If you ask an average Taiwanese citizen about immigration to Taiwan, they are likely unaware that while dual nationality is available to them, it is closed to most long-term foreign residents who want Taiwanese citizenship. Turn to a foreign resident and ask the same question, and you are likely to hear that this is due to the Taiwanese electorate “not supporting” immigration reform. Or, the foreign residents sometimes defend Taiwan’s immigration policy, saying it is similar to the immigration policies of many other countries.

Among both groups, the details of how foreign residents become Taiwanese remains poorly understood, creating what is likely the biggest obstacle Taiwan faces on the path to fair-minded immigration policy.

Until recently, the government has not prioritized reforming Taiwan’s outdated immigration policy. The first reforms carried out since the Nationality Law was established in 1929 were promulgated in the 2000s, and they focused on Republic of China (ROC) nationals by birth. The first reforms targeting naturalization laws were not passed until 2016.

The recent relaxation of regulations governing both foreign labor and foreign professionals in Taiwan demonstrate an increased pace of recent reforms rather than a continuation of previous long-term efforts. Many people assume this is because voters are generally against such reforms, leading the government to typically act slowly and cautiously. In fact, this is one of the primary arguments against opening dual nationality to permanent residents: that the Taiwanese are opposed to doing so.

This is almost certainly true regarding foreign blue-collar labor. Blue-collar laborers  are often seen as taking employment opportunities from locals and are frequently discriminated against, often due to blatant racism.

While such an attitude towards migrant labor is unfair and uninformed, it is generally not applied to foreign professionals. Rarely have I met a Taiwanese citizen who is aware of the dual nationality double standard that we face. Everyone I have spoken to initially believed that as dual nationality was open to them, that it must be open to all or most foreign residents as well. Most are shocked and saddened to learn that this is not the case. While some supporters of a double-standard immigration policy certainly exist, the fact that I have yet to meet one indicates that such views are probably not the primary driving force behind why the discrepancy remains.

Many Taiwanese are further surprised to hear that this is an important issue for many long-term foreign residents. They are unaware that we are routinely discriminated against by banks when applying for credit cards and mortgages, or that we have trouble completing simple transactions online as our identification numbers do not match the national identity card assigned to citizens. Many are also surprised to hear that until recently, those of us not married to locals could not enter the labor pension system, and that we face uncertainty as we age due to a pervasive fear of renting to the elderly among Taiwanese landlords. These all remain issues that are not widely known or discussed.

For many foreign residents, especially older long-termers without local spouses, the clock is ticking. Every day that they live in Taiwan as permanent residents rather than as citizens is a day that they are paying rent rather than a mortgage. Day by day, the chance of them having secure housing in their old age diminishes. Until the recent labor regulation amendments were passed, every day they worked was a day that they were not able to contribute to a local pension. For some, business loans may also remain out of reach.

Outdated laws

It is also not generally known that the descendants of Republic of China (ROC) citizens are eligible for dual nationality, even if neither they nor their ancestors had ever set foot in Taiwan. Meanwhile, those born to foreigners in Taiwan do not have a path to that same end.

This is because when the nationality laws were written in the 1920s, the ROC government was based in China. It did not have control over Taiwan, which was a Japanese colonial territory at that time. Through the tumults and upheavals of the 20th century, as the Republic of China lost power in China and set up a government in Taiwan, there was no impetus to change these laws. Thus, fleeing citizens of that government in China, even if they had never been to Taiwan, still passed on the right of citizenship to their progeny abroad.

It is yet one more example of the myriad ways in which the identity of the ROC is ultimately Chinese. Many of the laws are outdated and do not suit Taiwan, and in fact were never intended to.

Support among local Taiwanese

When apprised of the reality of the situation that foreign residents hoping to put down roots in Taiwan face, I have yet to meet a Taiwanese citizen who is not supportive. Most insist that the government “should do something about this”. Some have pledge active support, going as far as to write to their legislators or leave comments on draft revisions to immigration and labor regulations.

In fact, I have been pleasantly surprised and touched by the warmth and openness of Taiwanese people I have talked to about this issue. They tend to agree that being Taiwanese is about having a connection to the island, and it is a shared civic nationalism rather than an ethnic one. If anything, most are dismissive of the idea that ethnicity ought to play a role in nationality. The outlook is, if anything, bracingly modern. And, this is not limited to the urban elites of Taipei: I have heard a similar opinions in Tainan, Taichung, Kaohsiung and even on a visit to Yunlin.

While I may have disagreements with the average citizen regarding the rights owed to foreign blue-collar labor, when it comes to foreign professionals, we generally agree.

Public opposition to allowing dual nationality, then, is not the reason why it is not a priority for the government. In fact, it is likely due to the lack of awareness. Political candidates know they won’t be punished for failing to enact reforms to end the double standard when their constituents do not even know that reforms are necessary.

An uncommon law

More pernicious, though perhaps less problematic, is how poorly the dual nationality debate is understood in the foreign community. In addition to believing, against all evidence, that most Taiwanese do not support ending the double standard, it is frequently believed that Taiwan’s nationality laws are “common” in Asia, if not the rest of the world.

This is not the case. In much of Asia including China, Japan, Singapore and India to give a few examples the prohibition on holding dual nationality applies to all citizens, not merely naturalized ones. In fact, this is true for much of the world. Therefore, comparisons of Taiwan’s situation to these countries is inaccurate and misleading.

In fact, the only country in Asia and perhaps the world whose nationality laws resemble those of Taiwan is South Korea, where citizens are allowed to hold dual nationality as long as they do not exercise their second nationality in South Korea. However, naturalized citizens may only hold dual nationality if they acquire citizenship through marriage, or through possessing “outstanding talent”. Other countries that have allowed some born citizens to maintain a second nationality, such as Austria, do so on a case-by-case basis; it is not a generally-held right.

This makes Taiwan and South Korea the exceptions to the general rule that dual nationality applies to all citizens or none, whether born or naturalized. That is to say, Taiwan is not the norm and it cannot be argued reasonably that the double standard is a common phenomenon.

Lack of awareness

Another common argument is that it is more difficult for Taiwanese people to immigrate abroad than it is for foreigners to come to Taiwan. There is some truth to this. It is fairly easy for foreigners to move to Taiwan. If one does not wish to teach English and does not meet the other relevant requirements (two years’ relevant experience or a Master’s degree in any field), they will still be free to seek professional work after obtaining permanent residency. A five-year sacrifice seems fairly minor given how many immigrants to Western countries have sacrificed their careers permanently to gain a foothold for their families abroad.

However, such immigrants generally have a path to dual nationality. It may be more difficult to move abroad, but once there, it is easier for immigrants to put down permanent roots. It may be “easy” to come to Taiwan, but it is difficult to plan for one’s retirement in Taiwan given the discrimination non-citizens face. In addition to encountering difficulty obtaining credit lines, mortgages and other loans, those who find themselves in difficult situations such as unforeseen debilitating medical conditions do not generally qualify for social services here. No foreign immigrant wants to request such assistance, but it being unavailable in exceptional circumstances is a problem.

Finally, those who must leave Taiwan for more than five years (perhaps to take care of a family member) will have little recourse if they wish to move back. They must begin the process again, including the five year residency, in order to work. And if they wish to return for retirement, there is no path. There is currently no retirement visa available.

There is also a lack of understanding regarding who may acquire dual nationality in Taiwan. Many believe that all “professional” foreigners qualify barring buxiban (cram school) teachers, and therefore the provisions are sufficient. This is not the case. In fact, most foreigners do not qualify under the new regulations, including professional educators in public schools and some (but not all) who work in universities. Most (but not all) foreign business owners don’t qualify, those born in Taiwan do not qualify and neither do those who marry Taiwanese citizens even though their children do.

A case can be made that incentivizing “outstanding” foreigners to move to Taiwan is simply sensible policy, and buxiban teachers are not “outstanding” or particularly needed in larger numbers. But, the current immigration policies actually disincentivize talented, trained professional educators from coming to Taiwan. It is an excellent way to ensure that the education system, including the buxibans that dot urban Taiwanese landscapes, neither internationalizes nor gains the benefit of a higher caliber of foreign teachers.

Finally, there is a simple lack of awareness about the nature of the dual nationality debate. The notion persists that those advocating for dual nationality want special rights or entitlements. This is not the case. We merely want an end to the double standard of allowing born citizens to hold dual nationality, whereas only a few “special” foreigners are able to do so.

Foreign long-term residents work, pay taxes and contribute to Taiwan just as any average Taiwanese citizen does. They do not intend to rely on handouts or entitlements. What they want is simply for the dual nationality policy to apply to all citizens, just as it does in almost every other country in the world. In fact, many, including many Taiwanese citizens, support a fairer immigration policy primarily because it will benefit not just the immigrants, but also Taiwan.

What we need to do is target the problem at its root. We have the right of assembly and expression, and must use it to advocate in the government for fairer immigration policy. Some already do this, notably the advocacy group Forward Taiwan. Others, such as TIWA, fight for improved conditions for foreign blue-collar labor.

Beyond working with the government, those most likely to effect change are the voters themselves, who can bring this issue to the attention of their elected representatives. If more Taiwanese citizens are made aware of the double standard in their laws, we will have more local support and a better chance at substantive reform. Talking to one’s local friends, colleagues and neighbors may seem inconsequential, but if we all do so, the potential effects may be surprisingly large.

(Feature photo by Belongnight, CC BY-SA 4.0)


Jenna Lynn Cody

Jenna is a Master's student in TESOL at the University of Exeter. She has lived and worked in Taipei for over a decade and takes a particular interest in Taiwanese culture, society and politics. She blogs at http://laorencha.blogspot.com