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Identity in the Shadow of a GiantHow the Rise of China is Changing Taiwan$

Scott Gartner, Chin-Hao Huang, Yitan Li, and Patrick James

Print publication date: 2021

Print ISBN-13: 9781529209877

Published to Policy Press Scholarship Online: January 2022

DOI: 10.1332/policypress/9781529209877.001.0001

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Taiwan in Historical Perspective

Taiwan in Historical Perspective

(p.21) 2 Taiwan in Historical Perspective
Identity in the Shadow of a Giant

Scott Sigmund Gartner

Chin-Hao Huang

Yitan Li

Patrick James

Policy Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter presents a historical review that focuses on Taiwanese identity, the rise of China, cross-Strait relations and the role of the United States within the sub-region of Northeast Asia. It begins with the account of prehistoric times, but its main emphasis is on the era from the establishment of the People's Republic of China (PRC) in 1949 onward. The chapter then proceeds from early history to the arrival of the Japanese in 1895. It covers the era of Japanese rule from 1895 to 1945, the initial decades of Nationalist rule, the Taiwanese economic miracle when identity-related developments appear, and the key interactions involving the Democratic Progressive Party in power vis-à-vis the United States and PRC in the new millennium. The chapter sums up the history of Taiwan to provide a context for examination of academic literature, along with results from elite interviews and opinion surveys.

Keywords:   Taiwanese identity, China, cross-Strait relations, United States, Northeast Asia, People's Republic of China, Japanese rule, Democratic Progressive Party


This chapter focuses on Taiwan in historical perspective. The goal is to review the most important aspects of the evolution of Taiwanese identity, cross-Strait relations, the rise of China, the role of the US, and how these matters are connected to each other. These lines of inquiry capture the essential components for an account of the likely pathway for cross-Strait relations, which in turn obviously have reverberations that further impact on cause and effect within the regional system of Northeast Asia and even beyond. Thus, emphasis is placed on a review of historical events that are believed to be important for the development of a comprehensive understanding of the situation today.

This chapter proceeds in seven additional sections. The second section moves forward from early history to the arrival of the Japanese in 1895. The third section covers the era of Japanese rule from 1895 to 1945. The initial decades of Nationalist rule are reviewed in the fourth section from 1945 to 1979. Corresponding to the 1980s, the Taiwanese economic miracle and identity-related developments appear in the fifth section. The sixth section – an era of one country with many problems – covers the 1990s. The seventh section focuses on key interactions involving the DPP in power vis-à-vis the US and PRC in the new millennium. The eighth and final section sums up the history of Taiwan as presented in this chapter.

Early history

Taiwan, also known as Formosa, is an island about 160 kilometres (100 miles) from the Asian coastline. With mountainous territory and a subtropical climate and diverse ecosystem, the approximately 36,000 (p.22) square kilometre (14,000 square mile) island is well-suited to human habitation, which goes back a long way in history. Aboriginal groups with Oceanic and Chinese origins, along with others about whom less is known, can be traced back to prehistoric times (Knapp, 2007: 5–9). A short-lived Dutch colonial settlement in the 17th century brought with it intensive agriculture to complement the hunting, gathering, fishing and small-scale farming that existed already (Knapp, 2007: 11). Ming General Zheng Chenggong, also known as Koxinga, expelled the Dutch from Taiwan in 1662 (Spence, 1999: 54; Sheng, 2001: 9; Knapp, 2007: 13). Chinese dynasties then ruled the island for over two centuries.

Change came to Taiwan as challenges to its rulers in the capital then known as Peking accumulated via encroachments from more developed great powers. Confrontations escalated during the Qing Dynasty. Mosca (2013: 2) identifies a major development in the Qing state’s external relations in the transition from the 18th to the 19th century: region-specific strategies for various frontiers replaced by efforts towards an integrated foreign policy. However, things did not work out well for the Qing Dynasty when China increasingly ‘confronted European empires that operated simultaneously in multiple, noncontiguous areas and could not be managed, or even fully comprehended, on any single frontier’ (Mosca, 2013: 2). The Qing Empire, in turn, became one of several substantial entities locked in competition with each other (Mosca, 2013: 3). Within that empire, Taiwan had the status of a territory, until it was upgraded to a province in 1885 (Sheng, 2001: 9). Japanese expansionism impacted on the island as the 19th century wore on – a story told in more detail momentarily.

From the point of Dutch arrival onward, village-based agriculture took hold and, over the course of centuries, urbanization and transportation systems developed. The process of connecting the island’s residents to each other eventually included modern roads and railways in the last quarter of the 19th century (Knapp, 1999: 22–23). These developments set the stage for a major phase of modernization as a byproduct of the Sino-Japanese war towards the end of the 19th century.

Japanese rule

China fought and lost, to its great amazement, a war against Japan in 1895. For the most part, China did not comprehend that it would be no match for an already modernizing Japan. When Japan invaded Taiwan in the 1870s and China had to pay in order to obtain a withdrawal, it did not shake the court in Beijing out of its false sense of security (p.23) and even superiority over others (Fenby, 2008: 48–49). War ensued between China and Japan over occupation of Korea, which Beijing viewed as being under its suzerainty. China fared poorly in the war; it lost not only Korea, but also Taiwan. Japan took control over Taiwan and a 50-year period of occupation got underway.

Japanese rule over Taiwan had lasting impacts. In material terms, Taiwan experienced a quantum leap in economic development and overall modernization. Trade with Japan played an important role in that advancement. Taiwanese in cities adapted especially well to the Japanese era. Innovations such as the telephone and public post offices – even the riding of bicycles – quickly became an ongoing part of urban life (Lamley, 2007: 218). As a by-product of Japanese rule, the Taiwanese people became increasingly separated from China. After the passing of a deadline in 1897, residents of Taiwan no longer even had the status of Chinese registry or nationality (Lamley, 2007: 208). Thus, the Japanese era impacted upon Taiwan in ideational terms as well.

Parallel sets of developments – institutional and demographic – would have important implications for Taiwanese identity in later years. On the institutional side, the Japanese government experienced ongoing struggles with the question of assimilation. Taiwanese political movements, such as the New People’s Society founded in 1920, rejected both restoration to China and integration with Japan. Instead, members of the Society wanted home rule for Taiwan (Lamley, 2007: 233). Japanese residents of Taiwan, however, did not like the idea of an elected legislative body within which, of course, those of Taiwanese descent would be a supermajority (Lamley, 2007: 233). Thus, the imbalance in demographics between ruled (majority) and rulers (minority) created complications throughout the period of Japanese government. Another development from the Japanese era, demographic in nature, also possessed important implications in later years for evolving Taiwanese identity. Mainlanders came to Taiwan in large numbers – even reaching a high point of more than 60,000 in 1936 (Lamley, 2007: 223). The quarrels over assimilation and democratization, along with an expanding number of people from the Mainland, would foreshadow conflict over Taiwanese identity many years later.

When the Japanese took over in the late 19th century, Taiwan had been primarily an agrarian economy. Sugar and rice production, economically speaking, continued to be the norm during the initial decades of Japanese rule. A shift towards manufacturing occurred and the most intense phase of industrialization would come to Taiwan in the wartime period from 1937 to 1945. Japan went to war against China (p.24) and then the US; and that created the need for industrial production beyond what could be sustained at home. Heavy industry expanded to complement development already in place for Taiwan (Lamley, 2007: 237). Japan lost the war and Taiwan found itself back under Chinese rule just as suddenly as that had ended 50 years earlier. With defeat imminent in the Chinese Civil War, the head of the nationalist forces, Chiang Kai-shek, retreated to the island of Taiwan, took office as president of the ROC, and a period of oligarchy under the KMT (also known as the Nationalist Party) ensued. The PRC ruled the Mainland from 1949 onward and the adversaries eyed each other suspiciously across the Taiwan Strait.

Nationalist rule

One event, from 1947, provides the point of departure for assessing the ROC during its period of exile. Hundreds of local Taiwanese died in what became known as the ‘228 Incident’, which occurred on 28 February 1947 (King, 2016: 44). A riot took place over a government officer’s beating of a contraband cigarette seller. ROC troop reinforcements quickly put down the fledgling rebellion, but the incident brought out tensions between Taiwanese and Mainlanders and led to the imposition of what became known as the ‘White Terror’ (Tsai, 2007: 13, 14; see also Kerr, 1965). The White Terror refers to a period of 40 years with suppression of dissent. Martial law lasted from 19 May 1949 to 15 July 1987. In any number of significant ways, observes Edmondson (2002: 27), the Nationalists could not separate themselves effectively from the previous Japanese rulers of Taiwan. The people of Taiwan, unfortunately, had traded in one form of dictatorship for another.

Efforts towards assimilation simply took a different form under the ROC. The government’s security apparatus – inefficient and corrupt – contributed to public dissatisfaction (Wang, 2007: 323). A process of ‘Mandarinization’ (Mendel cited in Rubenstein, 2007a: 390), accompanied by acts of repression, got underway in the late 1940s and alienated many Taiwanese. Inhabitants of the island did not want to live in a culture that emphasized the virtue of a Chinese identity and way of doing things above everything else. The Nationalists instituted a programme to encourage patriotic activities among youth because of concerns about student protest movements. Youth-related programming included pro-Chinese cultural indoctrination and also surveillance regarding any potentially seditious activity (Wang, 2007: 323). Beneath the surface, however, resistance to assimilation built over time.

(p.25) Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist Party controlled the National Assembly and, when needed for continuity in leadership, permitted him to serve beyond the two-term restriction. Chiang stayed in office all the way through to 1975. For decades, the KMT succeeded in preventing any effective opposition by playing factions off against each other. Through various means, the Nationalist Party also manipulated local elections (Wang, 2007: 327). In the era of KMT hegemony under Chiang, the regime had a ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ quality: an undemocratic political system accompanied by a high-performing economy.

Ironically, the Nationalists had failed to reform agriculture when in power on the Mainland, but succeeded after coming to Formosa (Fenby, 2008: 382). Well-educated professionals took charge of economic development and planning and had full authority to cooperate with officials from the US who had responsibility for transfer of aid (Wang, 2007: 327). In addition, the government took full advantage of the education and abilities of migrants – an important aspect of Taiwan’s overall performance in terms of creating and maintaining human resources (Wang, 2007: 329).

While US aid ended in 1964, economic success continued on the island. Taiwan became one of the fastest-growing economies in the world – well-managed and with particular encouragement towards investment and export (Wang, 2007: 333). Another reason for sustained high performance comes to the fore in looking at economic data regarding wealth distribution from the 1960s. Taiwan surged ahead but, unlike so many other examples of an economic take-off, managed to maintain income equality (Wang, 2007: 333). At the same time, KMT dominance in politics continued apace. Popular culture remained under very careful scrutiny and the Nationalist government crushed most aspects of dissent in society (Wang, 2007: 335). Intellectuals made easy targets because of their liberal-sounding positions in opposition to Nationalist policies – automatically associated with communism and its Mainland-based menace to the regime. Even Lee Teng-hui, a future president of Taiwan, had a run-in with the Taiwan Garrison Command, which in 1969 arrested and questioned him for a week about possible communist affiliations.

For the ROC and PRC, major events with opposite connotations occurred in 1971. The Mainland lobbied for admission to the United Nations (UN) and secured its status as a permanent member of the UN Security Council. Faced with dwindling levels of international support, Chiang’s UN ambassador marched out of the General Assembly meeting in protest while delegates from some of the developing states ‘danced in the aisles’ (Fenby, 2008: 501). As a result, the UN adopted (p.26) Resolution 2758 on 25 October 1971 and recognized the PRC as the new and legitimate government of China. These major developments took place as a by-product of the US initiative towards the PRC in the early 1970s, along with a general shift in perception among UN member states regarding legitimate representation of the Mainland. The expulsion vote and the diplomatic walkout effectively sharpened the divide across the Taiwan Strait. In one way, the switch in UN recognition might be regarded as the final shot of the Chinese Civil War, along with a wake-up call to the ROC about the unreality of any claim regarding sovereignty on the Mainland.

Even as diplomatic isolation intensified, with the vast majority of states switching recognition to the PRC, Taiwan achieved greater prosperity than ever before. Economic advancement and a degree of transformation took place in the Taiwanese economy during the 1970s. Agricultural output declined and a shift to new forms of production, such as floriculture, became significant (Rubenstein, 2007a: 368). Meanwhile, employment in the industrial sector continued to rise; productivity and wages made steady gains and an orientation towards exports worked out especially well (Rubenstein, 2007a: 371). All of this contributed to an underlying sense of dissonance with regard to the economic and political systems when juxtaposed with each other.

While the economy moved forward very well indeed, issues of identity and representation came forward in politics. Conflict during the 1970s increasingly pitted native Taiwanese against the more recent arrivals from the Mainland over control of the state apparatus (Rubenstein, 2007b: 439). During the late 1970s, the nascent opposition ‘employed ethnic discrimination as the theme of national identity issues’ (T. Lin, 2002: 125). During that period, tensions between state and society sometimes came out violently into the open. In the county and city mayor election in 1977, for example, voting fraud led to a riot. This confrontation became known as the Zhongli Incident when police fired into a crowd and killed two youths (Tsai, 2007: 5). The Zhongli Incident had an important legacy; it ‘increased public awareness of KMT’s under-handed tactics and consequently generated support for and contributed to the strength of the Dangwai movement’ (Tsai, 2007: 5). Opposition to oligarchic rule, with the Dangwai movement as the incubator for what became the DPP, increasingly came out into the open.

Another prominent confrontation between state and society became known as the Formosa or Kaohsiung Incident – a pivotal event and even legendary in the history of modern Taiwan (Rubenstein, 2007b: 441). The Kaohsiung Incident refers to a ‘crackdown on protesters against (p.27) the shutting down of Formosa Magazine on International Human Rights Day in 1979’ (Tsai, 2007: 5). Tension built as the day for a major opposition rally drew closer; telephone surveillance and other activities on the part of government authorities signalled that a major confrontation would be coming if and when the event went ahead. When the anti-government march got underway on the evening of 10 December 1979, the police attacked participants with tear gas (Rubenstein, 2007b: 441–442). Violence ensued. As Tsai (2007: 5) observes, the Formosa Incident ‘exposed to the public the heavy handed tactics of the KMT government which brought charges against the accused conspirators of the protest in public trials’. The violence brought fissures within Taiwanese society out into the open more than ever before and set the stage for organized, party-based opposition to the KMT in the coming decades.

Significant changes also got underway in cross-Strait relations as the 1970s drew to a close. Since Deng Xiaoping’s opening of China in 1979, connections between Taiwan and the Mainland dramatically increased (Shirk, 2007: 196). While China obviously had great sensitivity over the issue of sovereignty, the Taiwan Relations Act, signed during that same year, entrenched the status quo and in all likelihood reduced the potential for military escalation across the Taiwan Strait. Over Taiwan, Goh (2016: 62) observes,

China and the US achieved a limited bargain during the 1979 normalization, based on the principle of ‘one China.’ Beijing was accorded diplomatic recognition and authority over all of China, and Washington recognized that Taiwan is a part of China and relinquished the right to encourage Taiwanese independence (though not the right to sell arms to Taiwan).

Each side might well sum up the deal by saying that half a loaf is better than none. At the very least, the bargain reduced tensions in the immediate future for all three dyads concerned.

The Taiwan economic miracle and Taiwanese identity

Development on the island took a new and further positive direction in the 1980s. The information and computer industries, with obvious strategic importance, reached a take-off point. From 1984 to 1988, Taiwan’s exports of hardware products increased more than fivefold and, as the decade progressed, ‘PC clones became the norm and more (p.28) sophisticated hardware and software became available’ (Rubenstein, 2007a: 374). The financial sector also went through a phase of liberalization that helped Taiwan adapt effectively to the changing world economy (Rubenstein, 2007a: 375–376). These developments combined to raise the level of contact with the world abroad and exposure to new ideas, which in turn had implications for politics on the island itself.

Against the backdrop of prosperity in the 1980s, long-standing identity-based grievances came more into the open and entered onto the political agenda for Taiwan. Aboriginal concerns gained special prominence. Founded in 1985, the Alliance of Taiwan Aboriginals moved into a period of activism two years later. Protests took place and the Alliance in June 1987 made the ‘first published call for aboriginal self-government in Taiwan’ (Stainton, 2007: 423). Moreover, aboriginal mobilization reflected a larger ongoing process within society as a whole. As the 1980s moved along, Tsai (2007: 15) observes that

the KMT faced difficulties in maintaining the justice system, mitigating the negative effects of economic development and the increasing differentiation of the social structure, and in responding to the rise of Aboriginal movements and the establishment of the DPP, which all contributed to the development of a ‘Taiwanese consciousness’ that in its strength and intensity rivaled the ‘Chinese consciousness’ the government had intentionally promoted over the years.

Sinic versus indigenous identification increasingly shaped the main axes of conflict in Taiwan as political competition moved towards legal status.

One example of how conflict played out concerns interpretation of Taiwanese history during perhaps its most controversial era. Memories of the Japanese regime, as the 1980s progressed, ‘quickly became a source of dispute between local Taiwanese (Benshengren) – that is, those who had been living on Taiwan prior to the KMT’s arrival’ and ‘the two-million or so KMT “outsiders” (Waishengren) who had arrived in the late 1940s and 1950s’ (King, 2016: 43–44). Given horrendous experiences on the Mainland during the period of occupation, those who came over to Taiwan brought with them anger and resentment towards Japan. By contrast, the era of Japanese rule in Taiwan had entailed substantial modernization, accompanied by a significantly lower level of repression than experienced on the Mainland. These differences in experiences between Benshengren and Waishengren with Japanese rule continues to shape issues that arise later on the agenda. (p.29) One prominent example would be the teaching of history in Taiwanese public schools.

Mandarinization, described earlier, encountered mounting opposition from civil society. Nationalist leaders increasingly understood that, if pushed too hard as an ongoing attempt to ‘carry a torch’ for a past life on the Mainland, Mandarinization could be the ultimate undoing of the KMT. President Chiang Ching-kuo and others of a pragmatic bent within the KMT also realized, by the late 1980s, that the Mainland would not come back under their control (Rubenstein, 2007a: 391). Thus one major event – a liberalizing and at the time unexpected one, with the son of Chiang Kai-shek in power – took place in 1986: ‘the decision by then-president Chiang Ching-kuo not to crack down on those who had illegally formed an opposition party’ (Brown, 2004: 239). While formation of the DPP defied martial law, the time had come for at least limited democratization as a means towards management of underlying conflicts within society. Upheaval seemed like the probable alternative to the advent of electoral competition. President Chiang Ching-kuo allowed freedom of the press and lifted martial law (Fenby, 2008: 663). Thus, Taiwan transitioned into a multiparty system, with the KMT as initially dominant. At the effective start of party competition in 1986, the KMT and DPP held 64 per cent and 24 per cent of the seats, respectively, in the Legislative Yuan (Clark, 2007: 501). The KMT remained on top for some time, but the DPP gained ground as it built infrastructure and obtained experience in electoral competition.

Taiwan, as Corcuff (2002a: 73) observes in an exposition that emphasizes the importance of symbolic change, experienced a ‘deep transition’ that can be traced to the critical period of 1987–1988. Prior to that turning point, the thought of Sun Yat-sen, founder of the ROC, had been hegemonic in intellectual terms. It took the form of tridemism: nationalism, democracy and people’s welfare (Corcuff, 2002a: 75). Sun Yat-sen had put forward tridemism to cope with China’s problems in the 1920s, so it is not surprising that teachers and students increasingly found it irrelevant to Taiwan in the 1990s (Corcuff, 2002a: 76). The change in mindset paved the way for further reform of the educational system to keep pace with contemporary needs associated with an expanding modern economy.

Taiwan’s school system emerged as a front line of conflict for identity formation. By 1990, school history textbooks and classes (e.g. new Renshi Taiwan (Know Taiwan)) focused less on shared history with China – an emphasis associated with KMT dominance – and ‘more on distinct aspects of Taiwanese history’ (King, 2016: 44). School textbooks (p.30) began to discuss social, educational and economic developments achieved during Japanese rule and contrasted levels of development on the Mainland with Taiwan’s much greater accomplishments during this period (King, 2016: 44). The new approach towards teaching history ‘embraced Taiwan’s contact with Japanese and Dutch colonial forces, celebrated Taiwan’s history as a trading nation that had developed extensive commercial and cultural ties with the West and Japan and appropriated Taiwan’s aboriginal heritage to demonstrate that Taiwan was a pluralistic society’ (King, 2016: 45). Students therefore began to process information that could impact on identity formation – notably a shift away from Sinic affiliation coupled with demonization of Japan in particular.

Politics in the new era featured great intensity because long-suppressed conflicts could come out into the open without simply being put down by security forces. Dialogue increasingly replaced detention. The DPP initially succeeded at the local level but then became more prominent and partisan as a party active across Taiwan. Lee Teng-hui took office as president in 1988 and pursued a pragmatic path in foreign policy, with an emphasis on membership in trade groups, UN-related NGOs and other items associated with maintaining prosperity and connections with the wider world (Rubenstein, 2007b: 462). Democratization also accelerated under Lee’s administration. This process included ethnic, identity-related dimensions. Native Taiwanese obtained appointment, in significant numbers, to important positions in government offices and use of the Taiwanese dialect, as an alternative to Mandarin, increased in public life (Tsai, 2007: 15, 16; see also Clark, 2007: 504). The changes in the school system noted earlier stand out as a flashpoint for conflict as Taiwanization began to replace Mandarinization.

One country, many problems

From the standpoint of foreign policy ideas and infrastructure, key events took place late in 1990 and early in 1991. At the end of 1990, PRC officials proposed initial, low-level talks about reunification under a ‘one country, two systems’ formula (Rubenstein, 2007b: 466). The ROC took parallel actions to facilitate interactions with the PRC. The Executive Yuan created the Mainland Affairs Council (MAC) to pursue overall plans in that area. In February and March 1991, respectively, the National Unification Council and Executive Yuan adopted ‘Guidelines for National Unification’ (Sheng, 2001: 19–20). The relationship with the Mainland continued to expand, albeit with halting steps (Rubenstein, 2007b: 467).

(p.31) These actions led up to what became known as the 1992 Consensus. This somewhat surreal agreement resulted from a meeting in British Hong Kong between two semi-official associations: from Taiwan, the Straits Exchange Foundation (SEF), and from the Mainland, the Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait (ARATS). From Beijing’s point of view, a meeting without state-to-state connotations had the most potential to work towards some type of functional agreement with Taipei that eventually could lead to unification. In the collective mind of Taipei, the meeting in Hong Kong permitted the opportunity to obtain some kind of stabilizing arrangement outside the normal channels of diplomacy with Beijing, to which it did not have access. The net result, the 1992 Consensus, constituted an agreement on the existence of a single China but this meant very different things on either side of the Strait.

Perhaps the 1992 Consensus is most easily understood as an oxymoron – announcement of an abeyance. Each side took away a different sense of what should be understood by ‘one China and two systems’. For the Mainland, it represented an agreement on eventual unification and an effective ban on independence for Taiwan. From the standpoint of Taiwan, however, it meant a commitment to self-determination accompanied by an agreement to keep talking.

With the unveiling of the 228 Monument in Taipei in February 1995, the government took an important step towards recognizing the legacy of past oppression. Family members of victims from the 228 Incident assembled in Taipei, at New Park, and received a formal apology from Lee Teng-hui, leader of the KMT and president of Taiwan (Rubenstein, 2007b: 470). From a strategic standpoint, Lee hoped to position himself between hard-liners on both sides – independence versus unification advocates – and thus be in a good position to maintain power (Rubenstein, 2007b: 471). Given the rise of identity politics, a middle ground position entailed at least some recognition of the worst excesses from the past. Moreover, greater internal stability, in all likelihood, would facilitate more cooperation between the ROC and PRC.

Just a few months later, any hoped-for calming of cross-Strait relations received quite a jolt from across the Pacific. With a reversal of its 16-year ban on visits by high ranking officials, on 22 May 1995, the US granted a visa to President Lee Teng-hui. The visa would permit a six-day visit – characterized as private rather than official – to his alma mater, Cornell University. This action ‘prompted a crisis in both China-United States relations and cross-strait relations’ and China responded to Lee’s visit with great intensity (Sheng, 2001: 24, 26). Lee arrived in the (p.32) US and complications ensued right away; government officials greeted him with a ‘formal red-carpet ceremony’ (Rubenstein, 2007b: 471). This looked to Beijing in particular like an act of formal recognition. The speech by Lee at Cornell obtained significant media coverage and China reacted decisively against the visit as a whole.

Most dramatically, China launched missile tests and conducted military exercises close to Taiwan and, between July 1995 and March 1996, assembled troops in Fujian Province directly across the Strait (Sheng, 2001: 28). From 21 to 26 July 1995, observes Sheng (2001: 28), the third division of the Second Artillery Corps of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) carried out in a sea area north of Taiwan ‘a surface-to-surface missile test, code-named “95 Ziqiang”’. Located just 170 kilometres north of Taiwan, the target zone for the missile testing sent a clear and threatening message (Rubenstein, 2007b: 472). The US responded by assembling two aircraft carrier battle groups near Taiwan – since the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, its most sizable fleet in East Asia (Sheng, 2001: 31–32). In light of obvious US military superiority, Beijing backed down and the crisis abated (Fenby, 2008: 664). This peaceful outcome did not mean, however, anything like ‘forgive and forget’.

Events from 1995–1996, which reached the crisis level, strengthened Taipei’s perceptions that China would be willing, for purposes of coercion, to use dangerous levels of military force (King, 2016: 45). The likely explanation for the very high intensity of the Chinese response resides in domestic politics: ‘Jiang Zemin decided it was safer to appease the hawks in the army, the government, and the public by holding live-fire missile exercises toward Taiwan and risking a war with America than allow public protests – an ominous precedent for future Taiwan-related crises’ (Shirk, 2007: 227). While de-escalation ensued, memories lasted as both sides realized the potential for war if and when independence for Taiwan came out openly as an issue.

Meanwhile, a new series of changes in the educational system of Taiwan had implications for the nexus of identity and cross-Strait relations. A university law, passed in 1994, permitted greater autonomy on campuses (Rubenstein, 2007a: 381). More diverse curriculum, with reduced government influence, took hold as a result. Textbook reform, in 1997, stands out in Taiwan’s evolution as a ‘milestone’ (Corcuff, 2002a: 85). Historians worked on the new programme ‘with a degree of freedom from political interference unknown until then’ and, for the first time, could transcend the ‘political taboo’ in the education field regarding the plurality of historical experiences for Taiwan (Corcuff, 2002a: 86). The result, Knowing Taiwan, represented the initial stage in (p.33) a new three-year high school programme and, as in the case of reform that pertained to Sun Yat-sen-inspired tridemism, change emerged from inside of the state-party apparatus (Corcuff, 2002a: 88, 90). This shift signalled KMT’s awareness of the need to adapt in order to remain relevant to future political competition beyond an agenda that consisted of Sinic identity and unification.

Events involving China and the US, well beyond Taipei’s control, had important implications for cross-Strait relations. Tensions increased for Beijing and Washington with US bombing of the Chinese Embassy at Belgrade in May 1999: ‘China’s Communist Party leaders deflected the students’ nationalist outrage away from themselves onto the United States’ and the Chinese public believed the bombing to be intentional (Shirk, 2007: 214, 218; see also Fenby, 2008: 666). Due to its cultivation of xenophobic nationalism – a tendency discussed at length later in this chapter – Beijing lacked flexibility in responding to an event such as the bombing of its embassy.

After the aerial assault on the embassy, a gap between pragmatic foreign policy and nationalistic public opinion became more entrenched. China then went on to blame the US for rejection of its bid to host the 2000 Olympic Games (Shirk, 2007: 220, 227). Tensions diminished, however, as economic realities for the US and PRC intervened for both sides; the relationship had become too important to allow ideological differences to interfere (Fenby, 2008: 666). Leaders in Beijing knew, however, that future confrontations with Washington, Taipei (or both) increasingly would be difficult to manage in light of highly probable domestic pressure in favour of escalation.

Leadership in Taiwan also tried to manage new difficulties arising from the three-way relationship. President Lee put forward the ‘two states’ theory in 1999: Before his presidential term expired, Lee hoped to lay a firmer groundwork for the future and that ‘reflected his lack of confidence in the next president’ (Sheng, 2001: 215). Lee had to appease his base of supporters, who wanted major policy change, notably, movement towards independence – yet he also had to deal with realities involving further confrontation with China and the US, and was reluctant to see conflict escalate (Clark, 2007: 525). The president faced an almost impossible situation in which the wrong policy profile could damage the three-way relationship while also aggravating domestic tensions – an outcome much more likely than something that would please all parties concerned.

Symbolic recognition on the island of an increasingly Taiwanese identity continued apace and promised to raise tensions with the Mainland. Reform of banknotes from the Chiang Kai-shek era, for (p.34) example, took place in a gradual way (Corcuff, 2002a: 92). Over the course of decades, vegetal ornaments with traditional Chinese associations had been used for watermarks. ‘The plum flower (NT$100), orchid (NT$200), bamboo (NT$500), chrysanthemum (NT$1000), and pine (NT$2000)’, as Corcuff (2002a: 93) observes, all possess a strong identity as Chinese. Official status of the New Taiwan Dollar as the national currency of the Republic of China on Taiwan was confirmed in 1999 and as newspapers noted right away, represented considerable ‘symbolic change’ (Corcuff, 2002a: 95). Movement away from a Sinic identity – and towards a uniquely Taiwanese alternative – stood at the centre of the preceding changes.

Corcuff (2002a: 96) sums up the cumulative effects of reforms such as those involving currency:

The disappearance of Sun Yat-sen’s doctrine is near total, and though it has not officially been replaced by any other ideology, the switch is de facto operated amid a relatively consensual new ideology of ‘soft’ Taiwanese nationalism, which encompasses the defense of Taiwan’s democracy, appeals to its consolidation and common defense of Taiwan’s sovereignty, the necessity to put aside the question of the national title in the face of the PRC’s diplomatic pressure and military buildup.

Identity evolved in a gradual way, cautiously for the most part among leaders, but in a clear direction: away from a connection with China. Change unfolded across multiple dimensions that ranged from philosophical dispositions to design of political institutions. Implicit in all of this inhered a more open embrace of Taiwanese uniqueness based on a multifaceted identity, within which a Chinese element would have a limited role to play.

Change on the island, both symbolic and material, did not escape the attention of the Mainland, which saw danger on the horizon regarding Taiwan’s possible declaration of independence. When it released the White Paper on the One-China Principle and the Taiwan Issue on 22 February 2000, Beijing made a major policy statement. This pronouncement, as Rigger (2001: 192) observes, ‘threatened force if Taiwan moved toward independence or refused to enter negotiations leading to the unification of Taiwan and mainland China. While the first condition was a familiar one, Beijing had never before offered the delay of negotiations as a rationale for military attack’. Tensions across the Strait increased as a result.

(p.35) The Democratic Progressive Party, the People’s Republic of China and the United States

Taiwanese reaction to the threatening stance from the Mainland worked in exactly the opposite direction hoped for among Beijing’s leadership. A major changing of the guard came in Taiwan’s election of 2000, when Chen Shui-bian became the first president elected from the opposition DPP. It also marked the first time that a political party other than the KMT held the seat of the ROC government in Taiwan. Chen pushed Taiwanese nationalism and appealed to his ‘base’, either out of necessity or preference, and this became more pronounced once he came to power (Clark, 2007: 510).

These developments took place against the backdrop of mounting Sino-American tensions over the status of Taiwan. While quite astonishing to those outside of China who hear of it for the first time, the PRC’s National Humiliation Day, each September since 2001, makes sense within its historical context. Every year on 18 September National Humiliation Day commemorates horrendous experiences at the hands of Japanese occupation. The specific day of the year chosen, 18 September, recalls the Japanese bombing attack on their own railway in Mukden, which when blamed on the Chinese created the rationale for the invasion of Manchuria and further aggression. Even nine decades after the specific events in 1931, the legacy of the wartime experience should not be underestimated when processing Chinese reactions to anything that even looks remotely like a violation of sovereignty.

Tensions mounted with the US as a new president, George W. Bush, took office in 2001. Loss of US jobs to China had become an issue in the 2000 presidential election campaign and it stayed salient through the following contest in 2004. Shirk (2007: 249) summarizes a series of economic problems and associated conflict with China: ‘piracy of DVDs, CDs, prescription drugs, and other intellectual property frustrated American producers’. Retaliation from the US ensued. For example, the US House of Representatives blocked the Chinese National Offshore Oil Company’s (CNOOC) attempt to buy UNOCAL. The political explosion from the CNOOC bid stunned and demoralized the Chinese government, with the bid being withdrawn on 2 August 2005 (Shirk, 2007: 250, 251). Given different value systems, Washington and Beijing began to collide on economic issues as the ascent of China brought it more directly into the global system.

Conflict with a rising China included security policy as well, notably regarding nuclear missile defence. The Bush administration refused to adjust deployment plans in response to Chinese concerns. (p.36) ‘Forced to plan for a thick, robust missile shield around the United States (even though the technology may never succeed)’, Shirk (2007: 247) observes, ‘China has sought to minimize the damage to bilateral relations’. A military incident soon would aggravate Sino-American relations and draw attention to ongoing Chinese concerns about sovereignty.

Near the Hainan Island on 1 April 2001, a mid-air collision occurred between a PLA Navy interceptor fighter jet and a US Navy EP3 signals intelligence aircraft. The pilot of the Chinese military plane died, and the US aircraft had to make an emergency landing on Hainan Island. The PRC detained and questioned the crew, but released them when a sufficiently ambiguous document permitted both sides to back away without serious embarrassment. This strange episode, according to Callahan (2010: 16), reveals how identity and security issues are tied closely together even among political elites. Given concerns over Taiwan and possibly other peripheries, such as Tibet, leaders in Beijing had to avert any sense of defeat over a sovereignty-related issue such as the aircraft collision. Even a seemingly minor incident had great potential for escalation of US conflict with China, still fixated on past humiliations involving violation of its sovereignty. The EP3 incident also shows the clear cultural difference between China and the US in dealing with conflicts and China’s ‘apology diplomacy’ (Gries and Peng, 2002).

Tensions between China and the US continued during the George W. Bush years in the White House. Independence as an issue came onto the three-way agenda in a dramatic way as the election of 2004 approached for Taiwan. Anxieties about war heightened, as noted by Shirk (2007: 204), during the presidential election campaign of 2003–2004 when Chen Shui-bian ‘called for a referendum to revise the Constitution in 2006, and ratify it by 2008’ – a schedule ‘obviously timed to conclude with the 2008 Olympics to be held in Beijing’. The election campaign itself featured mobilization on issues of identity. The most intense moment of all, perhaps, came with the Pan-Green rally on 28 February, to commemorate the 228 Incident of 1947 but also explicitly stand up against any new threats from the Mainland (Clark, 2007: 514).

China took notice of the rising tide of nationalism in Taiwan and passed an Antisecession Law on 7 May 2004. Beijing made a clear statement against Taiwanese independence: ‘The guidelines combined firmness and friendliness toward Taiwan, but the Chinese government emphasized their firm side by calling them the “Four Nevers”’ (Shirk, 2007: 207). The Mainland, however, used both the ‘stick’ and the (p.37) ‘carrot’ to counter the Taiwanese trend towards independence. When it allowed two Taiwanese politicians, Lien Chan (KMT Chairman) and James Soong (People First Party head) to visit and speak on live television in May 2005, the Mainland looked confident as a result. Soon after, Beijing permitted its tourists to visit across the Strait (Shirk, 2007: 208, 209). Note that with the visit from Lien and Soong, Beijing extended the olive branch to two Pan-Blue politicians; Pan-Green remained anathema from the Mainland government’s point of view.

Over and beyond the referendum controversy, actions by Taiwan during the George W. Bush era aggravated matters in the three-way relationship with the PRC. Perhaps most notably, Chen Shui-bian abolished the National Unification Council on 28 February 2006. This action took place, in all likelihood, as a response to declining support at home (Shirk, 2007: 209). Pan-Blue leaders and the Mainland condemned the decision immediately after, with Beijing emphasizing that Taiwan had no right of secession. Mainland leaders continued to seethe over the perceived drift of Taiwan towards independence.

China’s Olympics in 2008 provide a highly public instance of a performance that intertwines identity with security (Callahan, 2010: 3). Take, for instance, events connected to Grace Wang, a Chinese student from Duke University. She intervened in a confrontation involving pro-Tibet and pro-China protesters on her campus over the Olympic Torch’s Journey of Harmony. The PRC called Wang a traitor because of the attempted mediation between opposing sides of the debate (Callahan, 2010: 128). It is revealing that even an effort that entailed neutrality and conciliation by an individual Mainlander would be seen as an act of betrayal vis-à-vis a sovereignty-related issue.

With the election of Ma Ying-jeou as president in 2008, an ‘unprecedented détente’ ensued with the Mainland (Kastner, 2015: 2). Ma shelved talk of independence and even autonomy in and of itself. The Ma administration pursued conciliation with the Mainland and impacted upon identity in doing so. The Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) stands out as the most important agreement from the Ma era. ECFA greatly reduced commercial barriers, notably tariffs, and had as its goal the promotion of trade between the Mainland and Taiwan. For Taiwanese, the agreement came to symbolize a rapprochement with the PRC. Positive views from Pan-Blue contrasted with very negative reactions from the DPP, which worried about further economic interdependence as leading, perhaps irreversibly with ECFA in place, to unification.

Ma pursued ideational as well as material reconciliation with the Mainland. The president used historical memory ‘as part of a wider (p.38) project to “re-Sinicize” Taiwanese history’ (King, 2016: 46). Ma’s policies, which pertained to the school system and beyond, constituted a reversal from curricular shifts that had characterized the 1990s. For example, the government

re-introduced classical Chinese into the education curriculum; celebrated key aspects of Chinese cultural heritage, such as Confucius and Huangdi, or the Yellow Emperor, a Chinese deity; and returned the names of national institutions such as the Taiwan Post and the National Taiwan Democracy Memorial Hall back to their pre-DPP titles, the China Post and the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall.

(King, 2016: 46)

Ma’s government also commemorated important events from the Second World War in ways that paralleled the approach taken on the Mainland: (a) a conference in 2013 looked back at the Cairo Conference and Declaration from 1943; and (b) a suite of material, produced by Academia Historica, the Ministry of Defence, the Ministry of National Education and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 2015, focused on the end of the Second World War (King, 2016: 46–47).

Ma, in sum, claimed ‘China’s wartime history and identity for Taiwan’ (King, 2016: 47). The president and those implementing his policies reminded all who would listen that the ROC, as compared to the communists, had done most of the fighting against the Japanese. This fed into the larger objective of improving the KMT’s image by linking its history to the struggle against fascism. Not surprisingly, the opposition DPP saw all of this, along with ECFA, as a poorly hidden initiative towards unification with the Mainland.

Sovereignty issues in Northeast Asia at a more general level created complications for Sino-Taiwanese relations as pursued by the Ma administration. Events involving the PRC with Japan, in light of historical memories of wartime atrocities, had especially great intensity and potential for escalation of strife. Even minor incidents created risk of major consequences. On 7 September 2010, for example, the Japanese coast guard detained a Chinese fishing boat and its crew – on the surface a trivial matter. Tokyo claimed that the boat had been fishing in Japanese territorial waters – inside of 12 miles from a disputed island chain – known as the Diaoyu Islands in China and Senkaku Islands in Japan. Japan also noted that the fishing boat had rammed a Japanese coast guard ship (Beckley, 2011/2012: 83). Nationalist anger escalated against Japan after the arrest and many on the internet ‘called for a (p.39) boycott of Japanese goods and for the Chinese government to adopt stronger measures’ (Beckley, 2011/2012: 84, 85).

Sovereignty-related anger crept into the Sino-American dyad as a by-product of accumulated incidents at sea and mounting sensitivities in China regarding perceived imperialist encroachments. ‘The combination of China’s hypernationalist political environment with increasingly severe economic and social instability’, observes Beckley (2011/2012: 82), ‘elicited China’s hard-line and unprecedented diplomatic posture against U.S. naval exercises in international waters in the Yellow Sea’. After a 21 July statement from the US that its aircraft carrier would participate in military exercises but not enter the Yellow Sea, tensions diminished (Beckley, 2011/2012: 82).

Chinese sensitivity about the status of Taiwan continues to affect even seemingly trivial matters related to sovereignty. Baron (2016: 64), in summing up a recent incident, asserts that ‘deportation of 45 Taiwanese citizens from Kenya to China in early April [2016] was of nebulous legality’. Malaysia took the same kind of action at the end of April 2016 – the government deported a further 32 Taiwanese suspects to Beijing. The Chinese government insisted that the prime reason had been Taipei’s leniency on acts of fraud (Baron, 2016: 64). While it is possible such a concern played some role in the decision, the more likely explanation is ongoing pressure from the Mainland.

Tensions continue at this time of writing, with the politico-economic agenda of former US President Donald Trump reverberating throughout Northeast Asia in ways that do not point in any particular direction. Trump campaigned on an ‘America First’ platform that, once implemented, has created mixed signals for Xi as it relates to the PRC’s interests. In economic terms, tariffs were a major priority for the US president; the idea of America First focuses very directly on protection of industries that had been experiencing employment losses via relocation of plants to Asia. Tariffs in place already have caused retaliation from the PRC, with speculation underway that a trade war could ensue and greatly damage the global economy. Consider, specifically, the arrest of Meng Wanzhou, Chief Financial Officer of Huawei, a Mainland tech giant, on 1 December 2018. This occurred in Canada and followed on from US accusations that Meng had violated sanctions imposed on Iran (Horowitz, 2018). This incident put an exclamation mark on the building confrontation between Beijing and Washington.

At the same time, in the realm of security, the Trump rhetoric about America First would seem to point in a more pacific direction. The former president continues to rail against overseas security-related (p.40) involvements that invariably turn out to be very costly to the US. Such statements can be interpreted, with probable justification, as signalling that the US would prefer to stay out of Sino-Taiwanese relations to the greatest degree possible. The former president’s rhetoric almost certainly reflects a desire for Taiwan to take on a greater burden of its own security and national defence. Thus, a Trump administration might be seen as less likely than others beforehand, which held what might be described as a liberal internationalist worldview, to encourage independence for Taiwan. The mixed messages from the White House serve as an additional, exogenous source of concern and uncertainty affecting cross-Strait relations.

Summing up the history

This chapter began with a history of Taiwan from time immemorial onward. Essential aspects of Taiwanese identity, cross-Strait relations, the ascent of China and the ongoing role of the US have been reviewed. Contact with the Dutch, Chinese, and Japanese over the course of centuries influenced politics, economics, and identity for the inhabitants of Formosa. Arrival of the KMT after its defeat in the Chinese Civil War stands out, perhaps, as the most transforming event of the modern era. Sinic and Taiwanese elements have blended together, not always peacefully, as identity evolved on the island over the course of decades. The history of US–China–Taiwan relations demonstrates that the triangular relationship has always been based on the strategic interests of the three parties. At the structural level, the strategic relationship between the US and China has played a much more determining role. At times, US–China relations appeared to show signs of a high level of cooperation as a result of the liberal institutionalist engagements between the two countries, for example the US’s assistance that enabled China to enter the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001 and China’s rapid economic rise that followed. As China gradually became the ‘factory of the world’, economic interdependence between the US and China strengthened significantly. However, viewing US–China relations through a longer stretch of history and the recent escalation of tensions between the two countries, particularly during the Trump administration, suggest that liberalism may not have helped the US and China to escape ‘Thucydides’ Trap’ (Allison, 2017). Taiwan has always been an important piece in the strategic game over Beijing’s and Washington’s respective interests in the region. As China continues to challenge the US in the Asian Pacific, Taiwan’s role can only become more important (regardless of identity or party affiliation of the US (p.41) president; Hernandez and Chien, 2020). While not intended to be complete, the preceding review of events is sufficient to provide a context for examination of academic literature, along with results from elite interviews and opinion surveys, which takes place in subsequent chapters. (p.42)