Taiwan: A Political History

This is the fourth installment in a series of essays by jet-setter Jordan Barber, who is currently studying Mandarin at Donghai University in Taichung, Taiwan. This time, Jordan takes a step back to assess the country’s political climate, spurred by its historically fickle relationship with China.

I’m comparing notes with a friend regarding the most frustrating aspects of Taiwan. My list comprises relatively petty things, topped by the lack of trash cans. Where are they? I don’t know, but walking around downtown you start to wonder as your pockets bulge with random 7-11 receipts. But if that’s my biggest complaint, then I guess this place isn’t too bad. Other complaints include the lack of public clocks, the random unpleasant smells you get while wandering around, and the ugly tiled buildings you see everywhere.

When I first arrived to Taiwan, my friend from the former Yugoslavia made a comment about the buildings: “They look like communist ghettos.” Studying international relations, I find Taiwan’s own political history and current situation to be particularly interesting. I think the buildings reminded my friend of communism mainly because they’re standardized and boring; the walls are sealed with little ceramic pool tiles all the way to the top, ensuring that no creativity could accidentally seep through.

I can only assume that these buildings were all made during Taiwan’s period of one-party rule, when the Kuomintang (literally the national people’s party, KMT for short) controlled the island. This period lasted from 1945 until the 1990s when reform turned the island’s government into a democracy. Now, Taiwan is prospering relatively well, but it also suffers from unique complications. While it may be prosperous, Taiwan suffers from lack of international recognition, technically remaining merely a territory and without a seat in the United Nations.

Taiwan is also time and again considered to be the most likely cause of the next world war, far fetched as that may seem. Both of these complications stem from its inescapable neighbors. As a small island, Taiwan has long been an undersized isle in a sea of giants. China, Japan and the U.S. have all played major parts in its past.

From 1895 to 1945, Taiwan was a colony of Japan. That period of history is still seen in much of Taiwanese culture. Japanese is a fairly major language, though not as common as English. A lot of older people are able to speak Japanese, stemming from the time that the language was compulsory. Rumor has it that the last president of Taiwan, Lee Tung-Hui, could read better Japanese than he could Mandarin and often asked his speeches to be translated. I’ve also met many students who are interested in learning Japanese in order to live in Japan.

Many political scientists suggest that Japan’s colonization allowed Taiwan to rapidly progress. Of course, it was at the expense of various injustices propagated by Japanese rulers.

When Japan surrendered its empire in 1945, Taiwan was “returned” to China. I am careful to make this point, as Taiwan was only loosely connected to China before 1895. Always a point of contention regarding Taiwan’s reunification, it is also possible to argue that Taiwan was never a Chinese territory before it was ceded to Japan. In modern times, the People’s Republic of China likes to portray Taiwan as a rebel province that must be returned to the fold, while Taiwan, officially part of the Republic of China, would rather be independent.
During Japan’s surrender, China was embroiled in civil war. Mao Zedong’s communist army was busy driving out Chiang Kai-shek and his nationalists from the mainland. In 1949, Chiang Kai-shek and his army were defeated and fled to Taiwan. This monumental operation involved bringing 2 million refugees and thousands of government officials from the mainland to the small island. That’s like moving all of Washington D.C. to Puerto Rico. It wasn’t as much a retreat as it was an uncontested invasion.

To better envision the situation, remember that Taiwan had a provisional government, similar to that of an American state. Then Chiang Kai-shek arrived with national government officials and started running the country. Imagine Puerto Rico if President Bush kicked Anibal Acevedo Vila, the governor of Puerto Rico, out of office.

There was some absurdity to this whole event. Chiang Kai-shek brought along the National Assembly (Congress) from China, including all of its elected officials. The National Assembly existed in this state for many years, with each member representing a part of China that was no longer under their jurisdiction. When a member of the National Assembly died, the government replaced them with the runner-up from the elections in China years before. This system was eventually reformed, but further complications arose when Taiwan’s government was changed.

Chiang Kai-shek and the KMT imagined that Taiwan was only a resting stop before they reclaimed the mainland. Of course, this reclamation never took place.

Since 1949 until recently, Taiwan has been under the control of the KMT. During the 1990s, Taiwan was freed from single-party rule when President Chen Shui-bian, from the Democratic Progressive Party, was elected. Despite this, China has constantly threatened to invade Taiwan, especially if Taiwan declared its own independence.

So where is Taiwan now? It’s hard to say. In its current form, Taiwan is not recognized as a country although it retains most rights and abilities of a sovereign state. There are few differences I can recognize by living here. Surprisingly, life in Taiwan is rather normal despite the island’s strange status.

Some say that China’s economic power will allow it to reclaim Taiwan. I find that hard to believe. While China and Taiwan have a similar racial heritage, there are enormous differences in perspective. While not outwardly apparent, there is still communist paranoia. Before I left from the US, I was informed that I could not bring any communist propaganda into Taiwan. The news agencies here have started to speak Taiyu, a native language of Taiwan unintelligible to the typical Mandarin speaker. Chiang Kai-shek and Sun Yat-sen are still the national heroes, their names gracing everything from coins to buildings.

With these differences in mind, I can’t imagine people in Taiwan accepting China’s rule. While the two countries share much in common, I doubt that any time soon there will be a (cooperative) reunification. This thought comforts me, and I hope that Taiwan is able to eventually gain its independence. As a traveler and a (brief) resident, I am worried that many of Taiwan’s unique features would be lost in China’s mad rush to standardize and homogenize. And especially after Taiwan’s long struggle for democracy, the loss of freedom would be tragic.

Read more from Taiwan.

Jordan Barber is proud that the internet allows him to criticize, admonish, and irritate people from his own living room. And though this immense power only comes to the few, he promises to wield his hammer of judgment with a standoffish, thoughtful outlook.