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Travel Guide > Asia > Taiwan

Taiwan History & Politics

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Taiwan has been populated for thousands of years by aboriginal tribes who speak Austronesian languages, but its written history begins with the partial colonization of Taiwan by the Dutch and then the Spaniards in the early 17th century. The old name of Taiwan, Formosa, comes from the Portuguese Ilha Formosa for "beautiful island."

Han Chinese immigrants arrived in significant numbers in the same era, and in part because of European trade. Ming loyalist Koxinga defeated the Dutch garrisons and set up a rump Ming state with the hope of reconquering Qing-ruled China. His grandson surrendered to the Qing in 1683. Although contact between China and Taiwan dates back thousands of years, it was not until larger numbers of Han residents arrived during the Qing Dynasty that Taiwan was formally integrated into China as part of Fujian. The 18th and 19th centuries were marked by uprisings, epidemics and disorder, but also massive increases in population and food production.

Taiwan became a separate province in 1885 and saw considerable progress during Liu Ming-chuan's term as governor. but was ceded to Japan a decade later under the terms of the Treaty of Shimonoseki. Japan ruled the island until 1945, and exerted profound influences on its development. The island's entertainment and pop culture is still heavily influenced by Japan, and much Japanese-built infrastructure can still be seen on the island, such as sugar refineries, railway stations, public buildings, and Kaohsiung's harbor.

Between the late 1920 and 1949, the Chinese Nationalists (KMT) then in control of the Chinese mainland fought a civil war against Mao Zedong's Chinese Communist Party. The two sides briefly united against Japan during World War II, but within months of Tokyo's surrender they were fighting again. Eventually, the Communists were victorious, and the KMT leadership, the remnants of their army, and hundreds of thousands of supporters fled to Taiwan.

From Taipei, the KMT continued to assert its right as the sole legitimate government of all China. Until the early 1970s, the United Nations and most of the Western world agreed. The ROC government in Taiwan was repressive until well into the presidency of Chiang Kai-shek's son, Chiang Ching-kuo; the authorities murdered critics and opponents until at least 1984. Taiwan's people did, however, enjoy religious freedom and rapid economic growth. By the early 1990s, it was one of the world's richest and most modern economies and known throughout the world as an Asian Tigers. Taiwan remains a leader in consumer electronics and is home to well-known brands such as Acer, Asus and HTC. Democratization began in earnest when the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) was established in 1987. The first direct presidential election was held in 1996, and the first peaceful transition of power between the KMT and DPP occurred in 2000.


Taiwanese politics remain dominated by the issue of relations between Taiwan and the People's Republic of China, which still regards Taiwan as a "renegade province" and regularly threatens military action if Taiwan attempts to break away from the current awkward status quo. The Pan-Blues, spearheaded by the KMT, support eventual unification with the mainland, while the Pan-Greens led by the DPP favor eventual independence. The split extends down to trivial issues like Chinese romanization — the KMT prefers the mainland's Hanyu pinyin, the DPP prefers a Taiwan-made variant called Tongyong pinyin — and political demonstrations and rallies are often turbulent.

Taiwanese society is rather polarized by allegiance between supporters of the two major political block, although there are also large numbers of people who are either centrist or who don't care. Generally, those in the north, those who are of Hakka ancestry, and those whose parents hailed from the Chinese mainland back the Pan-Blues, while those from the south, and whose families have been on the island for many generations, support the Pan-Greens. Although there is some correlation between background and political beliefs, it's unwise to assume too much about a particular person based on what you think you know about his or her background.

Unless you know your listener well, it is unwise to say anything (either positive or negative) about the current government, about historical figures in Taiwanese history, about Taiwan's international relations, or about relations with mainland China. Some political figures such as Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Ching-kuo are generally seen positively, but others (Chiang Kai-shek, Lee Teng-hui and Chen Shui-bian in particular) arouse very polarized feelings.
Some Taiwanese will get very offended if you imply that Taiwan is part of China; a small minority will get very offended if you imply that Taiwan is not part of China. Referring to the PRC as "mainland China" rather than simply China will tend not to offend anyone as the term is generally used to exclude Hong Kong and Macau as well, making it less subjective. Referring to the ROC as a whole as "Taiwan Province" will draw a negative reaction from most Taiwanese. "Greater China" may be used in certain business contexts. Keep in mind that there are many subtleties and complexities here; if you're talking about these things, you've already wandered into a minefield.

However, simply referring to the island as "Taiwan" is fine, as that is the name used by the locals, regardless of their political persuasion. Titles such as "Republic of China" are reserved for official matters only.

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