Among the many reasons why the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) didn’t perform well in the 2008 presidential election is the fact that its use of the “ethnic” card — benshengren, or Taiwanese, versus waishengren, or “mainlander” — backfired. Use of that construct intensified during then-president Chen Shui-bian’s (陳水扁) election campaign in 2004, where, as some have argued, he was forced to appeal to a more fundamentalist faction within the DPP to secure his support base. As a result, mentions of “real” Taiwanese versus “fake” ones became more frequent, and while the ploy may have won over some deep-greens, it is also apparent that it alienated not only waishengren, but also many otherwise greens who, through marriage, became involved with mainlanders from 1945 on.
Allen Chun, of the Institute of Ethnology at Academia Sinica, has an interesting paper on the subject, and makes many good points about the role of culture, language and geography in the consolidation of ethnicity, while convincingly deconstructing the strictly genetic approach adopted by some.
A discussion I recently had with a Taiwanese friend highlighted the case:
“I have nothing against the DPP and I come from a predominantly green part of Taiwan,” she said. “But I hate Chen Shui-bian.”
Why do you hate him?
“Well, first, he come to office promising to clean up the government, and we believed him. But now he proved he’s as much a crook as the others,” she said.
“But that’s not the main reason why I hate him. During his campaign [in 2004], he often referred to waishengren versus benshengren, you know, to appeal to some people. My dad was a soldier in the Nationalist army and fled to Taiwan in 1949. He married my mother, who was born in Taiwan. When Chen said these things about ‘real’ Taiwanese against ‘fake’ ones, how was I supposed to react? All of a sudden, I was nothing.”
“My dad passed away when I was six, so of course he didn’t vote [in 2008]. But my mother did — and she voted for the Chinese Nationalist Party,” she said. “So did I.”
Would she have voted the same way had Chen not played the “ethnic” card from 2004 on?
“Perhaps. I just resented the fact that he was negating me, my origins, and who I was.”
For a few years, my friend refused to pay taxes and paid the fines for her act, a means to express her disapproval of what Chen and others in the DPP were saying about ethnicity in Taiwan.
Many of my Taiwanese friends have similar circumstances at home. While they, born in Taiwan, may identify as Taiwanese first and Chinese second — a growing trend, as many polls have shown — the impact of a policy that discriminates against loves ones (spouses, parents, friends) cannot be a good one when it comes to winning votes. If the DPP is to secure a solid supporter base in 2012, it will have to reach out and embrace every person in Taiwan, regardless of where he or she comes from, who cares about this place. After all, as Chun argues, “ethnicity” in a case like Taiwan is far more a product of the social environment and of geography than genes. Aborigines, Hakka, Taiwanese and Mainlanders — all, if they identify with the place they call home, are Taiwanese, a concept of ethnicity that is achieved, to varying success, in multiethnic countries like Canada, the US and the UK.
What the DPP simply cannot afford, and what it must avoid at all cost, is to alienate voters who, were it not for its discourse on ethnicity, would support it over the KMT. Not only is discrimination morally reprehensible, but it’s not a vote winner.