Taiwan, Beyond the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China


This text was written by two cousins who identify as Taiwanese with mixed Han settler ancestry. Szu-Han Ho lives in Tiwa lands (Albuquerque, New Mexico) in the United States. Meng-Yao Chuang lives in Tainan, Taiwan. They offer us a third perspective on the future of Taiwan far from the two Republics of China’s continental claim: one that centers Taiwanese people themselves, in particular the Indigenous peoples of the island.

SZU-HAN: As a person of the Taiwanese diaspora watching the events of Hong Kong over the last several years (the Umbrella Movement in 2014 and the 2019 Uprising) I have been deeply stirred. I have been riveted by the meaning, as well as the aesthetics, of the mass uprising in Hong Kong.

The movement understands and capitalizes on the power of the image, the power of performance. It understands aesthetics and turns everyday objects into tools of resistance. It poses an active resistance to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) government takeover of local politics and its violent crackdown on dissent. For many Taiwanese people watching, it is a foreboding unfolding of events. The Chinese government’s position on Taiwan is clear: its goal is euphemistically known as “re-unification.”

For some of us, watching the events in Hong Kong confirms that closer ties with the PRC will bring a similar fate to Taiwan. Whether this is accomplished through soft power or military occupation, it will translate to the loss of autonomy for the Taiwanese.

The COVID-19 pandemic effectively ended the fight in the streets of Hong Kong, as the region went under lockdown with the rest of China. The PRC has taken advantage of this to impose further draconian controls. Hong Kong activists have fled by boat to Taiwan, and Taiwanese activists have harbored those who have made it to the island.

Taiwan is a self-governing nation with a long and complex history under multiple colonial powers, both European and Asian. Living in the so-called United States and watching from afar, I am fearful. My relatives in Taiwan have lived with the threat of a PRC takeover for their entire adult lives. With the most recent events of the Russian invasion in Ukraine, many people have been asking me directly about the implications for Taiwan. This comes as a surprise because I had assumed most people around me had little to no knowledge of Taiwan or its history; many Taiwanese people might say the same, as the history that they have been taught in schools has been written from the perspective of the Han Chinese and (until recently) from the perspective of the ruling Kuomingtang (KMT) or People’s Nationalist Party.

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Brief timeline of Taiwanese history. / Data by Szu-Han Ho and Meng-Yao Chuang. Cartography by Léopold Lambert (2022).

MENG-YAO: The history that my parents learned in school was a history of China from the KMT Chinese nationalist viewpoint, and this has made them favor Chinese culture more. Their generation were never taught a history of Taiwan itself, and they were punished if they spoke the local dialects. By contrast, my grandparents grew up in Japanese-run schools under the Japanese occupation of Taiwan, which gave them an affinity to Japanese culture. Their parents’ generation was part of the anti-colonial movement to oppose the Japanese and fight for local Taiwanese rule. I grew up in the era of Taiwan’s transition from authoritarian rule to democracy.

I come from a generation that began to learn a lot about the island’s unique history, distinct from the history of China that my parents studied.

However, I still feel the legacy of the authoritarian era in every aspect of my life, especially when my family and I argue about whether we are Taiwanese or Chinese. I feel connected with the land of Taiwan as a Taiwanese person, but the disagreements in my family extend to identity on a national scale: the 23+ million people of this island cannot even come to an agreement on what we call ourselves as a nation: Taiwan, Republic of China, or something else.

This weak social consensus is also something that the PRC tries to manipulate in its information war. The convenience of a common language makes Taiwan vulnerable to information warfare from the PRC. PRC agents spread fake news or support pro-China policies, leading to an erosion of trust and a sense of chaos and panic in Taiwan, especially around election time. From the PRC authorities’ perspective, the goal of the war is to help Taiwanese candidates from the pro-China faction be elected, so that they can secretly assist them to support policies beneficial to the PRC in Taiwan.

In this context, fact-checking has become my daily routine, especially in the run-up to elections, when the information war intensifies. Almost every election causes a tear between generations or ethnic groups. My elders and I have completely different political views on China, and in the time leading up to elections, we often clash; this has become a cyclical issue. I try to remember that they grew up under an authoritarian government. The profound fear of authoritarianism is deeply rooted in their hearts, and they often warn me and those of my generation not to be overly involved in political activities.

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Jing-Mei White Terror Memorial in Taipei, Taiwan. Former detention center for political dissidents. / Photo by Julia Ho (2019).

SZU-HAN: Taiwan’s colonial history began in the 17th century as part of the European “Age of Discovery,” because of the strategic significance of its geographical position. Colonial powers have come and gone. The island has experienced occupation by the Dutch, the Spanish, the Ming-Zheng dynasty, the Qing dynasty, the Japanese, and the Republic of China (ROC). With U.S. support and military aid, the ROC established itself in Taiwan after being defeated by the Chinese Communist Party and fleeing mainland China in 1949, under General Chiang Kai Shek and his party, the Kuomingtang. When the KMT arrived, Taiwan was a mix of many ethnic groups, including the Han Chinese (Minnan and Hakka), the diverse Indigenous tribal people, and those with mixed Han and Indigenous ancestry.

The KMT in Taiwan proceeded to massacre tens of thousands of Taiwanese, also establishing martial law, and controlling the government under single-party authoritarian rule for over 40 years.

The current government of Taiwan is still known as the Republic of China, which contributes to the confusion surrounding national identity and ongoing conflict with the People’s Republic of China.

MENG-YAO: Under the various occupations by the Dutch, the Chinese, the Japanese, and within the existing legacy of the KMT and PRC conflict, colonial powers have especially attempted to subjugate, ignore, and erase the First Peoples of this island. The Indigenous people of Taiwan are Austronesian peoples, who have linguistic ties to Native peoples across Southeast Asia, the Pacific Islands, Madagascar, and Easter Island. Historians and researchers claim that the majority of Taiwanese have Indigenous ancestry, due to the fact that Han Chinese immigrants to Taiwan during the Ming and Qing Dynasties were mainly men who intermarried with Indigenous (Pingpu) women. Most people whose families have been in Taiwan for generations choose to identify as Han Chinese, but only a few of us recognize that we have Indigenous ancestry. I personally don’t claim indigeneity or speak on behalf of Indigenous people, but I support the movement for cultural revitalization and Indigenous autonomy. Indigenous history is Taiwanese history. As the authoritarian period of the KMT came to an end in the 1990s, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), a pro-Taiwanese independence party, introduced transitional justice to the political discourse. In 2016, President Tsai Ing-wen of the DPP, whose paternal grandmother is from the Paiwan tribe, gave the first formal apology on behalf of the government to the Indigenous people of Taiwan and established the Indigenous Historical Justice and Transitional Justice Committee, which aims to address the mistreatment of Taiwan’s Indigenous people over the past 400 years.

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Prison for political dissidents at Green Island. The facade translates to “May the Republic of China last for 10,000 years” (left) and “May the Three Principles last for 10,000 years” (right). / Photo by Julia Ho (2019).

However, not all Indigenous people accept the actions of President Tsai. Compared to the KMT, the DPP has fewer supporters from Indigenous tribes. This trend dates back to the end of Japanese occupation, when the KMT took over all the resources from the Japanese government, including the police substations (chūzaisho) in the mountainous areas built to subjugate Indigenous people. The KMT has taken advantage of the proximity and infrastructure to cultivate closer ties to many Indigenous people. A legislator, Kao Chin Su-Mei, who is a descendant of a KMT veteran and an Indigenous (Atayal) woman, regards herself as Chinese and even accepts the PRC claim that she is a Chinese ethnic minority instead of a Taiwanese Indigenous person. This example represents a vulnerability that the PRC tries to exploit: their logic is that if the original people of Taiwan come to identify as Chinese, the Taiwanese who came to the island later will also “realize” that they are Chinese. Of course, the majority of Indigenous activists reject unification with China and are working day-and-night to fight for their rights. Plains Indigenous people (Pingpu) are fighting the notion that their cultures have been fully assimilated or extinguished by Han culture, and are battling to gain official tribal recognition. The Siraya, Taivoan, and Makatao have been recognized by local governments, and aim -to be officially recognized by the ROC government. However, the fact that they must present evidence and seek recognition by the ROC government is proof of the ongoing colonial relationship. Officially recognized tribes, such as the Truku, are fighting for the return of their land from the Asia Cement Corporation. Without land, Indigenous tribes cannot realize Indigenous autonomy as their ultimate political goal. Indigenous people have suffered dispossession, genocide, cultural appropriation, environmental racism, and forced assimilation. The struggles of Indigenous people in Taiwan are parallel to the struggles of Indigenous people all over the world.

While the conflict between Taiwan and the PRC does receive some international media attention, stories of the Indigenous movement in Taiwan or the complexity surrounding ethnic identities get drowned out by the legacy of Cold War era geo-politics and present-day imperialisms.

BOTH: Although Taiwan is very small in comparison with its neighbors, it is sandwiched between various powers in international politics, especially in Sino-U.S. relations. How to confront and distinguish the endless ideological attacks and accelerate the deepening of democracy is an everyday issue for Taiwanese people. We grew up with stories of elders who were disappeared as part of the White Terror, the era of martial law under the KMT. The promise of transitional justice is to draw lessons from history so that we don’t repeat these horrors, that we deepen our sense of collective identity, that we honor Indigenous land rights and self-determination, and that we protect Taiwan’s fragile democracy and freedom. Tragically, Taiwan holds the world record for the longest period of martial law—38 years under the KMT. As historian George Katsiafikas has pointed out, Chiang Kai Shek ruled more than twice as long as Pinochet over Chile, and longer than Franco’s regime in Spain. Taiwan’s first non-KMT president was elected in 2000, just over 20 years ago. Today, we don’t take our freedom to be in the streets for granted, because those of our parents’, grandparents’, and previous generations resisted, even under the threat of death, imprisonment, or persecution. Even though we don’t face the same level of threat, we know that Taiwan could slip backwards into authoritarianism. Throughout a long history of colonial presence, fierce uprisings and resistance battles have been led by the many ethnic groups of Taiwan, including Indigenous, Minnan, and Hakka peoples. “Every three years an uprising, every five years a rebellion,” became a Qing dynasty saying about Taiwan. A history written from the Indigenous perspective would require us to reconsider the narratives of these rebellions—and the entire history of the island—which has largely been written from the lens of Han supremacy. ■