Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Taiwan's Minority Voters Hold the Power ; in a Close Race, the Hakka Ethnic Group Eyes the March 18 Election with Hopes of Saving Its Culture

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Taiwan's Minority Voters Hold the Power ; in a Close Race, the Hakka Ethnic Group Eyes the March 18 Election with Hopes of Saving Its Culture

Article excerpt

Long the underdogs in Taiwan's melting pot, the island's Hakka find themselves placed to decide the fate of the nation. The island's more than 2 million Hakka voters now hold the deciding votes to choose which of three evenly-matched front runners will be the island's second democratically elected president.

With only 3 percent separating the main candidates in the polls, election mania in this relatively young democracy is reaching fever pitch. China's renewed threats of force against Taiwan loomed large last month, shifting the focus onto the candidates' positions on reunification with China. But many Hakka voters are more concerned with the preservation of their fragile culture.

Taiwan's Hakka are descendants of immigrants from Guangdong and Fujian provinces in southern China, who began coming to Taiwan in the 17th century. The term "Native Taiwanese" has come to include the Hakka and the Minnanese majority, whose ancestors migrated from Fujian about the same time, along with aboriginal groups who can trace their roots back thousands of years.

After 50 years of Japanese colonial rule ended after World War II, the native Taiwanese were controlled by new masters - the Chinese Kuomintang (KMT). The KMT moved to Taiwan after losing to the Communists on the mainland in 1949. With the KMT came tens of thousands of mainland Chinese who became an economic and political elite.

The mainlander minority's hold on power was loosened after the end of martial law in 1987 ushered in a new era of freedom, which saw the lifting of press restrictions and the holding of Taiwan's first free elections in 1991.

While reforms, accompanied by sustained economic growth, have improved life in general for the Hakka, they have now abandoned the KMT for ex-KMT rebel candidate James Soong and the Democratic Progress Party's (DPP) Chen Shui-bian. "In the past we got all the Hakka vote," says Chen Tzu-chin, the KMT's Hakka election manager. "This time we've lost a lot, particularly to Soong."

Hakka leaders say they are ignored by the KMT and they aren't getting their share of government funds. A proposal by KMT candidate Lien Chan to erect a museum for Hakka culture backfired: Hakka leaders accused Mr. Lien of wanting to consign them to history, not protect the culture from extinction.

Ex-KMT Central Committee member, Chen Chin-shin, who is head of Mr. Soong's Hakka campaign group, says Soong will carry the ethnic group's vote on March 18th. "Over the past four years, Soong has studied our language and now gives speeches in Hakka.... The Hakka people appreciated his attentions when he was provincial governor, and they approve of the fact that his son has married a Hakka woman two years ago," Mr. Chen says.

Soong was leading in national polls before a December corruption scandal cut his support almost in half. But the China-born candidate is guaranteed the support of up to 4 in 5 'mainlanders' - those Chinese and their descendants who came from China after 1945. …

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