It’s simple, argued President Xi Jinping. China and Taiwan share an ethnicity, a language, and a cultural history. They are part of one family. It is therefore only right and proper for them to accept that they are one nation. This was the gist of Xi’s new year’s message to the 23 million citizens of Taiwan (the Republic of China, as officially titled), who, under President Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), have been distancing themselves from the economic and political ties forged with China by past Taiwanese governments.
One noticeable response came from Taiwan’s half a million indigenous people (who make up two per cent of the population). Spread across 16 official tribes, some of them have ancestral lineage on the island dating back more than 6,000 years, long before the Han Chinese began arriving roughly 400 years ago (and in large numbers in the aftermath of World War II). The reply to President Xi, which came from indigenous people serving on the Indigenous Historical Justice and Transitional Justice Committee, took the form of a joint declaration, which stresses that the island once known as Formosa, now Taiwan, has never been under the control of the People’s Republic of China. ‘Mr Xi Jinping, you do not know us, so you do not know Taiwan,’ it reads. ‘Once called “barbarians”, we are now recognised as the original owners of Taiwan. We, the indigenous peoples of Taiwan, have pushed this nation forward towards respect for human rights, democracy, and freedom. After thousands of years, we are still here. We have never given up our rightful claim to the sovereignty of Taiwan.’
‘These are people who are very committed to indigenous rights and indigenous sovereignty in Taiwan,’ explains Scott Simon, professor of sociological and anthropological studies at the University of Ottawa, ‘and they’ve decided to ally themselves with the current DPP government, even though that’s a minority stance in their communities.’
Although President Tsai made a historic apology to indigenous communities in 2016 for the suffering and hardship they have been subjected to over the past century – including the theft of land and erosion of culture – traditionally, indigenous inhabitants have aligned themselves with the DPP’s rivals, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT). ‘But none of these people, no matter where they sit on the political spectrum within Taiwan, whether they’re KMT or DPP, want to be part of the People’s Republic of China,’ insists Simon. ‘I think that’s important to note.’
This was published in the March 2019 edition of Geographical magazine
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