The "Taiwan Question" – Does Taiwan Belong To China? (Part II)

On 26 July 1945, the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, the American President Harry S. Truman and Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek issued the Potsdam Declaration, with which they urged Japan to surrender unconditionally. If it accepted, Japan would lose its empire, be demilitarized and be occupied by the Powers. Furthermore, its elites would face charges of war crimes. (Dillon 2010, p. 248)

Though Chiang Kai-shek was clearly an “underdog” compared to the USA, Great Britain and Soviet Russia, he was still an important ally of the three big powers. An ally who had his own interests and demands. As a Chinese nationalist, his aim was to restore the borders of Qing China, to which Taiwan belonged until the Japanese occupied it in 1895. Taiwan was a matter of national pride.

The USA, Great Britain and the Soviet Union backed China’s claim. At the Cairo Conference of 22 November 1943 and at the Potsdam Conference of July and August 1945, it was decided that Taiwan would be returned to China. (Dillon 2010, p. 254) At that time, no one imagined that only four years later, Guomindang rule would be swept away by the Communists and that Taiwan would be the last stronghold of Chiang’s rule, a small island at the forefront of the Cold War.

China and Taiwan – A Divided Nation Or Two Separate Nations?

After the end of WWII, Taiwan became a province of the Republic of China (ROC), the state founded on January 1st 1912 on mainland China following the Xinhai Revolution. (Dillon 2010, p. 146)

The civil war between the Guomindang (KMT), the party founded by Sun Yat-sen which had governed China since 1928, and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) broke out in 1945. Chiang Kai-shek’s KMT was defeated and the government of the Republic of China retreated to Taiwan.

Despite all the ideological differences between the two great adversaries, both the CCP and the KMT shared the same nationalistic standpoint: for them, China was one country and Taiwan was a province of China, just like Guangdong, Fujian and any other province. However, Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists believed the Republic of China (ROC) with the KMT as the state’s ruling party to be the sole legitimate government of China, while Mao Zedong’s Communists believed the People’s Republic of China (PRC) with the CCP as the ruling party to be the sole legitimate government of China. From this perspective, China and Taiwan were a nation divided by the Cold War, just like South and North Korea or West and East Germany. Today’s CCP and KMT still adhere to this “one China policy”.

After WWII, negotiations took place between Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai-shek, 
with United States ambassador Patrick J. Hurley as mediator. 
Second from left is Chiang Kaishek’s son,  Chiang Ching-kuo

Nationalism was not the only element the two parties shared. In fact, they were much more similar than they were willing to admit. Like the PRC, the ROC was “a one-party state, ironically a mirror image of its Communist adversary on the mainland: the Guomindang was the only political party legally permitted to exist until 1986 and martial law, which had been proclaimed in 1947, remained in force until 1987.” (Dillon 2010, p. 392)

The KMT – a Leninist party that in its early days had regarded the Soviet Union as its model, before the Chinese Communists became Moscow’s natural allies – had the same autocratic understanding of government as the CCP. Until the late 1980’s, Taiwan was similar to today’s PRC: a one-party state in which the government tried to create consensus through astounding economic development, and in which freedom of speech and dissent were allowed only within the framework set by the party.

After losing the mainland, Chiang Kai-shek was determined to suppress every opposition on Taiwan, and to prevent the emergence of Communist movements. He gave his son, Chiang Ching-kuo, broad authority on internal security and intelligence, inaugurated what is known as the “white terror”. In 1949 alone, about 10,000 Taiwanese were arrested and more than thousand executed. (Taylor 2009, p. 412) The prevailing anti-Communism in the USA and Western Europe helped giving a relative international legitimation to the crimes committed by the KMT in defending what Western propaganda – with unwanted irony – called “Free China”.  

How Chinese Is Taiwan?

Come to Taiwan and you will see that Taiwan is not China!” – this is a sentence Taiwanese people like to tell foreigners to explain them why their island is an independent country.

However, if you travel to China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, you might wonder why Hong Kong is part of China, while Taiwan isn’t. In fact, in many respects, Taiwan is way more Chinese than Hong Kong.

Hong Kong was a British colony for about a century. It is a very international, cosmopolitan city, influenced by the West. Its official languages are Cantonese and English; Mandarin doesn’t enjoy the status of an official language, and many Hong Kongers are not fluent in Mandarin. I personally got the impression that Hong Kong is a bridge between East and West, while Taiwan is deeply different from anything I’d known in the West.

As I have explained in my previous post, today’s Republic of China is in itself contradictory. It is a combination of different elements, of different cultural, ideological, political layers. I shall argue that Taiwan can be considered both very similar to and very different from mainland China, and that the question of independence is ultimately a political decision. Taiwan’s identity as a nation is not self-evident, it is a construction.

Let’s now examine some of the key points for and against the “Chineseness” of Taiwan.

Historical Ties And Collective Memory

I shall argue that China and Taiwan are so similar to each other that they could be a nation; but that what makes them really different, and perhaps even incompatible, is their different collective memory that is derived from an extremely different historical experience from 1895 onward. 


Taipei under the Japanese. Neat roads, a motorised vehicle and
people wearing Western clothes (on the right) show that Taiwan’s
modernizaton had already begun under colonial rule
Except for the aborigines, the great majority of Taiwan’s inhabitants are descendants of migrants from mainland China. They shared the same language (or dialects) and cultural heritage with people of the provinces they came from or the ethnic groups (like the Hakka) they belonged to. A mainland Chinese who goes to Taiwan not only understands the language, but he or she will also be familiar with a set of “Chinese” values (family, morality, religion etc.) that are much more difficult for non-Chinese to comprehend. Before I went to Taiwan, I asked mainland Chinese friends of mine to give me some advice, which proved to be very valuable in dealing with certain situations. It seemed to me that mainland Chinese, though they’d never been to Taiwan, could understand certain aspects of Taiwanese culture better than I could. But I doubt whether they could give me advice about Japan or South Korea if they’ve never lived there.

The brutality of this picture, taken after
a Japanese air raid on Chongqing in

1941, is only the peak of half a century 

of suffering and wars in mainland China. 

Taiwan didn’t share the hard fate of the mainland. 

Taiwanese soldiers were even recruited by 

the Japanese  to fight in the Japanese 

Imperial Army.

On the other hand, Taiwan has a history that makes it quite different from the mainland. Taiwan has always been at the margin of Chinese civilization. It was incorporated into the Empire only in the second half of the 17th century, and from 1895 to 1945 it was a Japanese colony. These fifty years were full of events in mainland China; one can say that this dramatic era radically changed China and that the collective memory regarding those years has a deep impact in China’s self-consciousness and public debates. 

Taiwan-born people don’t share this collective memory. Not only did Taiwan not experience the last years of the Qing Empire, the Boxer Rebellion, the 1911 Revolution, warlordism, civil war, the hardships of the Japanese invasion and the 1945/49 war between the KMT and the CCP; but, as an early Japanese colony, Taiwan ironically experienced a period of peace, modernization and relative economic prosperity. Taiwan was treated by the Japanese much better than mainland China, and it was left unscathed by the Sino-Japanese conflict. When the KMT arrived in Taiwan, spreading corruption, mismanagement and white terror, many Taiwanese people thought back on the Japanese era as an age of relative modernization and of improvement in their standard of living.

When Taiwan was handed over to the ROC in 1949, the influence of China became prominent again. The island was reorganized by an elite of mainland cadres. In 1949 the government of the ROC was relocated to Taiwan, and millions of mainlanders – party members, soldiers, businessmen, professionals etc. – fled there to escape the Communists. An average of 5,000 refugees per day “would continue to make their way to Taiwan into the early 1950s, when their numbers reached about two million. At that point, the mainlander population represented about 25 percent of the roughly eight million people on Taiwan.” (Davison 2003)

Post-war Taiwan was therefore made up of a majority of Taiwan-born people of Chinese descent who had been exposed to strong Japanese influence for fifty years; to this native stock added a 25% of new mainland-born migrants, among which were the powerful political elite of the ROC. 

There was tension between these “Taiwan-born” and “mainland-born” population, intensified by the fact that mainlanders held for decades the most important political posts. However, through the educational system promoted by the KMT, which propagated Chinese nationalism and suppressed Taiwanese nationalism, and the slow integration of mainland and Taiwanese elements, a new Taiwan emerged, which is, in many respects, more Chinese than it was back in 1945, but which at the same time has a different collective memory than Communist China.

The dichotomy between “Chineseness” and “Taiwaneseness” can be seen when some Taiwanese people argue that Taiwan isn’t part of China, but at the same time say that Taiwan has preserved the “true” Chinese culture better than the mainlanders (for example the traditional characters or a more conservative society).


Vestige of KMT ideology in Taiwan. A propaganda
sign on Quemoy facing mainland China proclaiming
“Three Principles of the People Unites China”
China’s and Taiwan’s paths continued to diverge in the 1980’s, when the ROC began a process of democratization which transformed it from a one-party dictatorship into a liberal, democratic country. 

In the 1990’s, anti-Chinese and pro-independence sentiments became increasingly strong. They were a result of 1) the de facto administrative independence of the ROC from the PRC; 2) the anti-Communist propaganda of the KMT; 3) the Taiwanese pride at having achieved a democratic system and a prosperous economy, which allowed them to look down at mainland China, which was at the early stage of its economic success story; 4) the nationalism and anti-mainland sentiment of the Taiwan-born population that dated back to the first decades of KMT rule. 

All these factors mixed together in creating an anti-Chines, pro-independence discourse in Taiwan. 

The one China policy was and still is a core element of the political agenda of the KMT. However, the democratization of Taiwan broke the undisputed monopoly of the KMT national narrative. To put it plainly: the KMT had repressed Taiwanese nationalism by force, and so the official line of the ROC was that Taiwan is part of China and that mainland China belongs to the ROC. That is why the ROC Constitution calls Taiwan “the free territory of the Republic of China.”

On 28 September 1986, a new party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), was founded. Chiang Ching-kuo decided not to suppress this spontaneous civil movement, and so the DPP became a legal political organization which participated in the first two-party elections for the Legislative Yuan on December 1986. In 1987 martial law was lifted and Taiwan was on its way to a successful political transition.

Chen Shuibian
The DPP gave a voice to those people who felt that the Republic of China was a mere relic of history and that Taiwan will never be part of China again. Chen Shui-bian, the DPP’s most prominent leader and Taiwan’s first non-KMT president, was an advocate for independence. Two narratives began to compete against each other publicly: the pro-independence against the pro-unification.


The fact that market-driven industrialization began in Taiwan much earlier than in China added to the different “collective memory” shared by Taiwanese and Chinese. While the mainland was still a backward planned economy and its people were caught in disastrous ideological battles and political campaigns, between 1950 and 1990 Taiwan emerged as one of the four thriving economies of the East, the “Little Dragons” or “Asian Tigers” (S. Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore). Using a combination of state intervention and market forces, Taiwan rapidly industrialized and raised its standards of living, becoming a developed country in half a century.

As a consequence of the economic miracle, economics became the main categories and concepts for defining Taiwan’s identity on the basis of economic growth, “thus establishing a different basis for imagining its identity from that of China’s.” (Harrison 2006, p. 137-138)

Is Taiwan A Nation?

A few weeks ago I read a comment on a blog in which a Taiwanese complained about the lack of national consciousness of his fellow countrymen. He said that while living abroad he found that many Taiwanese were confused about their identity. He criticized foreigners, too, explaining that they don’t understand what the “true” Taiwan is. 

The paradox here is quite interesting. A Taiwanese who has his own understanding of national identity teaches some of his compatriots – whom he considers “confused” – what it means to be Taiwanese. I wonder whether he is aware of the fact that, by trying to promote his own idea of “Taiwaneseness”, he is creating and propagating a sense of national identity that does not exist as a self-evident fact. He is deciding what a “true” Taiwanese is, and rejecting everything that doesn’t fit in his beliefs. Such statements show that Taiwanese identity isn’t an established concept, but that it is a work in progress. I’ll come to that later.

The complexity and contradictions of what it means to be Taiwanese are best illustrated by the following example. I once met a waishengren (外生人), a Taiwanese who was born in Taiwan but whose grandparents came from the mainland in 1949. She considers herself Chinese and does not oppose the idea of eventual reunification of Taiwan and mainland China. Taiwanese people who have a pro-independence standpoint see in her a sort of “traitor”, a “fake” Taiwanese. “If you think you are Chinese,” they say to her, “then go back to China.”

You’re a traitor. Go away from us” – this is the typical phrase nationalist ideologues use when certain groups of people within their own country disagree with their understanding of nation. It is a sentence I heard many times in Europe: xenophobes tell the descendants of migrants to go back to their homeland if they don’t want to adapt themselves to the host country.

But this national ideology is flawed. It is derived from the idea that a nation should be a homogeneous community in which everybody has the same identity. However, in a democratic system, everyone has the right to have one’s own opinion, and to define one’s own identity. A Taiwanese who sees Taiwan as part of China has exactly the same right to express this view as have people who think that Taiwan is an independent nation. 

The notion that Taiwan is part of China is shared only by a minority of the island’s population. “[P]olls have shown that those with Taiwanese identity began to outnumber those with Chinese identity by mid-1990s and the gap continued to widen in the late 1990s. After 2000 a ‘twin peaks’ appeared, with ‘Taiwan identity’ and ‘both Chinese and Taiwanese identity’ at roughly the same height and ‘Chinese identity’ distinctly lower in the opinion spread.” (Chi 2008, p. 285).  However, the official line of the Guomindang and the opinion of the current president of the ROC, Ma Yingjiu – who was democratically elected – is that Taiwan is a province of China. In 2008, Ma Yingjiu maintained the position that mainland China is part of the ROC. He said that according to the ROC Constitution, the ROC “definitely is an independent sovereign state, and mainland [sic] China is also part of the territory of the ROC.” (Taipei Times 08/10/2008)

In order to answer the question if Taiwan is or could ever be part of China, we need to emphasize that there is no such thing as an “objective national identity”. A nation is difficult to define because it is – as Benedict Anderson calls it – an “imagined community” of people who don’t know each other personally, but imagine that there is something in common between all of them, a “sense” of belonging to the same community, with the same culture, language and destiny. 

However, nation-building is a discursive process. It is created by people through language. Taiwanese identity can be thus understood “as a constant production of meanings, and as such it occurs at multiple levels, from secondary scholarly work by non-Taiwanese, to claims to be an ‘authentic’ Taiwanese, and self-conscious reflections upon Taiwan’s identity by Taiwanese themselves.” (Harrison 2006, p. 52)

The concept of nation is not self-evident; what a nation is, is ultimately a political decision that results from a discursive process in which individuals theorize its existence. Let’s name a few examples to illustrate this point. 

In 1989, Europe had three major independent “German” states: Austria, The Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) and the German Democratic Republic (East Germany). Today, West and East Germany are a unified nation and the map of Europe contains only two major “German” countries. 

Theoretically speaking, there was no compelling reason why these two states had to become one, or why Austria couldn’t be included in this new German state. West and East Germany had drifted apart after 1945. They had a different collective memory and a different social and economic system. In 1989, Bavaria was economically, culturally and linguistically way more similar to Austria than it was to, let’s say, Berlin or Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. West Europeans shared a similar post-war collective memory: liberation, American occupation, democracy, economic miracle, 1960’s student protests, Americanization, pop culture, left-wing terrorism, 1970’s oil crisis, “post-modernism” and so on – all of these and many other phenomena are shared by almost all of Western Europe, no matter in which country, but they were not shared by East Germans. 

The reason why East and West sought reunification has a number of political, economic and ideological factors: the desire of East Germans to become as rich as the West, old-style nationalistic considerations and so on. East and West could have remained separate countries; as a matter of fact, not everyone was in favour of reunification, which shows that a total “national consensus” in establishing a nation is only a fiction. 

Besides, in 1989 there were millions of migrants in West Germany. These migrants came especially from Southern Europe and Turkey, but also from Eastern, Asian and African countries. Many of them had children who were born in Germany; so, in 1989 these migrants were part of West Germany, while East Germans weren’t. But because of the old-style nationalistic discourse about identity, East Germans were ironically considered entitled of being part of a nation called Germany, while the “German identity” of the migrants is constantly questioned. 

This example shows how complex collective identity is. Collective identity presupposes that a community of millions of people can reach a 100% agreement on who every single individual is. But because individuals have different personal histories and personal opinions, a total agreement is almost impossible. That is why extremist nationalistic regimes like Fascism or the Guomindang one-party-rule had to inculcate national values either by force or through the educational system, while suppressing dissent.

Nations are in a constant process of re-making and re-defining themselves. A nation isn’t the static community which nationalist ideologues envision. 

Southern and Northern Italy were unified in 1861, but now there are many people in the North who want independence; Spain has been a nation-state for centuries, but there are strong independence movements in Basque and Catalonia; in the UK, Scotland has always shown a high degree of separatism. On the other hand, countries which are as similar as the USA and Canada or Australia and New Zealand are not a state, while Switzerland is a country in which four different big cultural and linguistic groups live side by side. 
An objective, rational definition of nation that is so self-evident that 100% of the population must agree with it, simply doesn’t exist. A nation must remain an ambiguous entity. A nation is always a matter of choice between different variants. 

In the following and last part of this post, I will talk about the different possibilities that Taiwan has in order to solve the question of its relationship with mainland China.


Su Chi: Taiwan’s Relations with Mainland China: A Tail Wagging Two Dogs. New York 2009 (Routledge Contemporary Asia Series).

Gary M. Davison: A Short History of Taiwan: The Case for Independence. Westport 2003.

Michael Dillon: China – A Modern History. New York 2010

Mark Harrison: Legitimacy, Meaning and Knowledge in the Making of Taiwanese Identity. Houndsmills, Basingstone, Hampshire, England / New York 2006

Jay Taylor: The Generalissimo – Chiang Kai-shek and the Struggle for Modern China.


Categories: Uncategorized

3 replies »

  1. hi,
    appreciate your blog, never thought I'd read the “Taiwan history” through a foreigner's blog in English.
    and a little oppinion
    waishengren (外生人), I may say 外省人 be better
    省 means province, so this words means people outside Taiwan Province, often opposite本省人


  2. Hello Ju,

    thanks for your comment and for your suggestion: ) Though I'm afraid that if I used the word “外省人” people will think I'm assuming that Taiwan is just a province of China. In this post I try to be as neutral as possible. Tell me what you think. Thank you.


  3. Thanks for your reply,
    I never thought that way you think, just thought a typo, perhaps because you are not Taiwanese, so you will think more than me:)
    then I'll suggest that you can add a note, just to show that it's not a typo, but you changed it on purpose(…unnecessary advice), or you can use “外省人第二代” to whom you refer(another unnecessary one).

    And it's true in Taiwan, we avoid use the term 本省/外省人 to call someone in public now cause of political incorrect. We all Taiwanese. And yes–in public, but I don't think when someone uses the term, he/she uses it always in a bad way, maybe just used to, or kidding, or self-identity, it depends on the context. If people think that's who you are, where you stand for, they always find a clue to color you red or green. so never worry that.



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