Sunday, January 23, 2005

Chinese and Foreign Brides, and their implications on "Taiwanese Identity"

The increased prevalence of foreign brides in Taiwan has led to concern among many people here. A recent poll shows that a majority of local Taiwanese is "worried" about the presence of foreign brides and a significant proportion is in favor of "discrimination" against those brides. (Wang) "Others are concerned that Chinese brides come here as a cover for criminal activity and rabble-rousing. In terms of social security, bogus marriages are often used to smuggle in Chinese, enabling them to engage in various illegal activities in Taiwan. Marriage has become simply a way to smuggle people into the country.

In fact, some Chinese brides, under manipulation by some political groups, are used as a means to discredit the government, and to engage in political protests under the pretense of human rights and humanitarianism. This has not only impacted on the stability of the families and created confused values about the marriage institution, but has led to various family disputes and social problems. This is not to mention the social chaos that may result from ethnic rivalries." (Liberty Times) What concrete policies are advocated to further this desired discrimination is unclear, but it seems that many Taiwanese would be in favor of forced repatriation or restraints on marriage to foreigners.

While these negative attitudes seem to be a visceral reaction against foreigners, there are more worrisome trends to consider. Many here in Taiwan realize that the presence of large numbers of Chinese Mainland women and other Southeast Asia women having children represents a serious threat to the character of Taiwanese identity. More succinctly, if large numbers of children are born into families with mothers who do not see themselves as "Taiwanese," then what type of "Taiwanese" will these children be? And if these children do not define themselves as "Taiwanese" in the same way that the current majority does, the what implications will this have on the future of the "Taiwanese" identity.

At present, foreign brides do not appear to have proportionately more children than Taiwanese women although this interpretation of the data is open to dispute. Liu argues that "According to data published by the Ministry of the Interior this June, some 100,000 Southeast Asian and 168,000 Chinese immigrant spouses currently reside in Taiwan, 90 percent of whom are female. Together, they constitute about 1 percent of the island's population of 23 million. Although that figure may seem insignificant, a major worry of policy-makers is the fact that, presently, about 8 percent of Taiwan's newborn are mothered by Southeast Asian wives and 4 percent by Chinese wives." However, according to 2000 population figures from the US government, the female population of Taiwan for 15-64 year olds was 7,629,195. (CIA Factbook)

Assuming an even distribution across this range of ages and assuming that the birthrate of women under 17 and over 40 is statistically insignificant, the number of women in the prime of their fertility is around three million. Of these, approximately 300,000 are foreign brides, or 10% of women in the prime of their fertility. If we further assume that the figures from the Ministry of the Interior are correct, then foreign-born women, who represent 10% of the fertile women in Taiwan are having 12% of the babies. While the number of babies they are having is disproportionately large, the figure is only marginally disproportionate. However, as trend seems to be for more and more foreign brides entering Taiwan, even this small statistical anomaly portends a much more disproportionate number of children born to these foreign women.

Additionally, evidence suggests that these foreign-born women are younger than and more willing to have more children than Taiwan-born brides. Younger, or older but more willing Mainland mothers will produce more children during their child-birthing years than older, less willing Taiwan mothers. In the last 15 years, the average age of all first time brides in Taiwan has increased 1½ years to 22.7 whereas the age of college educated brides has increased to 26.48. (Ministry of the Interior, 2001) Meanwhile, Southeastern Asia brides are on the average 23 years old, while the Mainland brides are 30.(Taipei Times, 16 Dec 03)

Although the Mainland Chinese average age seems high, the average is skewed by the presence of many women who have been in Taiwan for many years and have had multiple marriages. "Statistics have shown that two Chinese brides topped the number of marriages with nine each, followed by three Chinese brides who have married eight times. There are 491 who have married four times and 3,000 who have married three times." (Chang) In some ways, the increased birthrate will have the effect of invigorating the Taiwanese population. Without the Mainland wives and their children, the population of Taiwan will age more rapidly.

According to US Census data for Taiwan, unless Taiwan makes policy changes, in 20 years, there will be a large population bulge of those in middle age and relatively few of the younger generation to replace them. Taiwan's population will age, as seen in the chart, and eventually, lose population. Unless Taiwan can increase the fertility rate against the resistance of the native born women, the government must relax restrictions on immigration. Otherwise, an aging population, an expanding welfare safety net and lack of workers will doom the Taiwan economy.

Easing the ability of foreign-born wives and their children to enjoy full rights as citizens is a good step in the direction of a sensible immigration policy for Taiwan. Currently, it takes eight years of continuous residence in Taiwan for a foreign bride to receive citizenship. Proposals in front of the Legislative Yuan would extend the waiting period to eleven years, but remove the continuous residency requirement. (BBC) There are also restrictions on the type of work that these women can do. Changes in this antiquated policy should aim to provide additional workers now, and to provide replacement workers in the future. More women coming to Taiwan to have children will result in a younger population of workers contributing to the economy which will mend and repair the fraying social welfare safety net. All these additional foreigners with legal residence in Taiwan, and full rights, will, of course, challenge the perception of what it means to be "Taiwanese."

However, this struggle is not unique in today's world, or even particularly noteworthy. Every industrialized country has to contend with immigrants who upon arrival and establishment of roots begin to demand the same rights as those who have been in country for generations. The Irish in the United States, Indians in Great Britain, Algerians in France, Turks in Germany all are examples of immigrants who have arrived and demanded the right to "be" in their new country. Taiwan now faces a similar challenge. How Taiwan's people and government responds will help determine Taiwan's acceptance into the family of advanced industrial democracies.