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Taiwanese in U.S. insist their identity is not a ‘political choice’— but must be a census option

“Being part of a democracy is about having a voice,” one community advocate said. “The first step to that is recognizing that we exist.”
The Taiwanese American Citizens League's write in campaign encouraged Taiwanese Americans to self-identify on the 2020 survey.
The Taiwanese American Citizens League's write in campaign encouraged Taiwanese Americans to self-identify on the 2020 survey.Courtesy of Taiwanese American Citizens League

A new report from the Pew Research Center estimates that between 195,000 and 697,000 people of Taiwanese descent live in the United States, rectifying a previous analysis that conflated Taiwanese and Chinese Americans and drew fierce backlash from the Taiwanese diaspora.

The study, which was released earlier this month, draws on desegregated data from the 2019 American Community Survey.

For Taiwanese American activists who have, for decades, fought for political visibility and global recognition for Taiwanese independence from China, the correction is a step in the right direction.

“Being part of a democracy is about having a voice,” Christina Hu, the director of civic engagement at the Taiwanese American Citizens League, told NBC Asian America. “The first step to that is recognizing that we exist.”

The movement to promote self-identity on the U.S. census forms started in the 1970s and 80s with the first wave of Taiwanese immigrants.
The movement to promote self-identity on the U.S. census forms started in the 1970s and 80s with the first wave of Taiwanese immigrants.Courtesy of Taiwanese American Citizens League

In April, Pew published a demographic report on Asian Americans that categorized self-identified Taiwanese people as part of the larger Chinese population, noting that “it is difficult to directly identify Taiwanese Americans confidently and distinctively with the data from the Census Bureau.” (Self-reported Okinawans, the indigenous people of Japan’s Ryukyu island chain, were also hidden from the dataset.) 

More than 500 Taiwanese and Asian American leaders of prominent community organizations penned an open letter to the think tank demanding an apology and explanation for what they saw as an erasure of the Taiwanese community. They noted that the conflation of Taiwanese and Chinese Americans is particularly offensive given that China, which claims Taiwan as its own territory, has engaged in an increasingly aggressive campaign to wipe out the island’s international identity.

“Part of our response to the original report is that Taiwanese people have been denied agency for so long,” said Leona Chen, the editor-in-chief of the nonprofit news site and a signatory of the letter. “There’s a sense that you have to protect something that’s constantly threatened and historically endangered.”

Pew said the author of the study was not available to comment.

Only 17 countries, not including the U.S., recognize Taiwan as an independent nation. Global corporations from airlines to fashion brands, fearful of losing access to China, the world’s largest consumer market, have scrapped marketing initiatives that acknowledge Taiwanese sovereignty. At the same time, Beijing has ramped up military activities near the island and warned Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, whose Democratic Progressive Party opposes unification, that independence “means war.”

But identifying as Tawainese on Census Bureau forms, Chen said, is more than just an expression of ethnic pride: it’s also “intellectually precise data reporting” that determines how much funding a community gets. 

“We want to communicate that being Taiwanese isn’t a political choice,” she said. “It’s a fact of who we are.”

The U.S. census has never included Taiwan in its race and ethnicity category. In both the American Community Survey and the decennial census forms, the question about racial identity includes boxes for only six Asian subgroups, such as Chinese, Filipino and Vietnamese. Respondents who wish to identify as Taiwanese have to check a box that says “Other Asian” and write in “Taiwanese.”

Since 1990, the Taiwanese American Citizens League has conducted grassroots campaigns to encourage Taiwanese Americans to self-identify on every census count. The group’s Write in Taiwanese Census Campaign ahead of the 2020 survey leveraged bilingual social media advertising, as well as community events such as food festivals and arts and crafts festivals. 

The updated analysis from Pew revealed overlapping responses to three survey questions used to determine racial identity. Almost everyone who wrote in “Taiwanese” as their race also said they have Taiwanese ancestry or were born in Taiwan. But only half of the people who said they were born on the island chose “Taiwanese” as their race or ancestry.

Hu said the discrepancies underscore the need to improve the census format and invest more money to educate ethnic minorities about how to identify themselves. 

“The questions themselves mean different things to different people,” she said, noting that not everyone feels that “Taiwanese” is a race and that many Taiwanese immigrants have Chinese ancestry but still consider themselves Taiwanese. Some people might not know they can write in an answer when there are check boxes under a question.

The movement to promote self-identity on the U.S. census forms started in the 1970s and 80s with the first wave of Taiwanese immigrants, most of whom were pursuing graduate degrees in engineering and medicine. During Taiwan’s 38-year martial law era, which ended in 1987, many were spied upon by the Nationalist government of China and blacklisted” from returning home. In Taiwan, students were fined and punished for speaking Taiwanese in schools.

“The Taiwanese issue was that Chinese nationalists were in charge of the government while the majority of Taiwanese people were always voiceless,” said Ho Chie Tsai, a community organizer and founder of “Being in America gave them this freedom to affirm their identity.” 

In the U.S., political dissidents used demographic surveys as a vehicle to assert ethnic pride and support for Taiwanese independence. Some of the first civic and political organizations aimed at promoting Taiwanese heritage and culture, such as the Taiwanese American Citizens League, the Taiwanese Association of America, and the Formosan Association for Public Affairs, were formed during this period. 

As the Taiwanese diaspora expanded over the years, Tsai said, the goals and scope of the movement have broadened.

“Now it’s more of an effort of: we should be participating more in U.S. politics, and to do that we need to identify ourselves as Taiwanese Americans,” he said.

Tsai said he’s encouraged to see that more than 375,000 people opted to write in “Taiwanese” under the ancestry question in the 2019 American Community Survey. Though the figure is likely still an undercount, he said it’s  a marked improvement from results from the early 2000s, when fewer than 145,000 people claimed Taiwanese ancestry.

The results reflect a growing understanding of and pride in the Taiwanese identity: less than a third of Taiwanese people consider themselves Chinese, according to a Pew Research Center report from 2020.

For young Taiwanese Americans who actively push back against any reference to being Chinese, the determination to express and preserve their heritage is deeply informed by history. 

“Where young people have a different attitude is that we’re very fortunate,” Chen said. “We got to inherit a lot that our parents and grandparents fought for. We have to protect something that’s so young and fragile.”