How Indigenous Taiwanese Are Fighting Corporate Domination

Taiwan’s indigenous people have long been subject to mistreatment by companies seeking to extract resources from their land and integrate Taiwan into the world capitalist system. Now their resistance takes a new form: an organized political assembly.

Activists from the Paiwan people of Taiwan have organized a national assembly. (Riddu Riddu / Flickr)

Indigenous people in Taiwan have long been unable to define themselves. Qing Dynasty officials called them fan, barbarians outside of their civilization. When the Republic of China government decamped to Taiwan, it used the patronizing “mountain compatriots.” Only on August 1, 1994, the official designation was changed to the neutral “indigenous.”

August 1 now marks Indigenous Peoples’ Day in Taiwan, commemorating not only the new designation but also a shift in the government’s approach to indigenous people. Whereas before the goal was assimilation, it would now be cooperation.

On this year’s Indigenous Peoples’ Day, while the country’s major leaders were dining with indigenous elites in Taipei’s Grand Hotel, hundreds of community heads, youth organizers, and activists from the Paiwan indigenous people assembled on the southern edge of the island. There they announced a new effort: the Paiwan National Assembly. Not content with token representation, the group will pursue concerted political action.

Taiwan’s indigenous population numbers 600,000, representing nearly 3 percent of the country’s population. They mostly live in the mountains and eastern coast of the island, a physical isolation that mirrors their material marginalization. Indigenous people’s life expectancy is eight years lower than the national average. They are nearly five times more likely to live in poverty, earning only 75 percent of the average monthly wages of nonindigenous people in Taiwan. UNESCO has designated five of Taiwan’s sixteen indigenous languages as critically or severely endangered, with the rest deemed vulnerable.

“Over the past years, many of the problems facing Taiwan’s indigenous have begun to require representation on the national level,” said Ljegeay Rupeljengan, one of the main organizers of the Paiwan National Assembly. The Paiwan are one of Taiwan’s sixteen officially recognized indigenous groups. Though indigenous groups are traditionally politically divided into individual communities, Rupeljengan sees unity in a single national organization as key to facing the present challenges. “Creating a platform where our entire nation could have its voice heard will help advance our role as subjects of history,” he said.

The Advance of Capital

Dutch colonization of southwestern Taiwan in the early 17th century first began integrating the island into the capitalist world system. But it was during the Japanese colonial period, beginning in 1895, when the Qing Empire ceded Taiwan to Japan, that capitalism established a firm foothold in Taiwan. For indigenous groups, that meant an intensification of accumulation by dispossession, with devastating consequences.

Taiwan’s mountains were rich in lumber, camphor, and mineral resources, but indigenous groups resisted Japanese capital’s efforts to exploit them. The result was Japanese administrators waging a number of campaigns against different indigenous groups in the mountains, most famously the Truku and Seediq peoples. Indigenous groups were forced off their ancestral lands and placed in reservations mostly on the east coast of the island, where they continue to live. Taiwan and its original inhabitants were successfully integrated into the capitalist economy.

When the Republic of China government relocated to Taiwan in 1949, it mostly continued the Japanese administration’s indigenous policies. Indigenous traditional lands, which a government survey, in 2017, found constituted over half of Taiwanese territory, held the raw materials like limestone and wood needed for the island’s industrial development. Indigenous migrants were also a key source of labor, and the continual separation of the indigenous from their traditional lands and limits on their cultural practices were essential to sustaining the supply of that labor.

Martial law ended in 1987, and the subsequent years saw Taiwan undergo democratization and liberalization. For indigenous peoples, that meant the end of the ruling Kuomintang party’s assimilationist policies. The Council of Indigenous Peoples (CIP) was created in 1996 as a ministerial-level body to deal with indigenous issues, incorporating the indigenous into a diverse, de-sinicizing Taiwan.

But the relationship between capital and indigenous peoples was harder to change. “Taiwan is in a postcolonial era, but the vestiges of colonialism remain, and that is because of the influence of capitalism,” says Chen Yi-fong, a professor at National Dong Hwa University. Chen says that though Taiwan did democratize, in many ways this political liberalization also fed the country’s neoliberal turn. As the state’s powers were curtailed, capital became relatively stronger, and its ability to influence society surpassed the influence it had during martial law.

Now a neoliberal consensus has settled over the Taiwanese two-party political system. “Both parties mostly consider the interests of capital when developing legislation. When it comes to questions about the relationship between industry and the state, or industry and the people, they are more or less the same. This is the result of Taiwan not having a leftist voice over the long term,” said Chen.

A Dream Deferred

Today indigenous society finds a government that is at least rhetorically interested in delivering on the central demands of the indigenous movement: cultural revitalization, autonomy, and the return of lands. On Indigenous Peoples’ Day in 2016, newly elected president Tsai Ing-wen apologized to Taiwan’s indigenous peoples and promised to advance serious material reforms to the relationship between indigenous people, the state, and capital.

Yet as the government began passing statutes to enact these reforms, it began facing serious resistance, often from industry or other actors tied to capital.

In 2016, the government enacted regulations to give indigenous communities the right to informed prior consent over all activities on their reserved lands. But a year later, the economics ministry renewed the lease of a controversial quarry in Hualien County’s Xinchengshan without informing the local Truku indigenous community. The mining rights and land were originally obtained in the 1970s due to the close relationship between the quarry’s operator, Asia Cement, and the Kuomintang-led regime.

While a legal decision in 2020 affirmed the community’s right to hold a vote, it didn’t follow that Asia Cement would allow the community to freely decide. “Large companies use a variety of methods to limit the development of indigenous communities,” said Professor Chen, the Dong Hwa University Professor.

Lobbying from the industry blocked the amendment of the Mining Act, allowing the economics ministry to extend Asia Cement’s license without consulting the community. Chen says Asia Cement also employed a variety of methods to split the community. While community leaders were trying to negotiate with the firm, the firm wanted to push through the vote, believing that the community’s reliance on the quarry for employment would engender an approval of the project. Meanwhile, the central government stood on the sidelines, leaving the community to struggle on its own. Without an alternative source of income for the community, residents voted to extend the company’s lease this year.

The Tsai administration, in 2017, also published new regulations to create a process for delineating indigenous traditional territories, a step toward realizing autonomy and specific rights for indigenous peoples on those lands. But the regulations excluded private property, preventing indigenous governance over private land and causing controversy. When the Thao people submitted an application to declare their territory, a coalition of local governments, concerned about the impact of indigenous management over business in the region, successfully sued to block the territories’ official delineation. There has yet to be a single traditional territory declared.

A New Formation

These developments influenced Rupeljengan and other Paiwan leaders to first begin planning a national assembly in 2016. The delay of legislation giving indigenous peoples substantive autonomy to secure the conditions for cultural continuance was key to their motivation.

Rupeljengan doesn’t completely discredit the many advances of the Tsai administration, notably the massive increase in funding for cultural programs. However, it had become clear that some changes could not come from within the state. “Government institutions think about how to conform to the needs of large companies or the state’s administration. That means a subordinate body [like CIP] can’t embrace policies that contradict the overall system,” he said.

The objective of the assembly is clear. According to its bylaws, the assembly is to be terminated once a Paiwan autonomous region is declared over the traditional territories.

According to Rupeljegan, the Paiwan National Assembly comes after the formation of national identity in indigenous groups, a result of colonial rule. “The concept of Paiwan peoples was first defined by the Japanese administration. But now, after decades of having to struggle within this legal framework, a Paiwan identity exists,” he said.

Forming national institutions is a way to build grassroots power to confront the state with indigenous demands. The assembly doesn’t seek to usurp the power of local Paiwan communities and their own councils. Instead, it bridges the gap between local community councils and the CIP, which manages policy for all indigenous groups. Rupeljegan hopes it can grow in that capacity into the role of representing Paiwan interests to the government, acting as a key node in the creation of indigenous policy. But more importantly, it can have the appropriate power and legitimacy to eventually negotiate a treaty with the Taiwanese state to establish an autonomous region.

There are still many doubts around the Paiwan National Assembly. Other indigenous peoples like the Atayal and Bunun have established their own similar assemblies with uncertain results, though their objectives are not as clear as the Paiwan’s. The assembly is not registered with the government and did not include any prior consultation with the state, meaning it will likely have to build legitimacy within Paiwan communities before being able to sit across from government representatives as equals.

Rupeljegan emphasizes that he and his fellow organizers have no intention of attempting to found their own independent country. But after six years of frustration during the Tsai administration, the assembly may represent a change in tactics for Taiwan’s indigenous groups in their struggle toward self-governance and dignity. “We need autonomy in order to become a part of mainstream Taiwanese society,” said Rupeljegan.