Enumerating Taiwanese in American Censuses: Challenges and Implications.

Author:Kuo, Huei-Ying

Two decades ago, in July 1997, Dr. Chen Wen-Yen, in his capacity as the President of the Formosan Association for Public Affairs (FAPA), lobbied the U.S. Census Bureau to create a separate checkbox for Taiwanese under the question of race (question no. 6) in the 2000 census. This request will be called "checkbox for Taiwan" in this article.

According to a memorandum from the congressional hearing on May 21, 1998, the Census Bureau considered FAPAs request a technical challenge, which was limited by space constraints within the census questionnaire. However, the Department of State pointed out the political concern: "We believe that any listing of 'Taiwanese' as a race in a Census questionnaire would inevitably raise sensitive political questions because it could be misinterpreted as official U.S. recognition of Taiwanese as a racial category that is separate from Chinese. This would be contrary to U.S. Government policy and U.S. national interests." (1) In other words, the Department of State assumed that the request for recognizing Taiwanese as a separate category from the generic definition of the Chinese race in the American census system would create a political challenge to Washington's One China policy.

Taiwanese American activists in general, and the FAPA in particular, continued to advocate for a distinctive Taiwanese identity. On the eve of the 2010 census, a "Write in Taiwanese" campaign mobilized immigrants from Taiwan and their descendants to report themselves as Taiwanese. The procedure was as follows: first, check the category "other Asian" in question 6 on race. Second, write "Taiwanese" in the space. (2) Currently, FAPA is organizing another "checkbox for Taiwan" campaign for the 2020 census. This ongoing campaign justifies its rationale to fix the "severe discrepancies between Federal Agencies when counting the Taiwanese American population." (3) This is an attempt to depoliticize the request and to situate it in the national context of American interests, but if the focus is about U.S. affairs, the campaign has implications for Asian American politics. Does it reflect the current trend about how race is conceptualized in the American census?

Existing studies have pointed out that the "checkbox for Taiwan" campaign, albeit an American issue, is related to the international political status in Taiwan. The latter was the primary concern of FAPA. (4) According to Hsu Wei-de, although FAPA lobbied for making Taiwanese visible in American census reports, it was not the first campaign. Taiwanese activists in Northern California had pioneered a similar campaign in the 1970s. (5) The timing of Taiwanese activism matched the expansion of the democratic movement in Taiwan. Alongside the deepening democratization in Taiwan after the 1990s, the quest for forging a distinctive Taiwanese identity continues to grow. This constitutes what the political scientist Lien Pei-te has emphasized about a special type of "transnational homeland concerns" among Asian American activism: one that discourages its supporters from engaging in American politics, due to the inconsistency between the concern over the transnational homeland issue (Taiwan's political status) and Washington's One China policy. (6) Given that "checkbox for Taiwan" was a movement that aimed to modify the format of the U.S. census questionnaire, this article will examine how that campaign reflects on the changing concept of race in the official survey on demography. (7)

The design of census questionnaires is more than an objective compilation of demographic data. Benedict Anderson emphasizes that the creation of the census system was a global phenomenon in the nineteenth century. Its function in modern state governing is to enumerate the affiliation of people residing within the boundary of a political administration, and to classify them for the purpose of measuring the social distance between each group. Based on his understanding of the census systems in British Malaya and Dutch East Indies, Anderson criticized these colonial census-makers for their "passion for completeness and unambiguity" and their "intolerance of multiple, politically 'transvestite,' blurred, or changing identifications." (8)

Focusing on Southeast Asia, Anderson attributes the triumph of anticolonial nationalism in the mid-twentieth century to its promises of creating affective, fraternal, and homogenous communities. Whereas most of these nationalist promises in the region fell short of overcoming race and class differences in a nation, as in the case of Indonesia's 1965 coup and its succeeding dictatorship during the reign of Suharto (1966-98), Anderson blames postwar American imperialism for the crippling of these nationalist goals. (9) I argue, however, that other than those exogenous problems, including earlier colonial domination and postwar American intervention, the operation of the demographic survey per se was the exercise of politics of distinction. As pointed out by Ann Stoler, the authority of classifying and representing people through demographic censuses is to impose the epistemic framework upon people. The framework becomes what she calls "qualified knowledge." It claims to objectively reflect the people, but it becomes a way that the people identify themselves, and their relationship with other members of the society. (10)

Stoler's thesis is applicable to understanding the race regime of the United States against migrants from Asia and their descendants. When early Asian migrants navigated across the Pacific Ocean in search of political freedom and economic opportunities during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, racial discrimination and exclusion were the social norms. The laws that enforced those norms included the Naturalization Act of 1870 (Asians not eligible for naturalization), the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882-1943), and the Asiatic Barred Zone of 1917 (restricted migrants from Central Asia, the Middle East, India and other parts of South Asia, as well as Southeast Asia except the Philippines), the 1924 Immigration Act (barred migrants from the Asiatic Barred Zone and Japan), among others. (11) While the immigration quotas based on national origins were abolished in the Hart-Celler Act of 1965, the U.S. Census Bureau remains the authority, the "qualified knowledge" about the classification of people. Who belonged to the panethnic category of Asian people? How to classify migrants from Asia and their descendants--based on their country of origin, mother tones, or "race"? How does the "checkbox for Taiwan" issue reflect on the problem of the changing classification of the "Asian race/s" by the Census Bureau?

I will first examine FAPAs concern about the discrepancy in enumerating Taiwanese Americans by surveying the methods used by Taiwanese and American authorities. The second section examines the rhetoric of exclusion that was inherent in the classification of migrants from Asia and their descendants in the American decennial censuses during the entire period between 1870 and 1970. In the third section, I analyze the implication of the campaign for counting Taiwanese in U.S. race politics from the 1980 census onward. To conclude, I argue that the request for adding Taiwanese as a race option is not only about identity making among Taiwanese descendants overseas, but it is also an attempt by Taiwanese Americans to probe the very definition of "race" in the United States of America.


OCAC, Taiwan

The authority for managing overseas Taiwanese, the Overseas Chinese Affairs Committee (OCAC) of the Republic of China (ROC) in Taiwan, does not use the term "race" in its definition of overseas Taiwanese. The OCAC refers to the latter as those who emigrate from the islands of Taiwan, Pescadores, Mazu, and Quemoy to foreign destinations other than mainland China, Hong Kong, and Macao. (12) They consider the demarcation between foreign and homeland as a political identity, based upon the sovereign territory under the governing of the ROC after 1949. It is worth noting that the OCAC's definition on Taiwanese does not include all de jure ROC passport holders. For example, Chinese migrating to Korea before 1949 are considered ROC citizens under the current treaty between the ROC and the Republic of Korea. (13) This group of people are not included in the OCAC's current definition of overseas Taiwanese.

Founded in 1926, when the Chinese Nationalist government was located in Guangzhou, Lhe OCAC's initial goal was to cultivate ties wiLh the Chinese diaspora, or those ethnic Chinese who resided abroad, but who remained concerned about Chinese affairs. In both North and South America, before World War II, most migrants from China came from Guangdong Province. They constituted what the OCAC defined as the "traditional Chinese community" or lao qiao (old sojourners) today. The lao qiao community contributed to pro-Qing constitutional reforms, the antidynastic revolution of 1911, and the Sino-Japanese War between 1932 and 1945, among other nationalist activities. (14) During the Cold War era, many leaders of the community supported the OCAC and the latter's anticommunist position. (15) From the late 1980s, the OCAC nonetheless began to prioritize the interest of overseas Taiwanese over lao qiao. (16) Chang Fu-mei, the director of the OCAC between 2000 and 2008, created the "three grade" idea that prioritized the interests among immigrants from Taiwan, as well as overseas students who attended Taiwanese schools, and it became OCAC's main agenda. Those were the first grade, while lao qiao became the second grade. Immigrants from the People's Republic of China (PRC) after its market reforms in 1978 were the third grade. (17) According to Hsia Chen-hua, some prominent traditional lao qiao societies, such as the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association (CCBA; est. 1854) in San Francisco, reacted to...

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