At the height of Taiwan’s Covid-19 outbreak from May to July, city dwellers seeking to escape the capital, Taipei, to the misty mountain ranges of nearby Miaoli County would have risked being turned back by locally run checkpoints.
However, entrances to the steep, winding routes through the indigenous Atayal community’s homeland in Nanjhuang township were blocked to strangers regardless of Covid-19.
“The government said we can’t stop people’s freedom of movement,” says Laysa Akyo, a priest from the Atayal community. “But we told them if you want to force our tribe to follow some laws, we will fight to the death. So, they didn’t dare to enter.”
The priest’s language was figurative, but the Atayal community have centuries-long practice in fending off invaders encroaching on their lands. The Atayals, along with 15 other officially recognised indigenous groups in Taiwan, make up about 2.4 per cent of the 23.5m population.
Their importance to Taiwan’s historical narrative has long made them a target – alongside other key sectors of Taiwanese society – for attempted Chinese influence campaigns, particularly as Beijing steps up its threats towards the democratic island it claims as its own territory.
The minority is about as large as the indigenous communities that first inhabited Canada and Australia but, through centuries of discrimination and colonisation, it has often been ignored in geopolitical struggles over territorial claims to the strategic Indo-Pacific island of Taiwan.
Tattoos on the face are an old but disappearing tradition among the Atayal
Credit: CHI HUI LIN
The existence of some 500,000 people whose Austronesian ancestors are believed to have settled in Taiwan over 6,000 years ago, undercuts the Chinese Communist Party’s historical ownership claims to the island.
In an attempt to counter this, Beijing has sought to cultivate a more favourable view of China by reportedly wooing members of indigenous groups, including their officials and educators, since the 1980s with subsidised trips attempting to emphasise their Chinese links.
Indigenous community leaders told the Telegraph some trips were for leisure, visiting major tourist sites, or sometimes came in the form of educational exchanges, and that they had taken place frequently before the pandemic closed down borders.
Panai Kusui, a high-profile singer and social activist descended from the Puyuma and Amis tribes said members of her community had been invited on low cost excursions to China and she believed it had fostered more pro-Beijing views that were then reflected on social media.
“Usually, [visits] are in the name of cultural exchange,” she said.
Taiwan’s government has acknowledged the issue but Kolas Yotaka, spokesperson for the presidential office, said the trips had “no significance” in terms of indigenous people identifying as Chinese.
“China always tries to play games with indigenous people by inviting them to China for ‘cultural exchanges’, but for most indigenous people these trips are simply a chance to get on a plane and travel,” she said.
“Indigenous people who are economically vulnerable are targeted by China to be used as propaganda tools. Especially since indigenous peoples have a special political and symbolic meaning for Taiwan’s sovereignty. Some individuals go along with this, but the meaning of these trips is twisted by Beijing.”
Indigenous peoples were “historically, culturally, genetically” part of the Austronesian family, she added. “At no period in history has China controlled all of Taiwan, while indigenous peoples have been here continuously for thousands of years.”
In Miaoli, Mr Akyo said China’s charm offensives aimed to “win indigenous people’s hearts, especially the public opinion representatives, legislators, county councilors, and county mayors.” He said teachers and university professors had also been welcomed and entertained.
But he cast doubt on the success of such ventures, particularly as people witnessed intensifying crackdowns on the Uyghur minority in Xinjiang and pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong, and as Chinese warplanes flew an unprecedented number of missions into Taiwan’s air defence zone this year.
PLA aircraft violating Taiwan's ADIZ per month
Threats from Xi Jinping, the Chinese president, against Taiwan had turned indigenous people off, he said.
After a speech by Mr Xi in 2019 when he warned of forced unification with China, indigenous leaders from two dozen tribes responded in an open letter: “Taiwan is the sacred land where generations of our ancestors lived and protected with their lives. It doesn’t belong to China,” they wrote.
“We think it’s ridiculous. He is crazy,” said Mr Akyo, who represents the Atayals on the Indigenous Transitional Justice Committee. He stressed that his community vehemently opposed Beijing’s ambitions.
“We are already strongly against it just by the fact that they "want" to rule Taiwan. You can trace it back to the Atayal history. Atayal tribes resisted the Netherlands, Japan, and military rule. We resisted it very hard. And with no doubt, we will also resist the Chinese Communist Party,” he said.
Taiwan’s indigenous groups now wear their cultural heritage as a bad of honour, but they were long a minority marginalised by colonisers who attempted to take their land and force assimilation by suppressing their traditions and languages.
In the 17th century, ruling Dutch settlers encouraged waves of migration from China, ceding control to the Qing dynasty, who ruled parts of Taiwan until the Japanese took over in 1895 until the end of World War 2.
In the late 1940s, Chiang Kai-shek, leader of the Nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) retreated from communist forces to Taiwan with an estimated 1.2 million military personnel and civilians, relocating the seat of the Republic of China to Taipei and imposing martial law. It was only lifted in 1987.
Taiwan is now a democracy but the tumult of the last century on an island dominated by an ethnic Chinese majority saw indigenous people hide their identity out of fear of exclusion.
Su Rui Zheng is a Christian, just like the many of Atayal people, and prays before eating a meal
Credit: CHI HUI LIN
Su Rui Zheng, 81, a community leader from the Atayal’s Heping tribe in Zhu Lin village, Wufeng Township, described how his ancestors had fought for generations to keep their resources and lands from being snatched by outside forces.
His father relayed to him how Japanese rulers banned traditional face tattoos. He personally recalls when indigenous languages were banned in public life under KMT rule. Now he hopes for stability.
“War is the worst situation because the bullet has no eyes, it kills everybody, everybody is the same,” he said.
Since Taiwan’s democratic transition in the 1990s, successive governments have tried to promote indigenous culture as integral to Taiwanese society, rewriting school textbooks, funding heritage sites and creating a Presidential Office Indigenous Historical Justice and Transitional Justice Committee.
Dremedreman Curimudjuq, a lecturer at National Pingtung University, said younger generations of indigenous communities were gaining confidence in expressing their voice and unique identity.
“We have a really strong view of being Taiwanese indigenous. We have to fight for our rights in Taiwan already because we consider ourselves the first nation here. The issue of China is [secondary],” she said.
Younger people paid little heed to President Xi’s claims over Taiwan, she said. “We are more confident because we are the first nation here. We don’t belong to anyone.”