhood defined by the People’s Republic of China. In other words, the DPP must stick to its multiculturalist commitments, at least rhetorically.
As to reactive efforts, while aboriginal society is viewed as one of the KMT’s strongholds within Taiwan, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has aggressively implemented its “United Front” among aboriginal political elites, who have long collaborated with the KMT, with a goal to co-opt Taiwan’s aborigines as one of the ethnic minorities within the Chinese nation primarily by means of generous economic aid and bribes. The strategic logic behind the CCP’s move is apparent: if aboriginal elites are willing to endorse the CCP’s claim that Taiwan’s aborigines belong to the Chinese nation as one of its ethnic minorities, the DPP’s legitimacy would be undermined and the basis for the newly formed Taiwanese nation would be hollowed out, because under the civic and multiculturalist Taiwanese nationalism, aborigines serve as the keystone for granting the Taiwanese nation “pure” and “authentic” elements of “Taiwaneseness.” For the DPP, the CCP’s move means that substantial measures rather than only rhetoric are urgently required to resist the CCP’s efforts to instigate a “rebellion” among aborigines within the newly formed Taiwanese nation-state.
Taiwan’s lack of status as a de jure nation-state ensures the continuation of a particular “political field” in which domestic struggle of nationalist ideology and diplomatic tug of war are highly intertwined, forcing the DPP to honour its multiculturalist commitment.
The situation since 2016
Although it is too early to make a firm conclusion, an asymmetric tendency can be identified one year into the Tsai administration: we are witnessing swift progress on symbolic and cultural issues, but issues involving the conflicting political-economic interests of settlers and aborigines remain unresolved. Progress on the former was exemplified by Tsai’s presidential apology to Indigenous Peoples on Aug. 1, 2016, which received wide international and domestic coverage, and by the passage of “The Indigenous Peoples Languages Development Law” on May 27, 2017, which recognized aboriginal languages as official languages.
Aboriginal self-government is the ultimate test for the DPP’s multiculturalist commitment because it necessarily involves the conflicting political-economic interests of settlers and aborigines. On Feb. 18, 2017, the Council of Indigenous People enacted a decree concerning the rules for demarcating the “traditional territories” of aborigines, triggering strong reactions from aboriginal nationalists. The decree explicitly dictated that rules demarcating “traditional territories” excluded private lands, applying only to public lands. The “traditional territories” identified by official scholars cover 1.8 million hectares (ca. half of the island of Taiwan), including 0.8 million hectares public lands and 1 million hectares private lands. The political implication of the decree, in fact, is to reduce the “traditional territories” from 1.8 to 0.8 million hectares and to grant private landowners an exemption from the informed consent of the local tribes when disposing of their lands within the “traditional territories.” Although private landowners who may have benefited from the decree include private corporations, descendants of settlers living in “traditional territories” and aboriginal estate-owners, the protesters focused their criticism on the fact that the decree had opened a back door for large corporations and commercial developers to set up profitable business operations on aboriginal lands, including large-scale mining, recreational parks, and resorts, without the informed consent of local tribes. Police forcefully removed protest camps against these measures on June 2, 2017, the hundredth day of the protest in front of the Presidential Office.
We can learn two lessons from the ongoing saga. First, the DPP government has succumbed to pressures from its main constituency, i.e., the settler population, as well as private capital (in most cases, these two are highly overlapped). Second, the DPP has turned its back on aboriginal nationalists, who are mainly intellectuals and young activists culturally and physically “uprooted” from their tribes and places of origin, and has turned to aboriginal political elites, who had previously served as KMT collaborators, and by doing so had become an estate-owner class in the aboriginal society and acted as the main agent in the sale of aboriginal lands to non-aborigines or private capital.
At this point, it can be said that the DPP has shown itself to be a prudent realist. Ideologically, the DPP has upheld its civic and multiculturalist nationalist discourses by making swift progress on symbolic and cultural issues, thereby maintaining common ground between itself and aboriginal nationalists, and pleasing the latter to some extent. Politically, it has tried to balance the interests of its main constituency and the aspirations of aboriginal nationalists. At the same time, in a Machiavellian spirit, it has shifted its alliance with aboriginal nationalists to an alliance with aboriginal political elites in order to undermine the KMT’s stronghold and to counteract the CCP’s “United Front” efforts within aboriginal society. No doubt the DPP has acted with prudence at the expense of its alliance with aboriginal nationalists, undermining the latter’s political trust in not only the DPP but also in the entire political system.
Top photo courtesy of the Tsai Ing-wen official Facebook page.
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