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World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Taiwan : Overview

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 2007
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Taiwan : Overview, 2007, available at: [accessed 2 September 2015]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.


The Republic of China (Taiwan) is located north of the Philippines and south of China, off the eastern coast of the People's Republic of China (PRC) and consists of the main island of Taiwan and smaller islands in the Taiwan Strait or off the southeast coast of the PRC. Taiwan itself is generally mountainous, with plains in the west end of the island, and tropical and sub-tropical vegetation.


Main languages: Mandarin (official), Taiwanese (also known as Hoklo or Minnanese), Hakka

Main religions: Buddhism, Taoism, I-Kuan Tao, Christianity

Indigenous peoples include Atayal, Bunun, Kavalan,Tsou, Paiwan, Rukai, Puyuma, Amis, Yami (or Tao), Saisiyat, Thao, Truku (also Taroko) and Sakizaya, comprising an estimated population of 458,000. (Source: Council of Indigenous Peoples, January 2006)

The vast majority of Taiwan's estimated 23 million people (Source: CIA World Factbook, July 2007) are Han Chinese (98 per cent), though most of these belong to two groups considered to be 'Native Taiwanese': the Hokkien who originally began immigrating from China's southern Fujian province in the 16th century and represent about 70 per cent of the total population, and the Hakka (about 15 per cent of the total population) who migrated in the same period from China's Guangdong province.

More recent Chinese arrivals came in with the Nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) government and troops after losing the Chinese civil war to the Communists in 1949.

About 2 per cent of the population (nearly 460,000) are indigenous peoples who have inhabited the island for thousands of years. There are thirteen officially recognised indigenous peoples: the Ami, Atayal, Paiwan, Bunun, Puyuma, Rukai, Tsou, Saisiyat, Tao (Yami), Thao, Kavalan, Taroko, and Sakizaya, the latter officially recognised as Taiwan's 13th aboriginal tribe on 17 January 2007, s well as a number of unrecognized smaller groups, some of whom are fighting for official recognition.


Archaeologists have found evidence of prehistoric human habitation in Taiwan that dates back 12,000 to 15,000 years.

The ancestors of today's aboriginal groups are thought to have arrived 4,000-8,000 years ago. While Han Chinese began to settle in the nearby Pescadores islands in the 13th century, they were held back from Taiwan by the indigenous peoples until about the 16th century. The Portuguese knew of Taiwan in the same century and gave it the name by which Europeans would know it until the 20th century: Formosa, the 'Beautiful Island'.

The Dutch occupied parts of the island from the early 17th century and were able to keep out the Spanish, but the former were themselves removed in 1662 by mainland Chinese forces. Chinese warlords and pirates were to make Taiwan their base for a number of decades until the Qing dynasty was to annex it in 1683 and it became part of Fujian province. This is when the first wave of Chinese migration to Taiwan began. There were initially edicts in place recognising aboriginal land rights, but the flow of new migrants would increasingly exert pressure on setting these aside. In 1887 Taiwan was made a separate province of China, but was to be ceded to Japan soon after the First Sino-Japanese War in 1895.

There were some uprisings from mainly the Chinese inhabitants until about the 1920s. By the 1930s the Japanese authorities embarked in a drive to assimilate the local population by forcing them to adopt Japanese language and culture. As the tide of the Second World War turned against them, there were last-ditch attempts to allow the appointment or election of Taiwanese into the Japanese Diet so as to present Taiwan an integral part of Japan, but these efforts were to remain useless.

The status of Taiwan was to become uncertain after events in 1945. While the Republic of China forces in Taihoku (today's Taipei) accepted the surrender of Japanese troops in Taiwan, the province was put under the administrative control of the Republic of China in 1945 by the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, no treaty made specific references to Taiwanese sovereignty. The position of the People's Republic of China is that its sovereignty was transferred to China under the terms of the Potsdam Declaration.

Relationships between the Republic of China authorities and Mainland Chinese, on the one hand, and Native Taiwanese and aborigines on the other, quickly led to distrust and riots, exacerbated by the political, cultural and linguistic differences between these groups. Tensions flared on 28 February 1947 – which has become known as the '228 Incident or Massacre'when its thought that up to 30,000 people may have been killed after violence erupted following an incident in which a female vendor was beaten by the Mainland Chinese authorities for selling untaxed cigarettes. The rebellion was crushed by the Republic of China military forces by the end of March 1947. These events also led to what is often called the 'White Terror' when political dissent and discussion of the massacre was prohibited. Martial law was imposed from from 19 May 1949 to 15 July 1987. Tens of thousands of Taiwanese were imprisoned or executed for their real or perceived opposition to the Kuomintang (KMT) government.

After losing the Chinese Civil War to the Communist Party of China, the Kuomintang and its leader Chiang Kai-shek moved the Republic of China government to Taipei, though still maintaining they remained the legitimate government of all China, and continued to be recognised as such by most of the international community until the 1970s. At the same time, the government of the People's Republic of China established in 1949 claimed it to be the legal representative of all of China, including Taiwan, and that the Republic of China's government in Taipei was an illegitimate separatist group. It is thought that some 1.3 million Mainland Chinese followed the Kuomintang's movement into Taiwan from 1949, quickly coming to dominate many if not most aspects of the island's economy and politics.

For almost four decades Taiwan was to be governed by what amounted to a party-state dictatorship, with the Kuomintang as the ruling party. All other political parties were banned and political opponents were persecuted, imprisoned or executed. Martial law was lifted in 1987 and democratic reforms started to be introduced. Taiwan held its first direct presidential election in 1996. During this period, native Taiwanese and Aborigines started to be more vocal in their demands, including calls to formally secede from the rest of China. The victory of the Democratic Progressive Party presidential candidate Chen Shui-bian, in Presidential elections in 2000 ended more than half a century of Kuomintang (or KMT) rule.


Since the lifting of martial law in 1987, Taiwan has moved towards a full-fledged democracy based on the rule of law and respect for human rights.Restrictions on the use of languages other than Mandarin, especially in the mass media, were lifted, human rights legislation and institutions started to be put into place, and various legislative and regulatory steps were taken to recognise the rights of Taiwan's Aborigines. These started to emerge mainly in the 1990s as the then President Lee Teng-hui started to adopt a number of human-rights initiatives, including a formal apology for the 228 incident. There followed amongst others in 1996 the creation of the Council of Aboriginal Affairs [which later became a Cabinet-level body, the Council of Indigenous Peoples] and the introduction of laws and reforms to give better protection to women's rights.

After his 2000 election victory, Chen Shui-bian, the new President, declared that human rights would be a major element in his administration. This was followed through with the release in 2002 of a government white paper proposing the reform of Taiwan as into 'a human rights state'. The white paper contained proposals to establish a National Human Rights Commission, which to date has still not been established and the incorporation of international human rights standards into Taiwanese legislation, measures which are currently under way.

Current state of minorities and indigenous peoples

Despite Mandarin being the first language (mother tongue) of slightly more than 20 per cent, and therefore a 'minority language', it is the main and almost exclusive language used by public authorities. The language of about 67 per cent of the country's population is actually Southern Fujianese, also called Minnanese or Taiwanese. The Hakka-speaking minority has only recently started to see its language being taught in primary schools, though this seems to be limited to a few hours a week. Overall, it seems that in this period the government has continued to follow a more inclusive and tolerant approach towards its minorities, although its language policies could still be seen as discriminatory in some respects.

Both the Hakka minority and indigenous peoples have in more recent years seen a number of positive developments, such the launching in 2003 of a Hakka television network and in 2005 of the Indigenous Television Network (announced as Asia's first television station dedicated to indigenous programming). Both however were merged in 2007 with the Taiwan Broadcasting Service (TBS) to create a new mega-public television network called the Public Television Service (PTS) network. The government also established in 2001 a Council for Hakka Affairs, and in 2002 a Council of Indigenous Peoples.

Amnesty International still reports rampant social discrimination, with indigenous people in particular subjected to discrimination in employment in the cities.

Freedom of religion is widely respected, and religious minorities are not subjected to any form of visible discrimination. However, they are still not permitted to have religious instruction in their own private schools accredited by the Ministry of Education, although if a minority school is not accredited by the Ministry of Education it can provide religious instruction.

One area of increasing concern is the treatment of 'new' minorities in Taiwan who have arrived since the 1990s as migrant workers. The US State Department's June 2007 Trafficking in Persons Report noted that Taiwanese authorities failed to prosecute any offenders for trafficking for forced labour or domestic servitude, despite evidence of a significant problem among the 340,000 workers who primarily originate in Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines. The report said Taiwanese authorities failed to make progress in developing a system to identify and protect foreign workers subjected to conditions of forced labour or involuntary servitude. There has also been large increase in foreign brides, mainly from other Asian countries, who have begun to change the ethnic composition of Taiwan. However in an effort to prevent trafficking of women through sham marriages, the Ministry of the Interior took steps in 2007 to restrict eligibility and enhanced interview requirements for foreign brides and their Taiwan spouses.

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