A Tale of Two ´Chinas´: Politics and Identity in Taiwan

As reports of tensions between the Peoples Republic of China (PRC) and Taiwan are broadcasted over our screens, the world is once again reminded of one of the world’s longest ongoing diplomatic disputes. The 1949 victory of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) over the Nationalist Party in the Chinese Civil War left Taiwan as the last remaining territory in control of the Nationalists. As the CCP founded the PRC on the mainland, the Nationalist Party continued the name of the Republic of China (ROC) in Taiwan (Chu & Lin, 2001). The PRC maintains that Taiwan is officially part of a sovereign unified Chinese state over which the PRC is the sole legitimate authority, with Taiwan merely a temporary breakaway province (Jiang, 2017). This “One China” principle sees the PRC refusing to engage in diplomatic relations with any countries that maintain formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan. Taiwan, for its part, also officially maintains that it is the legitimate representative of the whole of China and has never formally sought independence as a separate state (Ibid.).


This uneasy status quo has defined relations between China and Taiwan for the last seventy years, with outbreaks of tension, military threats, and political disputes to periodically highlight this as an issue that remains unresolved. Yet within Taiwan there is a diversity of opinion on what Taiwan´s formal sovereign status should be now and into the future, with Taiwan´s two main political parties holding opposing positions (Jiang, 2017). The Kuomintang (KMT), as the direct continuation of the Chinese Nationalist Party, maintains Taiwan´s traditional position as the Republic of China and the legitimate representative of a singular Chinese state. Meanwhile, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) maintains that Taiwan should alter the 1946 Constitution to drop its association with Chinese statehood entirely and seek formal independence as a separate state under the name the Republic of Taiwan (Ibid.). This article will first examine the history that has led to differing senses of political identity within Taiwan regarding Chinese and Taiwanese nationhood. It will then examine the contemporary political climate and public attitudes within Taiwan, in particular the growth of Taiwanese nationalism and divergent opinions over what the One China principal entails, and what that means for the future (Dawley,2009).


Figure 1: Court, C. (2020) Supporters wave Taiwanese flags during a campaign rally for Han Kuo-yu, the Kuomintang candidate and more pro-Beijing challenger to the sitting president, in Taipei on Jan. 9


History of Taiwan and the Development of Competing Identities


Despite being situated just off the coast of China, the island of Taiwan remained mostly untouched by Chinese influence until the arrival of the Dutch and Spanish Empires in 1624. From here, large numbers of Han Chinese were encouraged to migrate to Taiwan to work in Dutch trading outposts (Dawley, 2009). Meanwhile civil war in China between the Ming and Qing Dynasties saw Ming loyalists drive out the Dutch in 1661. In turn, the victory of the Qing Dynasty in China saw Qing forces annex the whole of Taiwan in 1683, making it part of Fujian province and thus connecting Taiwan to centralised Chinese rule for the first time (Ibid.). For most of the Qing period, Taiwan was run by absentee Chinese governors from Mainland Fujian who considered Taiwan a chaotic and plague-ridden backwater frontier (Chu & Lin, 2001). Poor Han Chinese immigrants continued to arrive from Fujian and Guangdong, meanwhile the aborigine population was slowly incorporated into the Han Chinese population, or else driven into the central mountains. By the time Taiwan was finally made a separate province of China with its own provincial governor in 1885, a Chinese-identity had permeated the whole island albeit retaining diverse clan and sub-ethnic ties to the Mainland (Dawley, 2009).


The First Sino-Japanese War saw Japan annex Taiwan in 1895 and establish a colonial-administration of locally recruited Taiwanese elites, overseen by a Japanese policing network (Chu & Lin, 2001). By the 1920s, many of Taiwan´s local elite had learned Japanese, with Chinese banned in schools from the 1930s. Meanwhile, the aborigine population had grown loyal to Japanese-rule due to social and economic advances (Ibid.). Simultaneously in Mainland China, the Qing Dynasty had fallen in 1912 and was replaced by the Republic of China operating as a one-party state of the Nationalists. However, weak central authority, constant civil war, and the Japanese invasion wrought complete economic devastation in Mainland China, whereas Japanese rule in Taiwan provided a stable central authority that allowed economic modernisation, leaving Taiwan more developed then the Mainland for the first time (Dawley, 2009). These differing trajectories of experiences led to some of Taiwan´s intellectual elite beginning to self-identify as Taiwanese as a distinct identity from Mainland Chinese from the 1920s onwards, albeit the majority retained their Han Chinese identity (Chu & Lin, 2001).


Figure 2: Li, J. (1947) 228 Incident (The Terrible Inspection)

Nevertheless, resentments towards Japanese rule, including anti-Chinese cultural policies and the conscription of Taiwanese soldiers to fight Japan´s wars, meant that the end of Japanese rule in 1945 was initially welcomed by the Taiwanese (Suzuki, 2011). In their place, the United States helped the ROC under the leadership of Chiang Kai-shek take over, who were preparing a final showdown with the Communists over control of China. For Chiang Kai-shek and his KMT Nationalist party, Taiwan was a sideshow in the war for Mainland China, and nevertheless the Taiwanese elite after the period of Japanese rule was distrusted as lacking commitment to the Chinese state (Ibid.). Accordingly, Mainland Chinese administrators were moved in to replace the Taiwanese in government posts. Simultaneously, rampant ROC corruption and the diversion of resources to fight the Chinese Civil War saw the Taiwanese economy quickly nosedive, with returning Taiwanese conscript soldiers unable to find employment (Chu & Lin, 2001). These tensions hit boiling point, and on February 28th, 1947, an instance of police brutality quickly devolved into massive island wide protests demanding greater Taiwanese autonomy, with some Mainland Chinese administrators attacked. Chiang Kai-shek´s ROC response was ruthless, with the Army called in to put down the protests (Ibid.). Between 10,000-25,000 people were killed, and Taiwan’s elite was purged or exiled to Japan, in what became known as the “228 Incident” (Suzuki, 2011).


This ushered in a period of totalitarian rule, as the KMT secured one-party state governance. The loss of the Nationalists in the Chinese Civil War in 1949 left Taiwan as the only remaining part of the ROC, with Chiang Kai-shek´s surviving Mainland followers and one million strong army retreating to Taiwan, providing the most significant surge of Mainland Chinese immigration since the Qing dynasty (Chu & Lin, 2001). Taiwan was announced as under siege on 19th May 1949, with martial law declared ushering in repressive emergency powers that suspended elections and limited personal freedoms. This State of Emergency, known as the “White Terror”, lasted until 1987 and saw over 3000 people executed and over 100,000 more imprisoned (Suzuki, 2011). Chiang Kai-shek, until his death in 1975 when his son took over, remained committed to the idea of one day reunifying China under ROC rule, with a cult of personality developing around him to try and foster pan-Chinese sentiment (Ibid.). However, the growing dominance of the PRC´s power in the region saw the US switch its recognition from the ROC to the PRC in 1971 as the sole legitimate representative of China, with the PRC taking over the ROC's UN and Security Council seats (Chai, 1986). The KMT's goal of reunifying China under ROC rule looked increasingly distant. Whilst Chinese Mainlanders dominated the Taiwanese state and maintained an political outlook incorporating the whole of China, resentments towards authoritarian rule amongst native-born Taiwanese grew (Chu & Lin, 2001). This began to foster a growing Taiwanese nationalism focusing on Taiwan’s uniqueness as distinct from the Mainland (Dawley, 2009).


Figure 3: Unknown (1948) December 1948. the national army headed to the front line of Suzhou and met the wounded soldiers of the retreat.

Democratisation, Taiwanese Nationalism, and One China Ambiguity


By the 1980s, there was an ever growing call for an end to authoritarian rule and a transition towards democracy (Cotton, 1989). By this stage, both Taiwanese and Mainland Chinese, and even serving members of the KMT, had been victims of repression (Ibid.). Martial law was finally lifted in 1987, and the KMT elected its first Taiwanese-born leader Lee Teng-hui in 1988, who himself had been arrested during the “White Terror” in the 1970s (Ibid.). Taiwan´s first free Parliamentary elections followed in 1992 and first Presidential election in 1996 (Suzuki, 2011). This move to democracy allowed people for the first time to talk openly about the traumas of the White Terror, with the 228 Incident becoming a potent symbol of Mainland Nationalist Chinese repression, leading to a formal Presidential apology in 1995 (Suzuki, 2011). Meanwhile, the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989 had, to the Taiwanese, reinforced that they were on a very different political path from the PRC: away from authoritarianism and repression. Whereas the One China principle continued to dominate PRC policy towards Taiwan, the pursuit of democracy and liberalisation in Taiwan had taken precedence over unification with China (Chai, 1986). Furthermore, despite the repression of the White Terror years, Taiwan´s economic development since the 1970s had transformed people’s quality of life above the PRC experience on the Mainland, creating a further distance in outlook (Qimao, 1996). In 1986 Taiwan had a per capita income ten times that of the PRC, meanwhile literacy rates were over 90% compared to PRCs 70%, with the proportion of university graduates ten times higher (Chai, 1986).


Extensive polling in 1992 illustrated this growing recognition of the Taiwanese experience as distinct. Nearly 25.5% of people in Taiwan viewed themselves as exclusively Chinese, roughly correlating with the 5.1 million people who had been born in Mainland China (Jiang, 2017). However, 17.6% viewed themselves as exclusively Taiwanese, with a further 46.4% of people viewing themselves as both Chinese and Taiwanese (Jiang, 2017). The KMT forged a new role in Taiwan’s multiparty democracy as a broad right-wing conservative umbrella espousing traditional paternalistic Confucian ideas and maintaining the traditional Chinese Unity policy. Meanwhile the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) emerged in 1986 as the main opposition party representing liberal democracy, Taiwanese nationalism, and the desire to break away from the Chinese mainland (Suzuki, 2011). Yet both parties sought to appeal to this new majority of people who identified as Taiwanese (Qimao, 1996). While these domestic changes were dramatic, it was nevertheless the external role of the PRC in relation to Taiwan, and how Taiwan should best react to it, that came to define the opposing policy platforms of the DPP and KMT.


Figure 4: Ji, J. (2021) A demonstrator holds a placard in support of Taiwan during a rally ahead of an identity referendum in Taipei., AFP

By this stage, the PRC recognised the need to soften the sharp edges of their One China principle to avoid a lurch of support towards Taiwanese independence (Jiang, 2017). This resulted in the “1992 Consensus”, in which it was maintained that there is “One China”, and yet recognised that each of the ROC and PRC had “differing interpretations” of what One China meant (Ibid.). This Consensus was designed to allow ROC-PRC relations without infringing on the “One China” principal. Yet no sooner had this supposed consensus been reached then DPP politicians sought to deny its existence (Sobel et al, 2010). For the DPP, the imbalance of power in PRC-ROC relations, with the PRC dominant economically, politically, and militarily, meant that only the PRCs interpretation could possibly prevail with the ROC having no chance of ever uniting China. Nevertheless, it was a KMT President, Lee Teng-hui, an active proponent of a separate Taiwanese identity, that first drew the PRCs ire with accusations that he was seeking to break away from the One China principle (Qimao, 1996). This culminated in a 1995-1996 crisis in which the PRC launched multiple cruise missiles and engaged in large-scale military exercises around Taiwanese waters to intimidate Taiwan in the run up to the 1996 elections (Ibid.). By the time the DPP won their first Presidency in 2000 under Chen Shui-ban, the DPP were actively promoting a “One Country on Each Side” concept (Sobel et al, 2010). This promoted the idea of the ROC and PRC as two separate and distinct countries, without formally declaring Taiwanese independence or denying the One China principal (Chen, 2016). Accordingly, there were now two main interpretations of the Taiwan-China status quo; the Two Countries concept of the DPP that fell short of their independence policy platform, and the 1992 Consensus favoured by most of the KMT that fell short of their Chinese unification platform (Sobel et al, 2010).


It was on these platforms of how best to manage the status quo that the KMT and DPP sought to compete for popular support. The large KMT election victory in 2008 saw President Ma Ying-jeou engage in a policy of rapprochement with China under the 1992 Consensus, with ROC-PRC relations hitting a post-democracy high (Chen, 2016). However, it was in part the negative public Taiwanese reaction to this policy of rapprochement, with people accusing President Ma of making too many concessions without proper scrutiny, that explained the humiliating KMT defeat in the 2016 election (Ibid.). The DPP instead won 56.12% of the vote, for the first time controlling both the Presidency and the executive, and they have maintained this majority support to this day (Ibid.). It is here that we can see just how far Taiwanese attitudes to identity have shifted. In 2016, only 3% of people in Taiwan identified as solely Chinese (down from 25.5% in 1992), whilst 33.6% identified as both Chinese and Taiwanese (down from 46.4%) (Jiang, 2017). However, the proportion of the population identifying as solely Taiwanese, experienced a massive increase from 17.6% of 1992 to 59.3% in 2016 (Jiang, 2017). With this increased identification with Taiwan, coupled with the strong support for DPP whose traditional ideology is towards independence, it might be supposed there has been a large growth in popular support for formal separation. It is true that Taiwanese independence support has grown from 11% in 1994 to 23% in 2016, however this remains a minority position (Jiang, 2017). Instead, the biggest growth is in people supporting the continuation of the ambiguous One China status quo, which grew from 48% in 1994 to 60% in 2016 (Jiang, 2017).

Figure 5: Reuters (2022) Soldiers exit from AAV7 amphibious assault vehicle run to position during a military exercise in Pingtung, Taiwan

This allows us to draw a few conclusions. The first is that there is a difference between Taiwanese national identity, which is increasingly rallying around an exclusively Taiwanese outlook, and political identity which seeks to maintain the existing ambiguous Chinese status quo (Jiang, 2017). From this, it would appear the Taiwanese public are happy to pursue a policy of pragmatism over ideology, with the likely result of a formal declaration of independence being a war with their far more powerful neighbour (Chen, 2016). Accordingly, Chinese threats to dissuade Taiwanese independence appear to be working, with Taiwanese support for the status quo higher than ever (Jiang, 2017). However, simultaneously, these threats are driving a further wedge between Taiwanese identity and that of a pan-Chinese identity, with support for unification with China at an all-time low, at 10% of the population (Ibid.). It is unlikely that the most recent bout of PRC military posturing will reverse this trend. If anything, it may accelerate it. Taiwanese nationhood as a separate entity from Mainland China is the reality felt by most in Taiwan, that politically they cannot afford to proclaim openly.



Conclusions: One China and One Taiwan


As can be seen, since the first significant Han Chinese migration in the 1600s, Taiwan has developed and maintained a Chinese identity. However, the divergent experiences of Taiwan from the Chinese Mainland, first as a forgotten backwater frontier of the Qing Empire, then the mixed experience of repression and stability under Japanese Imperialism, and later the repression and instability of reunification under Nationalist Chinese rule, created a distinct Taiwanese identity. Nevertheless, the rule of the Chinese Nationalist KMT meant Taiwan´s political ambitions remained tied to the Mainland. The process of democratisation and economic development since the 1980s has acted to put still greater distance between Taiwan and the Peoples Republic of China, and furthermore allowed a public reckoning with the severe repression of Nationalist Chinese KMT rule. The development of multi-party democracy, coupled with continuous diplomatic disputes with the PRC over the ever ambiguous One China principal, has only served to reinforce the predominance of a separate Taiwanese identity. Nevertheless, the clear imbalance of power between Taiwan and the PRC means the majority of Taiwanese people continue to pragmatically support the idea of One China in political theory and practice, if not in principle, with the main political division being how best to manage this status quo.




Bibliographical References

Chai, T. (1986) The Future of Taiwan, Asian Survey, 26(12), 1309-1323.


Chen, D. (2016) US–China Rivalry and the Weakening of the KMT's "1992 Consensus" Policy: Second Image Reversed, Revisited, Asian Survey, 56(4), 754-778.


Chu, Y. & Lin, J. (2001) Political Development in 20th-Century Taiwan: State-Building, Regime Transformation and the Construction of National Identity, The China Quarterly, 165, 102-129.


Cotton, J. (1989) Redefining Taiwan: 'One Country, Two Governments', The World Today, 45(12), 213-216.


Dawley, E. (2009) The Question of Identity in Recent Scholarship on the History of Taiwan, The China Quarterly, 198, 442-452.


Jiang, Y. (2017) Taiwan’s National Identity and Cross-Strait Relations, in: L. Dittmer, ed., Taiwan and China: Fitful Embrace, University of California Press, 19-41.


Qimao, C. (1996) The Taiwan Strait Crisis: Its Crux and Solutions, Asian Survey, 36(11), 1055-1066.


Sobel, R., Haynes, W. & Zheng, Y. (2010) Trends – Taiwan Public Opinion Trends, 1992-2008:

Exploring Attitudes on Cross-Strait Issues, The Public Opinion Quarterly, 74(4), 782-813.


Suzuki, S. (2011) The Competition to Attain Justice for Past Wrongs: The "Comfort Women" Issue in Taiwan, Pacific Affairs, 84(2), 223-244.

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Finn Archer

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