Written by Isabelle Cheng.

The ‘Nationhood of Human Rights’ (renquan liguo) was critical to the nation-building project of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) after the party assumed power in 2000. Interestingly, this slogan was also adopted by the Kuomintang (KMT) government after 2008. The prominence of a human rights discourse in Taiwan’s self-image and the impact of the discourse on the making of public policy can be found in the reform of immigration legislation. A substantial literature has persuasively analysed how the ‘Nationhood of Human Rights’ was utilised by the migrants’ movement for legitimising their rights-claim campaign. There is also an attempt to explore how the same discourse renders Taiwan susceptible to pressure by the US for cracking down on human trafficking.  This unilateral pressure from the US is symbolised by the publicity of the Trafficking in Person Report (TIP).

Beginning in 2001, the annual release of the TIP by the Department of State is a diplomatic tool employed by the US government for improving the global monitoring of human trafficking, particularly for preventing sexual exploitation and labour servitude. As a major destination for labour and marriage migration in East Asia, Taiwan is closely watched by the US. This is also partly because Taiwan, at times, was identified as a transit point for human trafficking from China to further parts of the world. In the past 15 years since the beginning of the annual reporting, the reputation of Taiwan experienced a contrasting course of downgrading and elevation. With respect to the interest of improving migrants’ human rights, it is imperative for researchers to focus on how Taiwan reacted to US pressure and, as a result, made changes to the areas that were under the international spotlight.

However, for the student of International Relations, this annual reporting also opens a new avenue through which to see how the sovereignty of Taiwan became a case of ‘organised hypocrisy’ (Krasnar 1999). It is believed that external recognition by other nation-states is essential to the claim of sovereignty. In this regard, the claim of the government of Taiwan for possessing sovereignty of the Republic of China (ROC) is challenged, as there is a very small number of states who recognise the statehood of ROC. Nevertheless, this does not prevent the government of Taiwan from developing nearly full-fledged relationships with other nation-states. When these relationships are tested, it occurs most often in the areas where the government of Taiwan is deprived of prerogatives commonly enjoyed by nation-states. However, when there are demands placed on the government of Taiwan for specific conducts, such as the prevention of human trafficking, and sovereignty is a prerequisite of these conducts, Taiwan is treated as if it is a full-fledged nation-state.

The label imposed on Taiwan in the TIP Report sufficiently illustrates the hypocrisy of Taiwan’s challenged statehood. The inclusion of Taiwan in this report is a tacit recognition of Taiwan’s de facto sovereignty. Without this working recognition, the US government would fail to pressure Taiwan to reform and make the legislation to meet the ‘minimum standard’ that is based on US domestic laws. On the other hand, this recognition can only be a tacit one as, by US domestic laws, Taiwan is not recognised as a state. Along this official line, the TIP Report addresses the ruling party of Taiwan not as the ‘government’ but merely ‘authorities’ of Taiwan. Likewise, the geographical space where the jurisdiction of Taiwan is effectively exercised is not referred to as a ‘country’ but merely ‘territory’. Although the insistence on the official use of ‘authorities’ and ‘territory’ is consistently applied throughout the reports of the past 15 years, the report is not immune from ‘errors’ that fall out of this official line. That is, at times (in 2004, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012), the report did address Taiwan as in terms of its ‘government’ and the geographical space as a ‘country’. Trivial though this revelation may appear, as this occasional deviation from the official line may very likely be due to nothing but simply a human error, nevertheless, this human error, and the confusing gap between what is ‘real’ and what is ‘presumed’, with regard to the questioned statehood of Taiwan sends a clear message across the board on the hypocrisy of this strategic pretence. On the one hand, Taiwan is not a state; hence using official designations, such as ‘government’ or ‘country’, are inapplicable. On the other hand, when it becomes necessary for pursuing practical interests, Taiwan is expected to exercise its jurisdiction as if it is a nation-state.

In the spirt of hypocrisy, in 2001, 2008, 2009 and 2010, the State Department acknowledged the challenges faced by Taiwan as a non-recognised international actor. Nevertheless, the very interest of monitoring and pressurising Taiwan to adopt policy tools deemed necessary for preventing human trafficking would have to be premised on the actual functioning of the sovereignty of Taiwan. Thus, the TIP Report also positively documented Taiwan’s out-reach efforts beyond its borders, including engaging with the governments of source countries, forging international agreements with the US and other states, and disseminating information and advice on prevention, protection and prosecution of human trafficking.  All of these activities require a tacit recognition of the statehood of Taiwan. In this light, the embedded ambiguity in the hypocrisy and the derived flexibility seems to serve the interests of the US and the international system well.

The discovery of this minor inconsistency of the official labelling imposed on Taiwan may be considered trivial or insignificant. Yet, the implications as argued above should not be shrugged off quiet so easily. There shall be more research on how the hypocrisy of the sovereignty of Taiwan is seamlessly and strategically incorporated into formal policy without being noticed or questioned.

Isabelle Cheng is a Senior Lecturer in East Asian and International Development Studies at the School of Languages and Area Studies and University of Portsmouth.