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Taiwan’s Indigenous tribes could hold the key to its independence

by editor

Dr. Alexander Görlach is a senior fellow to the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs. He was a visiting scholar in Taiwan and Hong Kong, and writes extensively about this region of the world.

After the election of Taiwanese President Lai Ching-te in January, political leaders from Beijing to Washington all asserted he’d lean toward what they called “Taiwan’s independence.” And for this presupposed tendency, the Chinese Communist Party and state-controlled media labeled Lai a “destroyer of peace,” vowing that the little island nation’s “reunification” with China was looming.

As a sort of preemptive measure, after Lai’s victory, U.S.-president Joe Biden said that Washington wouldn’t support any sort of declaration of independence, highlighting that his administration seeks to maintain the status quo between the two nations. Biden thereby reiterated the U.S.’s One-China Policy, which “acknowledges” Beijing’s assertion that Taiwan is a part of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) without agreeing to this claim. 

Contrary to Beijing claims and Washington warnings, however, Lai and his Democratic Progressive Party haven’t shown any inclination toward changing the status quo. Both Lai and outgoing president Tsai Ing-wen say that Taiwan — under the full name “Republic of China” (ROC) — is already an independent state going back to 1912, and thus doesn’t have to seek independence.

As a matter of fact, according to a report issued by the British parliament’s foreign committee last August, Taiwan does, indeed, possess all necessary markers of statehood: a territory, a people, a functioning government and the ability to form foreign relations.

Many countries around the globe maintain quasi-diplomatic relations with the island, and their engagement with Taipei has only increased in the last couple years — not least because the world has grown aware of Beijing’s belligerence toward the island and its inhabitants. However, as it stands, Taiwan has only 12 real diplomatic partners left. And if it were to one day be left with no such partners, it would cease to exist as a state and Beijing could claim it.

Having said all this, however, there is, indeed, talk of independence in Taiwan — though not from the PRC but rather the ROC itself. And there’s an argument to be made that the island’s Indigenous tribes may well hold the key.

Taiwan became part of the ROC after World War II, when Japan had to surrender all its former colonies. But just two years later, another defeat loomed: The ROC’s nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek lost the civil war against Mao Zedong and retreated to Taiwan with his around 2 million followers. Not welcomed there, he erected a military dictatorship that subjugated the whole population, including the island’s 16 Indigenous tribes that had been living there for six millennia.

And today, thoughts of independence from Chiang’s ROC also come from within these Indigenous groups who never really considered themselves to be a part of China to begin with — whether in its imperial, nationalist or communist iterations.

“The only possibility for Taiwan to truly achieve independence from China’s grasp is, in theory, only to first allow the Indigenous tribes of Taiwan to establish an independent nation named ‘Formosa,’” said Chuan-ju Cheng, an associate professor of Indigenous studies at the Taipei University of Education, alluding to the name the Portuguese gave the island when they sailed past it. After that, “the Han people of Taiwan could join the new state,” added Cheng, who is herself a member of the Truku nation in the Hualien mountains to the island’s east.

Most of Taiwan’s Indigenous tribes still live in those mountains, which make up 60 percent of the island’s topography. Neither Dutch, Portuguese nor Spanish sailors and merchants ever conquered these heights or established full control over its people. The same goes for imperial China, which never controlled much more than outposts by the western shores. Only Japanese conquerers at the dawn of the 20th century succeeded in annexing or acquiring all the native land.

“Taiwan’s Indigenous people, particularly the highland groups, lost their land during the Japanese colonial period and have been unable to reclaim it from the hands of the Republic of China government up to this point,” Chen said.

According to legal scholars, any full reconciliation with Taipei would require some sort of restitution and self-governance — and on that path there has been progress.

Taiwanese President Lai Ching-te | Annabelle Chih/Getty Images

The tribes are recognized in today’s democratic Taiwan, their languages are taught in schools, and their cultures are fully supported by the government in Taipei. An increasing number of Taiwanese are also discovering their own Indigenous heritage through widely available DNA analysis — which might also help explain why more and more people are starting to see themselves as Taiwanese and not Chinese. And among the Taiwanese, there’s a small yet vocal group that wants nothing to do with the once-oppressive ROC and to found an entirely new state.

In a democracy, it’s their full right to express this belief and advocate for it — sentiments that are alien to Beijing’s totalitarianism. Yet, it’s important to note that these views are from being mainstream. 

“Maintaining the status quo is preferable, no one wishes to change it,” Cheng said — and that’s because living in Taiwan’s democracy as it is now is better than the looming conquest by the dictator next door, who would most certainly reverse all the progress made.

By calling for conquest, Xi has made himself an enemy of Taiwan’s tribes, which rightfully say the island was inhabited by their ancestors long before the dawn of the Chinese era and, therefore, it’s for them to decide its future — not Beijing.

Moreover, Taipei could leverage this newly found union with the First Nations of Taiwan by highlighting their long-standing Indigenous heritage. These tribes reach six millennia back; they set off and settled the islands of Oceania and reached shores as far as New Zealand — this can be proven by the languages spoken by the Indigenous peoples on all these islands. So, by actively seeking a role in the gatherings and conferences of these First Nations, Taipei can implicitly make a case for Taiwan’s statehood aside from the ROC’s recent past.

However, the relationship isn’t fully untethered. For example, for the Indigenous tribe of the Pingpu, it seems all but impossible to reclaim the land of their forebears, simply because the city of Tainan with its roughly 1.9 million inhabitants is now located there. 

Nevertheless, in the grand scheme of things, Taiwan’s successful democracy is a good example of how to atone for the wrongdoings and crimes of a colonial past. By contrast, under Xi, the PRC continues to repeat the atrocities of imperialism, building an empire by subjugating the people of Tibet, Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang and Hong Kong; intimidating all of its neighbors in the region; and cracking down on local cultures within the PRC.

And if Xi has his way, the Indigenous people of Taiwan would be re subjugated once more, sharing the catastrophic fate of all other peoples forcefully drawn into Beijing’s orbit.

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