Updated: Jul 3, 2020
I was about to take a flight to Doha from Amman International Airport on March 2016 when the Syrian civil war and ISIS were recurring features in the daily news. The Syrian border was less than 100 kilometres away and security was heightened. –“You cannot take the flight; the VISA is for Taiwan, but your passport is from China.” –“No, my passport says Republic of China, which is Taiwan’s official name.” Her supervisor came, phone calls were made, they debated and were confused with the word “China” printed several times in my passport. At the end I was not allowed to board flight QR-6103. I gave up. It would have required a long explanation. How we got to this point of ambiguity in defining Taiwan is convoluted. The only way I could attempt to do explain it, would have to involve history, geopolitics, ethnicity and identity.
Austronesian settlers to the Qing Dynasty.
Taiwan has been inhabited for 30,000 years. The direct ancestors of Taiwanese indigenous people are the Austronesian from the Dapenkeng culture who roamed in the coastal parts of the island circa 3,000 BC. They derived into Tahu and Yingpu cultures which are both unique to Taiwan. Portuguese sailors passing by in 1544 named the island Ilha Formosa or Beautiful Island. When the Dutch arrived in 1623 there were only 1500 Han Chinese, who were mostly outlaws and pirates. The Dutch East India Company built Fort Zeelandia in 1634 on the west side of the island where they ruled for 38 years. The Spanish established the settlement of Santísima Trinidad and built Fort San Salvador. Defeated by the Dutch, they abandoned the island in 1642.
There were only vague mentions of Taiwan throughout Chinese literature. It was never part of the Chinese history until when Manchu forces overthrew the Ming dynasty to establish the Qing in 1644. Koxinga, the son of a Chinese pirate and a Japanese woman, retreated to Taiwan where he set up a pro-Ming base. In 1662, after laying siege to Fort Zeelandia for ninth months, he expelled the Dutch and established the Kingdom of Tungning in the southwest part of the island. The Kingdom lasted 22 years until 1683 when Qing dynasty annexed Taiwan. The island was of little importance for the Qing and the ministers referred to it as "a ball of mud beyond the sea, adding nothing to the breadth of China". From 1683, waves of primarily Hoklo people also known as Hokkien emigrated from Fujian into Taiwan. They spoke Minnan, which evolved into present day Taiwanese Minnan. These Chinese migrants together with the Hakka became the main population of Taiwan growing from 120,000 in 1684 to 2,500,000 by 1840. Through DNA testing it has been determined that 73% of present-day Taiwanese are Hoklo descendants that emigrated prior to the Japanese rule in 1895.
Japanese Rule to Martial Law Period
After the Chinese defeat in the First Sino-Japanese War, the Treaty of Shimonoseki, ceded Taiwan to the Japanese Empire in 1895. In May of the same year, a group of Taiwanese founded the Republic of Formosa declaring its independence. The short lived republic lasted only 6 months before the Japanese extinguished it in October. Although not without dark episodes and controversies, the Japanese rule was focused on integration of the Taiwanese into the Japanese culture. Our grandparents were educated in Japanese language and teachings, some bore grudges but most saw this period as one of modernization and industrialization. By 1938 more than 300,000 Japanese lived in Taiwan. In 1945 Japanese surrendered unconditionally ending the Second World War and handed the island to the Chinese Kuomintang. Although the KMT was initially welcomed, it soon started a corrupt and repressive administration that resulted in uprising incidents including the February 28th massacre in 1947. The KMT also known as the Nationalist Party was the de facto government in China after the fall of the last dynasty. They fought an intermittent civil war against the Communist Party since 1912 eventually losing in 1949. The Generalissimo Chiang Kai Shek retreated to Taiwan with 2 million Chinese. The Dictatorship and Martial Law period in Taiwan will go on to last 38 years until 1987 during which 140,000 people were jailed and 4,000 executed for political reasons. They established Mandarin Chinese as the official language and government propaganda was present in every aspect of life. The KMT continued to claim legitimacy over the entire China and Taiwan became officially known as Republic of China. In 1971, UN Resolution 2758 effectively kicked out the ROC from the United Nations replacing it with Communist China. Many Western scholars failed to understand that during this period Taiwan was governed and occupied by the military KMT dictatorship and they did not represent the Taiwanese people or their views in a democratic way.
Post Martial Law to a Vibrant Demoracy
After the dead of Chiang Kai Sek in 1975, his son Chiang Ching Kuo started a gradual democratization process. When he died in 1988, his successor, president Lee Teng Hui, continued the democratization culminating in direct presidential elections in 1996 where he became the first elected president. Taiwan is recognized today as a vibrant democracy. The Freedom House scores Taiwan freedom 93 out of 100, ranking it higher than countries like USA, France, Italy or Spain. The free democratic Taiwan does not make the KMT claims of being the legitimate government of the entire China nor do we identify ourselves as Chinese anymore.
Taiwan and China
In 2019 when, Xi Jiping gave it's 40th Anniversary of the Chinese Mainland's Message to Compatriots in Taiwan he claimed: "Chinese don't fight Chinese" and then absurdly followed it with "We make no promise to renounce the use of force..." Xi like many Westerners often equate Taiwan to the Kuomintang migrants: only 7.5% of the Taiwanese population are descendants of the 1949 Chinese migration wave. Today only 4% of the Taiwanese population considers themselves Chinese while 66% considers themselves exclusively Taiwanese. Even before the KMT migration wave, the early Chinese migrants kept their traditions and religious practices. Taiwanese people are proud of their Chinese heritage and venerates the Chinese ancient folk heroes, philosophers and poets as our own. While toxic patriotism has derived sometimes in prejudice towards the mainland Chinese, it has often been the result of a knee jerk reaction towards the constant threats and claims of the CCP. As of "One China Policy," most of us believe there is one China and one Taiwan, each distinct, each unique and Taiwan shouldn't be included in the Communist Party's version of "One China". Taiwan is an independent, sovereign country. Countries might kowtow to the Chinese economy and its diplomatic demands, but you cannot hide the sun with a finger. We have our own government, our own laws, our own military and our own identity.
Taiwanese Identity Today
Oxford Dictionary defines identity as the characteristics, feelings or beliefs that make people different from others. The Hoklo and Hakka make up 73% and 17% of the Taiwanese population respectively. Genetic testing shows that 85% of them have aboriginal strains. Indigenous people were subject to racism in earlier periods, we now esteem and celebrate our indigenous heritage. Through history the early Chinese settlers embraced and incorporated elements from the indigenous people, from the Japanese and from the 1949 Nationalist dictatorship who forced their Chinese Mandarin language, history and values unto us. But with our newfound democratic freedom we are rediscovering and reevaluating our past: monuments and places named after Kuomintang officials have been removed or renamed. Minnan is taught in schools and is no longer seen as the language of the uneducated and the lower classes. We are studying and teaching our history with different optics which would have not been possible under an authoritarian rule. Government Accountability, Individual Freedoms and Human Rights are at the core of current Taiwanese political and judicial system. While our democracy is young and have many flaws, we believe in the need to encourage and maintain a just, equal, peaceful and free society. Even though I have lived less than one third of my life in Taiwan, I feel I am another grain of sand that makes up the Taiwanese Nation and Identity which exists regardless of other countries official recognition that is often denied for profit and it will exist beyond the physical island which could be taken by force.