Before the age of exploration, Taiwan was relatively uninhabited. There is little documented history to speak of. For the past four hundred centuries however, Taiwan’s history has been a complicated one of foreign occupations, by the Dutch, the Portuguese, a Ming loyalist, and the Japanese. The most recent occupation came in October of 1945 when the Kuomintang (KMT), or Chinese Nationalists took over political control of Taiwan. This is when Taiwan officially became a part of China (Copper, 17, 26.) In late1949, the same time as Mao Zedung rose to power in Mainland China, establishing the People’s Republic of China, Chiang Kai-Shek began ruling his Republic of China from the island of Taiwan. Hand-in-hand with the KMT occupation in Taiwan came an independence movement against the occupation. Like Taiwan itself, this movement would grow to have a complex history of its own.
The 1940’s are remembered globally as being a time of war and of change. This holds true for China. While the world was trying to restore itself from mass destruction caused by the Second World War, China was going through a civil war. Chiang Kai-Shek was extremely anti-Communist. Chiang Kai-Shek had launched successful attacks against the Chinese Communist Party, most significantly in the Long March of 1934-1935, in which the CCP were almost wiped out. A small percentage of the CCP however did survive, including Mao Zedung. Just over a decade later, Chiang Kai-Shek was desperately trying to clutch on to any little power he had left. He ultimately failed.
The KMT started occupying Taiwan, often times being hostile. Before the KMT occupied Taiwan, Japan did. During this occupation, many Taiwanese “supported Japanese rule, or at least accommodated to it.” Some even joined Japanese units that committed great atrocities against the Chinese, such as the rape of Nanking. (Copper, 25.) Due to this fact, the KMT treated all the Taiwanese as partners-in-crime with the Japanese. The KMT rule in Taiwan clearly did not start off on friendly terms. The relationship between the KMT and the Taiwanese people was and is one of great tension growing thicker with time. Thus starts an independence movement which became an issue, not just for the small island of Taiwan or of mainland China, but globally as well.
Hsin-hsing Wu, author of Bridging The Strait, breaks down the Taiwanese Independence Movement into three different stages: against the vicious KMT of the 2/28 Incident, for democratization in face of the strict, controlling KMT, and lastly to acquire recognition internationally. (Wu, 227-8) While these stages must be looked at to understand how the movement developed, it must be looked at on a broader scale as well. It must be taken into consideration how the KMT changed throughout this time and how Taiwan’s international relations changed. The movement, though it has forged ahead for a long time and has indeed made great strives, still has many weaknesses. These are all integral components of the movement and contribute to why it is such an intricate and complicated movement that while having gone through many changes in the past fifty-five years will probably endure a great deal more.
Immediately upon the KMT occupation, the Taiwanese felt great disdain for them. Very early in their rule, they incited mass upheaval, which led ultimately to mass tragedy. On February 28, 1947, a few soldiers beat up an elderly woman who was allegedly selling cigarettes illegally. A bystander ended up getting shot. This stirs huge uprisings among the Taiwanese. Chiang Kai-Shek, a staunch anti-Communist who feared that all social uprisings were socialist uprisings, sent more KMT troops to suppress the riots. The KMT was extremely violent, using heavy weapons on unarmed people. As many as ten thousand people were killed as a result of these bloody riots. (Moody, 42-3)
Chiang Kai-Shek feared that any mob be Communist. He sent the KMT troops to quell Communist rebellions. However, there is no evidence suggesting that Communism appealed to the Taiwanese at all. Mao’s China was economically unattractive and the Taiwanese were probably happy to be separated from it. Nor did Mao show any sign that he wanted to invade Taiwan. Chiang Kai-Shek feared it though, and would use great force on “his own people” to prevent it. Chiang Kai-Shek was the self-proclaimed ruler of the Republic of China under the Nanking Constitution of 1946. He considered China and Taiwan to be one entity, one in which he was the rightful ruler. Therefore, during Chiang Kai-Shek’s rule, talk of independence was considered treasonous.
Chiang was based in Taiwan, but supposedly ruled all of China, including he island of Taiwan. He did not control the mainlanders though, and even the Taiwanese whom he did have control over, were reluctant and unhappy with the KMT rule. Chiang Kai-Shek clinched the power he did have. Because the majority of “his people” were occupied in the mainland, he led off elections. Taiwan was a repressive society. There were restrictions, such as the one on travel, as in 1972 less than 6% of Taiwan’s dense population had seen Mainland China. (Copper, 72) The KMT were not only authoritarian but also rather corrupt. This is exactly what the second phase of the Independence Movement was opposed to.
Meanwhile, the world was starting to treat Taiwan differently. Up until 1971, Taiwan represented China in the UN. This means that for over twenty years, not only did Chiang Kai-Shek consider himself to be the ruler of all of China, but the world would recognize him as such as well. One year later, U.S. President Richard M. Nixon traveled to China where he signed the Shanghai Communiqué which stated that the United States held policy that there is only one China, which the island of Taiwan is part of, and that the official rulers of this China were Communists. Eight years and two U.S. Presidential administrations later, President Jimmy carter cut off diplomatic ties with China. While these seem like great blows to Taiwan, Taiwan was doing fairly well. In 1964, when U.S. aid to Taiwan stopped, Taiwan’s economy soared. While Mao’s China struggled, Taiwan flourished. Taiwan was in no grave danger of true unification.
Shortly after Chiang Kai-Shek’s death in 1976, his son Chiang Ching-Kuo takes over. His rule brought upon change. It was during his rule that marked the beginning of different political parties. It was Chiang Ching-kuo who announced an end to martial law and that upon his death; none of his relatives would hold a prominent position. This was quite a different Taiwan than the Taiwan of his father, just a couple decades before.
While Chiang Ching-Kuo’s rule did see the introduction of a new political party, the Democratic Progressive Party, or DPP, in 1986, Taiwan independence was a “highly unpopular position in 1991.” (Rigger, 158) It was under Chiang Ching-Kuo’s successor, Lee Teng-hui’s rule that Taiwan really became democratic. In 1999, the KMT were regarded highly by the Taiwanese on cross-strait relations and issues of national security, the Taiwanese were unhappy with the very corrupt system that was the KMT. Taiwanese did appreciate the growing DPP’s capabilities domestically. (Rigger, 163) That is how DPP candidate, Chen Shui-bian was able to successfully run in the 2000 Presidential Election, something very much opposed in China. China on different occasions threatened force should Chen Shui-bian win the election. Chen Shui-bian did win the election and tensions are ever high between China and Taiwan. As tensions remains between Taiwan and China, Taiwan is remaining a thorn in the side of relations between China and the United States
Chen Shui-bian of the DPP did win the 2000 election, which many consider to be a huge stride for the Independence Movement. It is indeed, quite an accomplishment. However, Chen Shui-bian did not in any way win the election, because his party was for independence, but rather his reputation of trying to rid Taiwan of crime and corruption. The DPP’s stance on independence was actually Chen Shui-bian’s weakness, so much that he “repeatedly said there was no need to declare independence because Taiwan is already an independent and sovereign state” and that “it is unwise and impractical to endanger the security of people over symbolic issues.” (Alagappa, 69)
Chen Shui-bian’s victory was seen as a great triumph for the Independence Movement. Immediately following the election, in “Chen’s Triumph” in Timeasia, a report on Chen’s victory, writer Terry McCarthy explained each candidate’s platform and then concluded “Chen’s promise of change won.” However, after a year, many Taiwanese quoted in Asiaweek’s “DATELINE TAIWAN: Taiwan’s (in)dependence” felt as though no change had been made, that Taiwan remained financially dependent on China and perhaps independence is not the way to go.
The Taiwan Independence Movement is having troubles within. In addition, as Wu categorized the movement into phases, this last phase, which the movement is still in, is acquiring international respect and identity. As of right now, Taiwan only has official relations with twenty-nine other nations. That means that most of their embassies are “pseudo-embassies” and that most of their diplomatic relations are “off the record.” If Taiwan’s Independence Movement is to forge ahead at all, it must receive this recognition. Tense cross-strait relations with China greatly prohibit this. China’s threat is currently too severe. That is why Taiwan’s Independence Movement for now waits in limbo.
Taiwan’s Independence Movement is extremely important, not just in Taiwan’s history, but in understanding China’s recent history. It has posed and continues to pose as a hindrance to good relations between the People’s Republic of China and the United States of America. It was also a determining factor in how China would deal with repossessing Hong Kong after ninety-nine years of British control. The Independence Movement is not just of significance historically, but in current events. China blames it when using the potential threat of military force. If such an invasion were to occur, it would inevitably involve other nations around the world. The Taiwan Independence Movement is undoubtedly of great historical significance, but because of how current it is, the depths to this significance are yet to be determined.
Algappa, Muthiah. Taiwan’s Presidential Politics. East-West Center. New York. 2001.
Cheng, Allan T. “DATELINE TAIWAN: Taiwan (in)dependence.” Asiaweek. November 30, 2001
Copper, John F. TAIWAN Nation-State or Province? Westview Press, Inc. Boulder, CO. 1990.
McCarthy, Terry. “Chen’s Triumph.” TIMEasia. March 27, 2000
Moody, Jr. Peter R. Political Change On Taiwan. Praeger Publishers. New York. 1992.
Rigger, Shelley. From Oppostion to Power: Taiwan’s Democratic
Progressive Party. Lynne Rienner
Publishers, Inc. Boulder, CO. 2001.
Wu, Hsin-hsing. Bridging the Strait. Oxford University Press. Hong Kong. 1994.
www.mapquest.com (maps of the region)
www.taipeitimes.com/news (news stories of the region)
www.taiwandc.org/history.htm (historical overview of the region)
(map of the Chinese civil war)
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