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.
With the mainlander vote sewn up by Soong and the votes of the majority Taiwanese tightly contested, the Hakka are no longer a powerless minority, says Alfred Hu Ko-wei, a research fellow at the Office of Survey Research of the government-funded think tank Academica Sinica. "In the past, the Hakka had no power to tip the balance, but now they might have a very big influence."
The name Hakka comes from the Cantonese for "guest" or "stranger," which points to the distant origins of the ethnic group. The Hakka are thought to have migrated from northern to southern China around the 4th century.
They pride themselves in their tradition of thrift and eking out a living in barren, mountainous areas. Intermingling with other mountain tribes is thought to have helped create the various Hakka dialects. Other traits include advanced mining and jewelry techniques, and relative equality between the sexes: Hakka women were known for their physical resilience in the field.
The Hakkas' defeat centuries ago at the hands of the immigrating Minnanese - also called the "Taiwanese" - remains today a source of chagrin, and some Hakka have accused the DPP - founded in 1986 by Minnanese - of "Taiwanese chauvinism."
The impending death of the Hakka language is a major factor behind the shift away from the KMT. Only 2 in 5 of those with Hakka blood on the island can speak the language fluently. By contrast, Taiwanese, the mother tongue of the over-70-percent Minnanese population, remains the island's main language, despite 50 years of education in Beijing's Mandarin.
Hakka leaders are rallying around Soong and Chen, particularly after Chen proposed making Hakka one of the official languages. He also promised to establish a Hakka cable-TV station and Hakka classes in schools if elected.
The two candidates are responding to a feeling of crisis among the Hakka, says Formosa Hakka Radio's Sang Za-mei. "They feel they're going to be wiped out.... There's almost no hope of the language remaining after the next generation." The main cause of the steady disappearance of the language is that younger Hakka in the cities have lost touch with the rural communities they or their parents left behind.
Younger Hakka in particular - like the rest of Taiwan's youth - overwhelmingly reject the KMT. For them, the party symbolizes a rotten past of tyranny, corruption, and domination by mainlanders.
Advertising manager Thales Lee is typical of younger Hakka, whose identity is part of a new Taiwan in which ethnic definitions remain implicit though clearly defined: "I feel I'm Hakka, although I can't speak my mother's native tongue." He'll vote for Soong "because he represents the future."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society