Taiwan – A (very) brief history for us Non-Asians or Why Taiwan and China do not get along

It is fairly well known here in the US that Taiwan does not really get along with its larger sister, China, but most of us do not really know why. The common belief is that Taiwan is a renegade province of China, trying to gain its independence, while China tries to hang on. This is far from the truth. Did you know that the reality is that Taiwan (or about half the Taiwanese at least) think that it is the mother country and China is the renegade? They believe that the true rulers of China reside in exile in Taiwan and it is only a matter of time before they return in triumph to take back control of their country. Taiwan is merely a temporary home for them.

You do not have to go very far back in history to understand this belief. During World War II, China was ruled by Chiang Kai Shek and Taiwan was a province of Japan. The Taiwanese citizens had a choice to be considered Japanese citizens or to remain Taiwanese, but either way, they were treated well by the Japanese. The Chinese, however, were ruled with an iron hand by Chiang and they rebelled. Because Chiang was an ally of the US during the war, most US citizens do not know the brutality with which he ruled, but some would compare him to Stalin or even Hitler. During this period, Mao Tse Tung successfully converted enough of his countrymen to Communism that they were able to drive Chiang and his close followers further and further south, until he was forced to ask Taiwan for refuge. Taiwan does have older ties to China and being the kind and trusting people that they are, invited Chiang and his army into their country. It was not long before he took over and made himself the permanent President, declaring martial law and foregoing any proper elections.

As you can imagine, there was quite a bit of unrest amongst the Taiwanese who had so generously offered up refuge for their brothers. One example of a bone of contention that caused a stir was the fact that Chinese do not have a problem with eating dogs and cats, whereas the Taiwanese keep dogs and cats as pets. I am sure you can imagine the outrage when people's pets began disappearing and ended up in their neighbor's crock pots.

Chiang Kai Shek recognized the differences between the Chinese and the Taiwanese and he sought an end to the problems. He held a conference in Taipei where he invited all of the Taiwanese scholars, intellectuals and local leaders to discuss options for easing the tensions between the two peoples. Once they gathered in Taipei, he slaughtered them all. It was then covered up and the history books never mentioned it. However, the Taiwanese people kept a verbal record and passed it down until recently, since the emerging democracy in Taiwan, they have actually erected a monument in Taipei honoring the slain. It took place on February 28th, and is referred to as the 2/28 massacre. Of course, the official story is still a governmental suppression of a Taiwanese demonstration, but the real story is still told amongst the people.

Currently, the Taiwanese population is divided almost exactly down the middle between the Green Party (DPP) and the Blue Party (KMT). The DPP fights for complete Taiwanese independence from China, whereas the KMT still believes that it is the rightful ruler of China and desires to strengthen ties with its larger sister. In 2000, a DPP candidate, Chen Shui-bian, was elected President of Taiwan for the first time ever and made sweeping democratic reform throughout the country during his first four year term. In 2004, Taiwan saw a huge turnout at the polls (over 80% of eligible voters) for Chen's potential reelection, which is not unusual in such a politically charged country. To accentuate the passion and fervor that Taiwanese politics causes, Chen and his Vice Presidential candidate were campaigning the day before the election and were both shot while riding in a convertible Jeep. The wounds turned out to be minor, and Chen went on to win the election by less than 30,000 votes out of a total of more than 13 million cast.

Sara had flown back to Taiwan to vote, while I remained in the States for a week until was going to join her. I heard of the assassination attempt and called her to see what was going on. She said things were chaotic but exciting and she was really glad that she could be a part of it. In a vote that close, hers really could make a difference. If you think that the Bush-Gore controversy in 2000 was a sight, watching the 2004 Presidential fallout was spectacular. The tight vote caused the Blue camp to call for a recount, accused Chen of staging the assassination attempt and eventually led to more than 500,000 protesters in front of the presidential office.

Today, the KMT once again controls the Presidency, evidence of the internal battle that Taiwan faces: the struggle between independence and stronger ties with China. Taiwan is still not represented in the UN and is referred to at the Olympics and other international competitions as Chinese Taipei. After the 2004 election, President Bush and Jiang Zemin, ruler of China, were the only two major world powers that did not call to congratulate Chen on his victory.

To further complicate matters, after Chen's two terms as President were up, an investigation into his presidency brought up questions about his ethics. He has been arrested and charged with corruption. His wife has admitted to laundering $2.2 million and sending it overseas, but Chen maintains his innocence, even staging a hunger strike in his own defense. Politics in Taiwan is never dull.

Before Taiwan and China can ever "get along", Taiwan will have to decide for itself in which direction it wants to go, a task easier said than done. The infighting and lack of focus is causing Taiwan to slip from the world stage.  However, if it can decide on a direction and stick to it, it will find the road ahead much easier to navigate. It is an economically prosperous country that is only held back by its internal struggles. If it can resolve those, little Taiwan has the potential to become a world power.

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