By Celine Hedin
The Taiwanese and Chinese government have for decades claimed to be the legitimate representation of “China.” Functioning as an independent country while mainland China claims dominion over it, Taiwan’s current political situation and status is precarious in many ways. The People’s Republic of China’s current rise on the international stage, leaves us with a number of questions: How will the conflict between the countries unfold and what is Taiwan’s place in the world? In order to comprehend this problem, one must look at history as to how the situation emerged in the first place.
The Republic of China (ROC) was founded in 1912 and replaced the old Qing Dynasty; ending the imperial history of China. At this time, the island of Taiwan was still under Japanese control. However, in the wake of Japan’s unconditional surrender in the Second World War, their control ceased and Taiwan was handed over to China.
Prior to the Japanese invasion and the Second World War, a Chinese civil war had been ongoing for some years. This war was mainly caused by an ideological split between China’s Nationalist Party – Kuomintang – which governed the country, and the Chinese Communist Party. But due to the external threat by the Japanese, the two sides made peace with each other. When Japan surrendered, however, the civil war resumed. Eventually, the Communists under Mao Zedong defeated the nationalist government, forcing the nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek, nationalist troops and approximately one million other sympathizers to flee to Taiwan. Despite the forced exile to Taiwan, Chiang Kai-shek hoped to reconquer mainland China from the Communists. Meanwhile, Mao Zedong proclaimed the mainland as the “People’s Republic of China” (PRC) in 1949.
Ever since the governments of Taiwan and China have been progressing in their own directions. For example, Taiwan became a democracy in the 1980s, while China remains an authoritarian Communist state. Still, however, the two governments do not acknowledge the other state as legitimate. The PRC’s expanding power has gradually pushed ROC out of the diplomatic landscape. Much thanks to China’s implementation of the “One China-Policy,” which declares that any country wishing to maintain or establish diplomatic relations with the PRC must break any official ties with Taiwan. The beginning of this diplomatic isolation can be said to be traced back to when the UN in 1971 decided to switch its diplomatic recognition of China from the ROC to the PRC. As of 2018 Taiwan only maintains official diplomatic relations with 18 other countries, and many of these are hoping to form bonds with China. Despite the inability to acquire international acknowledgement, Taiwan has been doing well developing its economy, industrialization and modernization.
In addition to the conflict over legitimacy between the ROC and the PRC, a more recent issue has arisen through the increased influence of Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). In the democratized Taiwan, a “Taiwanese Independence Movement” has emerged.
Although Kuomintang supporters, mainly the older generation, maybe hoping to retake and unify China, a significant number of the Chinese-Taiwanese have undergone a shift of national identity. Especially the younger generation (30 years and younger), who have lived their whole lives in the independent system, are considering their national identity completely different from mainland China’s. The Democratic Progressive Party, which right now is the ruling party in Taiwan, have traditionally held a pro-independence profile. Since the current president Tsai Ing-Wen obtained her position, tensions between China and Taiwan have increased. This, due to Tsai taking a firmer stance against the mainland, explicitly refusing the demand of including Taiwan in the PRC’s interpretation of “One China.” She has, however, not pushed the independence-question further, foremostly advocating to uphold the current status quo regarding their relation. Diplomatic isolation aside, China also threatens that if Taiwan were to step up towards independence, Beijing will not hesitate to turn to military action.
What can we expect of Taiwan’s future? Reconciling the two governments any time soon seems highly unlikely considering how differently they have developed. Freedom House ranked Taiwan very high in terms of freedom of press, political rights and civil liberties. China, on the other hand, was considered one of the most oppressive countries by the same criteria, with its net and press being among the most censored in the world. The government closely monitors all information passing through the media or other sources, making sure everything is in line with the Communist Party’s opinions and wishes.
China has, for some time now, extended an “One China – two systems” offer to Taiwan. This system is already in practice in the special regions of Hong Kong and Macau and would grant Taiwan a significant degree of autonomy if they decided to reunify. Ultimately, though, accepting this offer would mean that Taipei gives up its sovereignty to Beijing, which is something Taiwan has rejected. The only plausible way of reunifying the two again, given their current political positions, seems to be if China did so by force.
Image: Wikimedia Commons