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Asian history Taiwanese politics

The 19th century Republic of Formosa, not an example for modern Taiwan

The very short-lived Republic of Formosa, although a first attempt of nation building in Taiwan at the end of the 19th century, can’t serve as an example for today’s independence movement on the island.

The Treaty of Shimonoseki (Maguan in Mandarin), signed on the 17th of April 1895 after the first Sino-Japanese war between Imperial China and Imperial Japan, showed the weakness of the last Chinese dynasty, which consequently had to cede to its emerging neighbor the sovereignty over Taiwan in perpetuity. Just eight years before, in 1887, the island had finally become a separate Chinese province. It formerly was a prefecture of Fujian province, located on the other side of the Taiwan Straits, which is 180 kilometers wide. The distance between the newly designated provincial capital Taipei and good old Peking amounts to 1720 kilometers.

Although at the end of World War II Taiwan returned to China, an event that happened 125 years ago still has mayor implications for part of the local independence movement, which considers it a milestone in Taiwan’s long evolution towards an independent state. Although the short-lived Republic of Formosa, founded by Chinese officials loyal to the languishing Ching Dynasty and elements of the Taiwanese gentry, was crushed by the new Japanese masters after only five months in October 1895, Taiwan was not a part of China for the next 50 years as it became an integral part of the Japanese Empire.

Only after the Japanese defeat in 1945, Kai-shek’s Nationalists, soon to be entangled again in a civil war on the mainland with Mao Tse-tung’s Communists, arrived on the island and declared it to be China again. Following the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the victorious red mandarins started calling Taiwan an unalienable part of its territory or a renegade province that has to be reunited by all means. That propaganda phrase is easily refutable, as the island was never under Communist jurisdiction, not for one day.

For their part, the defeated Nationalist government under Chiang that had escaped to Taiwan reinvented itself as Free China, also upholding its right to represent all of the Chinese people. Only after Taiwan hold its first democratic presidential elections in 1996 and the independence-minded opposition party DPP came to power that official stance started to change. According to Taiwan’s current constitution, adopted during a fratricidal war in what then the capital of China, Nanking, by Chiang himself, such an assumption is still true. Considering Taiwan’s very weak international position and open threats from China to invade in case it formally declares independence, to modify the constitutional framework is a very tricky question which no government in Taipei has dared to deal with.

25 years ago, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Treaty of Shimonoseki, about 10,000 protesters marched in downtown Taipei wearing “Farewell to China” T-shirts and carrying banners calling for Taiwan’s membership in the United Nations, the abolishment of the now defunct Unification Council and a new Constitution. They argued that China had formally given up its sovereignty over the island a century ago, as for them Taiwan had already been separated from China for 100 years. 1895 was supposed to be the starting point of modern Taiwanese history, the year that saw the emergence of a totally new Taiwanese political, cultural and national identity with very different values. In 1995, human rights, freedom and democracy stood against repression, corruption and backwardness.

Although in many aspects both sides of the Taiwan Straits share the same cultural rules, it’s undeniable that nowadays a distinct Taiwanese state of mind exists. Especially as the separation has lasted for more than 70 years, and each side has taken a very different approach to modernity.

Therefore, it’s funny that these radical activists usually forget to mention the fact that the Republic of Formosa’s adherents continued to recognize Chinese suzerainty over Taiwan, which actually cost them a lot of sympathy abroad. Therefore, this first attempt of nation building can’t serve as a valid example for the 21st century.

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