Jeremy Lin, the New York Knicks wunderkind point guard, has soared to the top of the sports world with his dazzling play. Lin has almost singlehandedly shattered a number of stereotypes – especially about Asian-Americans and Ivy League athletes.
“Linsanity” has become a cultural phenomenon that has stretched from Manhattan to Beijing -- the NBA has never seen anything quite like it.
One of the many interesting facets to Lin’s extraordinary story of course has to do with his ethnicity and nationality. Lin was born in the United States to parents who emigrated from Taiwan. He is also a devout Christian, which adds to his huge appeal.
However, mainland China also “claims” Lin as one of their own -- indeed, Lin may soon supplant the recently retired Yao Ming as the most popular basketball player in the Middle Kingdom.
Therein lies an interesting quandary – Lin is an all-American lad who probably only cares about his family, faith and basketball.
But 10,000 miles away, Taiwan and China are engaged in a kind of “metaphysical battle” for Lin’s identity.
China has long regarded the island of Taiwan as a breakaway province and has sometimes threatened to take it over by military force. Taiwan, although its people are overwhelmingly of Han Chinese descent, generally resent any intrusions by the Mainlanders and is committed to remaining a distinct and separate entity.
International Business Times spoke with two experts on China and Taiwan to discuss the Jeremy Lin phenomenon and how it relates to East Asian political issues.
Dr. George Wei Tsai is a political scientist at the Chinese Culture University in the Republic of China (Taiwan).
Dr. Melissa J. Brown is a Frieda L. Miller Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass,; and also the author of Is Taiwan Chinese? The Impact of Culture, Power, and Migration on Changing Identities (University of California Press, 2004).
IB TIMES: Jeremy Lin is being hailed by both China and Taiwan. Why would some Taiwanese resent Beijing’s “claim” on the NBA’s newest star? TSAI: This is due largely to deep-rooted hatred and suspicions, which were caused by the anti-Communist education of the past in Taiwan; as well as by China's efforts to block and isolate Taiwan from participating in international activities in recent years. Some people here in Taiwan hate seeing Beijing trying to “steal” Taiwan's fame. Another factor is the advocacy of Taiwanese independence. BROWN: Because it's part of Beijing's claim that Taiwan is part of China, ignoring its de facto status as separate country (separate government, currency, etc).
IB TIMES: Demographically, Taiwan’s population is overwhelmingly Han Chinese. But do they make a strong distinction between Taiwanese and Mainland Chinese? TSAI: There are some differences between our two sides. Taiwan has had some touches of Japanese and American influences -- we are more internationalized in a sense. However, we are still mainly Han Chinese and we have successfully preserved some of the good qualities of Chinese culture and traditions here, which we feel very proud of. In addition, over the last 50 years Taiwan did not suffer from political upheavals.
BROWN: Very roughly, throughout the world, including in Taiwan and China, there are clear distinctions in terms of visas for citizens of Taiwan (ROC) and The Peoples’ Republic of China (PRC). But there is an established ideology, dating back to 1949-50 and bought into by the U.S., the United Nations and many other international bodies that Taiwan is supposed to be part of China. Within Taiwan itself, they make a very clear difference between their own citizens and PRC citizens. One complication arises because among ROC citizens, there is a group of Han called Mainlanders which refers to those who came to Taiwan in the 1940s and 1950s along with Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist regime. At that time, Taiwanese referred to the Han people whose ancestors went to Taiwan before Taiwan was a Japanese colony (1895-1945). Chiang's Kuomintang (KMT) ruled Taiwan under martial law from 1947 to 1987, and they insisted Taiwan was Chinese as were all its citizens. Anyone who supported democratic rule for Taiwan -- or who advocated for changing the name of the country to the Republic of Taiwan -- was imprisoned (including Chen shui-bian, who would serve as Taiwan’s president from 2000-2008). Once martial law was lifted, many expressed these views and declared themselves Taiwanese. Today, some grandchildren of Taiwan Mainlanders consider themselves Taiwanese (as a national identity). But even many Mainlanders who think of themselves as Chinese view Taiwan as very distinct from the PRC.
IB TIMES: When did the great waves of immigration from Mainland China to Taiwan occur? Has there been much migration since the 1949 Communist revolution in China? TSAI: The first wave was during the Qing Dynasty a few hundred years ago and the other wave was in 1949. After 1988 when Taiwan opened up to the other side, there were some mixed marriages and as such many Taiwanese businessmen are now living and working on both sides. There are at least 300,000 Mainland Chinese married to people in Taiwan and over 1-million Taiwanese residing in China now. BROWN: The Japanese colonial government of Taiwan did not allow immigration from China -- Taiwan was part of the Japanese empire from 1895-1945. About 200,000 Taiwanese men fought or served as “coolie” labor in the Japanese Imperial army during the Second World War. After 1949, there was very little migration between Taiwan and China. Even sending mail between the two was forbidden until the 1980s. Only recently, in the last 10 to 15 years, has there been “marital migration,” i.e., Taiwanese men marrying women from the PRC and bringing them back to Taiwan.
IB TIMES: Since 1979, when the U.S. formalized relations with Beijing and withdrew formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan, what has been Taiwan’s attitude towards the U.S.? TSAI: It has been weird, but Taiwan did not really form an anti-American attitude even though we felt we were betrayed. In recent years, Taiwanese people generally have a more balanced attitude toward the U.S. and dare to express our discontent. People understand that we are not a running dog for the U.S. and that America cannot dictate us to do this or that. BROWN: The attitude in Taiwan towards the U.S. has been mixed and shifting over time. It helps that the U.S. is still a huge trading partner with Taiwan and that we [Washington] sell them F-14 jets etc to defend Taiwan. American presidents tend to lean toward China, while the U.S. Congress (especially the Republicans) tends to lean toward Taiwan.
IB TIMES: China sometimes makes threats that it will take Taiwan by force. Are these threats taken seriously by Taipei or are they shrugged off? TSAI: Military threats are something Taiwanese people are very concerned with, although not on a daily basis and it doesn’t ruin people's daily lives. After Taiwan’s president Ma Ying-jeou took office in 2008, the tensions with Beijing were reduced and the possibility of a confrontation has been diminishing. However, the fact that there are more than 1000 Chinese missiles pointed at Taiwan makes this a very serious issue.
IB TIMES: Does Beijing have some kind of representatives in Taipei? TSAI: No, China does not have representative office in Taiwan, and neither do we have one on the mainland. However, China has a quasi-official tourism organization in Taiwan, as far as I know.
BROWN: China cannot put an embassy in Taiwan because that would mean conceding that Taiwan is a “foreign” country. Moreover, Taiwan isn't about to let China set up a people's government office or a public security bureau on their island. Indeed, when Chen Yunlin, a PRC representative, visited Taiwan in 2008, 2009, and 2010 to negotiate the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA), there were huge protests in Taiwan.
IB TIMES: Is there freedom of movement between Taiwan and China? TSAI: Yes, there is free movement across the Taiwan Strait now. BROWN: Visas are still required for movement between the two countries – it is easier for Taiwanese to get into China than for the Chinese to go to Taiwan. Chinese citizens must have an exit visa to leave the PRC as well as an entry visa for wherever they want to go.
IB TIMES: If China does not recognize Taiwan as an independent country, what kind of “diplomatic relations” do these two entities have? TSAI: Since China will not recognize Taiwan as an independent state, there is no question of establishing “diplomatic relations” with Taiwan. The word “diplomacy” implies that Taiwan is a sovereign state which is something Beijing will never accept.
IB TIMES: Politically, what does Jeremy Lin mean to Taiwan? TSAI: To me, Lin means nothing to us. He is purely American, as an U.S. Congressman told President Ma in person. At best, Lin is an Asian American, who happens to have the Taiwanese origins and that's it. BROWN: Many Han people in China and Taiwan consider people of patrilineal Han descent to be fundamentally Han. They often call Chinese-Americans ABCs, meaning American-born Chinese where the emphasis is that they are Chinese (in the ethnic or Han sense) rather than ethnically American. Thus, they look at a person like Jeremy Lin -- born and raised in the U.S. -- as still fundamentally Han. They don't understand that such a person is socially, culturally, and politically American, regardless of his/her genes, and despite the racism and discrimination encountered in the U.S.
IBTIMES: How can you say that Lin is ethnically American? BROWN: Lin's being Asian-American/Taiwanese-American/Chinese-American -- overlapping categories within the category of American -- does not make him any less ethnically American. We all have multiple identities, including multiple ethnic identities, though governments and political activists trying to mobilize people on the basis of an ethnic identity don't want us to realize that. My research about identities fully supports an understanding of Jeremy Lin as ethnically American.
IB TIMES: What is behind Taiwan’s “claim” on Jeremy Lin? BROWN: I think the rationale for Taiwanese claims to Jeremy Lin would run something like this: His father is Taiwanese, so patrilineally he is Taiwanese. If it is true that his maternal grandmother was a Mainlander (i.e., came from China with Chiang Kai-shek), she is still a “Taiwan Mainlander,” not a PRC citizen. More importantly, from a traditional viewpoint, the maternal line doesn't matter in assessing Han identity. I don't think that most people in Taiwan understand that Lin is really American anymore than most people in China do. Lin knows all this and is being extremely tactful when he says things like: I'm really proud of being Chinese, I'm really proud of my parents being from Taiwan. The word Chinese in English is ambiguous about whether it refers to ethnic or national identity, leaving room for the PRC press and fans to translate it as they choose. However, he also clearly states that his connection is to Taiwan.
IBTIMES: Did Yao Ming, the Chinese basketball star who played in the U.S., resonate with the Taiwanese? BROWN: Not as far as I know. I believe his first visit to Taiwan was in 2010 to raise funds for his charity.
IB TIMES: Jeremy Lin is also an evangelical Christian. What portion of Taiwan’s population is Christian? Is it a growing movement? TSAI: No, we are not a religious people, and the Christian population here is very small. BROWN: Most people in Taiwan are Buddhist or participate in the folk religion (often subsumed under the label of “Taoism”). A stable minority of people in Taiwan are Christian, of various kinds (Catholic, Mormon, Methodist, Seventh Day Adventist, Presbyterian, etc). I'd guess about 5 percent of the population are Christian, certainly not more than 10 percent at a maximum. It’s not a huge growing movement, but Christians are not persecuted either. Taiwan's first elected president, Lee Teng-hui, was also Taiwanese Christian; also Chiang Kai-shek himself was nominally Christian. A much higher percentage of Chinese-Americans and Taiwanese-Americans are Christian. I think Lin's Christian faith is a better indicator of his being American than of being a link to Taiwan.
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.