Turning Taiwanese: A Fair Path to Citizenship

I was encouraged to learn that legislator Hsiao Bi-khim (蕭美琴) has recently raised a proposal to amend Taiwan’s Nationality Act by deleting the provision that a naturalizing foreigner must renounce original citizenship as a prior condition for the bestowal of ROC citizenship. Such a change in the law has long been due, and will be warmly welcomed by many long-term foreign residents of Taiwan and their families and friends.

Currently, under the provisions of Taiwan’s Nationality Act, a foreign national who fulfills certain conditions in respect of length and continuity of residence in Taiwan, sufficiency of income or assets, proficiency in Chinese and knowledge of Taiwan’s laws, institutions and society, a clean criminal record, and a positive health check, is only entitled to obtain ROC citizenship upon fulfillment of the requirement to “provide certification of his/her loss of previous nationality,” as prescribed in Section 9 of the Act. An applicant who has fulfilled all of the preliminary requirements to the satisfaction of the competent authority will be issued with an “ROC Naturalization Candidature Certificate” (準歸化中華民國國籍證明), and must then proceed to renounce his original citizenship and furnish proof of this within two years in order to complete the final steps toward becoming an ROC citizen.

The basic eligibility requirements for citizenship are quite reasonable and not much stricter than the corresponding requirements for naturalization in advanced countries such as the USA and UK. The requirement for renunciation of original citizenship, however, is entirely out of line with naturalization law in any advanced country or, indeed, any country that Taiwan might fairly be compared with or would wish to be identified with. For a whole host of reasons, it is strongly objectionable and should be rescinded or at least substantially revised to eliminate its harsh, indefensible, exclusionary effects.

Ms. Hsiao was prompted to raise the proposal on behalf of two Pakistani men, long-term residents of Taiwan with Taiwanese wives, who had applied for ROC citizenship, met all of the qualifying requirements, been issued with candidature certificates, and then duly proceeded to renounce their original citizenship. Having completed the renunciation, they were informed by the Ministry of the Interior (MOI) that their applications had been rejected due to disqualifying factors that, through no fault of the applicants, had not been revealed during the initial phase of their application. This left the two applicants in the terrible plight of being stateless, unable to regain their original citizenship, while denied new citizenship here. In this situation, they were unable to travel outside Taiwan, unable even to visit a terminally ill mother in Pakistan, and with no way of resolving this difficulty at any time in the foreseeable future. Such a situation is a stark breach of their human rights, and offends the basic decency of treatment owed to all law-abiding members of a society, whether citizens or non-citizens. It ought not to occur in any country, let alone a country as proud of its liberalism, openness, democratic institutions, and respect for human rights as Taiwan. This alone is reason enough for the law to be revised with the utmost urgency. But there are also many other equally or even more compelling reasons why this unreasonable provision of Taiwan’s naturalization law needs to be changed, as I will summarize further on.

Two years ago, I submitted a suggestion for the revision of the law to the Regulatory Reform Platform operated by the Cabinet’s Council for Economic Planning and Development (CEPD). I explained in detail the reasons why this provision of the law was unreasonable, and proposed several ways in which it could be amended as alternatives to the best solution of revoking it completely. The CEPD accepted and supported the suggestion, and submitted it to the MOI for consideration and response. The MOI rejected the proposal out of hand. Its reasons for the rejection, which the stipulated procedure of the reform proposal process required it to present in written form, were extraordinarily ill-informed, inappropriate, and bordering on the downright absurd. Not one among the five listed reasons could stand up to even the most perfunctory examination.

First of all, the MOI claimed that Taiwan’s renunciation requirement was similar to the current provisions of law for naturalization in Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, the PRC, Belgium, Sweden, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Germany, Austria and Italy. But in fact, that assertion is manifestly wrong. Research on the law in each of those countries reveals that many of them do not require renunciation of any applicant, while most of the others either apply broad exceptions to this rule (such as for applicants who are married to local citizens) or simply do not enforce it. In the case of the minority that do enforce renunciation as strictly as Taiwan, the key point is that they do not allow dual citizenship for anyone, including their own citizens. That is completely different to the situation in Taiwan, where ROC citizens are free to obtain foreign nationality without having to give up ROC citizenship, so that countless Taiwanese now possess a foreign passport in addition to their ROC one.

How can any country hold to the position of enforcing such a blatant double standard whereby it allows its birth citizens to freely hold dual nationality while denying the same benefit to naturalizing citizens? It is utterly unconscionable. We shall skip over the issue of whether Taiwan should be seeking to emulate the nationality laws of totalitarian states like the PRC and Saudi Arabia, as cited in the MOI’s list, rather than liberal democracies like the US and UK. Let us, for the sake of brevity, move on to the MOI’s other reasons for insisting on keeping this ridiculous law intact.

The second of the MOI’s reasons addressed the suggestion that, even if it would not remove the renunciation requirement for all citizenship applicants, Taiwan should at least comply with the principle of reciprocity in waiving this requirement for citizens of countries that confer citizenship on Taiwanese without requiring them to renounce their ROC nationality (as is the case in the great majority of countries, including the USA and UK). I had pointed out in my suggestion that reciprocity is an internationally applied basic principle for the treatment of non-citizens, and is already applied by Taiwan in many areas, such as the right of foreign nationals to purchase real estate here, the recognition of foreign driving licenses, and the enforcement of foreign arbitral awards, among many others. However, the best the MOI could rejoin to this was that other countries’ nationality laws were varied and complex, and it would be too much trouble for the bureaucrats here to keep track of those laws to identify which countries’ required Taiwanese to renounce and which didn’t. Too difficult and troublesome? Are MOI staff really so incapable? If it is easily manageable for more minor matters, such as whether to allow a foreigner to swap his driving license for a local one, and whether or not to allow any particular foreigner to buy a house here, why not for such a weighty matter as the conferral of citizenship?

The third reason consisted of pointing out that Taiwan already amended the Nationality Act in September 2000 to insert the proviso that “if [a naturalization applicant] asserts that he cannot obtain the certification for causes not attributable to him and the foreign affairs authorities investigate and determine that this is true, then he shall not need to provide certification of the renunciation of his original citizenship,” implying that that was quite enough of a concession, thank you, and we greedy Oliver Twists should not be asking for more. So the MOI is happy for its civil servants to investigate and determine the truth of this aspect of another country’s nationality law, but not to perform a similar task of investigation and determination in respect of another country’s renunciation conditions? Hmm. But that aside, and as pointed out to the MOI in my suggestion, the existence of this exception is actually a source of unfairness in itself, since it means that the law is applied unevenly. If you happen to come from a country that does not allow you to renounce your citizenship, you will be allowed to obtain ROC nationality without renouncing, whereas everyone else will have to renounce. This simply means that the law will be applied unevenly, and hence unfairly – contrary to the most fundamental principle that all should be treated equally by the law. It’s actually a lot less fair than implementing the law on a reciprocal basis, as rejected so casually by the MOI.

The fourth reason given is that Taiwan has already established a permanent residency status for foreigners, so if we’re not prepared to give up our original citizenship, we should settle gladly for PR status instead, and (presumably) be grateful for being accorded that much. Where to even begin with responding to that? Which country anywhere else in the enlightened or semi-enlightened world does not offer PR status to qualified foreign residents? Yes, we appreciate that we can now obtain such status, even though it took so long in coming, and still falls far short of conferring the benefits and security of residence conferred by PR status in other countries. But there is a world of difference between PR status and citizenship. They should both be equally and easily available to qualified foreign residents, as successive steps toward inclusion in membership of the host society, just as they are in the USA and the UK and almost any other country whose example Taiwan should be aspiring to follow.

The last of the MOI’s reasons is so risible that it leaves one scarcely knowing whether to laugh or cry. In essence, it says that the renunciation requirement is necessary in order to reduce the incidence of dual nationality in Taiwan, to prevent Taiwan from becoming too densely populated, to raise Taiwanese people’s quality of life, and to prevent a mass influx of foreign migrants. Yes, it really does say all that! Apparently, in the view of the MOI, allowing us foreigners to naturalize without renouncing our original citizenship will undermine the host population’s quality of life. It will lead to Taiwan being swamped with a massive wave of immigrants. We will exacerbate the already dreadful state of crowding on this small group of islands. Such terrible fears, indeed!

Only, none of these has the slightest vestige or shadow of validity. Is the government really waging a hard battle against dual nationality, which would be undermined by allowing a few score or few hundred or even few thousand naturalizing foreigners to join the ranks of the hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of ROC citizens already holding dual or multiple nationality? Where would this influx of foreigners materialize from? Would they constitute such a large and threatening addition to the several hundred thousand brides from Southeast Asia and mainland China who have been imported into Taiwan in recent years? And would they not still have to satisfy all of those other requirements to even become qualified to apply for naturalization, thus effectively keeping the inflow of foreigners at the already existing levels of numbers and quality? And how on earth would our easier conversion of PR status to citizenship status be harmful to the quality of life of the 23 million citizens of this fair country? Such an assertion boggles the mind, and is suggestive of deeply unsavory attitudes and prejudices.

Having thus decimated the best arguments that the MOI could muster against the revision of this law, let us now consider the arguments as to why it should be changed. There are enough of these to fill a whole book, but since writing a book is not my purpose here, I will just pick out and summarize the most compelling of the arguments, as follows:

1.  Renouncing original citizenship is a big matter for many people. Although they have settled permanently in Taiwan, come to view this as their home, and have no intention of going back to resettle in their former homeland, they still retain strong emotional ties to the land where they were born and grew up. They often have elderly parents, siblings and other family members – usually all of their family members except their spouse and children – still living there. They are likely to want and need to make frequent visits to the old country, perhaps at very short notice, and may have to go back for an extended period to take care of sick or dying parents or attend to other such emergencies. The loss of their citizenship in that country, while carrying no benefit for Taiwan, can have significantly negative consequences for them in such situations.

2.  Why, shouldn’t a person hold dual citizenship in two friendly countries, such as the ROC and the USA or the UK? There is absolutely no detriment to either country stemming from such status, but rather it is a source of potentially substantial gain to both. With citizenship in both countries, they are able to spread their lives between both, moving back and forth without restriction, acting as bridges between the two, and serving as an important conduit for the interflow of mutual benefits. There are numerous examples of ROC citizens who have acquired citizenship in other countries and served both of their homelands with great distinction. It is nonsense to assert that a person can have only one homeland at any one time, and to embody this in restrictive laws that confine the role the person can play in one or other of them. It has long been irrational, a vestige of an era long past, and is becoming ever more irrational as the world becomes increasingly borderless in more and more other respects.

3.  Other advanced countries do not impose such a requirement for naturalization. For example, in the United States, although naturalizing citizens are required to undertake an oath of citizenship renouncing previous allegiances, the oath is never enforced to require the actual termination of original citizenship. Likewise, in the UK, the requirements for naturalization are comparable to those in Taiwan, except that there is no need to renounce other citizenships in order to become a British citizen.

4.  Hundreds of thousands of ROC citizens have obtained citizenship in the US, Canada, Europe, and other advanced countries without needing to renounce their ROC citizenship. Those countries accept them as citizens without requiring them to give up their original citizenship. In accordance with the fundamental principle of reciprocity, the ROC should accord to foreign nationals the same rights and privileges that their countries accord to ROC nationals.

5.  Taiwan has benefited greatly over the years from the contributions and assistance furnished by emigrants who have simultaneously held ROC and US passports (to take the US as an example). Many have served in the higher echelons of government, academia and big business in the US, building up precious knowledge and connections, and have then returned to Taiwan to take up high positions here and contribute their expertise to the betterment of this country. Nobel Prize-winner Lee Yuan-tse and TSMC founder Morris Chang are but two of the most prominent examples of many. In addition, they have played an important role in building bridges and opening or improving channels of communication between Taiwan and the US. Given this situation and the extent to which Taiwan has gained from it, it is extraordinary for anyone in government here to argue against allowing immigrants to have the same dual nationality status as was allowed to those emigrants from here.

6.  Many countries, for example the UK, allow citizens to reclaim their citizenship after renouncing it. So a British citizen who is required to renounce his British citizenship in order to obtain ROC citizenship can immediately reclaim his British citizenship after obtaining ROC citizenship. This defeats any purpose of the requirement and makes it pointless. It just means that the applicant will need to go to a great deal of trouble and expense to first of all renounce his British citizenship and then reclaim it, but the end result will be the same as if he did not have to renounce it at all.

7.  Similarly, many people already hold more than one passport. For example, a high proportion of Canadians, Australians, South Africans and New Zealanders, among many others, hold second nationality in the UK. Since the law requires them to show proof of renunciation of a foreign nationality, they need only renounce one of their nationalities and can still keep another or others. Hence, they will be dual nationals of the ROC and another country after naturalization, which again defeats any purpose of the renunciation requirement.

8.  Another objection to the requirement is that it is applied inconsistently, with citizens of some countries being required to renounce, but citizens of other countries not being required to do so (because the proviso in Article 9 excludes them from the application of this requirement if, for example, their country of original citizenship does not allow renunciation). Such inconsistency is fundamentally unfair and contrary to the basic human right of equality of treatment under the law. Also, the consequences of renunciation are inconsistent, with some (e.g., British nationals) being able to reclaim their original nationality, but others (e.g., US nationals) not being able to do so. Again, such inconsistency is fundamentally inequitable.

9.  Applicants for naturalization who have renounced their original nationality must still wait for a considerable time before they obtain ROC nationality. During this time, they will be essentially stateless, which creates many difficulties and uncertainties for them, and puts them in jeopardy of remaining stateless if their application for naturalization fails.

10.  The vast majority of foreigners who apply or would like to apply for ROC citizenship have Taiwanese spouses. Their children born in Taiwan automatically acquire ROC citizenship from birth. In most cases, their spouses and children are entitled to citizenship of the foreigner’s country, and will usually obtain this very easily. But while the Taiwanese spouse and children can enjoy dual nationality without any obstacle or restriction, the foreigner cannot – under the law as it presently stands, he (or she) must choose between retaining his original citizenship and giving up the chance of becoming an ROC citizen, or obtaining ROC citizenship and giving up his original citizenship. His family members can be dual citizens, but he cannot. This is manifestly absurd and unfair! It can only have a negative and undermining effect on families that a new immigrant is debarred from holding the same dual nationalities as his family members.

11.  If the renunciation requirement is deleted or substantially modified, there are only a few hundred – or at most one or two thousand – foreigners, mostly from Western countries, who will wish to take advantage of it (since there are only a few thousand such people residing here permanently who meet all of the other quite strict conditions for applying for naturalization). Most of those people are top-quality human resources who have made and are making a substantial contribution to Taiwan. They are lawyers, doctors, engineers, government translators, school teachers, university professors, business proprietors, etcetera. They have lived here for a long time already, have Taiwanese spouses and children, and have substantial investments here. Enabling them to obtain citizenship is the surest way to secure their full allegiance to Taiwan, and ensure that they fully integrate into this society, feel that they fully belong here, and no longer have thoughts of moving on because of a sense of not being accepted as real members of this society.

12.  Being able to utilize such precious human resources is hugely beneficial for Taiwan. Taiwan can benefit from the prime working years of these people’s life without having had to foot any of the cost of raising or educating them during their twenty-some pre-working years. It is a tremendous boon for any society if it can attract such people to migrate to its shores after another society has cultivated their knowledge and skills.

13.  Let Taiwan be generous to these people. They have done more than enough to deserve it. Countries that are the main recipients of Taiwanese migrants treat them with exactly such generosity. Taiwan has greatly benefited, with many such emigrants subsequently returning to deliver great service for Taiwan or furnishing considerable help to Taiwan from their new homeland. Let Taiwan reciprocate and grant the same benefits to Westerners who have migrated here. It will be very much to Taiwan’s credit if it does so, but can only be to Taiwan’s deep discredit if it refuses to do so, and especially if it refuses to do so for reasons that cannot stand up to even the slightest scrutiny.

14.  If you have settled here with no present intention or plans to leave, you are an immigrant. It is a well accepted principle of modern nationality law that immigrants should be accorded the opportunity to obtain full civil and political rights in the country in which they have settled, through naturalization on reasonable conditions. Taiwan offers naturalization, but on conditions that are more rigid, exclusionary and discriminatory than those offered by any other advanced or nearly advanced country anywhere else in the world. Hence, we are effectively denied the basic right to convert our immigrant status into citizen status.

15.  Moreover, Taiwan is alone in the world among countries at a similar level of development and liberalism in setting the double standard of requiring naturalizing foreigners to renounce other citizenships while allowing its own people to hold any number of other citizenships. Countries that require renunciation of original citizenship invariably do so because they do not allow dual citizenship for any of their citizens. Taiwan stands alone among its peers in applying the double standard of freely allowing dual nationality for its own, but insisting on renunciation of citizenship for foreigners seeking ROC nationality. That is an egregious and reprehensible act of exclusion against non-Chinese members of Taiwan’s immigrant population.

16.  Taiwan’s government constantly, vociferously and ardently asserts that it needs and wants to embrace globalization, pursue internationalization, and align Taiwan’s laws and systems with international norms. It says that it wants to create an open society that will be welcoming and attractive to prime additions to its talent pool from around the world. But the retention of the exclusionary and discriminatory naturalization provisions of its nationality law is in fundamental contradiction to such assertions. It gives the appearance, instead, that those assertions are nothing but a sham.

17.  Taiwan is suffering from a brain drain. This has been explicitly acknowledged by the government. It is recognized as a matter of significant concern, and is growing increasingly severe as more and more economies, near and far, compete to attract the cream of the global work force. Taiwan needs to be able to attract foreign talent to come and settle in Taiwan, both to make up for the talent that is being lured away to other countries and to make up for pre-existing shortages in key areas of manpower. The government expressly targets this as a vital policy goal. Yet the renunciation provisions of the nationality law are fundamentally iniquitous to achieving that objective. They send out a clear and resonating message that Taiwan does not willingly welcome foreigners to integrate into this society. It is a message that can only repel rather than entice the kinds of people that Taiwan needs to come and join its work force.

18.  South Korea is a good model for Taiwan to follow, having recently revised its law to allow for naturalization without condition of renunciation. The reasons given for changing the law were that the vast majority of people eligible for citizenship would never be able to accept giving up their existing citizenship, hence to require it was effectively to deny them access to citizenship; that this was not only manifestly unfair and unreasonable, but would also have negative effects on Korea’s economy, since Korea was competing with other countries to attract such people to its work force, and if it did not give them what they deserved as members of Korean society, many of them would probably end up moving elsewhere, depriving Korea of highly valuable human resources. If South Korea can recognize this and liberalize its nationality law accordingly, why can’t Taiwan? Korea has been internationally commended for taking this step. Let Taiwan earn similar approval from the international community, and bring itself into alignment with the mainstream liberal values of nationality law as applied in all other developed countries, by taking a similar step.

19.  If Taiwan reforms its nationality law to open an easier path to naturalization for suitably qualified foreigners, it will be a feather in Taiwan’s cap, something for it be proud of, to hold up as an illustration of its friendliness to foreigners, and to demonstrate its commitment to acting as a member of the global community ought to act. It will be entirely positive, and the gains for Taiwan will be substantial. But if Taiwan keeps its nationality law as it is, and continues to put up unreasonable barriers to naturalization even by those who have done everything possible to earn and deserve citizenship, it will loudly trumpet a message that Taiwan does not want outsiders to become full members of its society or to gain true equality with Taiwanese by birth on Taiwanese soil. It will be entirely negative, and the cost for Taiwan will be substantial.

20.  The call for changing this part of the nationality law has wide support among members of Taiwan’s white-collar foreign community. Ardent supporters include business owners and executives, university professors, and professionals in all fields. Many feel very strongly that they are treated unjustly by the renunciation requirement, and it is one of their greatest causes of discontent with the law in Taiwan. They will be very disappointed, and will feel greatly let down by the government, if the MOI continues to resist the call for this simple and overwhelmingly necessary amendment of the law.

Conclusion

The renunciation condition represents the embodiment of a double standard in Taiwan’s nationality law, whereby Taiwanese citizens are permitted to hold dual or multiple citizenships, but naturalizing foreigners are not. No other developed country maintains a similar double standard in its nationality law, and it is hard to find any example of another country that does likewise.

The renunciation condition is an exclusionary rule that reflects very badly on Taiwan’s attitude toward assimilating non-Chinese immigrants into its society. As such, it constitutes a serious blot on Taiwan’s nationality law and international image.

The renunciation condition brings absolutely no benefit to Taiwan, either tangible or intangible. But it is severely unfair and discriminatory against new immigrants who wish to become fully integrated into Taiwan’s society and enjoy the full civic rights that should be accorded to every law-abiding and tax-paying member of a society.

The renunciation provision runs contrary to the liberal trend of nationality and naturalization law in the international community. It makes Taiwan’s naturalization conditions stand out as among the most conservative and restrictive of any country in the world.
People’s actions and decisions are to a large extent governed by sentiments and emotions. We feel very close attachment to such things as family and place of birth. These are attachments that we cannot easily abandon, whether in symbolic or any other way. That is basic human nature. The renunciation requirement goes against this core facet of human nature. It does not give due and proper consideration to how people can be expected to feel about being required to take such a step. Hence, it is antithetical to fairness and abhorrent to enlightened reason.

Hundreds of thousands of Taiwanese go to study, live or work in the US, Canada, Britain, Australia and other foreign countries. After staying there for a few years, they become eligible to obtain citizenship. Many of them gladly become citizens because it makes their lives much easier and presents them with many advantages. But they do not have to give up their ROC citizenship in order to become citizens of those other countries. If renunciation of ROC citizenship was a requirement, how many would be willing to do so? Evidence from foreigners settling in countries that do require renunciation suggests that the great majority would not be willing to make such a sacrifice. One of the reasons that the government of South Korea gave for dropping the renunciation requirement was that very few of their large community of long-term Chinese residents was willing to give up their Chinese citizenship in order to become Korean citizens. They hold their birth citizenship far too dear to be willing to give it up, even for the great advantages that they would obtain from becoming citizens in the country where they permanently reside.

The nationality law of those countries allows Taiwanese to become citizens while keeping their cherished ROC citizenship. Over the decades, that situation has delivered many great benefits not just to countless Taiwanese, but also to Taiwan itself, to economic, industrial, social, academic, cultural and other facets of its development. Does Taiwan really consider it reasonable to take freely from others without being willing to give anything back? Surely it cannot be so!

With its shrinking birth rate, escalating brain drain, and severe manpower shortages in many areas, Taiwan needs to be welcoming and inclusional toward the people who would become citizens under a more liberal naturalization regime. Our citizenship would be a boon to Taiwan, not any kind of burden. It is time for the Legislative Yuan to recognize the incontestable realities and imperatives of the matter, and delete or substantially liberalize the renunciation provision in Section 9 of the Nationality Act.

This article first appeared on www.taiwanease.com in December 2012. All Rights Reserved.
Photograph courtesy of Craig Ferguson at www.craigfergusonimages.com