Little is known about the history and social organization of Taiwan’s Aborigines prior to their earliest contact with outsiders. It is known that as early as the second century A.D., imperial China sent occasional raiding parties to the island in search of booty and slaves. However, from the seventh century on, the Chinese government consistently expressed the view that the big island across the strait was a savage place, "a mudball beyond the sea, not worthy of China."

The Chinese people, unlike their governments, have never let cultural and racial ideology interfere with commerce, however. Also, other ocean-going peoples soon became interested in the island as a trading partner and because of its strategic location in sea lanes that remain important to this day. The Aborigines, on Taiwan began trading deer hides and meat, along with various forests products, for metal and other goods. By the 12th century, enterprising Chinese briefly established settlements in the Pescadores, and occasionally engaged in trade with Taiwan. Japanese traders also frequently visited the island, and in the 14th century they established a settlement near the present-day city of Taiwan. Attracted by near by Anping harbor, the Japanese called the island "Tai Wan," or Big Bay.

The Taiwan Strait soon became home to bands of pirates. who frequently harbored their ships in Taiwan’s rivermouths. China’s Ming Dynasty rulers sought an end to contact with the island on security grounds. Nevertheless, between the 14th and 17th centuries, pioneering emigrants from Fukien and Kwangtung defied the ban and continued to move to Taiwan. Their mission was not to bring the island within the pale of Chinese culture or the rule of the Confucian bureaucracy. On the contrary, these settlers were attracted by the opportunities Taiwan offered to own land, far from the Chinese Emperor’s tax collectors and soldiers.


Colonial Rule

European arrived on the scene by the 16th century. Portuguese sailors, struck by the towering, forested peaks and magnificent beaches that they saw as they sailed past Taiwan, called it "Ilha Formosa," the beautiful Island. Until recently, Formosa remained the most common English name, but Taiwan is now widely used.

In the 17th century, Japan came under isolationist leadership, but Spain and the Netherlands became interested in the island. In 1624, the Dutch established a colony around the now inactive Japanese settlement in the south; the old Dutch forts of Providentia and Zeelandia still stand in Taiwan. The Chinese had earlier sent a fleet to block Dutch efforts to settle in the Pescadores, calling this "Chinese territory," based on the 12th-14th century Chinese colonies there. However, the Ming Dynasty did not object to the Dutch occupying Taiwan, and Dutch records indicate that the island lay "outside the jurisdiction of any powerful ruler."

Spain established colonies to the north, at the sites of contemporary Tamsui and Keelung, in 1626. Sixteen years later, Dutch forces ousted the Spaniards, securing control of the coastal plains along the west of the island for the Netherlands. The Dutch developed sugar plantations and encourage increased immigration from China to meet the need of field workers. Many settlers managed to acquire rice and sugar land of their own, with the colonial authorities receiving a share of the crop as taxes. The independent-minded aborigines were for the most part not used to settled agriculture, and generally did not go to work on the plantations.

More than once in Taiwan’s history, far away events would seal the fate of those who lived on the island. In 1644, Manchurians captured Beijing, deposed the Ming Emperor, and established the Ch’ing Dynasty. They maintained the Ming ban on emigration, and continued to view those who left China for Taiwan as people who renounced civilization.

As would happen again in the 1940s, remnants of an old Chinese regime came to view "uncivilized Taiwan" as a useful base from which to "retake the mainland." A Ming general, Cheng Chen-kung, also known as Koxinga, had established himself on Kinmen Island (Quemoy), just off the Fukien coast; he laid siege to the Dutch forts on Taiwan, gaining their surrender in 1662. For the next 20 years, his family maintained what it called "the legitimate Chine court" at the former Dutch headquarters.


Two Centuries of Chinese Misrule

In 1684, the Ch’ing Dynasty defeated forces loyal to Koxinga’s family and brought Taiwan under Chinese rule for the first time. Actual Ch’ing control proved shakey, as the settlers had grown accustomed to their independent way of life. During the next 200 years, there were at least 68 major rebellions against imperial officials, who often proved corrupt. An official Ch’ing document described Taiwan thus: "Every three years an uprising! Every five years a rebellion!" Nor did effective Chinese rule extend to the mountains or the east coast, where the Aborigines continued to resist subjugation. Chinese migration continued, and rice and forestry cultivation developed further. By the late 19th century, the island had a population of 2.5 million.

Following the Opium Wars of the 1840s, which opened Ch’ing territory to foreign commerce, Western traders reappeared in Taiwan. British investors helped expand agricultural exports. British and Canadian Presbyterian missionaries converted a significant number of island residents and established hospitals and schools open to all.

Increasingly, foreign trading nations demanded that China assure them safe access to Taiwan. In 1874, Japan sent troops to the island after Aborigines massacred a group of Okinawan sailors shipwrecked on Taiwan’s east coast. China had disavowed any responsibility for the incident, because it had taken place "beyond the boundaries of China."

The demands of foreign traders led to debate among imperial bureaucrats in Beijing over what to do with Taiwan. Some favored turning the island over to the British. However, another faction successfully pressed for a modest program of economic development and efforts to encourage loyalty to China among the populace. However, not until 1887 did China make Taiwan a full-fledged "province." Less than a decade later, though, far away events would once again lead to profound change in Taiwan.


Japanese Rule, 1895-1945

In 1894 and 1895, Japan and China fought a war over which nation would dominate Korea. The victorious Japanese demanded territorial concessions; in the treaty of Shi-monoseki of 1895, China ceded Taiwan and the Pescadores to Japan, along with Korean "in perpetuity and full sovereignty." China’s chief negotiator expressed relief that this country would no longer have responsibility for Taiwan, which he called the "land of the Brown Robbers... in which no man... would ever care to live." There was considerable agitation on the island against the transfer to yet another colonial ruler. Some wealthy Taiwanese fled to China. Embittered Chinese officials encouraged resistance among the island’s peopled. On June 1, 1895, Taiwanese opponents of Japanese rule proclaimed the establishment of Asia’s firsts republic, the Republic of Formosa. Japanese troops defeated the republican forces after just four months, but lowland Taiwanese guerrilla resistance continued for a decade. The fiercely independent mountain Aborigines fought the Japanese even longer.

Japan subjected Taiwan to harsh rule, but it also greatly accelerated the island’s economic development. The colonial administration did this not out of benevolence, but to benefit Japan with agricultural products and, after Worlds War I, industrial goods. The colonial authorities expanded electric power generation and improved port facilities, internal transportation, and communication. With the pacification of the Aborigines, they began to exploit the mountain forests. They also established a public health system and opened up educational opportunities to Taiwanese, who staffed the lower ranks of the administration and took jobs as skilled workers. Schools promoted Japanese language and culture and sought to minimize ethnic differences among Taiwanese. Wealthy Taiwanese began to send their children to universities in Japan. Only a few Taiwanese went to China to study.

Growing literacy and widespread radio ownership led to an interest in politics among many Taiwanese. The local elite--professionals, land owners, and business people--began to agitate for the full rights of Japanese citizens. More radical Taiwanese intellectuals, inspired by the republic of 1895, sought independence. The Japanese colonial secret police kept close watch on political activity, and those who spoke out too forcefully risked jail terms. In the 1930s, eligible voters eagerly participated in elections for local advisory councils, even though these had no power.

In 1943, as a wartime propaganda effort to maintain Taiwanese loyalty in the face of allied promises of "liberation," Japan finally granted full citizenship to the Taiwanese, but this gesture had no practical effect. Instead, history was repeating itself, as in the era of Ming-Ch’ing conflict, Taiwan became a pawn in a bloody struggle for control of China.


Taiwan-China Relations

In 1911, reformers overthrew the Ch’ing Dynasty and established the Republic of China. By the 1920s, two parties dominated its political life; the Kuomintang (KMT), or Chinese Nationalist Party, which sought to uphold the spirit of 1911, and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The rival parties established an uneasy new alliance in the 1930s to fight the Japanese, but full-scale civil war broke out between them after World War II.

Prior to 1943, both the KMT and the CCP repeatedly stated their concern that Taiwan should be liberated from the Japanese and become independent. In 1925, on his death bed, KMT founding father Sun Yat-sen stated his support for an independent and democratic Taiwan. In 1938, his successor as party chairman, Chiang Kai-shek reiterated this policy. Between 1928 and 1943, the CCP passed at least 20 resolutions in support of an independent and democratic Taiwan. In 1936, party leader Mao Tsee-tung endorsed Taiwan independence in an interview with journalist Edgar Snow.

In 1942, Chiang began to express an interest in "recovery" of Taiwan. He demanded promises of territory from the Allied powers as the price of his continued participation in the effort against Japan. In addition, he evidently saw the island as a strategic base from which to resume his struggle with the CCP after the war. Interestingly, during the same period, the KMT refused to allow representatives of assemblies, insisting that the island was not part of China.

By 1943, the United States and Great Britain feared that China, whose military forces proved both corrupt and incompetent, would surrender to Japan. In November of that year the allies issued the "Cairo Declaration," the first of several wartime communiqu�s promising to "restore" Taiwan and the Pescadores to China. Ever since, despite their earlier support for Taiwan independence, both the KMT and CCP have pointed to these declarations to justify their view that "Taiwan is a sacred and inseparable province of China."

As Yale University legal scholars Michael Reisman and Chen Lung-chi have pointed out, wartime declarations by one side cannot legally dispose of an enemy’s territory. The Cairo Declaration was simply a piece of propaganda, part of the Allies’ "psychological warfare." It does not have the legal effect of a post-war treaty.

The peace treaties between Japan and the Allied powers, including the KMT government, do not "restore" Taiwan to China. On the contrary, these documents leave Taiwan’s status unsettled. A number of delegates to the San Francisco Conference of 1951, where Japan signed the main peace treaty with the Allied Powers, explicitly stated that the status of Taiwan should be decided according to the wishes of the people living on the island. So far, that promise remains unfulfilled.

Under international law, an act of self-determination by the affected people, such as a vote in a plebiscite on their political future, is the normal procedure for resolving unsettled status. In the case of former colonies--and this clearly applies to Taiwan as a former Japanese colony-- such a vote is mandatory. Moreover, the right of all peoples to self-determination is stated explicitly in the Charter of the United Nations and many subsequent UN resolutions.

Unfortunately, when Japan surrendered to the allies in 1945, key policy-makers in the U.S. State Department insisted that good U.S-China relations far surpassed in importance the Taiwanese right to self-determination. The KMT was insisting on claiming the rich prize promised in the Cairo declaration. And so, the Allies Far Eastern Commander, the American general Douglas MacArthur, instructed the KMT government of China to accept the surrender of the Japanese forces in Taiwan, and to exercise administrative control "as a trustee on behalf of the allied Powers." According to both the KMT and the CCP, this directive constituted Taiwan’s "retrocession" to China. Yet MacArthur also asked the KMT temporarily to occupy Northern Vietnam; no one argues that this justifies any Chinese claims to this nation.


The "2-28 Incident"

At first, Taiwanese welcomed the new KMT troops and bureaucrats as "liberators." But the island’s new rulers quickly squandered this good will. They viewed Taiwan as conquered territory, and considered the Taiwanese a people "degraded" by Japanese influence. The new administration looted the war-damaged economy and limited government jobs to those who swore allegiance to the KMT. Mismanagement and corruption led to inflation and unemployment. Those who protested ended in jail. Like the Japanese, the KMT denied Taiwanese access to real political and economic power. A violent clash was all but inevitable.

Then, on February 27, 1947, KMT police pistol whipped a Taiwanese woman who was selling unauthorized cigarettes. The provincial government had a monopoly on sales of tobacco products and wine, but many Taiwanese had turned to black market activities for survival. The police fired into the gathering crowd, killing one on-looker.

The next day, February 28, marked the beginning of widespread protests against the violence; these quickly turned into an island-wide rebellion against KMT abuses. Initially some Taiwanese attacked recent arrivals from the mainland, but soon the people of the island established local committees to restore order. Rather than demanding independence from KMT rule, however, Taiwanese leaders called for reforms. These included elected local government, greater Taiwanese representation in public employment, and the freedom to exercise civil and political liberties.

The KMT pretended to negotiate, but on March 8, 50,000 troops arrived from China and subjected Taiwan to reign of terror. In both cities and the countryside, KMT soldiers sought to intimidate the populace with random killings. They also systematically eliminated an entire generation of the island’s elite, killing journalists, doctors, lawyers, business people, teachers and students who had led the reform movement. Estimates of the death toll range from 6,000 to over 10,000. According to George H. Kerr, who served as the U. S. Vice Consul in Taipei at that time, the KMT killed another 10,000 Taiwanese over the next several months, and jailed hundreds more. This "2-28 Incident" had a profound effect upon the island. It continues to influence relations between the KMT and the people, and between mainlanders and Taiwan natives, to this day.

Thousands of Taiwanese left the island. Some went to Japan, where they established an independence movement. Others fled to China, where they sough CCP assistance in liberating the island. On the island hard repression and economic decline continued and for the next three decades, the Taiwanese would remain for the most part, silent and tamed, living in the shadow of the "White Terror."


The "Republic of China on Taiwan"

By late 1948, it became clear that the KMT would lose China to the communists, and hundreds of thousands of refugees fled to Taiwan. On May 19, 1949, the embattled KMT government declared martial law in all the remaining territory under its control, including Taiwan, where this state of emergency would remain in effect for more than 38 years. On October 1 of the same year, Mao proclaimed the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on the mainland.

The KMT transferred its administrative apparatus to Taiwan, along with about half a million troops and thousands more refugees. Taipei became the "temporary capital" of the "Republic of China," which now consisted of just Taiwan, the Pescadores, and a few smaller islands off the coast of Fukien and in the South China Sea. PRC leaders vowed that they would "liberate Taiwan," but the United States blocked moves to make good on this threat. For its part, the KMT government insisted that it remained the legitimate ruler of all China and vowed one day to "recover the mainland."

While the KMT dogmatically pursued its goal to reunite Taiwan with the mainland under Sun Yat-sen’s Three Principles of the People, the Communists to this day refuse to rule out the use of force to gain control of Taiwan. They have explicitly and repeatedly stated that they will use force if Taiwan declares independence, i.e., its permanent separation from China, or if the KMT continues to refuse to negotiate with them. Moreover, they insist that the future of Taiwan is "China’s internal affair," and not a matter of concern to the international community. Advocates of Taiwan self-determination, on the island and overseas, respond that Taiwan’s future is very much a matter of international concern.

Both the KMT and the CCP support eventual "reunification" of Taiwan and China; their argument is over who should bring this union about. In the view of both parties, the people of Taiwan have no say in the matter, and no right to choose an alternative future.

Since World War II, the policies of the United States of America have played a critical role in deciding Taiwan’s fate. Instead of making U.S. relations with the people of the island a priority of U.S. diplomacy, U.S. policy-makers have subordinated Taiwanese rights and aspirations to other objectives. This pattern began in the mid 1850s, when Commodore Matthew Perry proposed establishing an American colony on the island as a base for expanding the U.S. share of the "China market."


U.S. Taiwan Relations

Beginning in 1943, American warplanes began subjecting Japanese military and industrial facilities in Taiwan to repeated bombing. These planes also dropped thousands of propaganda leaflets on the island, urging the Taiwanese to rise up against the Japanese and promising a postwar world order of "freedom" and "democracy." These promises would ring hollow when U. S. soldiers helped the unelected KMT government take over the island, and when U.S. diplomats ignored Taiwanese pleas for help during the 2-28 Incident.

Before the end of World War II, some voices in the U.S. government pressed for a United Nations trusteeship over Taiwan, to be followed by a referendum in which the island’s people would decide whether they wanted independence, to join China, or some other political arrangement. These officials argued that the United States had a clear moral and economic interest in relating directly to the people of the rich island without going through KMT intermediaries. They lost the debate to the "China-firsters" in the state Department.

Following the KMT’s retreat from the mainland and the outbreak of the Korean War, the U.S. sent naval vessels into the Taiwan Strait to block Mao’s vows to "liberate" the island. Containing communism in Asia became an overriding goal of U.S. policy. From 1950 to 1979, the United States maintained full diplomatic ties with the KMT, although it opened an unofficial liaison office in Beijing following President Nixon’s 1972 trip there. During this period, the U.S. provided the KMT substantial economic and military aid, maintained a mutual security relationship, and backed the presence of the KMT’s "Republic of China" in international organizations. U.S. leaders did little to challenge continuing KMT human rights abuses.

In the 1970s, the prospect of "playing the China card" against the Soviet Union became more attractive to many U.S. policy-makers than maintaining an anti-Communists bulwark on Taiwan. In 1979, the Carter Administration established formal diplomatic ties with he PRC, ended relations with the "Republic of China", and terminated the security treaty.

Since then, the United States has attempted to maintain a de facto policy of "one China, one Taiwan" without extending full diplomatic recognition to Taiwan as a separate country. The U.S. congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act to allow continued trade, cultural, and other relations with the island. This law established unofficial organizations for the conduct of relations, following the pattern set by Japan after it recognized the PRC in 1972.

The Act further provided that the U.S. would continue selling arms of a defensive character to Taiwan, expressed and interest in the peaceful determination of Taiwan’s future, and reaffirmed U.S. interest in human rights on the island. Pressure from the PRC later led the Reagan Administration to agree to reduce and eventually terminate arms sales, although U.S. officials offset this concession somewhat by stepping up military technology transfers to Taiwan.

Officially, between 1945 and 1972, the U.S. maintained that sovereignty over Taiwan remained "an unsettled question subject to future international resolution." At least rhetorically, this policy offered considerable support for eventual self-determination. But the 1972 Shanghai Communiqu�, signed by President Nixon, represented a drastic change in attitude toward Taiwan. It "acknowledged" the PRC -- and indirectly, the KMT-- view that "All Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China," It did not acknowledge the Taiwanese view. Nevertheless, it must be noted that the U.S. statement in the 1972 communiqu� was carefully worded to avoid using the term "recognize’" favoring instead "acknowledge." While this still does not preclude Taiwanese self-determination, the U.S. also pledged that it would not challenge the Chinese view, leading to much apprehension in Taiwan.

The feelings of the Taiwanese were again ignored six years later when President Carter announced his intent, in a "joint communiqu�" with the PRC issued on December 15, 1978, to formally establish diplomatic relations with the PRC. This communiqu� simply reiterated the language and position with regards to Taiwan set down in the 1972 Shanghai communiqu�. Once again the rights of the people of Taiwan had been subordinated to geopolitical and commercial concerns.

Since 1979, the U.S. government has disappointed many Taiwanese and U.S. human rights groups by engaging in "quie diplomacy" on human rights issues that all too often appear to be "silent diplomacy." While the U.S. has pressed for the release of all political prisoners, it has not pressed vigorously for accelerated progress toward full democracy, and end to restraints on civil and political rights (including the right to advocate independence), and an end to jailings on political grounds. As Taiwan’s leading trade partner, a major source of foreign investment on the island, and the main arms supplier, the U.S. clearly has significant leverage over the KMT. Yet U.S. officials have openly stated that they do not wish to make too much noise about internal developments in Taiwan (and especially the right to advocate independence) for fear of upsetting the PRC.

Instead, during the Reagan Administration, the U. S. concentrated on using its leverage to gain trade concessions from Taiwan, which has accrued repeated surpluses in its trade with U.S., and to get the KMT to make contributions to Nicaraguan counter-revolutionaries. Although most Taiwanese, including the political opposition, have generally been friendly to the United States, these pressures led to growing anti-Americanism.

The 1989 Beijing massacre let to widespread hopes for a reappraisal of the U.S. policy of subordinating relations with Taiwan to U.S. -China relations. With the end of the Cold War, the rationales for "playing the China card" has vanished. So far, policy change has not occurred although recent U.S. support for self-determination in the Baltic states has encouraged many Taiwanese. As the United States had a great deal to do with creating the dilemmas currently facing Taiwan, it has some obligation to help in resolving them.