Last week, Taiwan elected its first female president, Tsai Ing-wen, ending decades of rule by the Kuomintang of China. Tsai is chairperson of the Democratic Progressive Party, which, unlike the Kuomintang, is opposed to eventual unification with China and calls on Taiwan to declare independence from its communist neighbour. However, as Taiwanese people went to the polls, the Chinese government told Taiwan to abandon any ‘hallocinations’ abiout pushing for independence and reassurted its eventual aim of unification of Taiwan with the mainland.
So why do almost 70% of Taiwanese citizens favour independence from China over unification?
Taiwan was under the control of the Qing Empire from the 17th century up until 1895, which saw the island declare itself independent as the Republic of Formosa. This independence was short-lived, however, as the island nation was conquered by the Japanese later that same year. In the aftermath of the Second World War, Taiwan was placed under the control of the now Republic of China.
Peace with the Japanese also saw the Chinese Civil War between the Chinese Communist Party and nationalist Kuomintang forces reignite. By 1949, the communists controlled most of mainland China and the government of the Republic of China (ROC) was forced to evacuate to Taiwan. Mao Zedong, leader of the Communist Party, founded the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in October 1949.
Throughout the 1950s, 60s and even 70s, the PRC and ROC remained at loggerheads, with the US intervening during the Korean War by dispatching a fleet of warships to the Taiwan Strait to prevent hostilities. 1973 saw the ROC lose its permanent seat on the UN Security Council, as more and more countries recognised the PRC as the legitimate government of China. After the establishment of a democracy in the ROC during the 1980s, a polarised political system emerged over the political status of the island; with the Pan-Blue Coalition (led by the Kuomintang) favouring unification, and the Pan-Green Coalition (led by the Democratic Progressives) favouring independence.
Recent years have seen the Kuomintang government improve relations with Beijing, allowing the establishment of direct flights to the mainland.
For all intents and purposes, Taiwan is an independent country, providing passports to its citizens and a central government that provides services. However, China’s perusal of a ‘One China’ policy means that any attempt to break away could result in a crackdown and possibly unification by force. As China is a major trading partner for the world’s developed nations, many countries do not formally recognise Taiwan (ROC) as an independent state. However, some, like the United States, do unofficially recognise it and have provided military support to protect the Taiwanese government from a potential attack from the PRC. As a result, Taiwan is allowed to participate in international competitions, such as the Olympics, but under the name ‘Chinese Taipei’.
Unification with the mainland is opposed by almost 80% of the population; however, independence is not the most favoured option among Taiwanese citizens. Although 33% would support the creation of a ‘Republic of Taiwan’, the majority of citizens support maintaining the status quo.
The message that the election of Tsai tells Beijing is that the people of Taiwan cherish their sovereignty over improved relations with the mainland and eventual unification. This message will no doubt cause friction between the two parties, but a formal declaration of independence from the island is some way off.