Self-Determination at a Turning Point: Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the Indigenous Nations of Formosa

Self-Determination at a Turning Point: Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the Indigenous Nations of Formosa

May 2020 was a turning point in East Asia. President Tsai Ing-wen (Democratic Progressive Party, DPP) was inaugurated to her second term as President of the Republic of China (Taiwan). Two days later, China’s National People’s Congress proposed legislation authorizing Chinese public security agents to operate in Hong Kong.


The new laws would also target behaviour identified as treason, subversion, sedition, and foreign interference. As well, the Paiwan Indigenous community of Kapanan on Taiwan’s Hengchun Peninsula commemorated the 1874 Taiwan Expedition when Japanese forces invaded Paiwan territory in retaliation for the murder of 54 Ryūkyūan (Okinawan) sailors three years earlier. I was present at Kapanan and found that the ritual provides a lens for better understanding the other events.

Rethinking the “Peony Incident”

Kapanan has been incorporated into Mudan (“peony”) Township since the post-1945 transfer of Taiwan from Japan to the Republic of China (ROC). When the ROC created 30 “mountain townships” on historically Indigenous territories, they promised “self-government,” but began assimilationist campaigns that included the imposition of Chinese place names. Local people find the township name as puzzling as neighbouring Shizi (“lion”) Township, aware that both names were imposed by a foreign power, which they experienced as a new wave of colonialism.

Raising smoke signals for Indigenous self-determination, Kapanan, May 22, 2020 (Photo by Scott Simon)

Memories of 19th-century battles are contested. On May 22, 1874, Japanese troops attacked the Paiwan in the Battle of Stone Gate. Faced with a military stalemate and a malaria epidemic, Japan withdrew six months later after the Qing accepted responsibility and agreed to pay compensation. This turn-of-events, the first time that a Chinese government claimed all of Taiwan and Japan began representing the formerly autonomous Ryūkyū Kingdom, denied the long-established sovereignty of the smaller polities. Official narratives depicted it as a triumph of rational statecraft over savagery.

I was present at Kapanan and found that the ritual provides a lens for better understanding the other events.

Kapanan hosted two memorial events at precisely the same hour. Mudan Township, dominated by the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), sponsored one. The Kapanan Community Development Association (KCDA) united village youth and elders in an alternative event called sevalitan. The morning began with a prayer by a shaman, a pig sacrifice, shooting of rifles to memorialize historical turning points, and smoke signals. Smoke signals, known as langyan (lit. “wolf-smoke”), are a symbol of Taiwan’s Indigenous sovereignty. The youth performed a theatrical re-enactment of the 1874 Battle. KCDA chairperson Cudjuy Isumalji explained that sevalitan means ancestor, ancestral spirit, or even descendant, but its deeper meaning is a transition from one state to another. They would like to rename the township and the historical event to reflect Paiwan’s perspectives better.

Noting the visible presence of DPP legislator Wu Li-Hwa’s staff, I said to the person next to me that holding two commemorations simultaneously appears as a conflict between the KMT and the DPP. “That’s right,” he said, “and we Indigenous people are caught in the middle.”


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Taiwan’s Presidential Inauguration

Due to COVID-19 control measures, Taiwan held a subdued inauguration ceremony for President Tsai Ing-wen. Tsai, whose great-grandmother was the daughter of a Paiwan chief, began her first term in 2016 by apologizing to Taiwan’s Indigenous peoples for 400 years of colonization and established an Indigenous Historical Justice and Transitional Justice Committee. This year, she began by thanking everyone who cooperated to successfully control COVID-19 in Taiwan before giving a speech about economic, social, defence, and diplomatic goals.

A historical photo of the Battle of Stone Gate, 1874 (J.W. DAVIDSON, The Island of Formosa: Past and Present, New York, Macmillan & Company, 1903.)

Concluding, she said, “My fellow citizens, over the past 70 years, the Republic of China (Taiwan) has grown more resilient and unified through countless challenges. We have resisted the pressure of aggression and annexation. We have made the transition from authoritarianism to democracy.”

Tsai’s claim to historical justice and self-determination was as strong as the Paiwan sevalitan. The 1911 Chinese Revolution was represented in Tsai’s presidential oath as the ROC’s 15th president mandate beginning in the ROC’s 109th year. When she subsequently referred to 70 years, dating from the transfer of Taiwan to the ROC, she extracted Taiwan from the turbulent history of China in a radical discursive move. Based on Taiwanese subjectivity, she highlighted how the Taiwanese people hosted the ROC and remade it in their own image.

Hong Kong National Security Act

Just two days later, China’s National People’s Congress proposed a Hong Kong National Security Act, designed to bypass Hong Kong’s autonomous legislature. In the following days, mass protests in Hong Kong were met with police repression. Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council immediately warned that the legislation violates Hong Kong’s democracy and risks increased instability. Tsai expressed her solidarity on Twitter. The traditionally more conciliatory KMT strongly opposed the bill as a violation of the Hong Kong Basic Law. In what should serve as a warning to Beijing, the statement declared, “The ROC is a sovereign and independent country. One country, two systems has no market in Taiwan.” What happens in Hong Kong narrows the possibilities for peaceful cross-strait rapprochement. Maybe China no longer cares about that. But, like the Paiwan, Hong Kong and Taiwan demonstrate resilience in their struggles over self-determination.

Will humanity choose a path of peace, mutual respect, and ecological sustainability? Must we head toward the precipice of state-centric nationalism, war, and mutual destruction?

Paying attention to sevalitan is revealing. First, it demonstrates that the Hengchun Peninsula – indeed most of Taiwan – was an autonomous territory of Indigenous peoples until very recently. Chinese claims to have ruled Taiwan since antiquity are thus pure fiction. Second, as in Canada, Indigenous peoples have never relinquished their inherent sovereignty and right to self-determination. Third, name rectification is important because discourse shapes the political futures one can imagine. Finally, only democratic contexts allow Indigenous and other peoples to affirm autonomy without fear of violent reprisal.

This year, as we emerge from COVID-19, is a significant turning point. Article 1 of the United Nations Charter affirms the the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples; as well as the intention to end war. China seems willing to violate these principles, as seen in the suppression of Hong Kong’s democracy and unceasing military threats to Taiwan.

Sevalitan draws attention to the moral, even spiritual dimensions of the transitions ahead of us. Will humanity choose a path of peace, mutual respect, and ecological sustainability? Must we head toward the precipice of state-centric nationalism, war, and mutual destruction? Indigenous leaders, in Taiwan, Canada, and elsewhere, invite people everywhere to reflect on such questions. We ignore them at our own peril.


Thanks to Cudjuy Isumalji for his careful reading of a first draft of this blog.

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