Taiwan's indigenous peoples look to Aotearoa for inspiration

Taiwanese indigenous peoples with visitors from New Zealand and Canada.

When Taiwan goes to the polls in January in its presidential elections, indigenous issues are unlikely to take centre stage. The Asia Media Centre spoke with Jolan Hsieh, Director of the Center for International Indigenous Affairs, and a Professor at the Department of Ethnic Relations and Cultures at the National Dong Hwa University, to find out why. 

Jolan Hsieh speaks with admiration when she compares indigenous issues and awareness in Aotearoa New Zealand and her native Taiwan. Dr Hsieh, who has a special interest in Australasian indigenous cultures, and is a frequent visitor to New Zealand, says Taiwan could benefit from observing New Zealand’s path to reconciling its colonial past.

“Taiwan can learn a lot from New Zealand.  In my country, we still have a separation of indigenous issues because most people don’t really care about them. But here in New Zealand it is mainstream. I like how the Te Reo movement has also encouraged Pākehā to speak Māori. I think that creates a [more inclusive] environment.

“I see Māori wanting to build this nation together in the future. You still have things to be worked through by the Waitangi Tribunal from your colonial past but at least you also have a common identity as a New Zealand nation.

“But that’s simply not happening in Taiwan. Most Taiwanese don’t even understand our own indigenous cultures, and they are not interested in learning about them.”

Dr Jolan Hsieh in conversation with Emeritus Professor Ngahuia Te Awekotuku  (Te

Dr Jolan Hsieh in conversation with Emeritus Professor Ngahuia Te Awekotuku (Te Arawa, Tūhoe)

Taiwan has a population of around 23.6 million people.  Over 95 per cent are Han Chinese, including Holo, Hakka and other groups originating from mainland China; 2.4 per cent indigenous peoples; and two per cent new immigrants, primarily from mainland China and Southeast Asia.

Sixteen indigenous groups have been officially recognised by Taiwan’s government, with another 10 still seeking recognition for their lost indigenous status. Taiwan’s estimated 570,000 indigenous people speak around 40 languages.

“So that presents a huge challenge in trying to keep alive these languages," says Dr Hsieh, who is from Siraya indigenous peoples. 

"It’s made even harder because I’d say only a small percentage of our people who identify as indigenous speak their own language.  And our indigenous languages are quite distinct. Even within the same nation dialects can be so different they don’t understand each other.

“It’s a very hard. About 70 percent of our dialects have been classified as endangered languages. Some are dying out. We have a newly passed law to protect indigenous languages but it’s hard because even finding suitable teachers is a challenge.”

Dr Hsieh says both countries’ indigenous people have suffered similar historical injustices, including loss of tribal lands and an education system that failed to reflect indigenous history.

“There have been environmental injustices too in my country – for instance, we have a nuclear dump on indigenous land without the people’s consent.”

She says the Taiwanese legal system “doesn’t really respect indigenous common law.  For example, hunting is very important in our indigenous cultures but this is seen as almost an evil thing to do by the government.”

On August , 2016 – Taiwan’s National Indigenous Day – President Tsai Ing-wen officially apologised to Taiwan’s indigenous peoples on behalf of the government, saying, “I express to you our deepest apology for four centuries of pain and mistreatment you have endured”.

As well as electing their next president, on January 11 voters will each cast a further three ballots under Taiwan’s mixed system for electing its 113 MPs, made up of 73 members who have district seats, 34 “at-large” seats which are filled from party lists, and six reserved for indigenous Taiwanese.

In all, 650 candidates are vying for Taiwan’s legislative seats. Of those, 412 are running for district seats, 217 for at-large seats and 21 for seats reserved for indigenous Taiwanese.

Like New Zealand’s MMP system, the allocation of the at-large seats is determined by the number of votes cast for each party, which must receive at least 5 per cent of the total ballots cast to be eligible.

But Dr Hsieh says the six indigenous seats are not enough.

“The allocated seats are divided between mountain and plains indigenous groups. But that’s a problem because each indigenous group is not represented.  Normally indigenous candidates must align with political parties otherwise they don’t get nominated and they don’t have the funding to run for election. We do have indigenous political party, the Taiwan First Nations Party, but it’s not very big and it’s pretty divided.”

Dr Hsieh says she would like to see Taiwan emulate New Zealand’s system of voters being able to choose between the General or Māori roll.

“The way our system is currently structured, non-indigenous Taiwanese do not really consider indigenous voices and needs when drafting policy. At the same time, indigenous politicians sometimes “hijack” indigenous issues by blocking non-indigenous politicians.

“But if we were to adopt your system, we would be able to promote indigenous awareness into mainstream society,” she says.

Dr Jolan Hsieh participated in a recent Track II (informal diplomacy) dialogue between the Asia New Zealand Foundation  and Taiwan's Prospect Foundation in Wellington.

- Asia Media Centre