December 14, 2022
On August 3, 2022, in the wake of Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, I tweeted a brief thread providing some perspective on Taiwan’s history. Since people seemed to appreciate the conciseness of its style and content, I repost that thread here, in its original form:
1. The attention surrounding Pelosi’s trip has prompted a lot of ill-informed analogies about Taiwan. Rather than curse the darkness, I’m going to try to light a candle with a brief and hopefully reasonably objective thread on Taiwan’s history.
2. Prior to the 17th Century, Taiwan was not formally part of the Chinese Empire, under any dynasty. Like much of Southeast Asia – like the nearby Philippines, for instance – it as inhabited by indigenous people who had their own cultures and identity.
3. Also like much of Southeast Asia, there were some Chinese traders, fishermen, and migrants who visited Taiwan or even settled there, and had a cultural influence.
4. To be fair, it’s not accurate to think of the Chinese Empire at that time as a Westphalian nation-state with clearly defined borders. The Middle Kingdom saw itself as the center of a series of concentric rings, with declining influence and concern as you moved outward.
5. So the Emperor presided over everyone, whether they realized it or not, or cooperated or not. But the people in Middle Kingdom were seen as fortunate enough to be ruled directly by him. Taiwan was somewhere outside this fortunate circle.
6. All of this changed in the early 1600s with the arrival of the Dutch. They set up a fort on Taiwan, and gradually made the island – which the Portuguese had dubbed Formosa – their trading colony.
7. Zheng Chenggong – who the Dutch called Koxinga – was the son of a powerful Chinese merchant/pirate who frequented these waters, and a Japanese woman.
8. In 1644, the Ming Dynasty in Beijing. fell to Manchu invaders from the northeast, who established the Qing Dynasty. Throughout southern China, there was resistance to the new rulers, who were seen as foreign interlopers.
9. Koxinga rallied to defend and restore the Ming. As part of his resistance, he expelled the Dutch from Taiwan and set up his own rebel kingdom there.
10. After a long struggle, the Qing defeated Koxinga and his children. Reluctantly, in 1683, they decided to annex Taiwan, mainly as a defensive security measure.
11. Over the following century, the Qing made some effort to solidify control over the new province. Many ethnic Chinese settled there to farm the coastal lowlands, while the indigenous tribes either assimilated or retreated into the inland mountains.
12. Then in 1895, China – still under Qing rule – lost a war with up-and-coming Japan. As part of the spoils of war, Japan received Taiwan as its colony.
13. Unlike many other places in Asia, Japanese colonial rule was reasonably popular in Taiwan. The island received a great deal of investment and prospered. In fact, over 200,000 Taiwanese served in the Japanese army during World War II – for the most part, voluntarily.
14. During the war, the US faced a major choice between launching an invasion of Taiwan (aka Formosa) or the Philippines. Taiwan would give it bomber bases capable of reaching Japan, but MacArthur chose the Philippines to fulfill his solemn pledge to “return” there.
15. Throughout WW2, the US was allied with China under the Nationalist general Chiang Kai-shek. After the war, FDR saw Chiang’s China as a major partner in Asia, which is why China was given a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.
16. One thing Chiang demanded was the return of Taiwan from Japan. He got it, but many on Taiwan were not happy about “returning” to Chinese rule. They protested for independence, and Chiang cracked down brutally.
17. As many as 28,000 people may have been killed during the crackdown in 1947, called the February 28 Incident. Its memory caused deep but suppressed resentment in Taiwan, and left Chiang’s regime deeply opposed to any talk of a distinct “Taiwanese” identity.
18. And then, ironically, in 1949 Chiang Kai-shek lost his civil war with the Communists and had to flee to the offshore province that probably hated him the most: Taiwan, taking with him China’s gold reserves and a whole bunch of mainland refugees.
19. Until he died in 1975, Chiang insisted that the Republic of China on Taiwan was the legitimate government of all of China, and schemed to someday win back the mainland from the Communists.
20. And for much of the Cold War, the US agreed with him, recognizing the regime on Taiwan as the legitimate government of China and basing US troops there (though they didn’t encourage Chiang’s ambitions to retake the rest of China, settling for a tense status quo).
21. Chiang Kai-shek ran a police state on Taiwan, ruling as a dictator and suppressing dissent – especially any dissent smacking of Taiwanese “independence” from China. As at least one US President put it, “he’s a son a bitch, but he’s our son of bitch”.
22. But while Chiang’s mismanagement of China helped ensure his loss to the Communists, on Taiwan he somehow found a task more suited to his abilities. By implementing land reform and investing in education and infrastructure, the economy of Taiwan began to take off and flourish.
23. In the 1970s, two things happened at the same time. The first was Nixon’s trip to China in 1972, which kicked off a process of “normalization” between the US and the Communist regime on the Mainland.
24. Nixon thought Mao would insist on the US withdrawing its troops from Taiwan and other concrete measures to abandon Chiang. Instead, Mao only insisted on a statement that endorsed the concept of “One China” that included Taiwan.
25. The US fudged on this. Its actual statement merely said that the US recognizes that both sides of the Strait say they are part of a single China that includes Taiwan, without taking a position itself. This has been a cause of disagreement between China and the US ever since.
26. But that issue aside, Nixon’s trip began a process where the US eventually switched its diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing and began economically engaging with a reform-minded Mainland China, following Mao’s death.
27. The second thing that happened, at the same time, is that Chiang Kai-shek died, leaving his son Chiang Ching-kuo in charge of the ROC on Taiwan. Everyone expected the son, once trained in Stalin’s Russia, to continue in his father’s dictatorial footsteps.
28. Instead, Ching-kuo began opening the door to democratic reforms in Taiwan, while fighting corruption and continuing to develop the economy. Much like another US ally in Asia, South Korea, Taiwan was transitioning from dictatorship to democracy.
29. At first, Chiang’s Nationalist Party (KMT) dominated. But eventually Taiwan’s opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) began to win elections. While the DPP didn’t openly support separate Taiwanese identity and independence, it was widely seen as sympathizing with it.
30. From Beijing’s point of view, the hope was this: that by opening its economy, and welcoming trade and investment from Taiwan, it would eventually bring Taiwan closer into its orbit, and it would come to some kind of agreement with Taiwan’s ruling KMT.
31. In fact, the idea of “One Country, Two Systems”, famously referring to Hong Kong, was originally a concept aimed at reunification with Taiwan. After all, the KMT agreed with Beijing that Taiwan was part of China.
32. But while Taiwan did become deeply intertwined with China’s economy, with many thousands of Taiwanese living and working in Mainland China, cultural and political trends in Taiwan were moving in the opposite direction.
33. First of all, in 2000, DPP candidate Chen Shui-bian was the presidency, ending 55 years of continuous KMT rule in Taiwan. And rising activists in the party, like Tsai Ing-wen, were growing more assertive about questioning the “One China” principle.
34. Second, and perhaps more importantly, after so many decades of effective independence, and now democratic self-government, more and more young people in Taiwan were identifying as “Taiwanese” rather than “Chinese” and favoring independence.
35. This was immensely frustrating to Beijing. They had based their entire strategy around the idea that Taiwan would eventually fall like ripe fruit into their basket, if they were patient. That didn’t seem to be happening – quite the opposite.
36. Meanwhile, the US found itself in an awkward spot, in various ways. It recognizes Beijing as the government of China, and as an important economic partner. But so in many ways is Taiwan, a loyal ally which had now blossomed into a vibrant democracy sharing its own values.
37. The US was not formally opposed to peaceful reunification between China and Taiwan, but to Beijing’s frustration, Taiwan didn’t seem the least bit interested. And the US was tacitly pledged to help defend Taiwan against being forced to reunify.
38. All of this glosses over details, and I’m sure people will find holes to poke in the narrative I’ve just offered. But I hope it covers the important basics, and reveals how a complicated history has given rise to a complicated relationship.
39. Taiwan was long ignored by China, but eventually was brought into the Empire for a little over two centuries. Then it became a Japanese colony, then a refuge for a regime that still claimed authority over the China it had lost. Then a democracy, yearning for its own identity.
40. What has Taiwan been? It’s been many different things, and the answer depends on what aspect of its history you wish to emphasize. What will it become? Several countries have an interest in the answer, which has yet to be determined.