A brief history of modern day Taiwan.
The first settlements on Taiwan, an island located off the south-eastern coast of mainland China in the western Pacific Ocean, were those of indigenous tribes, who lived undisturbed until explorers from the Dutch East India Company landed on the island in 1624. Dutch attempts to colonize the island ended when troops from China’s Ming Dynasty expelled the Europeans in 1662. China subsequently gained control of the island until the Qing Dynasty conceded Taiwan to the Empire of Japan after the First Sino-Japanese War in 1895.
The Japanese were instrumental in modernizing Taiwan. They built the island’s first transportation and sanitation infrastructures and reformed the education system. Taiwan’s rice and sugarcane production increased at exponential rates under Japanese rule. The Imperial Japanese Navy viewed the island as a valuable naval base and operated out of Taiwan heavily. In 1935 Japan began a re-education initiative across the island. Local islanders were instructed to think of themselves as Japanese; to this day imprints of this effort linger in Taiwanese society and culture.
Japan surrendered Taiwan to the Kuomintang Party’s Republic of China (ROC) after World War II. When the Kuomintang (KMT) lost the Chinese Civil War to Mao Zedong’s communist guerrillas, they fled to the island, re-establishing the ROC in Taiwan while Mao established the People’s Republic of China (PRC) across mainland China. With the exception of a few countries, today this is the political entity the world recognizes as “China”. Without military support from the United States, the KMT did not have the means to feasibly retake the mainland save for a few small-scale excursions which ended after the Second Strait Crisis in 1958.
The KMT, led by Chiang Kai-shek, swiftly imposed martial law on the island’s inhabitants. Any individual or group suspected of harbouring opposition against the KMT were either imprisoned or executed. Members of Taiwan’s intellectual and social elite from before the KMT’s arrival were the most commonly targeted. Today it is estimated that up to 140,000 Taiwanese were imprisoned and 4,000 executed before martial law was lifted in 1987, thus ending a period of 38 years that has become known as “White Terror”.
The lifting of martial law also initiated a widespread change in the KMT’s style of governance. Previously committed to eventual reunification with mainland China, public opinion caused the KMT and ROC to shift towards pursuing a separate political identity as “Taiwan” and not an entity competing with the PRC for the political right to be “China”. In charge at the time was President Lee Teng-hui, a native of the island who had previously served in the Imperial Japanese Navy. Considerably more reform-minded than his predecessors, he would leave the KMT after his presidency to lead the establishment of the pro-independence movement involving parties such as the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).
In 1996 Taiwan held its first direct presidential election. In 2000 Chen Shui-bian of the DPP was elected, marking the first time that Taiwan was not governed by a president from the KMT. Today, the KMT is back in control; Ma Ying-jeou was recently re-elected to a second term in office. Under his presidency cross-strait relations have undergone an unprecedented thaw, culminating in agreements allowing mainland Chinese tourists to visit the island for the first time, as well as direct cross-straight flights. Taiwanese commercial activity in the mainland also faces fewer restrictions. Ma’s administration has also adhered to the “one China policy” established in 1992 from which Chen had threatened to break away. It states that there is only one “China” even if at present there are two governments both claiming to be “China”.