Exceptional States: Chinese Immigrants and Taiwanese Sovereignty

Exceptional States: Chinese Immigrants and Taiwanese Sovereignty

by Sara L. Friedman

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Exceptional States examines new configurations of marriage, immigration, and sovereignty emerging in an increasingly mobile Asia where Cold War legacies continue to shape contemporary political struggles over sovereignty and citizenship. Focused on marital immigration from China to Taiwan, the book documents the struggles of these women and men as they seek acceptance and recognition in their new home. Through tracing parallels between the predicaments of Chinese marital immigrants and the uncertain future of the Taiwan nation-state, the book shows how intimate attachments and emotional investments infuse the governmental practices of Taiwanese bureaucrats charged with regulating immigration and producing citizenship and sovereignty. Its attention to a group of immigrants whose exceptional status has become necessary to Taiwan’s national integrity exposes the social, political, and subjective consequences of life on the margins of citizenship and sovereignty.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520286221
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 09/15/2015
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 264
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Sara L. Friedman is Associate Professor of Anthropology and Gender Studies at Indiana University. She is the coeditor of Wives, Husbands, and Lovers: Marriage and Sexuality in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Urban China and the author of Intimate Politics: Marriage, the Market, and State Power in Southeastern China.

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Exceptional States

Chinese Immigrants and Taiwanese Sovereignty

By Sara L. Friedman


Copyright © 2015 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-96156-2


Documenting Sovereignty

June 25, 2009

Mr. Zhu and I sat in his cramped office in the multistory building that housed the headquarters of the National Immigration Agency (NIA), located in an older section of Taiwan's capital, Taipei. Mr. Zhu was a seasoned middle-aged bureaucrat who appeared to have made an effortless transition from police official to immigration officer, his slight paunch and fleshy jowls a sign of his current desk job heading the NIA section responsible for issuing temporary visas. Feeling frustrated by Mr. Zhu's unenthusiastic responses to my questions about how the NIA managed the growing numbers of Taiwanese and Chinese moving across the Taiwan Strait, I asked him to describe his own experiences of crossing the border into China. Mr. Zhu hesitated, a bit unsettled by my sudden change of topic, then leaned back in his chair and tapped his fingertips together in a contemplative pose, a cynical smile spreading across his broad face. When passing through immigration, he explained, PRC border officers stamp the Taiwan compatriot pass issued to him by the Chinese government. They might look at his ROC passport to confirm his identity (and he always brings it with him, he emphasized), but they would never stamp it. Similarly, he continued, although some Chinese citizens entering Taiwan will carry a PRC passport, they must have an entry permit issued by the Taiwanese government to cross the border. "Taiwan authorities will not stamp the PRC passport," Mr. Zhu noted. "They will only stamp the entry permit." Mr. Zhu chuckled and paused before speaking again, this time his voice quivering with excitement: "We want very much to stamp [the PRC passport; women shi hen xiang qu gai ah]! But at present, we still don't know what subtle effect this stamp might have on cross-Strait relations."

THE UNEXPECTED BURST OF EMOTION in Mr. Zhu's voice as he conveyed his investment in stamping a PRC passport surprised me at the time, but I gradually came to understand his response as emblematic of the frustrations and desires generated by the seemingly endless deferral of Taiwan's sovereign recognition. Mr. Zhu expressed a strong desire to imprint a Taiwan stamp on a PRC-issued travel document, only to temper that desire by acknowledging that such a simple act comes weighted with significant import for relations across the Strait. His portrayal of his own border crossings shows how the very act of stamping an identity document affirms the sovereign status of the stamping authority, while it also recognizes the legitimacy of the government that issued the document in the first place (Wang 2004). Moreover, in his expressed desire to stamp a PRC passport, Mr. Zhu recognized that everyday bureaucratic acts were, in fact, anything but mundane: they were powerful political claims and bids for recognition as a sovereign authority.

Mr. Zhu was by no means the only NIA official attuned to the power of stamps. Not long after our conversation, I traveled to Taiwan's main international airport to meet with Mr. Lu, then second in command of the NIA Border Affairs Corps, to discuss recent changes to the process for interviewing the Chinese spouses of Taiwanese citizens. In the midst of this conversation, Mr. Lu, too, quickly raised the topic of stamping a PRC travel document:

Of course, I've always thought that the immigration stamp (zhangchuo) is a symbol of sovereignty. Each country is the same. How do we make a breakthrough here, how do we issue that stamp in their [Chinese citizens'] passports? That is very difficult right now.... I need to stamp a "Taiwan" here in your passport, a "Republic of China" right here. The symbolic and practical meaning of that [act] must be stronger than the interview. This is what I firmly believe, I don't know if it is right or wrong.

Like Mr. Zhu, Mr. Lu described the stamping of a PRC passport as a powerful assertion of Taiwanese sovereignty. For him, the physical presence of the stamped words "Taiwan" or "Republic of China," inked permanently onto a PRC-issued document, evoked both symbolic and practical effects. As official stamps indexically "trace a network of relations on the page" (Hetherington 2011, 194), they enact those relations in a specific form, in this case through the desired framework of sovereign recognition. Although Mr. Lu's "need" to imprint those characters in a Chinese passport reaffirmed his commitment to Taiwanese sovereignty, he was too savvy an official to rashly proclaim his desire to act on this impulse. Instead, he softened his "firm belief "with a final disclaimer: "I don't know if it is right or wrong."

In this chapter, I analyze how identity and travel documents function both as contested symbols of state sovereignty and as sites of emotional investment for those who bear or handle them. Taiwanese bureaucrats and Chinese immigrants alike express anxieties and desires about personal and sovereign status through these very documents. The fragility of Taiwan's standing as a nation-state preoccupies Taiwanese civil servants who confront both the lure of sovereign recognition in their encounters with Chinese travelers and its refusal, as seen in their inability to engage in the mundane yet highly symbolic act of stamping a PRC passport. Chinese spouses are frequent interlocutors in these bureaucratic encounters, and they also express an ambivalent relationship to the atypical documents that facilitate their cross-Strait journeys and chart their protracted progress as immigrants, seeing their documents as material signs of their exceptional immigration and citizenship standing in Taiwan. These interactions between people and documents produce an array of emotional states — desire, anxiety, humiliation, and pride — that reflect both the material qualities of the documents themselves and what I call documents' "circulation effects" — what they can and cannot do as signifiers of individual and national identity and as facilitators of cross-border mobility.

Much of the literature on identity documents and travel papers approaches such documents as elements in a larger state classificatory project — a project through which states recognize and make legible their own populations, while simultaneously excluding outsiders from the citizen body (Caplan and Torpey 2001; Scott 1998; Torpey 2000). These classifications of individuals and groups, however, are rarely seamless or uncontested. By turning our attention to the materiality of identity documents — what Matthew Hull (2012) terms their "visibility" — we can better understand how documents engage in a form of signifying work that extends through and beyond documentary encounters: in other words, documents serve as "vehicles of imagination" (2012, 260) that generate new social and political possibilities even as they foreclose others (Riles 2006).

In the absence of a recognized state-to-state relationship between China and Taiwan, the documents used to facilitate cross-Strait flows of Taiwanese and Chinese merely borrow the trappings of international border crossings. These documents, which resemble passports and visas but are neither, manage border crossings by keeping the status of that border intentionally ambiguous. As a consequence, the migratory circumstances of Chinese spouses fit uneasily with dominant modes of classifying territories, borders, and the people who move within and among them. Although Taiwan classifies Chinese marital immigrants in ways that mimic internationally recognized sovereign practices for managing migration, it does so without openly challenging China's stance that Taiwan is not an independent nation-state and thus that travel from China to Taiwan does not involve crossing a foreign border.

Through their daily engagement with the atypical documents that facilitate this cross-border movement, both Taiwanese bureaucrats and Chinese spouses participate in the production of sovereignty effects that merely approximate international standards of border control and population regulation. NIA officials themselves acknowledge that the use of travel passes and entry permits, as opposed to passports and visas, reaffirms the "strange relationship" between Taiwan and mainland China and undermines Taiwan's aspirations for a recognized state-to-state relationship. Although this ambiguity keeps potential political tensions across the Strait in check, it simultaneously frustrates those who seek to assert Taiwan's sovereign control over its borders.

The critical role of documents in this process of claiming and undermining sovereignty raises the question of how effectively documents constitute both identity and belonging for individuals and states alike (Yngvesson and Coutin 2006, 185). Although "paper selves" are ephemeral, enacted in moments of border-crossing and bureaucratic encounters, they also create the possibility of official recognition and its potential to facilitate claims to belonging. Document-mediated circuits rest on identification processes both compelled (required by state actors) and claimed (asserted by immigrants themselves). By analyzing the materiality of documents and the affective investments they inspire among these groups, I aim to deepen our understanding of the contested relationship between trajectories of identification and their implicit promises of sovereign recognition and national inclusion — promises, nonetheless, that often go unrealized.


The number and types of people moving between China and Taiwan have expanded exponentially since cross-Strait ties resumed in 1987. Until quite recently, Taiwanese accounted for most of the travel across the Strait: businessmen seeking new investment opportunities in the mainland, employees sent by their companies on multiyear expatriate packages, students studying abroad, veterans and other Mainlanders who fled to Taiwan with the Nationalists returning to visit surviving family members, and a steady stream of tourists. Estimates suggest that millions of Taiwanese now travel regularly to the mainland each year, and more than one million Taiwanese reside for extended periods of time in China, with enclaves clustered around the core sites of Taiwanese investment (Dongguan in Guangdong Province and Kunshan in the Shanghai-Nanjing economic corridor) and major coastal cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, and Xiamen.

Before July 2008, the Taiwanese government permitted very few mainland Chinese to visit the country. Most of those granted entry qualified for reasons of family reunification: visiting an elderly or sick relative, attending a relative's funeral, or reuniting with a parent, sibling, or spouse, with the spousal category vastly outnumbering the rest. The travel procedures were cumbersome and time-consuming. Even as formal cultural and educational exchanges expanded, most individual Chinese without direct kin ties to Taiwanese assumed it would be very difficult, if not impossible, for them to receive travel approval from either their own government or that in Taiwan.

This situation changed dramatically in the summer of 2008 following Taiwan's election of Nationalist President Ma Ying-jeou, whose administration granted permission for Chinese tour groups from designated mainland cities to visit the island. Since then, the number of source cities has expanded rapidly, and individual travel to Taiwan is now possible for residents of China's major urban centers. Institutions of higher education in Taiwan have also opened their doors to Chinese students (some undergraduate, but most at the graduate level), and Taiwan has begun to cultivate a medical tourism industry. As a result, in recent years there has been a rapid expansion in the number of Chinese traveling to Taiwan and in their reasons for travel. Although Chinese spouses still dominate the category of long-term residents, short-term visitors from China have become a recognizable presence in Taiwan, and one encounters them at tourist sites and transportation hubs across the island.

The multiplicity of documents employed by these travelers as they move across the Strait underscores the ambiguous status of the border between China and Taiwan and reenacts the contestations over sovereignty and national identity that dominate official cross-Strait exchanges. As Mr. Zhu explained, neither Chinese nor Taiwanese border crossers use passports to journey across the Taiwan Strait, and many Chinese spouses in Taiwan do not have a PRC passport at all. If we accept, as John Torpey (2000) and Yael Navaro-Yashin (2007) contend, that passports constitute and convey "state-ness," then it should be obvious why Chinese and Taiwanese do not use passports for cross-Strait travel, for to do so would suggest that China recognizes Taiwan as an independent nation-state. The absence of passports, however, does not mean that movement between China and Taiwan does not resemble international travel. Chinese, Taiwanese, and foreign travelers pass through immigration and customs at airports and seaports; they are required to show state-issued documentary proof of identity at points of entry and departure; and they encounter different border officers and procedures when they depart one country and arrive at the other. Although foreign nationals use passports and visas to journey between Taiwan and China, Taiwanese and Chinese who cross these borders are required to display documents that are distinct from those used for travel to a third country.

The PRC government requires Taiwanese to enter the mainland on what is known colloquially as a "Taiwan compatriot pass" (taibaozheng). In turn, it issues its own departing citizens a "travel pass" (tongxingzheng) designated specifically for Taiwan. These documents are small booklets that resemble a passport in form and content: they have a rigid, colored cover, and the first page contains a photograph and identifying information such as a unique number, the bearer's name, date of birth, sex, place and date of issuance, and date of expiry. Inside pages contain "visas" that are valid for a fixed period of time and permit single or multiple entry and exit.

The documents' official names, printed in full on the cover, demonstrate some of the common rhetorical strategies employed by China to contain cross-Strait ties within a domestic, intranational framework. First, the two countries are identified not by their formal names but as regions or areas: Taiwan and the mainland. Second, the documents are defined not as passports (huzhao) — using the documentary language of citizenship, sovereignty, and international travel — but as travel passes, a term that suggests heightened state control over internal mobility (Torpey 2000, 165), as seen in its use for documents that regulate movement between China and Hong Kong or Macau (both former European colonies that are now special administrative regions under PRC control). By issuing mainland Chinese "travel passes" for travel to Taiwan and by identifying the bearers of these documents as merely residents (jumin), not citizens, the PRC government explicitly enfolds Taiwan into its domestic space. Third, the presence of directional verbs in the full names affirms the geographical perspective of China as the issuing authority: Taiwan residents "come to" (laiwang) the mainland, whereas mainland residents "go to" (wanglai) Taiwan. These verbs position China ("the mainland") as the central actor managing cross-Strait flows, thereby denying Taiwan an independent sovereign status.

When Chinese spouses travel to Taiwan, they depart China using their travel pass; they enter Taiwan, however, on a document issued to them by Taiwan's National Immigration Agency (or, prior to January 2007, by its predecessor unit). Unlike the booklet-type documents issued by China, this "Exit and Entry Permit" (ruchujing xukezheng) is a single piece of paper folded in thirds to make it roughly the size of a passport, with the "title page" bearing an image of the ROC national flag and the document's official name in Chinese characters and English. One section of the permit provides instructions to the bearer about the required port-of-entry interview for Chinese spouses arriving in Taiwan for the first time and includes a space for border officers to add stamps to confirm that the bearer passed the interview and had the permit extended for an additional six months. Most of the document's information is included in the bottom third of the permit, which is laid out much like the first page of a passport, with a photograph in the upper left corner and identifying information to the right. In addition to the bearer's name, date of birth, sex, and the permit's date of issue and expiry, the document also includes information that is typically included in visas or arrival forms completed at the port of entry: spaces for purpose of entry, duration of stay, and address. The country of residency is conveyed by a line of text above the photograph that identifies the bearer as a "person of the mainland area." The purpose of entry is defined as "reunion" (tuanju), a category used specifically for family reunification. Finally, the address included is not the bearer's address in her place of origin, as one might find in a passport, but the official household residence of the bearer's Taiwanese guarantor.


Excerpted from Exceptional States by Sara L. Friedman. Copyright © 2015 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations, ix,
Preface, xi,
Acknowledgments, xvii,
Note on Romanization and Naming, xxiii,
Introduction: Sovereignty Effects, 1,
1 • Documenting Sovereignty, 27,
2 • Real or Sham? Evaluating Marital Authenticity, 51,
3 • Exceptional Legal Subjects, 81,
4 • Risky Encounters, 112,
5 • Gender Talk, 143,
6 • Home and Belonging, 170,
Epilogue, 193,
Notes, 197,
References, 219,
Index, 231,

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