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Taiwan Poll: Who's the 'real' Taiwanese?
By Wei Yun

TAIPEI - Indigenous politics, "native" politics and minutely local politics are all the rage on Taiwan on the eve of Saturday's presidential election and referendum. Candidates are trying to outdo each other to demonstrate who's more passionately Taiwanese, more authentic, less tied to mainland China and hence presumably more worthy to represent the people. A popular slogan of the governing party: Taiwan Comes First.

Vice President Annette Lu, wounded on Friday along with President Chen Shui-bian, has emphasized her Taiwanese roots, as has Chen. She often has called the close election campaign a "pro-island vs pro-mainland" contest and makes a point that her entire campaign team is made up entirely of native Taiwanese, not connected to China. She and Chen may well win a sympathy vote, especially from those who agree with Chen's and Lu's emphasis on a separate Taiwanese identity - considered by some to be a prelude to independence.

The election will be a showdown, and a close one, between the governing Democratic People's Party (DPP) and its allies - the so-called pan-greens (from the color of their emblem) and the opposition Kuomintang (KMT) and People First Party (PFP), the so-called pan-blues (from the color of the KMT emblem). Not only will the election decide Taiwan's political direction over the next four years, but it also will affect the island's international image, ties with the Chinese mainland and the future of those so-called "natives" vying for the presidency.

Recent campaigning has focused largely on "localization", a devotion to Taiwanese identity, passion for the island and sensitive to issues such as language - Mandarin, Min-nan and Hakka are all recognized as the official languages of Taiwan, however, many candidates refrain from speaking Mandarin, because it is considered foreign and tied to the mainland. Localization also means that many candidates distance themselves from anything related to the mainland, seen as by many native Taiwanese as a hostile and irrelevant neighbor, by some as a menacing Big Brother.

Both Chen and Lu emphasize what they call their 100 percent Taiwanese origins - a somewhat murky term these days - and emphasize that their rivals, presidential nominee Lien Chan of the KMT and vice-presidential nominee James Soong of the PFP have deep mainland roots and tend to be more conciliatory toward China.

Indigenous politics shifts focus from poor performance
Some say Chen is emphasizing indigenous politics in order to deflect attention from what critics call his record of poor governance. The opposition pan blues don't have such a great record, either, and because they tend to favor a softer policy toward China and closer economic links with Beijing - sentiments that call their devotion to Taiwan into question - they too have begun pushing indigenous politics, to minimize their vulnerability and curry favor among a larger portion of Taiwanese.

Thus, to many islanders, the campaign has become nothing more than a competition over who is more "indigenous", authentic, trustworthy and therefore - whether true or not - better able to represent the genuine interests of ordinary Taiwanese. As voters head for the polls, the criteria by which politicians must prove their indigenous credentials and sympathies has become more extreme.

The governing DPP and pan-greens have adopted the slogan "Taiwan Comes First", It has become increasingly clear that those who don't appear to honor this slogan are labeled "non-native" and devoted to the interests of China and those Taiwanese whose relatives fled or immigrated from the mainland, as opposed to Taiwan's own interests.

It is presidential candidate Lien Chan and his running mate James Soong who have the most to overcome in this regard, as they are perceived as being more amenable to promoting the mainland's interests.

Some candidates refuse to speak Mandarin
Protecting the interests of the native Taiwanese has in itself, raised debates, such as whether to teach in the native Taiwanese mother tongue, Min-nan and Hakka, as opposed to Chinese Mandarin; some candidates in appealing to the "native" Taiwan vote go out of their way not to speak Mandarin.

Other election issues include regional autonomy for the island's indigenous people, split between the Hakka and the Hokkien; parliamentary reform; and the "defensive" referendum in which voters will also be asked whether China should redirect nearly 500 missiles targeted at Taiwan and, if Beijing refuses, whether Taiwan should seek advanced military defense capabilities.

In the referendum, Taiwan-mainland ties also are influenced by indigenous politics. President Chen, whose Democratic Progressive Party is closely associated with the Taiwan identity and independence movements, has put forward the notion of "one country on each side of the Taiwan Strait", enraging Beijing.

Pan-blues must prove they're 'native' too
Despite its indigenous packaging, the "Taiwan Comes First" slogan is a standard political attempt by the pan-greens to win votes by highlighting that they are the ones who are truly devoted to the island's interests.

Because the opposition pan-blues, comprising the KMT, which ruled Taiwan for more than 50 years, and its PFP splinter group, support a "one China" policy, the alliance is easily viewed as non-indigenous and willing to sell out Taiwan, further reducing its public support and allowing the governing party to brand the opposition as the mainland's "accomplice". As a result, presidential candidate Lien Chan and his running mate James Soong went around kissing the ground, the Taiwanese earth, vowing they would never put China's interests ahead of Taiwan's.

This campaign effort to discredit the pan-blues' loyalty to Taiwan has been somewhat effective, though with a 10-day pre-election blackout on polling data, it's hard to know what's really going on in voters' minds.

Further, by emphasizing the importance of an inclusive Chinese nationalist identity, the pan-blue coalition has become more vulnerable in the eyes of some voters, while others see the pan-blue camp as more pragmatic and protective of Taiwan's substantial business interests on the mainland.

So the pan-blues not only emphasize "indigenization", but also localization, emphasizing local interests, especially those that distinguish Taiwanese culture from mainland culture. Many candidates use the common vernacular in their campaigns. Min-nan, widely used in southern China's Fujian province, is the most widely spoken dialect in Taiwan, followed by Hakka. Many supporters, however, don't understand the dialects and there is little they can do beyond waving flags and regurgitating slogans.

Three main groups on Taiwan
Taiwan people, most of whom came from the mainland or descended from those immigrants, can be classified in three groups:

  • Aborigines who have inhabited the island for thousands of years and are descended from small tribes related to groups in Indonesia and the Philippines;
  • Immigrants from China who arrived between 400 and 500 years ago, especially from what is now China's Fujian Province opposite Taiwan;
  • "Mainlanders" - those who fled to Taiwan with Chiang Kai-shek and the defeated KMT in or after 1949, when the communists won the civil war and took over the mainland. This influx of mainlanders added to tensions resulting from an island uprising in 1947 that highlighted the gap between the Taiwanese who had lived on the island for generations and those who had just arrived.

    As a result, xenophobia, a by-product of the conflicts between the so-called "newcomers" and the former two groups, has been a staple in Taiwan's political and electioneering culture. Former president Lee Teng-hui, the architect of the localization movement, even referred to the KMT government, which he formerly headed, as a "foreign regime".

    And though the pan-greens and pan-blues will continue to duke it out over who is more indigenous, the mainstream opinion seems to be that the the island should no longer differentiate between mainlanders and native Taiwanese. After all, most mainlanders have been living on the island for more than 50 years and their ties to Taiwan go back several generations.

    So though presidential contenders and their backers will continue to shout "Taiwan Comes First", selling their devotion as they may, voters here might not be buying.

    (Copyright 2004 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact for information on our sales and syndication policies.)

  • Mar 20, 2004

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