Former «Free China» developing a distinct Taiwanese identity

Flag of the Republic of China (Taiwan)

Taiwan, according to the current Constitution still called the «Republic of China», was baptized «Formosa» by some Portuguese sailors which never went ashore and then briefly occupied both by the Spanish and the Dutch. It later offered a safe place of refuge for those Chinese who during the Qing-Dynasty didn’t want to live under Manchu rule.

In 1895, after the First Sino-Japanese war, Nippon took over an island almost forgotten by Peking and in the 50 years until its unconditional surrender in World War II turned it into a model colony.

Step by step, a modern infrastructure was created which, together with gradually introduced compulsory schooling and female education, formed the basis for Taiwan’s economic upswing in the second half of the 20th century.

During the Cold War, Taiwan was also called Free China. After a bitter defeat in the Chinese Civil War, Chiang Kai-shek (1887-1975) in 1949 fled there with his government, many members of the Chinese elite and roughly two millions of soldiers to avoid falling into the hands of Mao Tse-tung’s (1893-1976) henchmen.

His dream of reconquering the whole of China from the hands of the officially so-called «communist bandits» was never to come true. Chiang died in 1975 in Taipei, even before his worst enemy.

In 1971, when at Maoist Albania’s request Taiwan lost its claim to solely represent all of China and the most hated Chinese Communists became members of the United Nations (UN), he committed a tremendous foreign policy mistake.

Chiang consistently refused to sit under one roof with them and left the UN. To this day Taiwan remains excluded, as the People’s Republic of China in the Security Council consistently vetoes any attempt to reenter the organization by what it considers to be a «renegade province».

Tensions between disappointed long-established Chinese and the corrupt and arrogant representatives of the national government in Nanking who had taken over from the Japanese flared up in February 1947, causing countless victims.

After almost 40 years of martial law, his son Chiang Ching-Kuo (1910-1988) in the mid-1980s introduced numerous reforms, which gradually had an impact down to the lowest level.

In the first free presidential elections in March 1996, Taiwan-born officeholder Lee Teng-hui (1923-2020), whose brother had been killed in action as a Japanese marine in the Pacific War, was elected.

He had a decisive influence on the process known as «Taiwanization». Due to his open sympathy for an independent Taiwan and resolute resistance to closer ties with China, the long-time chairman of the KMT in 2001 was even expelled from his own party and subsequently took up other political activities.

In March 2000, the candidate of the opposition party DPP, the former mayor of Taipei Chen Shui-bian, won the presidential election because of the fragmentation of the pro-Chinese camp.

In a society in which the supporters of «reunification» still set the tone, this was certainly a remarkable success for those who for decades had laboriously fought for democracy.

Among many other measures taken to highlight its peculiarities, under President Chen the word «Taiwan» was printed next to «Republic of China» on newly-issued passports for the first time, which led to fierce reactions from the old KMT guard.

Their attempt to turn back the wheel of history and cancel «Taiwan» after their return to power in 2008 failed, partly because of the resolute opposition of many Taiwanese diplomats.

They argued that they had finally succeeded in creating an awareness abroad that Taiwan and China were two separate states. This success should not be given away.

According to surveys, more and more islanders define themselves as «Taiwanese» and not as «Chinese». This also applies to the descendants of civil war refugees who do not consider a communist, undemocratic China their home.

Precisely because of the economic interdependence, the vast majority of Taiwanese now have a consciousness of being different from their alleged «brothers and sisters from the Chinese mainland» and want to remain so.

Political developments in neighboring Hong Kong, where a new security law to combat separatism and subversion has been in effect since July 2020 after months of violent protests against the central government, further strengthen this feeling.

The reelection in January of this year of Tsai Ying-wen (born 1956), the female DPP president who has been in office since 2016, is mainly due to the nomination of a completely overestimated KMT candidate.

Further tensions with Xi Jinping (born 1956), who was crowned ruler for life in 2018, are inevitable, especially foreign policy complications resulting from his non-negotiable «One-China principle»: other countries can’t have diplomatic relations with Taiwan and China at the same time.

For this reason, the recent visit to Taipei by a large Czech delegation, led by Senate President Milos Vystrčil, the state’s second highest official, led to open threats against Prague by the Red Mandarins.

After all, the United States under President Donald Trump stand more than ever by Taiwan. Therefore am attack by the People’s Liberation Army seems rather unlikely. But on the other hand, Joe Biden (or better said Kamala Harris), is likely to take a completely different, very China-friendly course.

I have lived in former Formosa for almost 20 years and feel very close to the country and its people. Therefore I am also concerned that progressive propaganda is increasingly met with open ears there. After the disastrous experiences in the West, in the medium term this could turn out to be the bigger problem…


  1. Some comments to your article, perhaps some suggestions to further blog entries:
    1. That former president Lee Teng-Hui’s brother served in the Imperial Army of Japan was not something unusual, many Chinese/Non-Japanese from the island of Taiwan under Japanese rule served/were forced to serve in the Japanese army (perhaps worth an article). Often Lee Teng-Hui is seen not as Chinese, but somehow Japanese, to separate Taiwan from the Mainland more?
    2. Leads to: General role of Taiwan during WW2, as a Japanese military basis/air field for attacks on the Philippines and Indonesia plus air raids on Taiwan during WW2 by the Americans (Tainan, etc.) plus American POWs forced labor in coal mines in Taiwan.
    3. The case of the 2 million Japanese citizens that lived on Taiwan in 1945 (out of 6 million in total), which were deported/send back to the Japanese Mainland after the end of WW2 from 1945 to 1949?
    4. The case of Annette Lv (Lü), former Vice President: Often Taiwan independence movement, nationalism is often seen quite positive, but one quote by her also could also hint to the opposite, quote: ‘Taiwan is for the Taiwanese, aborigines should go back to their islands where they came from’, I am not sure if she really said this, but would be worth looking into.

  2. Thanks for your multiple suggestions!

    Former president Lee Teng-Hui also served in the Japanese Imperial Army, but saw no action. I mentioned his brother to let those readers unfamiliar with Taiwan know that indeed under Japanese rule Taiwanese served/were forced to fight (and die) for Japan. About 30, 000 never made it home.

    I an older article I briefly touched on the subject that Taiwan had Japanese military bases/air fields during World War II and will add the corresponding link to that posting.

    As a matter of fact, Allied POWs had to endure forced labor in some coal mines in Taiwan. I visited one of them with some veterans, including Jack Edwards. That will be a future topic.

    The sad story of Taiwan-born Japanese which were deported/sent back to Japan proper in 1945/46, but after decades still somehow feel attached to the island, is the subject of a movie called 灣生回家 (Wansei Back Home). Very touching!

    I will definitely look into the case of Annette Lu and check that supposedly rather unfortunate quote. We all know that she is a special person…

  3. Minor typo-correction on the dates given for President Lee Tung-hui, I’m sure he didn’t pass away three years before his birth 😉

    As above, building hyperlinks into these would make this historical blogs more accessible as there is a lot of assumed knowledge that is likely tiring for more knowledgeable readers, but relevant for newbies.

    And a suggestion for a future reference on history, I have heard that the Japanese surrendered Taiwan to the KMT, NOT China, this is something I never investigated deeply, but am intrigued about.

    It was given as the reason that Taiwan is rightfully separate as it was part of the KMT territory, not China so why it needs to be (re)conquered.

    • Thank you for hinting at that little mistake about late President Lee!

      About building hyperlinks, all the provided information can be found on various websites, including Wikipedia. It is nevertheless an interesting suggestion that I might take into consideration for future articles, making this historical blog more accessible for newbies.

      Regarding the status of Taiwan after World War II, in certain political circles the controversy goes on. On the other side, at the time of the Japanese surrender only the KMT represented the government of China. Therefore, after the Chinese communists won the Civil War in 1949, their claim to the island was also an issue of one party trying to take revenge on another.


Por favor ingrese su comentario!
Por favor ingrese su nombre aquí