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Ever since Japan ceded control of The Republic of China (ROC, Taiwan, formerly Formosa) in 1945, there has been constant ambiguity surrounding the island’s political status.
Relations between the People’s Republic of China (PRC, mainland China, or simply China) and Taiwan have grown increasingly fragile with time. Many nations, organizations, and even civilians are wary of publicly commenting on the debate, choosing instead to avoid provocation and not add fuel to a smouldering international arena.
What are the roots of the China and Taiwan conflict?
Both the Chinese and Taiwanese governments agree that Taiwan was a Chinese province prior to 1895, when China surrendered control of Taiwan to Imperial Japan. What remains in dispute is which governing body is the legitimate government of China today: the Chinese Communist Party (CPC), which currently governs mainland China, or the The Chinese Nationalist Party (also known as the Kuomintang, or KMT).
During the 1940s, two major milestones impacting Taiwan’s identity occurred just a few years apart. First, Japan relinquished control over Taiwan as part of the August 1945 Japanese surrender that brought World War II to an end. At that time, the KMT, which had ruled mainland China since 1927, remained the country’s official government.
Second, almost immediately following Japan’s surrender, the Chinese Civil War broke out between the KMT and the CPC. The civil war ended in 1949, with the CPC gaining power over the mainland and the KMT fleeing to the nearby island of Taiwan and assuming power there.
So why are Taiwan-China relations so complicated in 2019?
The end of World War II was later formalized in 1951 with the signing of the Treaty of San Francisco by 48 nations, including Japan. This treaty did not exactly create the Taiwan identity crisis, but it greatly aggravated the developing problem in ways that persist to this day. While Japan renounced “…all right, title and claim to Formosa [Taiwan]…”, the treaty did not specify to which country Japan was ceding control of the island group.
U.S. Secretary of State and treaty co-author John Dulles affirmed that in the treaty, Japan “merely renounced sovereignty over Taiwan”, and therefore that America could not “admit that the disposition of Taiwan is merely an internal problem of China.”
Near the end of World War II in 1945, US President Franklin Roosevelt and UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill had released a joint declaration along with Chiang Kai-shek, then the KMT president of the National Government of the Republic of China. The declaration demanded the surrender of Japan and specified the terms under which that surrender would be accepted.
A month after the release of that declaration, the three leaders met in Cairo, Egypt to work out the logistics of Japan’s surrender. Specifically, they discussed how territories taken from China by Japan, including Taiwan, would be governed when the war ended.
The resulting Cairo Declaration stated that “all the territories Japan has stolen from the Chinese, such as Manchuria, Formosa, and The Pescadores, shall be restored to the Republic of China.” Yet by the time the Treaty of San Francisco was signed six years later, the KMT had fled to Taiwan, while mainland China had become the People’s Republic of China under CPC rule.
So which government is the true representative of all of China?
This was the question that many nations wrestled with at the San Francisco Peace Treaty conference. The U.S. wanted to invite Taiwan, while the United Kingdom wanted to invite mainland China. In the end, a compromise was reached and neither nation was invited.
However, under pressure from the U.S., Japan entered into a separate treaty with Taiwan the following year. Signed in August 1952, the Sino-Japanese Peace Treaty (or Treaty of Taipei) marked the formal end of war between Taiwan and Japan.
During the ensuing three decades, thanks to high levels of household savings and substantial foreign direct investment, the economy of the People’s Republic of China soared. The huge foreign inflow and modest outflow doubled mainland’s China’s GDP per capita from 1950 to 1978.
With this growth came greater economic reliance on the mainland China powerhouse by other nations. Capitalizing on this position of economic power, the PRC signed new diplomatic agreements with many countries. The agreements required the signing countries to cut ties with Taiwan and formally recognize the PRC as the only true government of all China.
Between 1970 and 1980, countries including Japan, the US, UK and Australia all officially severed diplomatic ties with Taiwan, recognizing the Chinese mainland as the “sole government of China.”
International institutions such as the United Nations – intended to embody impartiality, progress and justice – removed Taiwan’s membership rights in 1971. Since then, despite repeated applications, Taiwan has been continuously denied even partial UN membership.
Timeline of the Taiwan identity crisis
Still more complications – the ethnic makeup of Taiwan
Prior to the KMT’s arrival, Taiwan largely consisted of Hoklo and Hakka Chinese, whose ancestors came from the Fujian and Guangdong provinces. It is believed that those ancestors originally escaped to Taiwan in search of refuge from hardship and turmoil on the mainland.
These two groups still make up 84% of Taiwan’s population, with many also believed to have traces of Taiwanese aboriginal and other Southeast Asian ancestry.
With the arrival of the KMT, however, a group of 1.5 million mainland Chinese quickly came to dominate Taiwan’s political scene, in spite of representing only about 14% of its population. Under the KMT’s rule, public opposition against the government was outlawed, and those who violated the policy were dealt with harshly.
These events gave rise to hostility and deep resentment between the newly arrived Mainlanders and the Taiwanese who had occupied the island prior to 1949.
President Chiang held power over the islands until 1975. Upon his death, his effective dictatorship was passed on to his son, Chiang Ching-kuo. Facing pressure from global democratic movements and overpowering resentment from pre-KMT Taiwanese, Chiang Ching-kuo eventually led Taiwan into a democratic era.
The state’s first democratic election occurred in 2000, setting Taiwan on a vastly different trajectory from mainland China.
How do the Taiwanese view their identity? Are they Chinese?
A survey conducted by Taiwan Security Research shows that over 50% of Taiwanese people view themselves as just Taiwanese, about 40% view themselves as Taiwanese and Chinese, and less than 4% view themselves as just Chinese.
Furthermore, according to the Election Study Centre of National Chengchi University, the percentage of people in Taiwan who identify as both Taiwanese and Chinese has hovered around the 40% mark since 1994. Meanwhile, the proportion of Taiwan residents who identify as solely Taiwanese has more than doubled. The same 24-year span has seen the proportion of people in Taiwan who identify themselves as only Chinese decrease dramatically, from 26.2% to 3.7%.
What happens now?
This ongoing shift in self-identification among Taiwan’s population poses a major challenge for mainland China, which continues to push for a “One Country, Two Systems” solution.