The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) regime that currently rules China maintains that Taiwan is inseparably and permanently a part of China. The White Paper published by the Chinese government in August 2022 holds that “Taiwan has belonged to China since ancient times” and “Taiwan’s status as part of China’s territory has never changed.”
The People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) official line is that Taiwan’s natural status is to be ruled from Beijing, that the majority of the people on Taiwan concur, and that the only opposition comes from “outside forces and the few separatists.”
This outlook, however, ignores Taiwan’s actual history. Taiwan has mostly been outside of the control of governments based on the Chinese Mainland, and the periods of mainlander rule over Taiwan have been highly contentious.
Up to the seventeenth century, Taiwan had been home not only to Chinese settlers, but also to a non-Chinese aboriginal population, a Spanish colony, and a Dutch-run government. Chinese emperors saw Taiwan as an irritant, a haven for pirates and dissenters. The Manchu-led Qing government’s decision to annex Taiwan in 1684 largely reflected a fear that an ungoverned Taiwan would continue to serve as a base for enemies. Taiwan first became a prefecture of Fujian Province, then a province in 1887.
This first period of Chinese central government rule over Taiwan saw frequent unrest among Chinese migrants who were unhappy with the government’s land-use policies. Mainland rule ended with Taiwanese learning that their central government had sold them out, ceding Taiwan as a prize to Japan in 1895 as part of the settlement of the First Sino-Japanese War. Abandoned by the mainland, the Taiwanese declared a Republic of Formosa and fought a brief but losing war against arriving Japanese soldiers.
Japan’s defeat in the Pacific War led to Taiwan returning to rule from the mainland, in this case, the Republic of China (ROC) under Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang (KMT) government. Under Japanese rule, Taiwan had become more economically and politically advanced than Mainland China. The new KMT government, however, subjected Taiwan to systematic looting and treated the Taiwanese as Japanese collaborators who had been indoctrinated in anti-China sentiment. Taiwanese anger built up, eventually exploding in the February 28, 1947, uprising. In retaliation, the ROC central government dispatched troops from the mainland who sought out anyone they thought might be a threat to the regime. They massacred tens of thousands of Taiwanese.
The KMT’s defeat by CCP forces in the Chinese Civil War led Chiang and his remaining followers to relocate to Taiwan in 1949. Taiwan endured a repressive one-party dictatorship until Chiang’s son began to relax civil liberties starting in 1987. A legacy of that era is the deep divide between the longer-established Taiwanese and more recently-arrived mainlander communities in today’s Taiwan politics.
Taiwan received an artificial bump in affinity for China because of the postwar influx of about two million mainland-born Chinese. That effect, however, is fading, despite many Taiwanese nationals spending years living and working in some of Mainland China’s more appealing cities.
Public opinion surveys on Taiwan conducted by National Chengchi University and the Taiwan Public Opinion Foundation found that in 1992, less than 20 percent of Taiwan’s population described themselves as “Taiwanese.” Between 20 and 25 percent considered themselves “Chinese,” and a solid majority saw themselves as “both Chinese and Taiwanese.” Only 15 percent hoped for Taiwan's independence, 30 percent wanted unification with China, and 35 percent preferred the status quo. Those numbers changed dramatically over the next generation, indicating a psychological break from China. In 2022, a solid majority (61 percent in one poll, 80 percent in the other) considered themselves “Taiwanese,” and only a tiny minority identified as “Chinese.” Support for unification with China dropped to 11 percent, while preference for formal independence rose to 53 percent.
Now another Mainland Chinese government causes problems for Taiwan. The CCP regime claims sovereignty over Taiwan even though, unlike the Qing government or the ROC, it has never ruled Taiwan. Beijing has decreed that non-statehood for Taiwan—despite Taiwan easily fulfilling the usual criteria of an independent country—and eventual submission by Taiwan’s people to governance by the PRC are non-negotiable. The PRC has maintained heightened and continuous military pressure on Taiwan since 2016, when President Tsai Ing-wen refused to declare Taiwan part of China. Beijing harasses governments, international organizations, and private corporations that “hurt the feelings of the Chinese people” by even minuscule gestures that implicitly violate the legal fiction that Taiwan is not a country. In some cases, such as keeping Taiwan out of the World Health Assembly or the International Civil Aviation Organization, Beijing’s obsession could cause people to get hurt.
Even after the horror show of the PRC government’s crackdown on Hong Kong’s civil liberties, PRC paramount leader Xi Jinping has continued to insist that “one country, two systems” is the model for annexing Taiwan into the PRC. Xi has reportedly ordered party ideologist and Politburo Standing Committee member Wang Huning to formulate a new phrase that Xi can claim as original. Given the CCP’s sclerotic commitment to its idiosyncratically distorted conception of the Taiwan-China relationship, anything behind a superficial adjustment of wording is extremely unlikely.
The CCP’s amnesic narrative about Taiwan’s history traps it in a circular argument. The government cannot abide Taiwanese independence because this would cause a loss of domestic legitimacy. PRC citizens would consider the “loss” of Taiwan a profound failure by the leadership. But PRC citizens feel this way because the CCP leadership has taught China’s people for decades that the party must and will annex Taiwan. Xi has even said China cannot achieve “rejuvenation” without unifying with Taiwan.
The way the CCP currently frames the Taiwan issue is an unfortunate choice, not an inevitability. In the 1930s, for example, Mao Zedong said Taiwan should be independent.
Taiwan’s current conflict with Beijing is typical of the historical relationship, not an anomaly as claimed by PRC propaganda. In any case, Beijing’s argument that the past is determinative is unpersuasive, even setting aside the issue of Beijing describing a fake past. This is the twenty-first century, not the nineteenth. The wishes of the people who inhabit a de facto state should matter more than another state’s indirect claim to ownership of the land.
Denny Roy is a Senior Fellow at the East-West Center in Honolulu.