Is Taiwan part of China? There is no simple answer to this question, but it is an argument that is having major international consequences. China claims that Taiwan has always been part of Chinese territory…. But is this true?
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Repercussion (n) – the effect that an action, event, or decision had on something, especially a bad effect
The decrease in tourism has had serious repercussions for the local economy
To inhabit (v) – to live in a place
Those islands are inhabited only by birds
Indigenous (adj) – used to refer to the people who originally lived in a place rather than people who moved there from somewhere else
The indigenous people of Australia were discriminated against by the white settlers
Expedition (n) – an organised journey for a particular purpose
Hundreds of people have died on expeditions in the Himalayas
Dynasty (n) – a series of rulers or leaders who are all from the same family, or a period when a country is ruled by them
The Mogul dynasty ruled over India for centuries
Nationalist (adj) – wanting your country to be politically independent
In Asia, communists and nationalists battled for control in a number of countries
To retake (v) – to take something such as a place or position into your possession again, often by force, after losing possession of it
The military tried to retake power in 1999
To recognise (v) – to accept that something is legal, true, or important
Taiwan is only recognised by 13 countries
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On 6th May 2021, over a year ago, I released an episode titled “Is Taiwan the Most Dangerous Place in the World?” The episode was a response to an article in the Economist magazine a few weeks earlier which used those words to describe the island – they argued Taiwan was the most dangerous place on earth!
What did I argue in the episode? In my conclusion I stated that, on the one hand, Taiwan would always be at risk of violence and aggression from China. But, on the other hand, Taiwan is a successful democracy, which handled the pandemic better than most countries, and has a very low crime rate. Overall, I said that it probably wasn’t the most dangerous place in the world.
That was over a year ago. Things might have changed a little in the past few weeks. Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, stopped in Taiwan during her trip to Asia. To say the response from China has been angry would be an understatement.
Before the visit, China issued threats. Chinese citizens discussed the possibility of an invasion on the country’s social media. Chinese diplomats even openly mentioned re-education and concentration camps on the island once China was in control. China warned Taiwan and the world that there would be repercussions if Pelosi made her visit.
Pelosi did not back down. China launched cyberattacks against Taiwanese companies and government departments. They flew drones over some islands off the coast of Taiwan. Military jets entered Taiwan’s territory. China conducted its largest ever live fire military drills around the island. Missiles exploded in Taiwanese waters.
At the same time, China cancelled imports of Taiwanese goods, including fruit, and threatened sanctions of Taiwanese companies. China also announced that they would stop cooperating with the USA on key issues – including the environment.
But why? Why is Taiwan so controversial? My episode last year discussed Taiwan but didn’t touch on the history of the island and its relationship with China. So that is what I will look at today. And by the end of the episode, you should have a clearer understanding of what is happening in Taiwan!
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History of Taiwan
Early History of Taiwan
Taiwan is a modern, democratic, self-governing island located around 160km off the coast of China. But… it hasn’t always been a democratic and self-governing island! To understand the dispute between China and Taiwan we need to look at the history of the island – and this is something most articles and news reports don’t really do. Most journalists concentrate on Taiwan’s history since 1949… but people have lived on the island for thousands of years!
Before the 1600s, Taiwan was mainly inhabited by the indigenous Austronesian people. The island was self-governing, but there was no central government or leader – each tribe or community controlled their own affairs. An interesting fact about Taiwan’s indigenous population is that some of you listening will be able to trace your history back to Taiwan. Thousands of years ago some of the Austronesian people of the island began migrating away from the island – they spread across Asia and Oceania: the descendents of Taiwan’s indigenous people can be found from Madagascar, to Indonesia, to Hawaii and the Pacific islands.
While the island has been known to China for around 2000 years, it would be wrong to say that China controlled Taiwan. In the year 239 CE a Chinese emperor sent 10,000 people to explore the island, and another similar expedition was sent in the year 605CE. During this expedition the Chinese brought a few Taiwanese aboriginals back to the mainland.
600 years later, when China was ruled by the Mongols, the Penghu islands which are part of modern Taiwan were taken over by China. In 1430 another Chinese explorer landed on Taiwan and traded with the aboriginal peoples.
But were there actually any Chinese people living in Taiwan? Yes there were! It is hard to know exact numbers, but there were a few settlements of ethnically Chinese fisherman and farmers. However, they were outnumbered by the indigenous peoples and their lives were far from secure. Taiwan’s indigenous people resisted the Chinese settlers and regularly raided and killed the foreigners. There was no common government, laws, or rules for all the people of Taiwan.
Another interesting point is that while there were Chinese settlements on Taiwan before 1600, there were also Japanese settlements as well! Japanese pirates and fishermen also used the island!
In 1517, a Portuguese ship passed by the island and gave it the name “Ihla Formosa” or the “Beautiful Island.” 100 years later, Dutch sailors landed on the Penghu islands. China convinced the Dutch to leave by offering them some land on Taiwan (remember that at this time China controlled the Penghu islands but not Taiwan). The Spanish arrived in Taiwan in 1626, took control of much of the north of the island, and forced the Japanese settlers to leave the island.
In 1642, the Dutch and aborignal people of Taiwan worked together to kick out the Spanish settlers, stop a rebellion of Chinese settlers, and take control of the entire island for the first time. Taiwan was now a Dutch colony – the first time it had ever had a real national level leadership.
In the 1660s, China was experiencing a political crisis – the Ming dynasty was being replaced by the Qing dynasty. For those of you who don’t know, the Qing dynasty was established by Manchu people from Manchuria… they were not Han Chinese. While they had taken control of Beijing, there was still resistance to the new government in the South of China.
Zheng Chenggong, a half Japanese half Chinese pirate, led a resistance campaign against the Qing dynasty. Once his efforts failed, he took his Chinese supporters across the sea to Taiwan, attacked the Dutch bases, and established a Ming style Chinese government on the island in 1662. In 1683 the Qing forces invaded Taiwan and the island officially became part of China.
For the next 200 years Taiwan was run as part of Fujian province. However, in 1894 China and Japan fought a war over Korea. China lost and in the peace treaty Japan was awarded Taiwan and the Penghu islands. Taiwan was now considered part of Japan by most of the world’s countries (apart from China which still considered Taiwan as part of its territory).
Actually, an interesting fact is that once the leaders in Taiwan found out they were now Japanese, they declared independence – and called their new country the Republic of Taiwan. While this new country only lasted 10 days… it was the first republic in Asia!
Japan ruled Taiwan until the end of the Second World War. With Japan defeated, the American and British leaders gave control of Taiwan to Chiang Kai-shek – the leader of nationalist China. On October 25, 1945, Taiwan officially became part of the Republic of China. However, the story doesn’t end here.
The Republic of China
China was undergoing a civil war. The Communist forces led by Mao Zedong were at war with Chiang kai-shek’s nationalist government. In 1949, the Communists beat the Nationalist government and Mao founded the People’s Republic of China. Chiang Kai-shek fled to Taiwan with his government, army, and supporters – about 1.5 million Chinese people moved to Taiwan in 1949. So, there were now two China’s. The mainland People’s Republic of China which was now controlled by the communists; and the nationalist Republic of China which was based on the island of Taiwan. Both China and Taiwan claimed to be the one true China.
That is basically where we are now. Taiwan’s official name is still the Republic of China. However, Taiwan has developed and changed politically in significant ways – they are now a democracy with a powerful economy. And in the 1990s they stopped claiming that they should control all of China.
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Is Taiwan Part of China?
So, now you know the history of Taiwan, is it part of China? Or – perhaps a better question – what is Taiwan?
Taiwan has its own government. It is a democracy – the best and strongest democracy in Asia. It has its own armed forces, its own economy, and its own relationships with countries around the world. They participate in the Olympics (under the name Chinese Taipei). Taiwan is completely self-governing.
From 1949 onwards, Chiang Kai-shek maintained that the Republic of China was the real China – they were just going to regroup on Taiwan and retake the mainland soon. In fact, China’s seat in the United Nations was given to the Republic of China (Taiwan) instead of the People’s Republic of China. Most Western countries only recognised the existence of one China – the one based in Taiwan.
Things changed in the 1970s. It was clear that the Republic of China was never going to take back China from the communists. And China’s massive population was basically unrepresented in the UN. So, in 1971, the People’s Republic of China was recognised by the UN as the official China. The Republic of China was forced out and left in a strange position.
Only around 13 countries now recognise Taiwan as being an independent country, and they are excluded from many international organisations. However, they are not part of China politically or economically. And increasingly the culture of Taiwan is vastly different from that of China too – if you visit Taiwan you will notice that, apart from the language and food, Taiwanese people are quite different from Chinese people.
So Taiwan is kind of stuck. It has everything required to be an independent country… but it is not officially recognised as an independent country. China claims Taiwan is part of their territory – and they are committed to taking control of the island at some point in the future.
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Relations Between China and Taiwan
It might sound a little surprising considering the situation right now, but Taiwan and China have not always had such bad relations. From the 1980s, investments, trade, and visits between the two countries increased.
China offered Taiwan the same deal that Britain had agreed for Hong Kong – “one country, two systems.” In simple terms, China said to Taiwan that if they agreed to become part of China, they would be allowed to keep their own political and economic system… Taiwan rejected this offer, but the relationship between the two countries didn’t stop.
However, in the year 2000, Chen Shui-bian from the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party was elected as President of Taiwan. This shocked the government in the mainland – a pro-independence party now controlled Taiwan. China quickly passed a law which stated that China would use “non-peaceful” means to take Taiwan if they ever tried to declare independence.
And this is why Taiwan is stuck. They are basically independent – but they cannot declare independence. If they do, China will invade. The world is also committed to the One China principle – meaning that countries can either recognise China or Taiwan as being a country, not both. And of course most countries choose to recognise China because of their size and power.
However, while the US and Western countries don’t officially recognise Taiwan, they do supply weapons and trade with them. In fact the US is committed to defend Taiwan if China invades. And Taiwan is one of the most vital countries to the global economy – Taiwanese companies make over 60% of the world’s semi-conductors… which are used in every single electrical device on the planet.
In 2016 current Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen was elected. And since her election, Taiwan has become increasingly distant from China. Taiwan was recognised for its successful response to Covid, high place in international freedom/democracy rankings, and being the first Asian country to legalise gay marriage. At the same time, China has become increasingly aggressive against her government. If a company or a country doesn’t list Taiwan as part of China in official documents, China will stop them from doing business in China.
China has a lot of power and a lot of influence. And they strongly believe Taiwan should be part of China – and over the past few years they have suggested they will use force to take Taiwan back if necessary. And making the situation for China even more complicated is that fact that most people in Taiwan now consider themselves Taiwanese, not Chinese
Today, I wanted to help you all understand the history behind China and Taiwan relations. There are hundreds of articles out there talking about the current tensions, but to really understand why there is such a big dispute over this island we need to look at the history.
China considers Taiwan as part of their territory. Yet, when we look at the mainland China has only controlled the island for around 200 years out of the thousands of years people have lived on Taiwan. Now, there are over 20 million Taiwanese citizens, and the vast majority want nothing to do with the People’s Republic and feel Taiwanese rather Chinese.
What do you think? Is Taiwan part of China?
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