History of Taiwan’s Status before WWII

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

By Pei-fen Hsieh

In September, the Obama administration announced an arms sale decision with Taiwan. At the same time, a resolution calling for Taiwan’s membership in the United Nations (HCR-77) were introduced in the House; the House further held a hearing titled “Why Taiwan Matters.” In November, the House Foreign Affairs Committee passed both the Taiwan Policy Act (H.R. 2918) and the Taiwan Airpower Modernization Act of 2011 (H.R. 2992). The Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 states that “the future of Taiwan will be determined by peaceful means” (Sec. 2(3)) and provides that the US makes available defense arms to Taiwan (Sec. 3(1)). It is no doubt that the US government plays a key role in the issue of Taiwan, but the framework of Chinese Civil War which we often use may not be truly applicable to understand what the people in Taiwan experienced. This article thus focuses on the history of Taiwan before WWII.

European Occupation

Due to its location (between Japan, China, and the Philippines in the West Pacific), Taiwan (also known as Formosa, “Beautiful Island” in Portuguese) has always been a place for which great powers competed. When European colonization in Asia started in the sixteenth century, the Dutch East Indies Company occupied Taiwan, a terra nullius where only Malay-Polynesian aboriginals lived. They imported Chinese laborers to work in plantations in the south, and successfully built Taiwan to be its commercial base. Two years later, the Spanish, who occupied Manila but felt threatened by the Dutch competition, landed on the north. Yet, the Dutch defeated the Spanish and occupied both the north and south of the island in 1642.

Cheng Occupation and Chinese Annexation

In 1662, Cheng Cheng-Kung, a loyalist of the overthrown Ming Dynasty in China, fled to Taiwan and defeated the Dutch. In 1683, the Chinese defeated the Cheng regime, and it believed the annexation of Taiwan would add nothing to the Empire, but create unnecessary expense for it. Only after the advice of a former subordinate of Cheng did the Empire reluctantly annex the island. This is the first time – and arguably the only time – when Taiwan was ruled under Chinese regime. However, the Empire’s foremost concern was to prevent Taiwan from becoming a base for Ming loyalists again; therefore, it restricted the number of Chinese who were allowed to go to Taiwan.

In the nineteenth century, when the Empire was on the decline, the European influence found its way back to the island by forcing China to open up commercial ports in Taiwan. At the same time, the Empire of Japan saw Taiwan as its first stop of its southward expansion, and it attacked the island in 1874. After France occupied Taiwan and set up a blockade during the Sino-French war over Vietnam in 1884-85, the Empire of China finally upgraded Taiwan to a province in 1885. Two hundred years after Taiwan’s annexation, the Chinese finally found the island an important part of it, but that was almost the end of its governance over Taiwan.

Japanese Colonization

In 1895, following the Sino-Japanese war, China signed the Treaty of Shimonoseki according to which “China cedes to Japan in perpetuity and full sovereignty… [t]he island of Formosa … [, and] [t]he Pescadores Group” (which is now part of Taiwan) (Art. 2(b) & (c)). Opposing the cession, the people in Taiwan declared independence, but the Republic of Formosa was quickly defeated by Japan. Taiwanese inhabitants were granted a two-year period to move to China if they so wished, but very few did so. The Empire of Japan, with the ambition to take up the so-called “white-man’s burden,” successfully industrialized and modernized its first colony as a “model colony.” During WWII, the colony itself was a target of the US bombing, and Taiwanese fought with the colonizers against the allies. The Taiwanese people did not anticipate Japan’s surrender would suddenly change their society, their identity, and their future all at once. The bond between the colonizers and the colonized was fairly tight. It is difficult for non-Taiwanese to believe that the colonized Taiwanese generally missed the Japanese, especially compared to their subsequent Chinese successors, whom the Taiwanese took only two years to realize they could not tolerate.

In the wake of the war, colonies across Asia and Africa gained independence respectively, but Taiwan remained an exception. Despite the fact that the regime brought by Chiang Kai-shek de facto has control over Taiwan, Taiwan’s status has continuously been in dispute since the Japanese left. Although the US claims the status of Taiwan “remains to be determined,” never have the Taiwanese been allowed to exercise their right to self-determination, as most colonies did following the end of the war. In fact, the Taiwanese people’s voices are rarely heard and the island’s past is often incorrectly and narrowly framed by the discourse of Chinese Civil War, with which the Taiwanese people often had difficulty in connecting themselves. While both the US executive and legislative branches devote themselves to the Taiwan issue, it is important for Americans to push their understanding beyond so that they may make a more responsible decision when this country participate in determining the status of Taiwan.