What Happened in Taiwan?


Claire Killian

I had never really thought about Taiwan, until a friend jokingly said that you, “should never bring up Taiwan at a dinner party.” That pushed me to learn more about the Taiwanese situation. Now, in the wake of recent elections, and the Hong Kong protests, I encourage everyone to learn what they can, and develop an opinion on, Taiwan.

Taiwan is a reasonably small island off the southern coast of China, and at one time belonged to Japan. Taiwan was given to China in the wake of WWII by it’s allies, the victors. When Mao Zedong rose to power and established a communist government in China, the old administration, the Kuomintang government, fled to Taiwan.

As the communist government took over mainland China, many people opposed to the new regime escaped to Taiwan. The island, in turn, became increasingly democratic, and now holds regular elections. The two countries had an icy relationship until the 1980s, when China released it’s infamous “one country, two systems” policy offer. The ruling would give Taiwan significant autonomy. This is where it get’s murky, and a little opinionated, over whether China actually controlled Taiwan, or even had the right to give them any form of government. The policy was rejected by Taiwan, but in 1991 they formally ended the war which had been raging only in legal terms between the People’s Republic of China, and the little island.

There were talks in the early 2000s between non-governmental representatives, but because the Taiwanese government straight up denies the validity of the Chinese government, there could be no direct government-government discussions. As the Taiwanese people also repeatedly elected pro-independence candidates, they were sending China a message.

In Taiwans 2016 elections, Tsai Ing-wen, leader of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), and notable figure in the fight for independence won. When later that year President Trump took office, Tsai called the White House to congratulate the new president. The leaders spoke, breaching a precedent set in 1979 not to acknowledge the power or sovereignty of Taiwan. In the years since then, China has been forcing businesses not list Taiwan as an independent country, and not to do business there. This has hit Taiwan hard and recently the DPP has been slipping in popularity.

Currently, China says that Taiwan is a province of the much larger People’s Republic. Taiwan disagrees, saying it is an independent nation, it has a constitutional, a military, and it’s own democratically elected leaders. Taiwan effectively functions as a sovereign nation, even if it’s legal status is murky. For the most part, the rest of the world is happy to operate in the tense ambiguity surrounding the Taiwan question.

In the most recent election just this past week, Tsai and her party won a sweeping victory, and are widely considered to be the dark horses of the race. China has been pressuring Taiwanese officials for months with economic incentives and military consequences to increase pro-unification sentiment on the island, however that seems to have backfired. As the Hong Kong protests raged in the background, many Taiwanese feared that they could be put in the same position if they gave to much as an inch to the Chinese government.

So what does this mean? For the most part, the victory reaffirmed the popularity of independence on the island, but likely signals the continuing ambiguity of the Chinese-Taiwanese relationship. While Taiwan is a brilliant example of democracy and economic success despite a tough beginning, allies are hesitant to align with them as the ever-growing Chinese presence in the region and in the global economy wields disproportionate power.