Are Taiwanese ‘Ethnically Distinct’ From Han Chinese? – Why Genetic Arguments Don’t Justify Taiwan Independence


Taiwanese aborigines preparing for a performance (photo by the Office of the President, Republic of China (Taiwan) via Flickr)

The status of Taiwan is one of the thorniest geopolitical issues in the world today. From 1684 to 1895 part of the Qing Empire, Taiwan and outlying island were annexed by Japan after the Sino-Japanese War that ended with the signing of the Treaty of Shimonoseki.

During World War II, the governments of the United States, Great Britain and the Republic of China (ROC) issued the Cairo Declaration (November 27, 1943), which stipulated that all the territories Japan had “stolen from the Chinese, such as Manchuria, Formosa [Taiwan], and The Pescadores” should be restored to the Republic of China.

The Potsdam Declaration (July 26, 1945), signed by the US, the ROC and Great Britain, confirmed the terms of the Cairo Declaration.

On September 2, 1945, Japan signed the Instrument of Surrender, accepting “the provisions set forth in the declaration issued by the heads of the Governments of the United States, China, and Great Britain on 26 July 1945 at Potsdam.” In early October the ROC took over Taiwan’s administration.

Soon the Civil War between the ROC’s ruling party, the Guomindang, and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) broke out, which ended with the defeat of the latter and its humiliating retreat to Taiwan as the last territory under its control. On October 1, 1949, Mao Zedong proclaimed the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The two states have remained independent from each other every since.

In 1952 the ROC and Japan signed the Treaty of Taipei, in which Japan renounced “all right, title and claim to Taiwan (Formosa) and Penghu (the Pescadores) as well as the Spratly Islands and the Paracel Islands.”

Interestingly, the treaty does to specifically mention the transfer of sovereignty over those territories to the ROC. Rather, Article 10 of the treaty says that “nationals of the Republic of China, shall be deemed to include all the inhabitants and former inhabitants of Taiwan (Formosa) and Penghu (the Pescadores) and their descendants who are of the Chinese nationality in accordance with the laws and regulations which have been or may hereafter be enforced by the Republic of China in Taiwan (Formosa) and Penghu (the Pescadores).”

As a result, some people argue that Taiwan was never officially handed over to the ROC and its status remains undetermined. Others, including the Guomindang, argue that the Cairo and Potsdam declarations, the Treaty of San Francisco (1951) and the Treaty of Taipei have legally “restored” Taiwan’s sovereignty to the ROC. It must also be remarked that the Kinmen islands have been part of the ROC since 1912, as they were never annexed by Japan.

Both the CCP and the Guomindang vow to ‘reunify’ China, but the majority of the people in the ROC want to preserve the status quo of de facto independence. Regardless of the legal status, it is a fact that the ROC has administered Taiwan since 1945 and that therefore Taiwan is currently de facto independent.

There are reasonable arguments in favour of Taiwan’s independence and against reunification. Taiwan is a vibrant and successful democracy, while China is a one-party dictatorship; Taiwan has been separated from China for decades and there would be no benefit or meaning in changing the status quo. China’s ‘reunification’ agenda is purely nationalistic.

So, why should Taiwanese resort to other arguments – to arguments based on ethnicity, blood, and culture – to justify their independence?

Recently Marie Lin, a renowned Taiwanese anthropologist, stressed that the Taiwanese are ethnically distinct from the Han Chinese.

“The main Hoklo Taiwanese and Hakka population in this nation have Pingpu and Aboriginal bloodlines in their ancestry from centuries of intermarriage, and the analysis of DNA and genetic markers reflects this new understanding of the close relationship between Taiwanese and Austronesians and Pacific islanders,” The Taipei Times quoted her as saying.

“Through the long history of ethno-cultural evolution on Taiwan, which was isolated from other main population centers, we can consider the result as forming a ‘Taiwanese people group,’ which is distinct from the Han Chinese people,” she said.

She also remarked that the “genetic contributions from the Pingpu and Aboriginal bloodlines gave Taiwanese the traits of adventurous ambition, open hospitality to outsiders and a positive, sunny disposition in general.”

It is not clear whether her argument had any political implications with regard to the independence issue. Nor is it clear how a researcher can make the questionable claim that aboriginal blood results in “open hospitality to outsiders” and other traits. Her identifying ‘groups’ in terms of genetics, rather than of culture or language, raises questions, too.

Without doubt there are people in the pro-independence camp who view ‘blood’ and identity as core elements of ‘Taiwaneseness’ that are distinct from Chinese DNA and identity and therefore justify the existence of an independent state. In 2009 Reuters remarked that “Taiwan’s government has raised the status of the island’s aboriginal minority in recent years as it seeks to forge a non-Chinese identity to bolster its claims to be a nation independent from China.”

Such arguments come from the same nationalist playbook as China’s and are not only unnecessary, but harmful to Taiwan’s democracy.

Taiwan (as nearly every other country in the world) is diverse: there are various linguistic and cultural groups: the aborigines, the descendants of people who moved to Taiwan from China after 1945, the Hakka- and Hokkien-speakers, as well as a growing number of people from southeast Asia and other parts of the world. The idea that genetic heritage is per se a political category shows a misconception of the notion of democratic statehood. Democracies do not fit into rigid patterns of homogeneity (ethnic, linguistic, cultural, historical, social, religious etc.).

Only despotisms arbitrarily select categories and impose them upon the whole population. Theocracies allow only one religion. Nationalist states allow only one national community (arbitrarily defined in terms of culture and language, sometimes also of ethnicity). Soviet-style Communist states used to divide people into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ classes, whereby the latter had to be eliminated.

Whether Taiwan is ethnically distinct from China or not is entirely irrelevant to the question of political independence, which is a moral and political issue that has nothing to do with ancestry.

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