Tsai’s Apology Strengthens Taiwan’s Place at Front of Chinese Modernity
Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen’s historic apology to the island’s indigenous people on August 1 was a hugely important event, not just for Taiwan, but for Chinese and global modernity. It recognized, and started to deal with, one of the most sensitive and contentious issues amongst the community of those that classify themselves as Han Chinese (93 percent of the population in the People’s Republic and over 97 percent for Taiwan): the often highly unequal, and frequently fraught relations between ethnic communities in their respective territories.
Taiwan’s indigenous people, of which there are 16 officially recognized groups, have an extraordinary history, with some coming from the same groups as New Zealand’s Maoris, enjoying a culture and heritage stretching back tens of thousands of years. Their treatment at the hands of settlers from across the Taiwan Strait in the last four centuries has often been cruel and unjust, with a particularly vicious campaign of repression after Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist armies settled en masse on Taiwan when the Civil War in the Mainland was being lost in 1948-1949.
Chiang, during his quarter century rule over the island, proved no better than his nemesis Mao Zedong in moving from nice sounding language lauding “ethnic minority harmony and equality” to real action to address inequalities. Those classed as minorities often suffered discriminatory treatment. Their economic and health conditions were often inferior to the Han. Residues of this legacy continue to this day, with wealth levels, life expectancy, and representation of the island’s indigenous people in public life all far lower than for the Han.
Tsai’s move is partly a recognition of her own heritage – her grandmother was from the Paiwan tribe. It also sends a powerful message that Taiwanese democratic politics is now able to start dealing with some of the most painful and contentious issues from the past. This stands in stark contrast to the situation on the mainland, where the discourse in this area is still decades behind, with those wishing to raise ethnicity and its political ramifications greeted with harsh reprisals. Uyghur leader Ilham Tohti is the best known of many who have attempted to speak about fairer treatment for ethnic minorities, only to be silenced by draconian prison sentences, with the punishment even extending to their families. Read more…