Archaeological evidence consisting of primitive utensils indicates Taiwan was inhabited by humans as far back as 10,000 years ago. Bands of Japanese are said to have conquered portions of the island in the 12th century, and from the 15th century onward Japan regarded the eastern half of Taiwan as its possession. In 1590 the Portuguese became the first known Europeans to visit the island, which they called Formosa (Portuguese for “beautiful”). Subsequently, the Spanish attempted to found permanent settlements, but they were thwarted by the Dutch, who succeeded in taking possession of the P’enghu Islands in 1622. Three years later the Dutch established forts on the southeastern coast of Taiwan.
In 1644 the Manchus of northeastern China defeated the Ming dynasty and established the Qing dynasty. Meanwhile, a group of Ming followers led by Cheng Ch’eng-kung, known in the West as Koxinga, drove the Dutch from Taiwan and occupied the island’s southwestern portion. Cheng established a formal Chinese government, ruling Taiwan as a Ming enclave. It was not until 1683 that the island finally fell to Qing rule. Thereafter, immigration to Taiwan from mainland China increased greatly. As a result of Britain’s victory against China in the Opium Wars and the ratification of the Treaty of Tientsin in 1860, two ports on Taiwan’s western coast opened to foreign ships. Roman Catholic and Protestant missions were established on the island soon after.
During the Sino-French War of 1884 and 1885 the French imposed a partial blockade against Taiwan. The Treaty of Shimonoseki in 1895 terminated the first Sino-Japanese War and required that China cede Taiwan and the P’enghu Islands to Japan. However, the Chinese inhabitants of Taiwan refused to submit and instigated a rebellion that was put down by the Japanese. For the next 50 years a stringent occupation and colonization followed, including a rigorous effort at Japanization—the attempt to replace Chinese culture and tradition with that of the Japanese.
With the defeat of Japan in 1945, Taiwan and the P’enghu Islands were returned to China, but corrupt Chinese government authorities caused widespread resentment on the island. The unrest resulted in an uprising in February 1947. It was quickly suppressed with serious loss of life, and two months later Taiwan was proclaimed a province of China.
Meanwhile, China was enmeshed in a civil war between Communist forces led by Mao Zedong and the Kuomintang (KMT) led by Chiang Kai-shek, who had assumed leadership of the party in the mid-1920s after the death of KMT founder Sun Yat-sen. With mainland China falling to the Communists, Chiang moved the KMT government from Nanjing to Taipei on December 8, 1949. Communist plans to invade Taiwan were subsequently frustrated by the United States, which in 1950 sent naval forces to defend the island.
For the remainder of the 1950s, despite sporadic hostilities between Taiwan and the mainland, the United States Seventh Fleet shielded the KMT government from a Communist invasion. In March 1954 Chiang Kai-shek was reelected president of the Republic of China (as his Taiwan government continued to call itself). Later that year the KMT and the United States signed a mutual-defense treaty, by which the United States agreed conditionally to take punitive action against the Chinese mainland if the Communist regime attacked Taiwan.
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During this time the United States also extended massive economic and military aid to Taiwan, enabling it to build its economy despite a great investment in military defense. By the mid-1960s, when such aid was ended, more than U.S.$4 billion had flowed into Taiwan’s economy. In that time industrial production was estimated to have risen by 300 percent; in addition, exports tripled and imports doubled. Of greater significance, however, was that the island had become a showcase of modern economic development, with a growth rate far above that of most other Asian economies.
Throughout the 1960s Taiwan experienced few changes in its international status or internal government. The National Assembly reelected Chiang Kai-shek president in 1960 and 1966, broadening his powers in 1966. Taiwan still enjoyed wide diplomatic recognition throughout the world, and its foreign trade boomed. Gradually, however, countries began shifting their formal relations to the People’s Republic of China on the mainland. Diplomatic relations with France, for example, broke off in 1964.
In the early 1970s Taiwan’s international situation changed radically. The decision by the United States government to seek contact with the Communist government in Beijing, on the mainland, led to Taiwan’s expulsion from the United Nations in 1971, and China’s seat was given to the Communist government. Many nations transferred their diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to Beijing. In 1972 United States president Richard Nixon visited Beijing, and the United States opened a liaison office on mainland China. In the wake of these developments, many other nations transferred their diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to the mainland Communist government. Then, in 1979, the United States formalized relations with mainland China and ended formal diplomatic ties to Taiwan, although trade relations and informal communications between Taiwan and the United States continued. In January 1980 the United States-Taiwan defense treaty of 1954 lapsed. By 1981 relatively few nations maintained formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan, but the island’s international trade suffered little damage.
Chiang Kai-shek was elected to his fifth term as president in 1972. Three years later, embittered by U.S. abandonment, he died and was succeeded by Vice President Yen Chia-kan. Chiang’s eldest son, Chiang Ching-kuo, who had been premier of Taiwan since 1972, continued in that office and assumed leadership of the KMT party. He was elected to the presidency in 1978 and reelected in 1984.
In the late 1970s and the 1980s Taiwan’s economy continued to expand. Trade contacts with Western Europe increased, and the government rejected offers of reconciliation that came from Beijing. Martial law, in effect since 1949, was finally lifted in July 1987. Chiang Ching-kuo died in January 1988 and was succeeded by Vice President Lee Teng-hui, who became the first native Taiwanese to assume the presidency. Lee was elected to a full six-year term in 1990 and reelected to a four-year term in 1996.
In 1991 Taiwan formulated a plan to restructure the government, and a long-term, three-phase plan for reunification with mainland China was introduced. In April 1993 representatives from Taiwan and China met in Singapore to discuss the relationship between China and Taiwan and establish a schedule for subsequent meetings between the two governments. The Singapore meeting was the first high-level contact between China and Taiwan since 1949. Relations between Taiwan and China deteriorated in 1995 and early 1996 as China performed military exercises near Taiwan. Observers believed the military maneuvers were intended to intimidate supporters of pro-independence candidates in Taiwan’s presidential election.
In March 2000 presidential elections, voters in Taiwan elected Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) candidate Chen Shui-bian president, ending more than 50 years of rule by the KMT. China reacted warily to the election of a member of the DPP, which was founded as a pro-independence party.
Chen was narrowly reelected in March 2004 in a hotly contested race with the KMT’s candidate, Lien Chan. Chen won by less than 0.2 percent, or fewer than 30,000 votes. The day before the election, Chen was lightly wounded in an assassination attempt that Lien and his supporters claimed may have been staged to win sympathy votes. Lien refused to concede defeat, charging that the election was marred by voting irregularities, and his supporters held large protests to demand a vote re-count. Chen agreed to the re-count, which included a close examination of 330,000 invalidated ballots. The retally found nearly 40,000 disputed ballots, of which 23,000 belonged to Chen. His inauguration took place as scheduled in May, prior to a High Court ruling on the disputed ballots. Meanwhile, Lien filed two lawsuits to overturn Chen’s victory and seek a new election.
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