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Today Taiwan is a flourishing democracy. It wasn’t always this way.

5 min read

Published in 1946, the novel Orphan of Asia, by Taiwanese author Wu Zhou-liu, tells the story of Hu Tai-ming. Born in Japan-occupied Taiwan, brought up in the Chinese tradition, Hu is forced into the Japanese educational system. Eventually he finds himself excluded by the Japanese, and witnessing the horror of the war between China and Japan, he feels disowned by both and alienated from his home in Taiwan.

In 1983, when pop music had opened a critical space for political expression in authoritarian Taiwan, Orphan of Asia became a popular song. The lyrics tell of the orphan, with a “yellow face tainted with red mud” and “black eyes staring with white terror”. This continuing sense of sadness reflects the disillusionment among Taiwanese people – which is no surprise when you consider the island’s history after 1945.


In 1945, Taiwan became part of the Republic of China (ROC) under the Nationalist (Kuomintang, KMT) government, which had succeeded the Qing dynasty after the Xinhai revolution in 1912. By 1949, when the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) took power on the mainland after the civil war, the KMT fled to Taiwan, taking with them an entire class of civil servants, party officials and politicians, intellectuals, industrialists and troops as well as ordinary men and women escaping from a devastating war. The exodus was principally made up of men, who became known as “mainlanders” – who were apparently only taking temporary refuge in Taiwan.


‘Fortress Taiwan’

After the CCP declared the foundation of a People’s Republic on October 1 1949, the KMT turned Taiwan into an anti-communist fortress. This was opposed by Taiwanese communists, independence advocates and liberal and leftist intellectuals, but Chiang Kai-shek, the KMT leader, and his government imposed martial law in May 1949. Ostensibly to guard against infiltration from the mainland, the measures closed the borders between Taiwan and China and restricted citizens’ constitutional rights. There followed the “White Terror”, which lasted until 1987. This was a period of severe repression during which thousands were arrested and many executed for opposition to the KMT’s authoritarian party-state.

The KMT‘s claim to represent the whole of China was initially backed by the US. The US also supported Taiwan’s occupation of the China seat at the United Nations, until October 1971, when a resolution by Albania that the People’s Republic should have the seat was passed by the general assembly. The following year the US president, Richard Nixon, visited Beijing as part of a process of normalisation of relations between Washington and Beijing.

But in Taiwan, citizens were still being indoctrinated to see China as their lost “homeland” that would one day be won back from the communists.

To “liberate” Taiwan, the PRC launched attacks on the Taiwanese-occupied islands of Dachen, Yijianshan and Kinmen in the 1950s – Kinmen, in particular, was subjected to intensive bombardment by Chinese artillery which lasted for 44 days from August 23 1958. For the next decade, live artillery rounds were replaced by shells containing propaganda materials.

‘Tiger democracy’

As well as supporting Taiwan militarily, the US supplied massive injections of economic aid between 1951 and 1965, amounting to US$16 billion in today’s dollars, which enabled Taiwan to survive. After the programme ended, Taiwan’s flourishing export industry included clothes, electronics, toys, homewares and processed foods.

Increases in per capita gross national product between 1951 and 1983 from US$145 to US$2,880 in 1983 were accompanied by the rapid growth of an educated middle class. At around the same time the government succeeded attracting back to Taiwan a class of young, educated people to work in the burgeoning tech sector, to reverse the brain drain of the previous decades. One of the fruits of this was the semiconductor industry, in which Taiwan has global dominance, including by the giant Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC).

Meanwhile, in 1986, a coalition of opposition forces defied the KMT crackdown on opposition to found the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in 1986. The following year, martial law was lifted. The temporary provisions that had allowed the KMT to stifle any political dissent, were abolished in 1991.

In 1992, the country’s first full election was held for the parliament, the Legislative Yuan. The KMT retained power, but the DPP gained enough seats to constitute, for the first time, an effective opposition. The following years saw a gradual liberalisation of the media and in 1996, Lee Teng-hui, known as Taiwan’s “Mr Democracy”, became the first directly elected president (he had succeeded Chiang Kai-shek’s son, Chiang Ching-kuo, in 1988). The 2000 election was won by the DPP, ending more than five decades of KMT rules.

Sense of identity

This slow move towards democracy was accompanied by the gradual waning of Taiwanese identification as “Chinese”. In November 1987, the ban on travelling to China was lifted, allowing mainlanders to return to their home towns for the first time since 1949. In 1991, the Taiwanese government legalised investment in the mainland – and today, China is Taiwan’s largest trading partner.

The 1992 Consensus agreed at a meeting in Hong Kong between the PRC and the ROC and enshrined in legislation in Taiwan, divides ROC territory into the “Taiwan Area” and the “Mainland Area”. The “consensus” is seen by analysts as still ambiguous: the ROC sees it as enshrining de-facto independence from the PRC, Beijing remains insistent that Taiwan remains a province of China.

But Taiwan’s younger generations are known for being “intuitively pro-independence”. And the situation is complicated further by intermarriages with people from China, Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines, Vietnam and Cambodia who have relocated to Taiwan. They enrich the ethnic make-up of Taiwan, which was originally dominated by Han Chinese with a minority of indigenous people, who are recognised by the constitution in 1997 as the First Nation of the island.

The people of Taiwan are increasingly defined by their diversity – which brings its own challenges. Although Taiwan is not recognised as an independent state, the vast majority of Taiwanese people feel their first allegiance is to the island.

Isabelle Cheng is a Senior Lecturer in East Asian and International Development Studies in the School of Area Studies, Sociology, History, Politics and Literature with the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons Licence. Read the original article.

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