The KMT and Taiwan
China History

Research Report
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The Kuomintang (KMT) is the nationalist Chinese party currently residing on the island of Formosa (aka Taiwan or the Republic of China).  Started as a front to unite all of China under republicanism, the KMT, under Chiang Kai-shek, was forced to Taiwan by the Chinese Communists.  Since its establishment on the island, the KMT has evolved from a revolutionary force into an pseudo-independent government.

Historical Background

Led by Chiang Kai-Shek, over one and a half million Nationalists of the Kuomintang (KMT) Party fled to Formosa.  Cheng formed a military dictatorship on the island.  He declared martial law, using the pretense of attack from the Communists to establish the government he had envisioned on the mainland.  On the island there would not be strong outside forces to hurdle his plans, like the Japanese invasion and Communist insurgency had in the 1930's and 1940's.  Any opposition to the KMT was banned.  Long-time residents of the island, mostly farming peasants, fell under this new government, many of them unwillingly.

Initially, the Nationalist government did little in regard to politics for the people of Taiwan.  The party was most concerned with the on-going civil war with the Communists and a possible attack on the island.  In fact, mainland Chinese considered the native Taiwanese traitors, since many Taiwanese served in the Japanese Army while it was under Japanese occupation.  In the military state, the native Taiwanese were treated as second-class citizens until the government began looking internally to the ROC's problems.

Despite this injustice to the native Taiwanese, the fears of the KMT were well-founded.  In 1950, Mao Zedong, leader of the now-communist mainland, planned an attack on Taiwan.  Fortunately, the Nationalists had taken all of the warships and most of the merchant marines to the island, leaving Mao thousands of small ships.  In a vain effort to eliminate the Nationalists, Mao used water holes in Fukien Province to train his troops how to sail the small ships and how to swim, in case they needed to swim the last mile or so to the Taiwan's coast.  A local epidemic, followed by the onset of the Korean War and protection by the US Navy, served to divert Mao's attention elsewhere.  Throughout the 1950's, especially under President Eisenhower, the United States stemmed off any attack on Taiwan with a large naval presence in the South Pacific.  This protection allowed the KMT to firmly establish itself.

Until 1971, Taiwan maintained general world recognition as the sole representative of China.  In 1947, officials were elected on the mainland; in 1949, these officials fled with the rest of the Nationalists.  The KMT knew that if new elections were held on the island for these seats, the party's right to represent all of China would be in question.  For this reason, the officials elected in 1947, by enactment of a law, held their seats until a new law was passed in 1989, pensioning them off by 1991.  Until 1970, Nationalist Taiwan received the majority vote by the United Nations to maintain the seat for China; by this time, however, the Communists were well-established on the mainland, and the following year Taiwan lost the seat by two votes to the Communist government.

More important than the loss of UN recognition, though, was the loss of support from the United States in 1971.  Until this year, the U.S. provided a generous amount of economic and military aid to the island to resist any Communist aggression.  During his term in office, however, Richard Nixon sought to improve relations with the emerging People's Republic of China to keep Chinese troops out of Vietnam.  As a necessary consequence, the administration toned down pledges of support for Taiwan.  The Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 was passed by Congress in order for the U.S. to even be able to legally trade with Taiwan.

Research Report

Upon settlement in China, there was a question as to the purpose of the KMT government for the Chinese.  The new residents of Formosa sought a fa-t'ung, or an identity of the Chinese people.  The KMT were in a tough position.  With the Communists in control of the mainland, the Nationalists had effectively lost the mandate of heaven to rule.  For half a century in order to justify its existence, the Party maintained the idea of "one China", claiming that it would once again possess control over all of China.  Most people who fled to Taiwan, however, felt a strange separation from the mainland, yet a strong desire for Chinese unity.

The strict military leadership of Chiang's KMT gave way to a "soft authoritarianism".
By the 1980's Taiwan began to reassert itself on a global level, applying for various organizations.  Chiang-Kuo, as president of the Republic of China, finally lifted the ban on effective oppostion parties in 1986.  The following year he lifted martial law, and the Democratic Progressive Party (DDP), formerly an underground organization, was officially established as the first party opposing the KMT.

The Formation of a Chinese Democracy

With the general elections of 1992, Taiwan seemed on a course to becoming a Western democracy.  Despite the seemingly sudden turnaround by the KMT, the move to democracy was a necessary movement rather than an altruistic move toward democracy.  Strong economic growth on the island spurred gradual liberalization of Taiwanese society, eroding dictatorial rule.  In addition, Chinese liberalization of economic policies in the coastal cities was viewed by many of the Taiwanese people as a move toward reform.  Afraid that the people would suggest some sort of partnership with the People's Republic of China, which would in reality dominate the KMT, the Party initiated the machinery of democratization.  By democratizing Taiwan, the separation between the island and the mainland would be maintained, better ensuring the Republic of China's existence.

This move toward democracy ended the KMT's policy of "one China".  Before the reforms, the issue between Taiwan and the PRC was which party would govern a unified China.  After the reforms, the issue shifted to whether or not Taiwan can form and maintain a globally-recognized state free from dominance by the PRC.  In effect, the Republic of China began its development into the "Republic of Taiwan".

Present Day Taiwan

Despite the democratic elections of 1992, Taiwanese-Chinese relations improved in the early 1990's.  Organizations such as the Straits Exchange Foundation and the Association for Relations Across Taiwan Strait provided a semi-formal platform for dispute resolution.  Even more powerful, though, were the private contacts between the island and coastal cities on the mainland.  Trade and investment provides the driving force for these contacts.  In addition, Koo Chen-fu, chairman of the Taiwanese-based Strait Exchange Foundation, made a bold move by meeting with Wang Daohan, the PRC's head cross-strait's negotiator, in Beijing.

In a matter of two years, however, relations between the ROC and the PRC reached a new low.  In June of 1995, President Lee Teng-hui of Taiwan made a controversial visit to the United States, much to the disapproval of the PRC.  As a direct response, the People's Liberation Army (PLA) conducted major military operations in the South China Sea, in very close proximity to Taiwan.  High-profile missile and amphibious landings came closer and closer to Taiwanese waters.

Although the Clinton administration was maintaining ambiguity in obligations to defend Taiwan, he sent two US aircraft carrier battle groups to the Taiwan Strait in response to a second military exercise by the PLA in March of 1996.  With this challenge, tensions in mainland China somewhat cooled down.  A second meeting was planned, with Wang Daohan to visit Taiwan in late 1999.  This visit would be indefinitely postponed, however, as relations between the two Chinas plummeted.

Shortly before Wang's visit, President Lee anounced that the continuing meetings were examples of cross-strait ties, a form of "special state-to-state" communication.  This remark was a deliberate slap-in-the-face to Beijing officials.  The official Beijing stance is that the issues with Taiwan are internal issues only and not a concern of any nation outside of China.  It turned out that Lee was simply preparing to unleash his "two Chinese states" theory, which made some concessions to the PRC.  As the theory's name implies, however, it also held firmly the idea of a separate Taiwan and PRC.  Although US diplomats have cooled the fighting, even the chances of a meeting in the near future look dismal.  Jiang Zemin, current president of the PRC, now says that the meetings will resume only if Lee himself comes to Beijing, after renouncing his "two Chinese states" theory, and as the Chairman of the KMT, not the President of the ROC.

As China continues its bid for recognition as an equal to the Western powers, the Taiwan issue remains a thorn in its side.  Not only would China stand to gain militarily and economically from a union with Taiwan, but national pride is at stake.  For example, the opinion of the ROC is playing a large role in the determination whether or not China should obtain a bid for Asian host of the 2008 Olympics.

In the March 2000 presidential elections, DPP candidate Chen Shui-bian (shown on left) was elected the first opposition president to the KMT.  In a firm but inviting statement of policy, Chen invited to take an active role in promoting development in Southeast Asia.  The condition for Taiwanese cooperation and support, however, is that the PRC make reforms and efforts toward democratization.  Such conditions are highly unlikely, retaining the status quo of a cool relationship between the Republic of China and the People's Republic of China.

Historical Signficiance

Few "hot spots" in the world involve as many players as does the Taiwan Strait.  Two fundamental issues underlie the current struggle.  First is the issue of Chinese pride.  Both Chinese governments yearn for an independent and unified China, free from foreign domination.  To Taiwan, it is an embarrassment maintaining such a small dominion of the original dynasty.  To the PRC, it is an embarrassment that such a minuscule province can remain outside of Beijing's clutches.  Second, there is the ideological difference between the two governments.  As a capitalist state composed of Chinese, Taiwan poses an ideological threat to the Communist Party.  As long as Taiwan flourishes, the Chinese people can use it as an example of a successful Chinese transition to democracy.

As self-serving as its actions may have been, the KMT provided the smooth transition from the traditional Chinese authoritarian rule to a Western-style democracy never-before-seen in a Chinese state.  Perhaps there exists a greater threat to the Communist Party than the U.S. Armed Forces: A successful, democratic, and independent Chinese republic so close to the mainland.


Copper, John F., Taiwan: Nation-State or Province? (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1990) 69-72, 108-110.

Dittmer, Lowell et al., Informal Politics in East Asia (Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2000) vii, 25-37.

Gong, Gerrit W., ed., Taiwan Strait Dilemmas: China-Taiwan-U.S. Policies in the New Century (Washington, D.C.: The CSIS Press, 2000) 24-27, 110.

Tsang, Steve, ed., In the Shadow of China: Political Developments in Taiwan Since 1949 (London: Hurst & Company, 1993) 45-48, 99.

Zhao, Suisheng, ed., Across the Taiwan Strait (New York: Routledge, 1999) 112-116.

Web Resources    For maps, images, and a timeline    The official site of the Chinese embassy    Liberal website concerning Taiwan's political parties and latest news    For current news on Chinese/Taiwanese/American tensions    For the latest in election and political coverage    The official policies of the DPP