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Taiwan's Fate Is Final Act of China's Civil War

March 10, 1996|Maurice Meisner | Maurice Meisner is the Harvey Goldberg Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His new book, "The Deng Xiaoping Era: A Inquiry into the Fate of Chinese Socialism" will be published by Hill and Wang this summer

MADISON, WIS. — China has again begun testing its growing arsenal of missiles off the northern and southern coasts of Taiwan. Ever since the first round of missile tests last summer--to protest the American visit of Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui--Sino-U.S. relations have grown increasingly hostile.

These new tests will, no doubt, intensify hostilities. Congressional leaders will call ever more loudly for Washington to prepare for the military defense of Taiwan from communist attack. Commentators speculate ever more chillingly about a new cold war--and possibly a hot one.

Taiwan has been the major source of tension between the United States and China for nearly half a century. But there is little in Taiwan's history, and even less in international law, to support the case for the island's independence.

Except for aboriginal groups, usually assumed to be of Layan origin, Taiwan does not appear in historical records until the 15th or 16th centuries--when it was used as a base by pirates and traders from China, Japan, Portugal and the Netherlands. In the mid-17th century, in an uncanny dress rehearsal for a drama played out in the mid-20th century, Taiwan became the last bastion of the defeated Ming dynasty. The dynasty's final military defender, the romantic pirate-adventurer Koxinga, fled the mainland and, after ousting the Dutch, established his rule over the island.

Koxinga's descendants were, in turn, removed by the victorious Qing dynasty, in 1683. Taiwan was incorporated into the Chinese empire and administered as a prefecture of Fujian province for the next two centuries.

Significant migration from the mainland did not begin until the 18th and 19th centuries. Most of the migrants were from the coastal provinces of Fujian and Guangdon, the ancestors of those now called "native Taiwanese." Ethnically, linguistically and culturally, they are no more distinctive than the various peoples who live in provinces on the mainland they originally came from.

One major turning point in modern Taiwanese history came when the decaying Qing regime was defeated by a modernizing Japan in the war of 1894-95. As war booty, Tokyo demanded Taiwan and the Pescadores. Taiwan was turned into a Japanese colony and remained so for a half century--until the end of World War II. Though Japanese colonial rule in Taiwan was not nearly as brutal as in Korea (colonized in 1910), the colonial government was essentially a military regime that suppressed all dissent and exploited the region for the benefit of imperial Japan. Some 300,000 Japanese immigrants held all significant government offices as well as the more lucrative positions in commerce, industry and the professions.

After the defeat of Japan in 1945, Taiwan was returned to China--then under the rule of Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist regime. All nations, including the United States, unquestionably assumed Taiwan was an integral part of China that had been unjustly colonized by an aggressor state. That assumption was shared by most Taiwanese at the time. By all accounts, Nationalist troops and officials were greeted as liberators in 1945

But the Kuomintang regime, grown corrupt and brutal during the war, was less interested in liberating the Taiwanese than in exploiting them for the benefit of the mainland--and "cleansing" them of what they said were Japanese cultural corruptions. A repressive military government was established; key commercial and industrial enterprises were nationalized for the benefit of the KMT elite; movable capital assets and rice were sent to the mainland.

The Taiwanese revolted against their new masters on Feb. 28, 1947. The "2/28" uprising was put down with great violence. More than 10,000 Taiwanese were killed by Nationalist troops--who used the occasion to liquidate much of the Taiwanese middle-class leadership. The slaughter ensured that, when the remnants of Chiang's defeated army and bureaucracy fled to Taiwan two years later--making for about 2 million "mainlanders" in all--they would be faced with the bitter hostility of the 10 million "native Taiwanese."

The Nationalist Party's rule in Taiwan would probably have been short-lived had it not been for the outbreak of the Korean War, in June, 1950. That gave President Harry S. Truman the fortuitous pretext to order the "neutralizing" of the Taiwan Straits--making the Chiang regime dependent on the Seventh Fleet, and making Taiwan a de facto U.S. military protectorate.

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