By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
A civil war that never ended complicates Taiwan’s status as a country. The Chinese government proposed a system of “One Country, Two Systems” to give both Hong Kong and Taiwan autonomy, but matters remain ambiguous on paper. China’s pressure on Taiwan has recently spiked.
The story of Taiwan’s independence goes back nearly 2,000 years to 239 CE, when China sent a naval expedition to explore the island. Since then, Taiwan has been ruled by the Chinese, the Dutch, and the Japanese, and—depending on which government is telling the story—the island does or doesn’t qualify as an independent nation. This is at least partly because the Republic of China government was ousted by an uprising in 1912 and driven to Taiwan by what would become the People’s Republic of China, which still rules China today.
Before his unfortunate passing, Dr. Richard Baum, who was Distinguished Professor of Political Science at the University of California, Los Angeles, explained modern tensions between China and Taiwan in his video series The Fall and Rise of China.
Two Territories, Two Stories
Hong Kong and Taiwan are both considered “lost territories” to China through complex histories of rule. In 1982, Chinese statesman Deng Xiaoping announced a 50-year “One Country, Two Systems” plan to reunify the three areas, offering the territories autonomy and zero mainland interference in local matters in exchange for agreeing to Chinese rule.
“Despite their many similarities, the cases of Hong Kong and Taiwan were nonetheless very different,” Dr. Baum said. “Most important, the New Territories, by law, internationally recognized, indisputably belonged to China, which meant that Beijing was legally entitled to reclaim it when the lease expired.
“By contrast, Taiwan’s long separation from mainland China was a de facto situation that was based not on a binding international legal obligation, but on the vicissitudes of a bitter and protracted civil war which had never ended—at least in formal legal terms.”
Dr. Baum explained that during the Cold War, Taiwan received considerable economic support from the United States, and it began shifting towards democracy in the mid-late 1980s. A new political opposition party—the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP)—challenged the iron-fisted rule of the political monopoly. Among its main causes was “a separate and distinct Taiwanese ethnic and political identity,” leading to more cries for formal and complete independence by the late 1990s.
Two Systems Flex Their Muscles
“All progress toward increased cross-Strait cooperation and communications came to a sudden, screeching halt in the summer of 1995, when [DPP] President Lee Teng-hui made his provocative pro-independence speech at Cornell University,” Dr. Baum said.
“This incident provoked an angry response from Beijing, which then conducted large-scale military exercises in the Taiwan Strait. The exercises included the test-firing of several unarmed guided missiles, which landed within a dozen miles of the island.”
Angered by these perceived intimidation tactics, Taiwan re-elected Lee Teng-hui in 1996, who ratcheted up his pro-independence rhetoric and began declaring Taiwan and China to be “separate and distinct national states.” Beijing waited until just before the next election to make their next move.
“On the eve of the island’s 2000 election, Beijing issues a harshly worded National Defense White Paper, which threatened military action against Taiwan unless the Taiwan authorities entered into early negotiations for reunification,” Dr. Baum said. “This was followed shortly by a veiled warning from Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji, who stated, ‘There will be no good ending for those involved in Taiwan independence.'”
Again, China’s move backfired. Dr. Baum said that it rallied support for the DPP, whose new candidate—Chen Shui-bian—was a vocal supporter of Taiwan independence and won the election. This kept Taiwanese-Chinese relations tense for both of Shui-bian’s terms.
The American military recently warned U.S. President Joseph R. Biden, Jr., that China may be preparing for a more forceful move against Taiwan, which could lead to the United States either abandoning Taiwan as an ally or entering into an American-Chinese war. In either scenario, or even regardless of American involvement on one side or the other, Taiwan’s quest for independence is far from over.