Given the tepid economy and tensions in relations with Beijing, the island is no longer a magnet for cross-Strait marriages.
When Lisa Li arrived in Taiwan in 2001, the island was more advanced than anywhere on the Chinese mainland. The capital city of Taipei had a brand-new MRT system, five-star international hotels, and 24-hour convenience stores on most blocks, and was building the world’s tallest skyscraper.
Li’s hometown of Wuhan, the capital of Hubei Province and the most populous city in central China, was primitive by comparison. Most of its 10.5 million people got around by bicycle or non-air-conditioned bus. The Wuhan metro did not begin service until 2004. There were no five-star hotels and few 24-hour convenience stores.
In the late 1990s, Li met the man who would become her husband, a Taiwanese businessman, in Wuhan. As the romance blossomed, they relocated to Taiwan and got married. Today she and her husband live in Taipei with their two sons.
She has no regrets about her decision to move here. “I like Taiwan,” she says. “The standard of living is good and life moves at a leisurely pace.” But she is disappointed with the stagnation of the island’s economy over the past decade. “Politicians here don’t do enough to support the economy,” she says. “They’re always just thinking about the next election.”
Because of that short-term thinking, Taiwan is falling behind many of the mainland’s cities, she says, adding: “The opportunities here are not growing.”
That may be one of the reasons why Chinese immigration to Taiwan has fallen sharply in recent years. Data compiled by the National Immigration Agency show that nearly 339,000 Chinese spouses reside in Taiwan, accounting for close to 65% of the 533,000 new immigrants over the past decade. Yet the majority of Chinese spouses – roughly 200,000 or 59% – arrived more than a decade ago.
Last year, the number of Southeast Asian spouses surpassed Chinese spouses for the first time since 2005, according to the Ministry of the Interior. About 41% of Taiwan’s transnational marriages last year were to Southeast Asians, compared to 36% with Chinese.
Back when Taiwan’s economy was still booming in the 1990s, some Chinese women dreamed of marrying a Taiwanese man and moving here to enjoy a better life, says Yang Lian-fu, a historian who studies Taiwan’s demographic changes.
At the time, Taiwanese businessmen were prevalent along China’s southeastern seaboard, the site of many Taiwan-owned manufacturing facilities.
A 2004 report in the Washington Post described the cross-Strait marriages as often “based more on economics than love.”
Chinese immigration to Taiwan peaked at about 34,000 arrivals in 2003, accounting for more than 20% of all immigrants. The following year, Chinese immigrant numbers dropped to just 10,500 and have yet to significantly rebound.
Meanwhile, China’s economy grew by a double-digit clip from 2003 to 2007 and didn’t fall below 9% until 2012. This year China is expecting 6.5% growth, which is still almost triple that of Taiwan.
Ironically, despite the celebrated thaw in cross-Strait relations during Ma Ying-jeou’s presidency, fewer Chinese chose to move here. By 2016, Taiwan was welcoming fewer than 9,000 new Chinese immigrants per year.
“Some Chinese are choosing to stay put because of the significant economic improvements there in recent years,” Hsu Kuo-Yung, Taiwan’s Minister of the Interior, told Taiwan Business TOPICS in an interview.
As a result, Chinese women who 15 years ago might have taken a chance on an arranged marriage with a Taiwanese man are now less likely to do so, Yang says. “Some of those marriages didn’t work out,” he observes. “Some Chinese spouses came here and found that they had been misled [by the marriage broker and/or their husbands] about their husbands’ finances, occupation, or social status.”
Obstacles to integration
To be sure, Chinese spouses face particular challenges assimilating in Taiwanese society. One of the foremost is the six-year wait before becoming eligible for Republic of China (the official name of Taiwan) citizenship. Immigrants of other nationalities are eligible for citizenship after four years.
In fact, Chinese spouses are not considered “foreign” under Republic of China law. Their status in Taiwan falls under the jurisdiction of the Act Governing Relations between the People of the Taiwan Area and the Mainland Area. That law is “specially enacted for the purposes of ensuring the security and public welfare in the Taiwan Area, regulating dealings between the peoples of the Taiwan Area and the Mainland Area, and handling legal matters arising therefrom before national unification,” according to an English translation published by the Mainland Affairs Council.
In August, the issue came to the fore when Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) legislator Tsai Yi-yu said in a Facebook post that Chinese spouses’ longer wait for citizenship was justified. In the post, which was later deleted, Tsai cited Beijing’s pressure on airlines to refer to Taiwan as a part of China and its lobbying to prevent Taichung from hosting the East Asian Youth Games. That bullying has “made Chinese spouses deserving of differential treatment,” Tsai wrote, according to an August report in the English-language Taipei Times.
The DPP quickly moved to distance itself from Tsai’s comments. “All new immigrants, including Chinese spouses, who live in Taiwan and fight for Taiwan are our family members,” the Taipei Times quoted party spokeswoman Rosalia Wu as saying.
Minister of the Interior Hsu explains that “the citizenship requirement for Chinese exists for legal reasons and is not at all intended to be discriminatory.”
Lisa Li says that when she first arrived in Taiwan, she felt that people sometimes treated her differently if they discovered she was from China. “It wasn’t that I was treated badly, but people might be less open with me. They would be a little more on guard.”
Over the years, such encounters have become rare. Li attributes the change in attitudes to the assimilation of Chinese spouses into Taiwanese society and the rise in cross-Strait exchanges. “It’s no longer unusual to see mainland Chinese in Taiwan, so locals are more relaxed around them,” she says.
Still, given Beijing’s intentions to annex Taiwan, some suspicion of Chinese immigrants is unavoidable, analysts say. Historian Yang reckons that the Chinese Communist Party is able to influence 5-10% of Taiwanese voters to select its preferred – pro-Beijing – candidates. One of the ways it does that is through Chinese spouses who have gained the right to vote in Taiwan’s elections through ROC citizenship, he says.
“The Chinese government keeps track of the people who move to Taiwan,” he notes.
In a December 2015 commentary published on theasiadialogue.com, Lara Momesso, a researcher at Britain’s University of Portsmouth, noted that 122,269 out of 329,215 Chinese spouses had acquired ROC citizenship and were eligible to vote in Taiwan’s November 2014 elections.
Further, she points out that Chinese spouses have set up several allegedly pro-unification political parties in Taiwan, including the China Production Party, the Chinese New Resident Party, and the Taiwan New Republican Party. However, the emergence of these parties should be seen as a reaction to the “long-term discrimination and marginalisation” Chinese spouses have been subject to in Taiwan, Momesso wrote. That includes “a neglect of the desires and needs of this group by the main parties and a politicisation of their daily lives and intentions.”
With the right to vote, Chinese spouses have “a new means to change this unfair condition,” she concludes.