Taiwan’s Overseas Constituents: The Often Overlooked Victims of Taiwanisation

Former president Lee Teng-Hui (left), with Tsai Ing-Wen, the current President of Taiwan. Lee was a notable supporter of Taiwainisation. Source: Wikimedia Commons, The Office of the President of Taiwan.Former president Lee Teng-Hui (left), with Tsai Ing-Wen, the current President of Taiwan. Lee was a notable supporter of Taiwainisation. Source: Wikimedia Commons, The Office of the President of Taiwan.

An annual poll conducted from 1994-2016 shows that belief in a unique Taiwanese identity, exclusive of a Chinese identity, has continuously garnered more adherents in the Republic of China on Taiwan (Yu 2018, 1). The political significance of this is another issue; polls conducted by the same institution show that support for immediate or eventual independence has never been above 20% (Yu 2017, 1). Yet, beyond any political implications, there has demonstrably been a shift in cultural identity among Taiwan’s people. This shift is illuminated in Taiwan’s overseas diaspora policy.

Cross-Strait Relations Since 1949

The Republic of China (ROC) was established by the Xinhai Revolution on January 1, 1912. Overseas Chinese compatriots were instrumental in both supporting Chinese nationalism and this revolution’s toppling of the Manchu Qing Empire. This support was illuminated in the ROC’s creation of the slogan, “Overseas Chinese are mothers of the revolution.” With the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) by the Chinese Communists on the mainland in 1949, the ROC was pushed to Taiwan, Penghu, Kinmen, and Matsu. Subsequently, during the Cold War, both states competed to be the legitimate representative of China. Despite being smaller in both land and population, the ROC on Taiwan was more successful as many western countries continued to recognise the ROC. However, the tide began to shift in the 1970s as the PRC took its seat in the UN and the United States, a close ally of the ROC, began recognising the PRC. At the same time, calls for the ROC on Taiwan to emphasise a local identity in contrast to Taipei’s Chinese nationalism grew louder as part of a broader push for democratisation.

Why Taiwanisation and What Did It Entail?

            When the Kuomintang (KMT) – the party who ruled the ROC as a one-party state – first went to Taiwan in 1945, they were initially welcomed by the native Taiwanese Han, or Hoklo, residents. After being treated as second-class citizens by the Qing Dynasty for hundreds of years and the Japanese for half a century, the Hoklo still welcomed the ROC following the end of WWII and Japanese colonisation. However, the KMT was ill-prepared to govern Taiwan as the Chinese Civil War roared on in the mainland, leading to soaring inflation. This led to calls for political reform that were firmly shut down by the KMT in the 228 Incident – a bloody massacre that killed around 10,000 people – and the subsequent era of martial law. Throughout this period, the mainlanders associated with the KMT held most of the political power on Taiwan.

Against this backdrop, it is understandable that calls for a localised Taiwanese identity – in contrast to the KMT’s Chinese nationalism – developed. With the ascendancy of the first Hoklo president, Lee Teng-hui, in 1988 and the first direct presidential election in 1996, Taiwan’s political winds were shifting. President Lee oversaw electoral reforms that greatly reduced the representation of Overseas Chinese in the Legislative Yuan. President Lee oversaw Taiwan-first policies and articulated the theory that Taiwan and China were separate states. Succeeding him in 2000, President Chen Shui-bian, the first non-KMT President oversaw deeper measures of desinification, such as changing the name of state-owned enterprises to emphasise Taiwan, acknowledging the 228 Incident, portraying the KMT as being opposed to democracy, and rooting out Chinese nationalism. Under the Chen Administration, Overseas Chinese representation in the Legislative Yuan was no longer guaranteed.

How Overseas Constituents Fit Into The Picture

            Although the ROC incorporated all overseas ethnic Chinese in its national psyche during the Cold War, things began to change as calls for a new identity emerged. Discourse emerged in the 1970s and 1980s that portrayed the overseas Chinese with ancestry from mainland China as being different than overseas constituents who held ancestry in Taiwan proper. For instance, the Taiwanese abroad did not join the same associations as that of the traditional ethnic Chinese groups. In the USA, this is highlighted in the separate existence of the Taiwan Association of America and the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association. Furthermore, the policy of favouring overseas Chinese in university admission in Taiwan angered many Taiwanese Han. This set the stage for changes in diaspora policy as part of broader localisation shifts.

Taiwanisation directly led to concrete changes in diaspora policy. A distinction was made among ROC passport holders that had household registration within Taiwan and those who did not. The Chen Administration enacted a three-grade system that placed those with ancestry from Taiwan as the first grade, the traditional overseas Chinese as the second, and the new immigrants who left the PRC beginning in the 1970s as the last. This change in diaspora policy is understandable given the calls for increased rights for the Taiwanese Han; however, this obscures the effects on the Chinese diaspora around the world.

Since the traditional overseas Chinese have no ancestral connection with Taiwan proper, they are unable to have identity cards and household registration, so an independent Republic of Taiwan, rather than of China, would completely alienate them. Household registration is critical to receive health care, suffrage, and labour rights. These new requirements have been detrimental to what Taipei calls, Nationals Without Household Registration. For instance, a case of alienation by a localised Taiwanese identity involves the descendants of migrants from Shandong – a province now under the PRC – living in South Korea who still hold ROC nationality to this day. Facing discrimination in South Korea had prevented them from applying for bank loans and subscribing to cell phone plans, so many feel that they belong to the anti-communist Chinese state, the ROC. But Taiwanisation policies have estranged many of these overseas nationals. Chee-Beng Tan, a scholar of overseas Chinese, catalogued the views of overseas diaspora regarding Taiwanese diaspora policy. This sort of attitude expressed by a Mr. Sun, is typical:

I still keep my passport issued by the Republic of China because to me it’s out of the question to acquire any other nationality. But recently I have started suspecting that in recent years, the ROC does not consider [huachiao] like me as her national. I feel it is humiliating to have to obtain a visa to get back to my home country (Tan 2012, 319).

Another case involved the descendants of KMT soldiers stationed in Burma to launch attacks on the PRC. These soldiers eventually settled in Thailand, where they depended on financial assistance from Taipei in order to operate Chinese schools. However, using the pretext of a visit by an official from mainland China, the Chen Administration cut off funds, arguing that this community had nothing to do with Taiwan. Unless Taiwan is synonymous with the Republic of China, the traditional overseas Chinese cannot have a homeland on Taiwan. An independent Republic of Taiwan would be only a homeland for those who hold ancestry in Taiwan and would not be able to incorporate those who have held onto the ROC since its establishment in 1911.


Works Cited

Tan, Chee-Beng. Routledge Handbook of the Chinese Diaspora. Routledge, 2012.

Yu, Ching-hsin. “The Centrality of Maintaining the Status Quo in Taiwan Elections.” Brookings, Brookings, 15 Mar. 2017, www.brookings.edu/opinions/the-centrality-of-maintaining-the-status-quo-in-taiwan-elections/.

Yu, Yan Chen. “Taiwanese / Chinese Identification Trend Distribution in Taiwan(1992/06~2017/12).” Election Study Center National Chengchi University, National Chengchi University , 15 Jan. 2018, esc.nccu.edu.tw/app/news.php?Sn=166#.