On January 16, Taiwanese voters go to the polls to elect their next president. After eight years of Ma Ying-jeou’s Kuomintang rule, which was marked by the Sunflower Movement protests against closer ties with China, pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party candidate Tsai Ing-wen is leading by a comfortable margin in the polls against KMT nominee Eric Chu. On November 7, 2015, Ma met with Chinese president Xi Jinping, the first time the leaders of the two sides had met since the end of the Chinese civil war. This journalist spoke with National Taiwan University associate professor of Political Science Huang Min-hua on November 11 about Taiwanese politics as it relates to the independence movement and ethnolinguistic identities.

Huang has researched and taught politics and data analysis in both Taiwan and the United States, including as a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center for East Asian Policy Studies, before joining National Taiwan University as an associate professor in 2013. His recent journal articles and book chapters focus extensively on political legitimacy and views of China in Asia.

When it comes to the Ma-Xi meeting, would one’s view on Taiwanese independence have a big influence on whether they support it or not?

That’s one perspective from which you can approach this issue, but I think there are more complicated issues underneath. It’s just like a cueing effect when Ma and Xi shook hands. It signified a certain message for unification. Then a lot of people, if they are pro-independence, or at least if they don’t want the process or cross-strait relations moving so close, so fast, they are irritated by this kind of event.

On the other hand, you don’t see many protest events happening outdoors, at the Presidential Palace, or even in Singapore. Last time, in 1993, the opposition party, the DPP, organized a team to protest outside the Wang-Koo summit. But this time you only see a couple of people [protesting in Singapore]: one from the Taiwan Solidarity Union, who got arrested and deported back to Taiwan. The opposition party [the DPP] did not actually initiate organized, large-scale protests against Ma.

That’s because the DPP is expected to win the election. So Ma is, in a way, doing a job for the DPP, to open up the door with this meeting with the CCP president. DPP still wants the door open. But they don’t want the frame imposed on this kind of meeting. And Ma seems to accept this arrangement. In public, in front of the press, Ma didn’t say that there is ‘One China with Two Interpretations.’ He said he agreed with One China. He said we can interpret it differently in the closed-door meeting, but the foreign media only cares about the public meeting, and he didn’t say it out loud. It seems to suggest he accepts China’s interpretation. That’s something the DPP really doesn’t want to see.

It seems that Taiwanese politics is divided mostly on the basis of views towards independence. Is there any left-right divide in terms of economic or social policies?

I think most of Taiwan is center-right. We don’t have leftist parties. There are some people who are pro-welfare, pro-working class, there are some voices for the poor, but they aren’t leftist parties in the Western sense. We don’t really care about big or small government. And we don’t really have fundamental ideological principles on the left or right. But we do want the government to perform better, to raise salaries, to improve the economic situation.

How much does the ethnolinguistic divide [between the majority Hoklos, mainland Han, and Hakkas] impact the vote?

It is a factor that is more and more becoming irrelevant. Why? Because if you see the demographic structures, the mainlanders, the percentage of people who were born on the mainland, is down from 30 percent probably now down to in the teens. I don’t know the demographic statistics. But no more than 20 percent, maybe 15 percent [born on the mainland]. And among those [descendants of] mainlanders, the third and fourth generations, they were born in Taiwan, they grew up in Taiwan, their parents also grew up in Taiwan. When they speak, their Mandarin is different from Chinese Mandarin. So the identity here for the new generations basically, I would say, is mostly pro-Taiwan.

I don’t think ethnolinguistic factors really matter. It is more like generational factors. In my generation, between age 35 to 50, many of us moved to China for jobs. So in our class we had 35 people; at least 15 or 20 constantly travel or live in China. And they earn about 50 percent higher pay there than for the same job in Taiwan. So they start in China. They just move around different cities. When they lose a job in Shanghai, they move to Guangzhou. They can find a job in China with average pay 50 or 60 percent higher than the same job in Taiwan. It’s very hard to find a job in Taiwan with salary, benefits comparable to China. So I would say for the middle-aged generations, they are all influenced by China’s economic powers.

But for younger generation, they don’t have those advantages anymore. They need to compete with China’s new generation. And, to be honest, Taiwan is losing their advantage in education and all kinds of things. So they need to leave home to compete with them, and the chances are, they will probably not be able to compete with them. So there are some who really pursue those chances. But more people actually stay in Taiwan and they find less chances and they blame the government for not doing enough to improve the economy and create jobs. The angers of the younger generation stem from the economic stagnation.

Defining the Terms

Hoklo The majority ethnolinguistic group in Taiwan, they immigrated from Fujian province to Taiwan during the Ming or Qing dynasties, long before the KMT arrived. Also known as Min Nan or Hokkien people, references to their Fujian ancestry. They speak “Taiwanese language,” which is also known as Min Nan language, because it is a dialect spoken in Southern Fujian.
Hakka Hakka means “guest people,” because they have been known to move around China and stay in closely knit communities where they move. Though they have faced discrimination from non-Hakka, they have also succeeded at politics. Many of Taiwan’s elected leaders were Hakka, as was Deng Xiaoping, among other politicians.

Hakka and Hoklo are both considered to be subgroups of Han Chinese in mainland China.

Aborigines The earliest Taiwanese inhabitants, aborigines make up just over 2% of the island’s population at present. There are 16 tribes recognized by the government and a dozen more unrecognized. The tribes have been divided broadly between Gaoshan (highland) and Pingpu (lowland), and Gaoshan tribes have generally had more of their culture preserved, while many of the Pingpu languages are extinct. Due to historic conflicts between the Hoklos and Aborigines, Aborigines, who have six special seats in the legislature, tend to vote with the KMT.
Mainlanders “Mainlander” or “Waisheng ren” (“out-of-province person”) refers to the Chinese who came to Taiwan at the end of the Chinese Civil War. Starting in 1945 and especially in 1949, the KMT started settling in Taiwan. The large influx of KMT supporters, who identified more as Chinese people than did the Hoklos, caused conflicts. In an incident that began on February 28, 1947, the KMT government killed 10,000-30,000 anti-government protesters, initiating the White Terror period. The KMT ruled by martial law from 1949 to 1987. In the democratic period, the KMT has won 3-out-of-5 presidential elections.

Do the children of Hoklos view themselves as Hoklos?

That kind of provincial identity is already gone. Eighty percent of Taiwanese people are Hoklo people. There is the factor of language—Min Nan language. Although you can hear a lot of people speaking it, the younger generation tends not to use Min Nan language. When we have conversations, we don’t use it, and a lot of people are gradually losing the ability to master the language.

If you do a survey, a lot of new generation mainlanders, new generation Hakka, they support independence as well. And some of the people who support the status quo, maybe even support unification, are Hoklo. So I would say that kind of factor is attenuating.

[DPP presidential candidate] Tsai Ing-wen cannot speak fluent Min Nan language. It used to be that if you were a DPP candidate, you should use this vernacular tone in your public events to let your supporters know you are their guy. But Tsai Ing-wen mostly uses Mandarin. There are some occasions when she might use Min Nan language, but when you listen to her Min Nan language, you are laughing. It just lets people think she cannot master her own language. So it’s really a minus for her. It’s not a plus at all.

After doing further research, this interviewer found that Tsai Ing-wen has Hakka ancestry. In response to a follow up question by email Huang Min-hua wrote:
Tsai might have Hakka linage but she was raised in Taipei in a very wealthy environment. I doubt she can speak Hakka, either. In some sense, DPP has a transition in its campaign culture, so Tsai’s language restriction now does not cause any problem. This was obviously not so before 2008.

One protester I spoke to asserted that Taiwanese language [otherwise known as Hokkien, a dialect of Min Nan, which is spoken in South Fujian] isn’t a dialect of Chinese. Is this a common sentiment?

That’s about identity. We have had a lot of identity-building discourses. A lot of people accept these kind of discourses. Other people don’t. Taiwan has been subject to a lot of periods of foreign rule: Spanish, Portuguese, anti-Qing, occupied by the Qing, Japanese. But the Qing didn’t actually govern Taiwan in the regular way. That restricted Taiwan’s interaction with mainland China. It wasn’t until 1880 that the Qing decided to govern Taiwan in a formal way. But that only lasted for about ten years [before Japan invaded]. So Taiwan, over the past 400 years, has always been governed by foreign regimes. The ‘true Taiwanese’ have not had a chance to become their own masters. So these kinds of discourses have become the foundation for the idea that Taiwan needs to become self-governed and build its own nation.

How different is Min Nan language in Taiwan from Min Nan language on the mainland?

A little bit different. Vocabulary is a little bit different because we have been separated. There are a lot of words in Taiwanese Min Nan that we borrow from Japan. But still, we can fully understand each other.

Among the older generation, is there still an ethnolinguistic divide?

There are certain biases and prejudices between the ethnic groups. For example, when I was a kid, my mom was saying, ‘If you are a Min Nan girl, do not marry a Hakka man, because Hakka men treat their wives very bad.’ We do have certain prejudices along ethnic lines to stereotype the other ethnic groups. But I think that kind of thing is going away quickly.

Why have the ethnic minorities traditionally supported the KMT in large numbers?

KMT in the early times tried to build alliances with the various ethnic groups. The main opposition movement [to the KMT] built up within the Min Nan group. When the DPP was formed, it backed certain proposals, which were motivated by Min Nan nationalism. They even proposed to give up Kinmen and Matsu [which are part of Fujian province on both PRC and ROC maps], because they thought Taiwan is Taiwan—Taiwan does not include those islands of Fujian. Other ethnic groups view Min Nan nationalism as hostile to their ethnicity. So those are some reasons ethnic minorities have stayed away from the DPP. But the DPP recently has had some success in recruiting supporters among the Hakka and Aborigines. They converted a former provincial governor in Taitung county who was Hakka. His daughter joined the DPP. The DPP also got a lot of support in Taoyuan, which is Hakka majority. Things are changing.

What is Min Nan chauvinism?

Min Nan chauvinism is the idea that the Min Nan ethnic group are the true masters of the islands. They use these kinds of discourses to built Taiwan identity. From the perspective of Hakka or Aborigines, they might think, Min Nan people are using their own identity to impose it on them. But I do feel still that the identity of Hakkas as well as Aborigines is diminishing.

The percentage of Taiwanese people who view themselves as Taiwanese rising [to 60.4 percent a historic high, while 3.5 percent identified as Chinese only], as is the percentage of Hong Kong residents who view themselves as Hong Kongese. Is there a similar thing happening in both places?

It’s different. Hong Kong people have had more interactions with China. For most of them, you can trace back their home to Guangdong province [or some other province]. But in Taiwan, for most people, if you want to trace back the place their ancestors immigrated from in China, it’s impossible. It’s too long to trace. I mean, in my example, you have to trace back to 1720-something to Fujian province, but it has been more than ten generations. We don’t actually trace that far back. It’s just an ancestry, a custom, it doesn’t mean we actually have a bonding with the people now living over there.

What about in terms of heritage? Do Taiwanese still think of themselves as Chinese heritage [as in “hua-yi” rather than “zhong-guo ren”]?

Some people can accept that I am not Chinese, but I still have Chinese heritage, that my ancestors were Chinese, but nothing more. But there are some people who simply don’t want to have the connections to Chinese tradition. Just like Americans. They don’t need to say, ‘My ancestry is British.’ They just don’t want to emphasize those connections.

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