This is the island of Taiwan. Its political situation is a bit complicated. A slightly oversimplified way of looking at it would be that Taiwan is either its own independent country or part of China. But the reason that’s oversimplified is because Taiwan isn’t a separatist movement. Taiwan doesn’t want to secede from China because, from Taiwan’s perspective, they are China – well, at least constitutionally anyway. Taiwan’s official name is the Republic of China, whereas the country that’s generally referred to as China is the People’s Republic of China.
To fully understand the situation, we need to go back to the end of the 19th century when the last Imperial Dynasty governed China – the Chen Dynasty. The Chen Dynasty encompassed all of what is modern-day China, Taiwan, and Mongolia, as well as parts of several other bordering nations.
In 1894, the first Sino-Japanese war began between the Chen Dynasty and the Japanese empire, primarily taking place in Korea and Taiwan. At the time, Korea was governed by the Joseon Dynasty, a client state of the Chen Dynasty. The war ended just one year later with a decisive Japanese victory, resulting in the annexation of the island of Taiwan to the Japanese empire. The war also brought an end to the Joseon Dynasty in Korea, guaranteeing complete independence from China. Japan officially annexed the Korean peninsula in 1910.
In 1912, after millennia of imperial rule in China, the monarchy was overthrown, and the first Chinese Republic was established. Sun Yat-sen was made provisional president in Nanjing, but Yuan Shikai had already assumed power in Beijing because he commanded the Beiyang Army, the largest military in the nation. To avoid conflict, Sun agreed to accept Yuan as president. However, Yuan abused his power, leading to a failed revolution, and Sun fled to Japan.
As president, Yuan dissolved the Chinese Nationalist Party and, in 1915, declared himself emperor of China. His death one year later began the Warlord Era in Chinese history as the country fragmented into different factions. In 1917, Sun Yat-sen returned from exile to reestablish the Republic, reviving his Nationalist Party under the name of Kuomintang (KMT). The government was established in the south of the country, as the north was dominated by warlords and the Beiyang Army.
Sun Yat-sen wanted to unite the country under one government but lacked the military power to take on the warlords. After Western help was refused, assistance came from the Soviet Union, which asked the Kuomintang to cooperate and ally with the smaller Chinese Communist Party. The Warlord Era ended with a two-year military campaign called the Northern Expedition. However, the alliance between the Nationalists and the Communists began to fall apart after Sun Yat-sen’s death in 1925.
In 1927, the Kuomintang party split into two factions – right and left-leaning. The left-leaning faction moved its capital to Wuhan, while the right-leaning KMT party, led by Chiang Kai-shek, took control of Nanjing and declared it their capital. The Chiang nationalists sought to purge the Communists among their ranks, leading to the Shanghai Massacre in April 1927, where thousands of Communists were executed by nationalist forces.
The left-leaning Communist faction also began executing Communists, and the party ultimately collapsed, leaving the original KMT party as the legitimate government of China. The execution of Communists ended their alliance with the Soviet Union and led to the start of the Chinese Civil War between the Nationalists and the Communists.
The war began in August 1927 with the Nanchang Uprising and the founding of the Red Army, the army of the Communist Party, with Mao Zedong as commander-in-chief. In 1931, with the civil war still ongoing, the Empire of Japan invaded China, seeking to expand its sphere of influence. The Japanese Imperial Army occupied the east coast of China, including Manchuria, and installed a puppet government.
Fighting continued, but it didn’t escalate into all-out war until 1937 when the Chinese Civil War and the Second Sino-Japanese War merged. Japan pushed into the Chinese capital of Nanjing, massacring tens of thousands of civilians and soldiers. In 1941, with World War II ongoing, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, leading to the United States entering the war. The conflict ultimately ended in 1945 with Japan’s unconditional surrender after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
As part of the surrender agreement, Japan had to return sovereignty over all lands gained through warfare, including their annexations of Korea and Taiwan. The Chinese Civil War resumed in 1946, with the Nationalists and Communists having had only a loose alliance against the Japanese. The Soviet Union backed the Communists, while the United States backed the Nationalists.
Despite superior numbers, the Nationalists were decisively defeated by the Communists, who captured more and more land, pushing the Nationalists back. In 1949, the Kuomintang government retreated to the island of Taiwan, effectively ending the Civil War. The Communist Party proclaimed the People’s Republic of China, while the Kuomintang government, still internationally recognized, became exiled to Taiwan.
Over the next few decades, international recognition shifted from the Republic of China to the People’s Republic of China. In 1971, with UN General Assembly Resolution 2758, the People’s Republic of China was recognized as the legitimate government of China. The United States broke off diplomatic ties with the Republic of China in 1979.
In the same year, the People’s Republic of China attempted to open communication with the Republic of China with a proposal known as The Three Links. However, the ROC rejected it and adopted the Three No’s policy: no contact, no compromise, no negotiation. This policy had to be revised in 1986 when a China Airlines aircraft was hijacked by an ROC pilot who defected to the PRC.
In 1992, the two governments met and came to an agreement known as the 1992 Consensus. The consensus was that both sides adhered to the One China policy, believing that there is only one China, and Taiwan is part of China. However, both sides see themselves as the legitimate government of China, agreeing that Chinese unification is the eventual goal, and the current situation is temporary.
Before the 1990s, Taiwan had been a one-party state with the Kuomintang as the government. In 1986, Taiwan had its first presidential election, and in 2000, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) was elected into government, becoming the dominant party in 2016. The DPP rejects the One China policy, the 1992 Consensus, and Chinese unification. They strongly support the idea of a Taiwanese identity, believing that Taiwan is already its own independent country.
The Republic of China has an ambiguous political status, not being a member of the United Nations, and very few countries officially recognize it as a country. Nevertheless, many countries have unofficial de facto embassies in Taipei, and Taiwan operates like any other country in the world. The people of Taiwan live their lives like any other people, the majority considering themselves Taiwanese.
The political status, while challenging the meaning of the word “country,” has little impact on their day-to-day lives. Unfortunately, almost every other country must play along with the facade that Taiwan doesn’t exist, as discussing or debating the issue is generally avoided due to its controversial nature and discomfort.