Tracing the Origins of the Taiwan-China Split

A close-up of Taiwan on a map, located southeast of China's Fujian provice. © Norman Chan via Adobe Stock.
A close-up of Taiwan on a map, located southeast of China's Fujian provice. © Norman Chan via Adobe Stock.

Recent headlines regarding tensions and the possibility of direct conflict between China and the island nation of Taiwan are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. The delicate relationship between Taiwan and China is a subject that has been shrouded in misunderstanding and confusion for many years. The roots of the conflict go back centuries, with both sides claiming sovereignty over Taiwan, a strategically located island off the coast of China.

Taiwan’s indigenous peoples, also known as Austronesian peoples, are the original inhabitants of the island. They are estimated to have lived on Taiwan for thousands of years before the arrival of Han Chinese immigrants and colonizers from Europe and Japan.

There are 16 recognized indigenous groups in Taiwan, each with their own unique language, culture, and tradition. The largest of these groups are the Amis, Atayal, Paiwan, Bunun, and Rukai. These groups have their own distinct histories, customs, and ways of life, but they share a common Austronesian heritage. For many years, the indigenous peoples of Taiwan faced discrimination, oppression, and cultural suppression under Chinese and Japanese rule. Many were forced to assimilate to Chinese or Japanese culture, and their languages, traditions, and religions were suppressed.

In 1994, the Taiwanese government established the Council of Indigenous Peoples to promote the rights and welfare of indigenous peoples and to help preserve their cultural heritage. The government has also recognized the indigenous languages as national languages of Taiwan and has taken steps to promote their preservation and use.

The initial displacement of Taiwan’s indigenous peoples began in 1624, when the Dutch East India Company arrived and established a colony on the island (originally called “Formosa”) to facilitate trade with China and Japan. However, the Dutch faced significant resistance from the indigenous peoples of Taiwan, who saw them as colonizers and invaders. The indigenous peoples staged several uprisings against Dutch rule, including the famous Siege of Fort Zeelandia in 1661. One year later, in 1662, the Dutch were ousted by the Ming dynasty loyalist Koxinga, who ruled over Taiwan as an independent state for a short period.

Taiwan became a part of the Chinese Qing Dynasty in 1683, after the Qing government annexed the island from Koxinga. During the Qing era, Taiwan was primarily viewed as a strategic outpost and was used by the Qing government as a base for suppressing piracy along the coast. Over time, Taiwan became more integrated into the Qing empire and played a significant role in trade and commerce.

Under Qing rule, many Han Chinese immigrants were encouraged to settle in Taiwan, which significantly changed the island’s demographics and cultural landscape. These immigrants brought with them their own customs, traditions, and language, which eventually became the dominant culture in Taiwan. However, the indigenous peoples of Taiwan continued to maintain their own cultures and traditions, which were distinct from those of the Han Chinese.

The Qing government established a system of governance in Taiwan that was similar to the one used in China. Taiwan was initially administered as part of Fujian Province, but was later given special status as a separate province. The Qing government appointed officials to govern Taiwan and to manage trade and commerce on the island. They also built forts and other military installations to defend against potential threats from the sea.

During the Qing era, Taiwan’s economy grew significantly, with the island becoming a major center for trade and commerce in the region. Taiwanese merchants were involved in trade with China, Japan, and Southeast Asia, and Taiwan became known for its tea, sugar, and camphor exports. Unfortunately, the prosperity of the island was not evenly distributed, and many Taiwanese people, particularly the indigenous peoples, suffered from poverty and social inequality.

In the late 19th century, the Qing dynasty began to decline, and Taiwan became increasingly vulnerable to foreign powers – the Japanese occupation of Taiwan began in 1895 after Japan defeated the Chinese Qing dynasty in the First Sino-Japanese War. Taiwan had been a part of China for two centuries by this point, but after the war, China was forced to cede Taiwan to Japan under the Treaty of Shimonoseki. Japan ruled over Taiwan as a colony for the next 50 years until the end of World War II.

During the Japanese occupation, Taiwan underwent significant changes, both culturally and economically. The Japanese introduced their language, education system, and culture to Taiwan, and invested heavily in the island’s infrastructure, industry, and agriculture. They also implemented a number of reforms that improved living standards and public health, such as building hospitals, schools, and sanitation facilities.

There was significant resistance to Japanese occupation. Many Taiwanese saw the Japanese as oppressive colonizers who were intent on erasing Taiwan’s cultural identity and suppressing its people. There were several major uprisings against Japanese rule, such as the Wushe Incident in 1930, in which an indigenous tribe rebelled against Japanese authorities.

During World War II, Taiwan became an important strategic location for Japan and was heavily targeted by Allied forces. After Japan’s surrender in 1945, Taiwan was returned to Chinese control, but the Chinese Civil War between the Nationalist Party (KMT) and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) resumed. The KMT government fled to Taiwan in 1949 and established a government there, which is still in power today. Many Taiwanese who had collaborated with the Japanese during the occupation were persecuted by the KMT government in the early years of their rule. Today, the Japanese occupation of Taiwan remains a contentious and complex issue in Taiwan’s history. While some see it as a time of economic development and modernization, others view it as a period of oppression and cultural erasure.

When the Communist Party took control of mainland China and formed the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the Nationalist Party fled to Taiwan and established their own government called the Republic of China (ROC).  The United States initially recognized the ROC as the legitimate government of China, but this shifted to the PRC in 1979. This left Taiwan in a unique position, recognized as a sovereign state by some, but not by the PRC. The situation is further complicated by the PRC’s insistence that Taiwan is a province of China, temporarily separated from the rest of the country.

The “One Country, Two Systems” policy is a political solution originally proposed by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in the 1980s to address the issue of reunification with Taiwan. The policy was first outlined by Deng Xiaoping in 1981 and was later implemented in Hong Kong and Macau after their handovers from the UK and Portugal, respectively. The basic idea behind the policy is that there would be one China, but each side would maintain its own political, economic, and social systems. In the case of Taiwan, this would mean that the island would maintain its current democratic system, while being reunified with mainland China. The policy is intended to allow for a peaceful reunification and to maintain stability in the region.

However, the “One Country, Two Systems” policy was (and continues to be) met with skepticism and criticism from Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which has historically advocated for Taiwanese independence. The DPP argues that the policy would threaten Taiwan’s democratic system and would not provide sufficient protection for the island’s sovereignty and autonomy. They also point to the experience of Hong Kong, where the policy has been criticized for eroding Hong Kong’s autonomy, violating the principle of “one country, two systems.”

The issue of reunification with Taiwan remains a contentious one, with both the Chinese government and the Taiwanese government holding different views on the best way to address the issue. While some in Taiwan support the idea of reunification with mainland China, others believe that Taiwan should maintain its current political system and remain an independent sovereign state.

Recent years have seen a rise in tensions between China and Taiwan, with China making threatening statements and actions towards Taiwan. For example, the PRC passed the Anti-Secession Law in 2004, which authorized military action if Taiwan moved towards formal independence. These actions have prompted concerns in Taiwan, which has responded by seeking to maintain and protect its independence.

Written by Editorial Team

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