Winberg CHAI

The economically dynamic island of Taiwan, officially known as the Republic of China, is considered by mainland China to be China’s twenty-third province. Most of Taiwan’s 22 million citizens prefer the status quo: de facto independence from the People’s Republic of China, but with ever-increasing economic and social ties to the mainland.

Taiwan, or as it is known by its official name, the Republic of China (Zhong-hua min-guo, in Mandarin), is a hot spot in today’s world politics. China insists that it is a renegade province of the mainland, while for more than four decades the island’s former ruling party, the Nationalists, (Kuomintang, KMT) insisted that the island was the true government of China in exile. After the Nationalists were defeated by the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in 2000, the DPP president, Chen Shui-bian, (in office 2000–2008) insisted that Taiwan was “independent” and tried repeatedly to get the United Nations and other international organizations including the World Health Organization to recognize it as a sovereign nation; Shui-bian’s claims and efforts infuriated China. Meanwhile, the United States, under the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, is bound by Congress to defend Taiwan should China try to reunify with Taiwan by force; yet at the same time the U.S. government follows the line that “there is only one China and Taiwan is part of China,” which it first accepted when President Carter formalized diplomatic ties with the mainland in 1979.

Further complicating the matter is that the overwhelming majority of polls show that most of Taiwan’s 22 million citizens prefer the status quo—that is, de facto independence yet with increasing economic and cultural ties to mainland China—regardless of their leaders’ rhetoric.

Geographically, Taiwan is quite small, comprising 13,977 square miles of islands (36,000 square kilometers: about half the size of Ireland, with five times the population), including the main island of Taiwan, Penghu Islands (the Pescadores), Quemoy and Matsu, which are the two closest islands to China, and a few other minor islands, some located in the South China Sea. At its closest, the island of Taiwan is a mere hundred miles from the Chinese coast.

The main island of Taiwan is composed of high mountain ranges running from the northeast to the southern tip. In addition to the central range there are volcanic mountains, foothills, terrace tablelands, coastal plains, and basins. The climate is subtropical.

During the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) Taiwan was added to the Chinese empire, and Han Chinese, many from nearby Fujian Province, began to migrate to the island during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Before that time, the island had been the home to an estimated eleven aboriginal tribes. During this time, Chinese and Japanese pirates also began to set up residences on the island and turn it into their base.

By 1624 there were some 30,000 Chinese settlers on the island when the Dutch invaded. The Dutch newcomers promptly set up a trading post. Two years later, Spaniards landed at Keelung and occupied the northern coast. But the Dutch drove the Spaniards out in 1641.

In 1661, after the Ming dynasty was overthrown by the Manchus in China, a Ming general, Cheng Cheng-kung (known in the West as Koxinga), took over the island of Taiwan to use as a base from which to attack the Manchus with the goal of restoring the Ming dynasty. However, the Manchus defeated the Ming exiles in 1683 and Taiwan was made into a prefecture of Fujian Province. In 1886 Taiwan was officially named a full province under the Qing dynasty (1644–1912), which was established by the Manchus.

China’s claim to Taiwan grew murkier as the Qing dynasty weakened in power under the attack of Western and Japanese military forces. After the First Sino-Japanese War (1894–1985) the Manchus were forced to cede Taiwan to Japan. But at the end of World War II Japan was forced to return all the lands it tried to take over from China back to the Chinese government, and so Taiwan was returned to Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist-controlled government, that is, the Republic of China, on 25 October 1945. Taiwan thus again became a province of China.

A civil war between Chiang’s Nationalist forces and Mao Zedong’s Communist-led People’s Liberation Army soon broke out (1945–1949). Mao defeated Chiang’s forces in 1949, establishing the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on 1 October 1949 in Beijing. Meanwhile, Chiang, along with some two million Chinese, reestablished his Nationalist-controlled Republic of China on Taiwan. Mao was poised to take over Taiwan in 1950, when the Korean War broke out and the U.S. government decided to intervene in the Chinese conflict. In an attempt to stop the spread of Communism in Asia, President Truman sent the Seventh Fleet to the Taiwan Straits, and thus prevented Mao from absorbing Taiwan into the PRC. From then on, the United States assumed the defense of Taiwan and helped Chiang to build up Taiwan into a modern and prosperous independent state with $5.7 billion worth of aid between 1950 and 1965, as well as with modern military equipment.

From 1949 until his death in 1975, Chiang Kai-shek always insisted that the Republic of China on Taiwan was the true government of China and that the island was a mere base that he intended to use to retake the mainland from the Communists. As a result, he tolerated no political dissent and established martial law on the island. After his death Chiang’s son Chiang Ching-kuo assumed the presidency (1978–1988) and began to liberalize some of his father’s policies, easing up on restrictions that forbade all contact between Taiwanese and their families back on the mainland, for example. But both Chiangs insisted that Taiwan was a part of China and never saw the island as an independent nation.

After Chiang Ching-kuo died in 1988, a new era opened in Taiwanese politics. Many political parties formed and democratic elections were held. Although the first Taiwanese-born president, Lee Teng-hui (in office 1988–2000), was a member of the KMT party, he broke with the Chiangs’ tradition and refused to acknowledge that Taiwan was a part of China. The next president, Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) member Chen Shui-bian (in office 2000–2008), went so far as to call for Taiwan’s official independence and even tried to push a referendum in the 2008 presidential election to use the name “Taiwan” rather than the “Republic of China” in order to seek admission to the United Nations, which Taiwan has not been a member of since 1971.

Currently the Taiwanese people have shown they do not want to provoke China into an all-out war by declaring independence. Chen Shui-bian’s party, the DPP, was defeated in the 2008 legislative election by the KMT (and in the presidential election by Ya Ming-jeou). In fact, the Taiwanese people share close cultural and economic ties with the Chinese mainland. But politically speaking, Taiwan is a full multiparty democracy with individual rights not shared by Chinese on the mainland.

The “One-China” Policy

The issue of cross-strait relations (that is, the relationship between mainland China and the island of Taiwan) has reverberated in the global community since the People’s Republic of China was founded in 1949. Whether and how Taiwan should be included in various international bodies, from the International Olympic Committee to the World Health Organization, has been one source of disagreement. This text comes from a statement issued by the [mainland] Chinese National People’s Congress in the 1990s:

U.S. President Bill Clinton recently signed two bills passed by the House of Representatives and the Senate: one is supportive of Taiwan’s participation in the World Health Organization (WHO) and the other, the Omnibus Appropriations Act, contains clauses showing such support, in an attempt to help Taiwan squeeze into international organizations where statehood is a prerequisite.

The act of the U.S. Congress and Administration wantonly violates the three Sino-U.S. joint communiqués, severely infringes upon China’s sovereignty, brutally interferes in China’s internal affairs, and tramples on the basic norms governing international relations, and for this we express our utmost indignation and strong opposition.

Taiwan is but a province of China no matter how Lee Teng-hui tries to blur this. This fact is universally recognized by the international community including the United States.

As part of China, Taiwan is not qualified nor entitled to participate in any international organization that only sovereign countries can enter. This is a most basic principle guiding international relations that nobody can negate.

The U.S. leaders and administration have repeatedly and openly stated their adherence to the “one-China” policy, and even after Lee Teng-hui started to advocate his “Two-States” remarks in an attempt to split the motherland, they again clearly promised not to support “Taiwan independence,” not to support “two-Chinas” or “one China, one Taiwan,” and not to support Taiwan to enter into any international organization that only sovereign countries can join. However, the U.S. government so quickly went back on its words and, regardless of the universally-recognized international law and basic norms governing international relations, openly came out to support Taiwan in “participating” in the WHO that only sovereign countries can enter, trying to bolster the Taiwan authorities in their attempt to create “two-Chinas” or “one China, one Taiwan,” and to lay obstacles for China’s reunification cause.

The Taiwan issue is the most essential and most sensitive at the core of Sino-U.S. relations. The governments and leaders of the two countries have a consensus understanding of this. The Taiwan issue is a matter concerning China’s national sovereignty and territorial integrity, from which the Chinese people will never retreat.

Source: Statement of Chinese NPC Foreign Affairs Committee Opposing U.S. Support of Taiwan’s Attempt to Participate in WHO. (n. d.). Retrieved March 13, 2009, from

Further Reading

Chiu Hungdah & Shao-chuan Leng. (Eds.). (1984). China: Seventy years after the 1911 Hsin-hai Revolution. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press.

Copper, J. F. (2007). Historical dictionary of Taiwan. Lanham, MD: The Scarecrow Press.

Hsiung, James C. (Ed.). (1981). Contemporary Republic of China: The Taiwan experience. New York: Praeger.

Rubinstein, M. A. (Ed.). (1999). Taiwan: A new history. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe.

Source: Chai, Winberg (2009). Taiwan (Republic of China). In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 2167–2169. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

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