Forgotten World (97): Taiwan

When is a country not a country? perhaps when it is the island of Taiwan. Legally Taiwan – which formally calls itself the Republic of China (ROC) – is a province of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and most nations – and the United Nations – acknowledge the position of the Chinese government that this is the case. Therefore Taiwan has formal diplomatic relations with only two dozen countries – Pacific, South American and African states in the main – and no seat at the UN. However, for all practical purposes, Taiwan has been an independent country for some 50 years and, in that time, its 23 million citizens have seen spectacular economic growth and enjoyed rising prosperity.
How has this happened? In 1949, following a bitter civil war, the Chinese nationalist government of President Chiang Kai-shek fled to Taiwan ahead of the advance of the communists under Mao Zedong . The government-in-exile then established Taipei as its capital and for decades hoped to reclaim control over the mainland. Eventually, in the early 1990s, Taiwan made the transition from an authoritarian one-party state to a democracy. Meanwhile economic liberalisation, strong investment and substantial exports have driven a successful, high-tech economy.
Today China is as strong as ever in its insistence that – like Hong Kong – Taiwan must be returned to its control and it has sanctioned the use of force against Taiwan if it moves toward declaring statehood. It also insists that no state can have formal ties with both mainland China and Taiwan. Some 600 Chinese missiles aimed at the island and periodic military exercises back up China’s stance.


  • Andrew

    Roger, your account of “how it happened is extremely superficial”. The rift between Taiwan and China goes back long before 1949. Ethnic Chinese did not form the majority on Taiwan until the late 17th century; before that ,the majority of the population were Austronesian. In brief, ethnic Chinese were largely brought to Taiwan by the Dutch who used them to develop agriculture on the island.
    So it was in this period that Taiwan became a mix of ethnic Chinese as well as numerous foreign cultures, as it was under Dutch tutelage that much of the agriculture was established. Taiwan was briefly a province of China under the Manchu Qing dynasty before it was signed over to Japan in perpetuity in 1895 where again a non-Chinese influence played a key role in making Taiwan what it is now, as many of the Taiwanese universities and components of its infrastructure such as its early rail system were built under the Japanese.
    In actuality in the early 20th century the Republic of China government signed off Taiwan as a lost province along with Vietnam.
    Finally when the K.M.T (Chinese Nationalists) arrived in 1947, after initially being welcomed as “fellow Chinese”, it became apparent that there were substantial cultural differences between the K.M.T Chinese and the previous Chinese occupants of Taiwan.
    This led to the K.M.T creating an enforced sinification scheme which included discouraging the use of the Japanese and Taiwanese languages and anything else that indicated the cultural gulf.

  • Naruwan

    When has the UN ever acknowledged that Taiwan is a province of the PRC, as you put it? The ROC lost its UN seat to the PRC in 1971, but Taiwan’s political status has been in limbo ever since.
    In fact, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon caused a bit of a kerfuffle recently when he declared Taiwan to be a part of China because, as experts have pointed out, from its own legal standpoint this is simply not the case.