Between China and a Hard Place

Mao Zedong once said that Taiwan should be independent, but the Chinese Communist Party has since changed its mind. How Chinese is Taiwan?

A soldier beneath a photo of Chiang Kai-shek inside the army gymnasium, Taipei, 1950s © Fernand Gigon/Getty Images.
A soldier beneath a photo of Chiang Kai-shek inside the army gymnasium, Taipei, 1950s © Fernand Gigon/Getty Images.

In the communique issued at the end of their meeting in Cornwall in June 2021, leaders of the G7 group of nations affirmed the ‘importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait’ and their strong opposition to ‘any unilateral attempts to change the status quo and increase tensions’. China’s reaction was quick and predictable. It denounced the G7 statement as interference in its affairs and an attempt to ‘reverse the wheels of history’. For the Chinese Communist Party, the status of Taiwan is a sensitive topic. Together with Tibet, and the massacre in Tiananmen Square in 1989, foreign visitors to China are routinely advised to avoid any discussion of it. To China’s leaders, Taiwan is an indivisible part of the ‘big Motherland’, a ‘renegade province’ that will eventually, by persuasion, coercion or force if necessary, be ‘reunited’ with mainland China. Alternative views are firmly suppressed.

To many, perhaps most, outsiders the claim seems logical. Formally, Taiwan is the ‘Republic of China’, which traces its history back to the collapse of the Qing dynasty in 1911 and, therefore, a rival government to the one in Beijing. On paper, there can be little doubt which of the two is the effective government of the subcontinent that is China and, forced to choose between them, most nations recognise the government in Beijing as the sole Chinese government. Just 15 nations, most of them small island states in the Caribbean or Pacific, have diplomatic relations with Taiwan. 

Taiwan is no Transnistria, however, nor even a Palestine. In size it may be but a fraction that of China, smaller in area than the Netherlands, but its economy and population place it on a par with Australia, a member of the G20 group of nations and a guest at the G7 summit. For a country that in 1950 was poor, overwhelmingly agricultural and exported labour to the Philippines, this has been a huge achievement and one that owes nothing to China. 


Terra nullius

The assertion that Taiwan has been an integral part of the country since ancient times is an article of faith in today’s China and taught as such in its schools. Yet, while Taiwan lies barely 100 miles off the Chinese mainland, the island scarcely featured on early Chinese maps. Even in the 16th century, as European countries such as Portugal and the Netherlands were developing trading links with East Asia, Chinese mariners and traders gave Taiwan a wide berth. The island was considered disease-ridden and the indigenous inhabitants, who were ethnically of Austro Polynesian origin, had a well-founded reputation for head-hunting and murdering sailors unfortunate enough to be shipwrecked on the island’s shores. The few intrepid Chinese who had settled there were usually fleeing famine, banditry or government oppression on the mainland. 

 Fort Zeelandia, built by the Dutch East India Company, Formosa (Taiwan), c.1665 © Bridgeman Images.
 Fort Zeelandia, built by the Dutch East India Company, Formosa (Taiwan), c.1665 © Bridgeman Images. 

Then, in 1625, the Dutch East India Company established a base on Taiwan. The original ambition had been to capture Macao from the Portuguese. When that failed, the Dutch tried instead to establish a base on the Pescadores (Penghu), a small group of islands off the west coast of Taiwan. Chinese officials in Fujian province objected to this strongly, regarding the Pescadores as Chinese territory. Taiwan, by contrast, was considered terra nullius – unclaimed land – and no objection was made to the Dutch settling there. For almost the next 40 years they maintained a base at Fort Zeelandia, in modern day Tainan, from which they sought to develop trade with China. Sugar cultivation held considerable potential and there are suggestions that the Dutch exported Taiwanese sugar as far afield as Persia. To cultivate this, they imported tens of thousands of Chinese labourers, the first significant influx of Chinese to the island.

Meanwhile, the Ming rulers in China were increasingly preoccupied with a growing threat from the Manchu, or Qing, to the north. In 1644 Beijing fell and the Ming dynasty ended, succeeded by the Qing. A small pocket of Ming resistance remained, centred on Fujian province in the south-east under the leadership of the naval commander, Cheng Chih-lung, a former pirate. Cheng was eventually captured by, or surrendered to, the Qing, but his son Cheng Cheng-kung, also known as Koxinga, carried on the resistance, initially with some success, especially at sea. (In view of Taiwan’s subsequent history, it is noteworthy that both Koxinga’s mother and wife were Japanese.) By 1661, however, following another major assault by the Manchu forces, Koxinga’s position on the mainland was untenable and he invaded Taiwan to use it as a safe base from which to regroup and rebuild. After a ten-month siege the Dutch capitulated in February 1662.

Koxinga died the following year, but his descendants continued to control Taiwan until the island finally succumbed to the Qing in 1683. Having ousted the last remnants of Ming opposition, the Qing then all but ignored the island for the next 200 years. The Emperor Kangxi, on being told of the conquest, is reported to have dismissed Taiwan as being ‘outside the empire and of no great consequence’. The island was, in effect, administered as a colony from Fujian province, itself considered a backwater, isolated from most of China by mountain ranges. 


Red lines

Sporadic settlement continued, mainly from Fujian (Taiwan and Fujian share a common language, Hoklo, or Minnanhua, distinct from standard Chinese, also known as Mandarin or Putonghua). As this increased, so did conflict with the indigenous aboriginal tribes. To try to contain this, an administrative boundary known as the ‘red line’ was drawn on official maps to demarcate areas under government authority. These were largely along the western coast and the government refused to accept any responsibility for matters outside the line, a policy that would remain in place until the end of Chinese rule.

Even within the areas formally under government authority, Taiwan was generally considered a lawless place. Not infrequently, government writ did not even extend as far as the imperial court’s own officials on the island. In 1861 Great Britain opened the first consulate on the island and early consular reports are peppered with frustration at the unwillingness or outright refusal of government representatives on the island to adhere to agreements set down in bilateral treaties. 

Koxinga and Cheng Chih-lung, illustration, c.1903. Alamy.
Koxinga and Cheng Chih-lung, illustration, c.1903. Alamy.

The opening of the consulate had been a response to the growing potential of the island. In addition to sugar, production of rice and tea was increasing and coal and gold were being mined. Camphor trees, a traditional source of ingredients for medicine, insect repellent and antioxidants, grew in abundance. After the Birmingham inventor Alexander Parkes used it to patent celluloid in 1856, demand for it took off, as did its value. 

Britain was not the only foreign power to show interest. In 1874 Japan occupied part of the south, seeking retribution after 54 of its sailors were murdered following a shipwreck. In 1884 the French bombarded Keelung. This finally appears to have persuaded the court in Beijing to improve the administration of the island by making it a province in its own right, rather than an adjunct of Fujian. This it did in 1887, with Liu Ming-chuan appointed as the first governor. He immediately embarked upon a programme of modernisation, including construction of the first railway in Imperial China. 

For a while, matters looked up but, after Liu resigned on health grounds in 1891, further work on port development and extending the railway promptly came to a halt. Then, in 1894, Japan defeated China in a brief war and under the terms of the settlement gained control of Taiwan. The government in Beijing seems to have accepted this with resignation, but it was not popular with the small elite on the island, who made a half-hearted effort to declare an independent republic – the first such attempt in Asia. Interestingly, Liu attributed his success in building the railway to the more enlightened attitude of this same elite, compared with their counterparts on the mainland who he considered resistant to change and innovation. 

Aboriginal group in central Taiwan, c.1870-1900. Courtesy University of Birmingham, Cadbury Research Library/Special Collections (Mx01-091).
Aboriginal group in central Taiwan, c.1870-1900. Courtesy University of Birmingham, Cadbury Research Library/Special Collections (Mx01-091).

The most charitable description of Japan’s new colony was that it showed potential. It was not lacking in resources, but banditry and lawlessness remained rife, while the eastern side was firmly in the hands of various aboriginal tribes. Apart from the railway line, communications were rudimentary at best, with roads almost non-existent and most travel being by boat. Initially, Japan approached the aborigines warily. But the pursuit of economic opportunities, especially in forestry, led to growing encroachment on aboriginal lands, countered by increased resistance. Policy hardened and a clearly marked and guarded ‘line of control’, not unlike China’s ‘red line’, was established to delineate aboriginal controlled areas outside Japanese jurisdiction. This area was gradually squeezed ever smaller, but, as the cost to the central government of trying to impose its authority over the whole island grew ever higher, it was modified into one in which distinct districts were tacitly accepted as lying under native authority and therefore outside the tax base. To reduce the risk of conflict, ‘outsiders’ required government permission to enter these areas, a policy that would survive until the 1990s. 


Trouble in China

Colonisation led to rapid and sustained economic development and modernisation. By 1950 Taiwan would be the world’s fourth largest sugar producer, after India, Cuba and Java, and a major producer of timber as well as coal. Big irrigation projects led to a huge increase in rice cultivation. The Japanese period also saw some political development, with elections for local councillors. As in some British colonies, suffrage was based on property tax and was far from universal, but Taiwanese residents in Japan were also able to vote in elections to the Diet (parliament). 

Meanwhile, in China the Qing dynasty had finally collapsed in 1911, to be succeeded by the Republic of China under the rule of the Kuomintang (KMT), or Chinese Nationalist Party. The next two decades were marked by weak central government, the rule of war lords and, from the late 1920s, growing conflict between the KMT under Chiang Kai-shek and the Communist Party under Mao Zedong. In 1932 Japan invaded the resource-rich region of Manchuria and created a puppet state there before launching a full scale assault on China in 1937, which propelled Chiang and Mao into an uneasy truce. At this stage they held opposing views on the status of Taiwan. Mao told the American author Edgar Snow that Taiwan should be independent, while Chiang argued that it was Chinese territory that should be returned. Following Pearl Harbor, and with China now formally on the Allied side, this view was accepted by Roosevelt and Churchill, set out in the Cairo Declaration of 1943 and reaffirmed in the Potsdam Declaration two years later. It is doubtful whether either Churchill or Roosevelt gave any serious thought to Chiang’s claims, preoccupied as they were with the wider pursuit of the war. 

The military of the People’s Republic  of China hunting westerners and Chiang Kai-shek  on Taiwan, 1949 © Bridgeman Images.
The military of the People’s Republic  of China hunting westerners and Chiang Kai-shek  on Taiwan, 1949 © Bridgeman Images.

Upon the defeat of Japan in August 1945 Chiang, therefore, sent troops and administrators to take control of Taiwan. The Taiwanese had been expecting liberation from Japanese rule to lead to self-government, not the imposition of another regime. The move was far from popular, dissatisfaction only compounded by Chiang’s handling of it. The troops sent to the island were ill-disciplined and barely trained, while mainland Chinese with little or no knowledge of the island were parachuted into senior positions over the heads of more experienced and capable locals. Corruption, nepotism and minor altercations grew. The Japanese had controlled Taiwan for 50 years and hardly any locals spoke Mandarin, yet overnight this was imposed as the official language. Not surprisingly, resentment grew while the economy collapsed, culminating in major riots at the end of February 1947. These were brutally put down. By some estimates as many as 20,000 Taiwanese lost their lives. 

In China, Chiang’s forces were locked in an increasingly bitter civil war with the Communists. Over the next two years growing numbers of his supporters, troops and camp followers moved to Taiwan to escape the conflict, followed by Chiang himself in 1949, after the final defeat of his troops and the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). In a Europe grappling with its own post-conflict settlements and dislocations, the chaos and conflict of this period passed by largely unnoticed, but in it lay the seeds of the unresolved controversy over Taiwan’s status.

Riot at the Taipei branch of the Bureau of Monopoly, 1947. Wikimedia/Creative Commons.
Riot at the Taipei branch of the Bureau of Monopoly, 1947. Wikimedia/Creative Commons.

Between 1946 and 1949 an estimated one million mainland Chinese fled to Taiwan, whose own population in 1940 had been less than six million. The impact on the islanders of this large-scale influx was profound, creating a deep division between the existing population (benshengren) and the new arrivals (waishengren). The displacement was accompanied by what became known as the ‘White Terror’. In 1949 martial law was imposed, not to be lifted until July 1987. In the early 1950s Chiang was praised by some foreign governments and economists for the introduction of land reform, something he had failed to do in China, but what is overlooked is that this was targeted overwhelmingly at the Taiwanese elite, to weaken their power and influence. Many opted to move to Japan, not returning to Taiwan until after the advent of democracy in the 1990s. 



As with the rump of the Ming 300 years earlier, Taiwan had become the base for the defeated Nationalists under Chiang, ruled by the same discredited elite who had served him on the mainland. From Mao Zedong’s perspective, his call for independence for Taiwan no longer applied. The island was now the last holdout of the enemy, whose continued existence challenged the party’s claim to be the legitimate ruler of all China, especially while Chiang claimed otherwise. The objective now was for Taiwan to be brought under the party’s control as part of the ‘Motherland’. Mao might have succeeded, too, had he not intervened in support of Kim Il-sung in the Korean War in 1950, prompting the US to move to support Chiang on Taiwan. 

Although the United Kingdom supported the US in the Korean war, the two allies differed over Taiwan. The UK had been one of the first countries to recognise the PRC in 1950 and took the view that Taiwan was Japanese territory under military occupation by China. It did not accept that the government of China (whether the PRC in Beijing or the RoC in Taipei) had a right ‘to confer their nationality on the inhabitants of Taiwan’. That did not mean that the UK was proposing a plebiscite, but that the Chinese occupation had to be formalised and approved by some kind of international agreement. 

Taiwanese independence demonstrators,  New York, c.1955 © Hulton Getty Images.
Taiwanese independence demonstrators,  New York, c.1955 © Hulton Getty Images.

That should have happened at the San Francisco Conference of 1951, convened to conclude the peace agreement with Japan and agree the postwar order in Asia. Although Japan renounced its claim to Taiwan, with the US and UK recognising different Chinese governments, both of which were excluded from the conference, no agreement was reached and a decision on the status of Taiwan was shelved. As far as Britain was concerned, de jure sovereignty over Taiwan remained undetermined, while the US recognised Chiang’s Republic of China in Taipei as the legitimate Chinese government, a position that only changed in 1979. 

After Chiang died in 1975, his son and successor, Chiang Ching-kuo, sensing the changing tide of global opinion in favour of the PRC, took the first steps towards the introduction of democratic government. Martial law was lifted in 1987 and in 1996 the Taiwanese were finally able to choose their own president through direct elections. Since then, democratic governance has taken firm root. The current incumbent, Tsai Ing-wen is the fourth president to be elected to office and the first woman to hold the position. With democratisation has also come a growing awareness of Taiwan’s own history, as opposed to that of its colonisers (200,000 Taiwanese troops fought in the Imperial Japanese Army in the Second World War, a fact not mentioned in Chiang’s history books). Modern Taiwanese are overwhelmingly ethnically Chinese, but opinion polls show a growing majority consider themselves Taiwanese, not Chinese, proud of their country’s history and identity.


Future tense

China refuses to accept this. The ending of martial law in 1987 was followed by a steady easing of the tension between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait and a building up of ties. Taiwanese companies are among the biggest investors, exporters and employers in China and since 2008 there have been frequent, daily direct flights across the strait. The rapprochement reached its pinnacle in 2015 in Singapore, with the first ever meeting between the leaders of China and Taiwan. The move was widely interpreted in Taiwan as an attempt to boost the prospects of a ‘China-friendly’ president in the election due in early 2016 and as such misfired badly. After Tsai Ing-wen’s victory, China largely cut off official contact and stepped up its threats and intimidation against the island. In 2020 Tsai was re-elected in a landslide, her success widely attributed to Taiwanese reactions to China’s clampdown in Hong Kong in the preceding months. 

A statesmanlike and pragmatic response by China might be to resurrect Mao’s call for independence. Instead, the Chinese Communist Party seems tied in a straitjacket of its own making, unable to take any constructive measures for fear of the domestic nationalist backlash, itself fuelled by years of the party’s own propaganda and myth-making. Unless the party can bring itself to accept reality, the Taiwan Strait will remain one of the world’s potential flashpoints. 


Michael Reilly is a non-resident Senior Fellow in the Taiwan Studies Programme at the University of Nottingham. From 2005-09 he was the British representative in Taiwan. He is the author of The Great Free Trade Myth: British Foreign Policy and East Asia Since 1980 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2020).