Don’t Blame Jeremy Lin. The Problem Is Taiwan’s ROC Nationality Laws.

Don’t Blame Jeremy Lin. The Problem Is Taiwan’s ROC Nationality Laws.
Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG Images
What you need to know

If Taiwan does not want to be seen simply as a “Chinese democracy,” giving a permanent stake in society to those who migrated from other parts of the world is an important step towards shedding that label.

The days of “Linsanity” — the excitement generated by Jeremy Lin’s debut season with the New York Knicks — may be over. But Lin, now a player for the Beijing Ducks, sparked another frenzy in his parents’ home country of Taiwan last week when he had reportedly acquired a Republic of China (ROC) passport “without household registration.”

Instead of pride that a famous Taiwanese-American had obtained proof of a nationality he had held since birth, there was criticism from two different camps. People born-and-raised in Taiwan were upset that someone they believed had sold out to China could acquire benefits meant for Taiwanese. Joining in the chorus were long-term foreign residents who must generally renounce their first citizenship if they wish to naturalize in Taiwan.

The first group wanted to define Taiwanese identity along ideological lines; the second argued that it shouldn’t be restricted along ethnic ones. As devotion to Taiwan increases but the ROC Nationality Act remains largely intact, a hyper-specific Taiwanese identity is being created: defined by support of a free and independent island nation — a position rejected by “Han Chinese” writ large — and yet almost entirely limited to people of this same heritage.

ROC Nationality 101

Even as Taiwanese identity hits an all-time high in surveys and Taiwan brands itself as a multicultural country, there remains no official Taiwanese nationality, only an ROC one. According to Article Two of the Nationality Act, “any person shall have the nationality of the ROC [whose] father or mother was a national when he or she was born” — an involuntary stipulation that applies regardless of place of birth.

ROC nationality is not quite the same thing as citizenship as it is commonly understood. Alone, it does not confer the right to abode or suffrage. Full civic and political rights are granted only to those with both ROC nationality and “household registration” in Taiwan. Similarly, military conscription is restricted to males who already have household registration.

These limitations are relevant to Lin’s case, as his brand-new passport does not even allow him entry to Taiwan. Instead, he must also apply for a separate entry permit from the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office (TECO) that will grant him a 90-day stay, which is extendable for another 90 days. At his age, obtaining household registration would involve first applying for a Taiwan Area Residence Certificate and staying in Taiwan for a full year without leaving (or 270 days a year over two consecutive years and so on).

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Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG Images

Still, he now possesses a specific path to voting rights and permanent residency that is closed to foreign nationals.

This paradox — the state freely passing down nationality but placing barriers to those same nationals living, voting, and working within its borders — can be partly explained by historical circumstances. In 1929, early in its lifespan, the ROC claimed as nationals all residents in China and their children born anywhere in the world. At the time, Taiwan was still a Japanese colony. But granting full benefits to all these people became untenable after the Kuomintang’s (KMT) defeat in the Chinese Civil War in 1949, as its once-vast territory shrank to Taiwan and a few outlying islands.

Taiwan contended with an influx of 1 million soldiers and refugees, and suffered nearly four decades of authoritarian rule under the KMT dictators Chiang Kai-shek and his son Chiang Ching-kuo. Yet KMT adherents also fled to other parts of Asia, including Hong Kong, Korea, Indonesia, Burma (now Myanmar), Vietnam, and the Philippines. Although the 1929 law remained largely unamended until the 2000s, there was never, in practice, a completely open door in Taiwan to all ROC nationals.

The number of nationals claimed by the ROC, in other words, exceeds the number of Taiwanese at home or abroad. Every discussion about lifting the entry and residency restrictions on “nationals without household registration” thus raises the spectre of uncontrolled Chinese immigration, of a repeat of the mid-century trauma by which masses of people with no prior connection to Taiwan arrived on these shores.

A complicated relationship with ROC Nationality

These exclusionary policies reflect the mismatch between ROC nationality and Taiwanese identity. Local Taiwanese have no choice but to use ROC nationality — since outright dismantling it might be used as a pretext for Beijing to invade. For a variety of reasons, however, they resent the implication that they should be required to accept as one of their own anyone who through accident of “Chinese” heritage enjoys the same baseline legal status.

Even before relocating to China for his career, Jeremy Lin has been criticized as failing to identify enough with Taiwan and thus undermining attempts to define Taiwan as an independent nation. Now that he has obtained proof of his ROC nationality, scrutiny of his motivations has intensified. Some charges are rather illogical, like the idea that Lin wanted to take advantage of Taiwan’s National Health Insurance (he is, after all, a multimillionaire sports star and his passport does not confer these types of benefits).

But there are also expressions of frustration that someone who has not publicly spoken out against the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) would blithely associate himself with “real” Taiwanese who risk humiliation — or worse — to call themselves such. On the heels of the announcement about his new passport came unconfirmed rumors that he could now be considered a “domestic player” in the Chinese Basketball Association, even though the PRC does not recognize ROC passports and household registration is a condition of obtaining the Mainland Travel Permit for Taiwan Residents.

Taiwanese are living proof that people of “Han Chinese” heritage need not support the creation of a cross-strait Chinese nation. Yet even as Taiwanese fret that an ethnicity-based definition of ROC nationality makes them vulnerable to Chinese influence and infiltration, they remain reluctant to embrace a policy that would, by default, allow long-term foreign residents (except those from the PRC) to obtain dual nationality without relinquishing their first.

Reforming the nationality law in this way could give political power to thousands of people who are not of “Han Chinese” ethnicity. Taiwan today is what the scholar Isabelle Cheng calls a “‘migration state’ with an open economy but a closed national community,” an “expediency [that] enjoys consistent public endorsement.” For instance, as of last April, there were 492,000 migrant workers from Indonesia and Vietnam. They make up approximately two percent of the population yet face onerous conditions on their ability to live and work in Taiwan long-term. By contrast, this past July the Ministry of the Interior lifted a quota to let an unlimited number of ROC nationals from these exact same countries apply for residence in Taiwan. The quota had been instituted in 1999 out of concern “over the distribution of social welfare, due to the gap in living standards between Taiwan and these countries.” But as the population “become[s] steadily more imbalanced over the years” and the country “cope[s] with a brain drain and a labor shortage,” these “overseas Chinese” — but not their non-“Chinese” counterparts — are being welcomed in.

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Photo Credit: CNA
Migrant workers groups protesting at Taiwan's Ministry of Labor to demand greater rights and protections, such as workers' compensation, July 22, 2020.

The ROC’s restrictions on dual nationality are one way in which the legal apparatus imported by the KMT in the mid-century continues to harm Taiwan. The very few foreigners living in Taiwan who are permitted to become dual nationals do so by acquiring household registration and a National ID, which awards them both nationality and full civic rights simultaneously (unlike the process for diaspora born abroad). They can function as diplomatic resources for a place that possesses few of them, equipped as they are with the ability to participate fully in Taiwanese politics and society and yet retaining the right to shape the policies of their home countries.

The ROC Nationality Act was promulgated for a nation-state that did not even include Taiwan. And yet afforded the chance to revise it now, to fit the needs of modern Taiwan, legislators here have done so only on the margins. In 2016, Article Nine of the Nationality Act was changed to allow “high-level professionals” to apply for ROC nationality while still keeping their first. Article Six permits those who have made “special contributions to the ROC” to do the same, pending approval of the Executive Yuan. Both provisions testify to the limited conditions under which Taiwan is willing to stray from a descent-based understanding of “national community.” As long-time Taipei lawyer Michael Fahey noted in an op-ed for The News Lens earlier this month, by the end of April 2020 only 73 foreign nationals had acquired dual nationality based on Article Six and another 141 under Article Nine. The state extends dual nationality to celibate European or American clergy, for example, while continuing to deny it to non-“Han Chinese” migrant workers who might be able to have families.

What kind of country does Taiwan want to be?

Even as Taiwan increasingly promotes itself as a welcoming society, there is a countervailing tendency towards closure, sometimes along ideological lines, other times along ethnic ones. At mid-century Taiwan was forced to accommodate itself to a cross-strait and globalized definition of Chinese identity. Decisively rejecting it is seen now as a matter of survival, which makes the position of the ROC diaspora a fraught one. At the same time, as a settler colony where ninety-five percent of the population traces its ancestry back to China, a minority within living memory, a majority much more distantly, those of different racial backgrounds, with the partial exception of indigenous peoples, are coded as outsiders, people who should not be able to share a nationality with Taiwanese, either.

These incongruencies — combined with one of the lowest birth rates in the world — point to a future in which fewer and fewer people will qualify as sufficiently Taiwanese while Taiwan itself remains isolated and embattled. Creativity and openness are needed instead. Revise the rules to require the descendants of ROC nationals born abroad, male and female, to perform at least a year of civil or military national service to receive a Taiwan Area Residence Card (as a stepping stone to household registration). Publicize these changes and reach out specifically to Taiwanese migrants (as opposed to all “overseas Chinese”) to encourage their children to participate. Already there are second-generation Taiwanese around the world laboring to educate our friends, classmates, co-workers, and elected officials about Taiwan and why it matters.

In the United States, we have contributed to significant victories, such as the passage of the 2018 Taiwan Travel Act and the 2019 Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative (TAIPEI) Act. But offering us more substantive and standardized paths to get to know our parents’ homeland will help ensure that down the line even more of us will choose to identify with Taiwan and use our voices on its behalf.

If Taiwan does not want to be seen simply as a “Chinese democracy” — a distortion of the historical fact that democratization was fueled by the embrace of a Taiwanese identity — giving a permanent stake in society to those who migrated from other parts of the world is an important step towards shedding that label. There are many ways to nation-build aside from achieving formal recognition — an implausible goal in the era of the PRC’s rise regardless. Taiwan was never given an option to accept the ROC or its attendant Nationality Act. But the choice to cultivate a different national community today — one that will extend Taiwan’s geopolitical footprint and rescue it from demographic decline — lies with the people of Taiwan and only them.

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TNL Editor: Daphne K. Lee, Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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