Geography -- Economy -- History -- International Political Status -- The People of Taiwan
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Taiwan is a small, mountainous island about the size of West Virginia. Approximately 60% of the island's surface area is useless mountain slopeland; Taiwan's mountains are among the steepest in the world. The great Central Mountain Range runs down the middle of the island, unique because it is convex with respect to the Asian mainland. There about 60 peaks over 3000m. On the East Coast the mountains come right down to the sea, creating staggering views and tremendous sea-cliffs. The west coast, by contrast, is a flat alluvial plain where the bulk of the population lives. Taiwan has many short, fast-running rivers (mostly tamed now) which in historical times presented serious obstacles to communications and cut the island up into north, central and southern areas between which intercourse was limited. The island has been isolated from the Asian mainland long enough for an extensive indigenous flora and fauna to develop. The Penghu Islands even sported a species of dwarf elephant in recent geological times. (Check out my maps page for additional information.)
Taiwan is generally considered the second most densely-populated country in the world. Its cities are some of the most thickly-crowded aggregations of homo sapiens on the planet. Fortunately, in recent years city populations have stagnated as the Taiwanese have been moving out to the suburbs.
The climate is wet and hot in the summer and wet and cold in the winter. Taiwan is much cooler than its latitude would suggest, a coat is often needed in the winter in the north. The south is hot in the summer and temperate in the winter, but subject to drought. Although the island is very wet, many places are drier than you'd expect. In Tainan, for example, evapotranspiration exceeds rainfall 7 months of the year and in Taichung it rains infrequently (whereas Keelung in the north is one of the wettest cities on the planet). The humidity is appalling and things rot quickly, especially in the winter in the north, when it might rain 58 days out of 60. Winter in the north is tougher than it seems because Taiwanese housing is badly insulated and unheated. Whatever the outside temperature is, that's the temperature inside. It generally rains heavily from January to March. The summer is typhoon season.
The environmental situation on the island has improved dramatically in the last ten years, especially in Taipei. However, it has so far to go that progress is not always visible. Younger Taiwanese are more environmentally conscious than their elders and their children are even more so. The mountainous interior and the East Coast are still largely clean and unspoiled, but the cities are some of the worst environments on earth. The area around Kaohsiung is simply unlivable.
Taiwan lies in the "Ring of Fire" which surrounds the Pacific and is very active tectonically. The September 1999 quake was not 'the big one' everyone has been expecting, it happened on a totallydifferent fault. New faults are being discovered all the time. Regardless of where you are, there is an active fault -- never mind what the locals tell you.
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Although Taiwan is often painted as a resourceless island, this is actually not the case. Economically significant resources of coal, gold, copper, gems, sulfur, limestone, salt and other minerals are found on Taiwan (or were; in many cases they've been worked out). Even small amounts of oil were extracted in the old days. Additionally, the island is rich in forest products, though they are difficult to access.
The island's most important crops are mostly addictive substances: sugar, tea and betel nut, as well as its staple, rice. A huge variety of fruits and vegetables are grown as well as cut flowers. Farms are found in every county. The waters around the island produce an abundance of seafood and shrimp and fish are also farmed. The island used to have a thriving pork industry, but it was severely crippled by disease in 1997. In general, soil fertility around the island is poor, thanks to inherent mineral deficiencies as well as irrigation and steady rain which leaches the useful minerals from the soil. Consequently, the soil requires intensive management.
Taiwan is the world's leading manufacturer of dozens of sophisticated electronic products, from monitors and mice to scanners. It is a world leader in bikes, sporting goods, conventional machine tools, plastics and other items. It is also the design center for the shoe industry (manufacturing of shoes has fled the island). During the 1980s it transformed itself into a service powerhouse, producing software, product design, banking, insurance and other modern services. It is fast moving into high technology wafer and chip manufacturing, biotechnology and other advanced products and processes. It has already become an "advanced economy," according to the World Bank, as services are now a larger part of the economy than manufacturing (deindustrialization has begun to take place as manufacturing offshores). Taiwan is a major investor in China and SE Asia.
Taiwan's economy is organized on a very different basis than Japan's or South Korea's. The vast majority (95%) of Taiwanese exporters are small- and medium-sized businesses, financed nearly entirely from informal and internal sources (this has been slowly changing in recent years). They sell to foreign, largely Japanese and American firms, who market their products in the United States, Taiwan's main market. There is an enormous government sector and the ruling party, the wealthiest political party in the world, owns over 100 businesses through its seven holding companies. Because banks in Taiwan have traditionally ignored small business and the government has done little for it, a thriving informal financial system and illegal economy has grown up on the island. As a teacher in Taiwan, if you teach illegally, you will become part of this economy. (Check out my economic map of Taiwan for additional info.)
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Prior to the fifteenth century Taiwan was a haven for pirates and fisherman from China and Japan. Aboriginal peoples related to the Malaysians and Polynesians had been living on the island for thousands of years. Contrary to what you may hear from China these days, China regarded Taiwan as lying outside its borders and did not colonize or explore it in any systematic way, although when the Mongols ruled China they set up outposts in the Penghu Islands. Hakka historians say a group of Hakkas settled there as early as the thirteenth century. Toward the end of the 16th century settlers from south China began moving to Taiwan (emigration to Taiwan was illegal). However, the first people to claim the island internationally were Europeans.
Passing Portugese gave Taiwan the name Ilha Formosa, the Beautiful Island, though they never set foot on the island. The Spanish had a brief interlude, but Taiwan began its long history as an export platform with the Dutch. In 1624 they occupied the island, eventually expelling the Spanish from their toehold in the north and exported furs and other forest products back to the homeland, while inviting settlers from China to develop the land (a small, thriving settlement existed around what is now Tainan). The population leapt, partly because of the economic opportunities, but mostly because war in China created many refugees. The Dutch used the tribespeople to keep Chinese settlers in check, running the island from their base in Tainan, and put heavy taxes on everything. Some remains of their original forts still linger. So respected were the Dutch by the aborigines that 150 years later, when Western missionaries returned to Taiwan, they found some aboriginal groups were still using the old Dutch characters for important record-keeping.
The Dutch were booted out in 1662 by Koxinga, a half-Japanese, half-Chinese pirate who needed a base to fight a rearguard action in China against the invading non-Chinese Manchus. In an eerie foreshadowing of Taiwan's fate three centuries hence, Koxinga claimed to be the representative of the Ming Dynasty that the Manchus had overwhelmed and worked to restore the previous dynasty to the mainland. Koxinga made himself feared along the coast of south China, but died young, as did his promising son. Their successor proved no match for the Manchus, who established their rule over all of China as the Ching Dynasty and came to Taiwan in 1683, occupying the lowlands (the highlands, home to savage aboriginal tribes, remained outside of Manchu jurisdiction). Koxinga remains a folk hero on the island. With the pacification of the south China coast after the mid-1670s, the population of Taiwan plummeted as refugees returned to their homes in China.
18th-century Manchu policy toward Taiwan was fundamentally similar to that of the Dutch: develop for export (although the Manchus oriented the island's economy toward their empire across the water). The Manchus worked to improve the island as much as possible (in the face of corruption, revolts and general official avarice and incompetence) but the dynasty went into long-term decline at the end of the century. The vast majority of new land development went untaxed. Nevertheless the island became known as "the granary of China" for its production of sugar and rice for the mainland.
The 19th century brought the island into contact with Europeans. As Western trade with South China increased, more and more foreign ships were wrecked on the treacherous coasts of southern Taiwan and European and American sailors underwent harrowing ordeals. Some were even eaten by the highland tribes or sold into slavery to local Taiwanese. In the early 1850s the British and Americans surveyed the northern port of Keelung for use as a coaling station, but the British were refused permission to open a coaling station there. In 1861 Tamshui was opened to the outside as a treaty port. In the late 1860s the American envoy in Fukien, who had been impressed with the island's possibilities during a visit to negotiate with local aborigines for the lives of American sailors, conceived a plan to buy the island, but it fell through because the US had just bought Alaska and Congress didn't want to "waste" more money. He later sold the Japanese on the idea of occupying it. In 1874 they sent an expedition to the island to punish aborigines for shrinking the heads of Japanese sailors and all but grabbed it, but were forced by the Powers to give it back. Britain was terrified that the loss of Taiwan would lead to a partitioning of China which in turn would touch off a war between the Powers.
The 19th century was a chaotic and turbulent period on the island. Taiwanese continued to push into the uplands, forcing the tribespeople further and further into the mountains. Much new land was opened through military occupation, individual agreements, intermarriage and other methods. Conflict between the tribes and the Taiwanese was bitter. According to writers of the period, the Taiwanese preserved and sold the flesh of aborigines as food both on the island and on the mainland, while the aborigines took heads whenever possible. Additionally, the island was a cockpit of clan warfare and revolts against the Manchus throughout the period. Yet life went on. The population rose steadily throughout the Manchu period. Tea, camphor and opium were prized exports of the island. A thriving market economy and a rich and complex land tenure system grew up, providing the Taiwanese with experience of contracting, marketing and exporting which would later prove invaluable.
A land survey in 1884 quintupled the tax rolls with its discovery of untaxed developed land, demonstrating that the island had considerable economic potential. In 1885 the energetic and competent governer Liu Ming-chuan arrived and in 1886 Taiwan was upgraded to provincial status within the Manchu Empire. The capital moved from Tainan to Taipei in 1891. Liu brought in the island's first railway, laid out Taipei as the island's administrative capital and attempted agricultural reform. However, he was followed by the usual greedy and incompetent lot of officials and much of what he had gained was lost. It was left to the Japanese to complete what he had started.
In 1895 Taiwan was ceded to Japan after the Sino-Japanese War and officials on the island declared independence briefly (the first Asian colony to do so, beating the Philippines by three years) in hope of defeating the incoming Japanese and returning the island to the Manchus, but regular forces were crushed in a few months. Guerilla fighting, less pro-Manchu than pro-Taiwan, would continue for years, however, inflicting far more casualties on the Japanese than the Manchus had been able to.
The Japanese were unsure of what to do with the island, a sure money-loser, or so it seemed at the time. The annual subsidy to Taiwan was a significant chunk of the Japanese budget at the turn of the century. Many Japanese commentators suggesting selling the island. However, a major land survey in 1895 (which more than doubled the tax rolls again), land reform and the arrival of competent, energetic government turned things around. By 1920 armed resistance had largely subsided as the Taiwanese began to grudgingly accept good government, economic growth, technological development and social stability, something they had never known under the Manchus.
Under the slogan "Industrial Japan, Agricultural Taiwan," Japanese policy envisioned Taiwan as a stable supplier of sugar and rice for Japan. Taiwan prospered as the Japanese paid higher-than-world-market prices for those commodities. Large Japanese sugar companies took over 40% of the island's arable land, each one with its own fiefdoms around the island in which it controlled the harvest of sugar. But big Japanese firms were never able to penetrate the rice market and Taiwanese farmers were able to strike a balance between the two crops to provide a stable living for themselves. By the mid-1930s per capita incomes in Taiwan probably exceeded those in Japan proper. Opium provided an important source of government revenue (Japan's opium policies were closely studied by other countries during the '30s) as Taiwan became one of the few colonies to be entirely self-financed (at least on paper).
In the late 1930s, as Japan geared up for war in China, a small light industrial capability was developed on the island. On the eve of WWI I it was probably the second-most industrialized area in Asia after Japan proper. The Japanese constructed ports, roads and railways, brought electricity to the island, stamped out disease and laid the foundation for economic growth in the postwar period. As the war in China widened, opium and cocaine from Taiwan became important weapons against the Chinese.
Politically, Japan tightly policed the populace, shutting the Taiwanese out of many professions. They also forced the locals to speak Japanese and adopt Japanese names. A local autonomy movement, led by local elites who worked with liberals in Japan, arose on the island. At the same time, relations with the aborigines remained colored by violence. Despite the oppression, many older people remember the Japanese period as one of good government, steady growth and stability, the kind of time when doors could be left unlocked when not at home (that may or may not have been the case, but this belief has played a strong part in subsequent judgements about the KMT).
During WWII the island was a major forward base for Japan. The strikes against the Philippines at the beginning of the war were launched from airbases located on Taiwan. Fortifications (some of which still survive) defended the island against invasion by the Allies . Over 200,000 Taiwanese joined the Japanese Army (including my father-in-law), some as willing volunteers, others because the war had reduced opportunities for cash employment, while thousands of women were forced to become "comfort women" for the Japanese Army. After 1943 the economy suffered at the hands of Allied bombing and the submarine campaign, which reduced exports to nothing.
Things changed in a hurry in 1945 when the Chinese Nationalists, the Kuomintang (KMT) occupied the island after WWII. Taiwan was looted extensively by the Chinese, ostensibly to finance the war on the mainland. The island's industries were gutted. The currency inflated and many family fortunes were wiped out. Although initially welcomed, relations soured as the incoming Chinese treated the Taiwanese as an occupied people "tainted" by their long association with the Japanese. On February 28, 1947, the Taiwanese revolted. After a week of success, the revolt was crushed by rampaging Nationalist troops who shot thousands of people, deliberately targeting the educated and community leaders. A reign of terror began which would last throughout the 1950s and into the 1960s (killings occurred as late as the 1980s, and there were a couple of suspicious deaths in the early 1990s). Known as the "white terror," the Nationalists inflicted brutality on the island which far exceeded anything Japanese had ever done, murdering anyone with a taste for Taiwan independence, democracy or communism and imprisoning thousands more. Taiwanese males who had served in the Japanese Army were also targeted. As a result , tens of thousands of Taiwanese went into exile overseas during the 1950s and 1960s. How many died over the three decades of killing will probably never be known, but estimates range to over 120,000. The "2-28 Incident" has become a major rallying point for the democratic opposition.
After losing the civil war against the Communists in China, the KMT retreated to Taiwan in 1949, bringing 1.5 to 2 million soldiers and bureaucrats with them. The government moved into the colonial role previously held by the Japanese (mainlanders literally moving into houses vacated by the Japanese). The KMT organized Taiwan along Leninist political lines, with a centralized state, one-party rule, and Party interpenetration with and into organizations and daily life. An enormous government business sector was erected, mostly to create sinecures for mainlanders. To this day government firms have monopolies on a large number of goods, including sugar, alcoholic beverages, salt, plastics (until very recently), steel (just privatized), electric power, telecommunications, and others. Additionally, large government and ruling-party firms compete against private firms in a number of industries, including construction and food processing. The Taiwan government probably has the highest rate of government ownership of business outside of the old Communist bloc.
A major land reform program was undertaken during 1947-1950, partly to destroy the influence of local landlord elites, who represented a powerful counterforce to the incoming Nationalists, and partly out of fear of peasant communism. The long recovery from the second world war and Nationalist destruction and mismanagement commenced in 1950 as US aid money began flowing into the island. Shut out of many sectors of the economy by Nationalist-controlled big business, the Taiwanese moved into areas considered marginal in the 1950s, such as toys and electronics. Their firms, neglected by US aid (which went mainly to large businesses with ruling party connections), would become the basis of growth in the 1960s. Taiwanese talent, locked out of leading positions in the political and military sectors, was forced by default into business. Soon Taiwanese-owned small businesses became the mainstay of the economy.
The economic turning point was the reforms of 1957-1960. After years of bitter debate between conservative KMT leaders who thought opening the economy would be a political and economic disaster, and technocrats and businessmen who thought it would enable the economy to grow, Taiwan adopted some aspects of a US-proposed liberalization program. US pressure on Taiwan to open was intense; in fact a portion of aid in 1960 was withheld because US officials felt the reforms did not go far enough. At the same time, the US government pushed US firms to relocate production to the island. The government set up export processing zones. Exports began to boom and the island took off. 1965 was the pivotal year, as major US firms began moving onto the island, per capita incomes recovered their 1937 levels and US aid was formally ended. Despite a few setbacks in the 1970s, growth continued at a steady pace. In the 1980s Taiwan branched into computers, software, conventional machine tools, banking and services. Per capita GDP bounded past the US$10,000 mark (Map of the location of the island's economic activities)
Taiwan's politics are much, much too complex to go into here, but they make a fascinating study. In 1986 the political opposition formed a party, the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and in 1987 martial law was finally lifted. Since then, Taiwan has undergone rapid social and economic change. Class politics have complicated the old formula of ethnic politics and local factions. Two genuine opposition parties have emerged, the DPP (largely seen as a Taiwanese party) and the New Party (NP), a KMT splinter (largely a party of right-wing mainlanders) which strongly advocates annexing the island to China (it has little support on the island and is really only a Taipei party). The KMT advocates preserving the status quo, while the DPP promises not to disturb it. A fourth major party, the People First Party, is a party of conservative mainlanders run as the personal fief of James Soong, a former KMT leader who left the KMT because he wanted to be President. Soong is an corrupt, authoritarian Peron-wannabe who has fought against democracy his entire life and is heavily connected to the island's organized crime gangs. While democratization has not yet fully taken place (despite claims about Taiwan's "vibrant democracy") it is very far along. Taiwan is far freer than any of its neighbors, with the possible exception of Japan. Three years ago, when I first wrote this page, I was extremely pessimistic about Taiwan's potential for democracy, but the island has changed so rapidly that it is looking more and more like a real possibility. Chen Shui-bian's election to the Presidency in 2000 symbolized the nation's commitment to real, positive democratic change.
No description of Taiwanese life and history would be complete without mentioning organized crime. Rooted in 19th century village and clan brotherhoods erected for defense, organized crime has interpenetrated into many facets of ordinary life, including politics. For four decades the ruling party and organized crime have had a close and mutually beneficial relationship. Mobsters broke up political demonstrations and conducted assasinations at home and abroad on behalf of the ruling party. Until recently the legislature had many organized crime figures, since legislators were immune from prosecution for crime. The head of the legislature's judicial committee, which oversees organized crime law and investigations, brags that he is the "spiritual leader" of the island's largest association of organized crime gangs. More than a third of all mayors and county chiefs, who enjoy partial immunity from arrest as well as control of police investigations, have links to organized crime (recently a racketeer was elected to city council in Chiayi while on the run from police). Judges often release prisoners early so they can participate in local political campaigns and jailed mob leaders run for election from their cells, with their wives standing for office. Democracy, by magnifying the importance of the ability of gang-linked local factions to buy/deliver votes, has only made them more powerful (local factions tend to be pro-KMT for historical reasons). Two of the candidates in the recent Presidential elections, "independent" James Soong and Lien Chan (KMT), both had close links to organized crime. In fact, Lien Chan's appearance on a podium with two of the island's most powerful gangsters was the death blow to his then-dwindling chances of winning the election. Ordinary middle-class Taiwanese are ashamed of this situation, but with a widespread lack of integrity throughout the system, little can be done about it.
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TAIWAN'S INTERNATIONAL POLITICAL STATUS
Prior to the 17th century Taiwan was an unincorporated island lying off Taiwan's coast which nobody claimed and everybody ignored. China's recent noises about "ancient" connections to the island are simple lies. No Chinese emperor ever controlled or claimed the island. In 1683 the Manchus, who had conquered China, occupied Taiwan. In 1895 they gave it up "in perpetuity" to Japan. There was a declaration of independence, then Japan crushed all resistance and took over.
Taiwan's modern problems began in 1943, when the US, desperate to keep Chiang Kai-shek's nationalists in the war, promised him he could have Taiwan as part of the spoils. In 1945 Chiang occupied the island and the KMT has been here ever since, an ally of the US, pursuing its own agenda under the umbrella of US hegemony in Asia. Under international law and UN treaties, Taiwan should be treated as a decolonized territory, with the right of a vote of the whole population to determine its status. The illegal neglect of Taiwan's treaty status by the western powers is one of the most shameful, craven acts my generally misguided nation has ever performed. History will not deal lightly with the West's policy toward China, especially after it cleans up from the war the West is going to incite.
As a result, Taiwan's current international political situation is complex and hotly contested. In 1945 Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalists occupied the island as a representative of the Allies under the authority of General MacArthur. The KMT then illegally claimed the island had been "returned" to China and annexed it to China (although technically Japan was still the sovereign power). Today both the government of Taiwan and the government of China claim that Taiwan is a province of China (prior to WWII they made no such claims). However, the island has a strong independence movement and probably 90% of the people would support independence for the island if China did not threaten to invade in the event of a declaration of independence. China's claim to Taiwan under international law is tenuous at best and only its threat to maim and kill Taiwanese as well as its tremendous clout in the international economic and political arenas give its claims to annex the island any legitimacy. Few countries are willing to stand up to China (including, shamefully, the United States).
Because of China's threats, which are taken quite seriously on Taiwan, the populace supports the status quo (de facto independence) and is cool to strong supporters of de jure independence. However, open support for independence increases whenever China behaves aggressively toward the island. Additionally, polls show that Taiwanese who go to China generally more strongly support independence as a result of their experiences there. Except for a few fossils in university departments, nobody supports communism and not even the raving facist New Party wants to "unify" with a communist state. Currently polls show that less than 15% of the population wants to annex the island to China.
Although seemingly abstract, Taiwan's complicated international status has serious fallout for the island's people. For example, visas are a pain to get, since so many countries don't recognize Taiwan. Reform of the administrative apparatus is difficult. Taiwan sports a provincial government, since it is theoretically only a "province" of the Republic of China, which is completely useless and redundant. Most administrative reform schemes contemplate reducing the current 20-odd counties and municipalities to seven or eight states, but since eliminating the provincial government smacks of independence, it cannot be done (it is currently "frozen"). Ideologically speaking, annexation of Taiwan to China is the foundation of ruling party legitimacy. If the ruling party publicly commits to independence (which the largely Taiwanese rank and file would prefer), it eliminates the rationale for its rule (note that in recent years economic success has been the basis of KMT legitimacy). Political reform is difficult when everything is frozen by the international situation. Finally, of course, there is the constant, real threat of war.
Both the KMT Nationalists and the Chinese Communist Party claim to be the sole legitimate government of the whole of China (the KMT even includes Tibet and Mongolia, one occupied, the other independent, in this "China"). Neither will recognize any nation which recognizes the other. Taiwan is not recognized by any of the major nations of the world (they all recognize the Communists) and is not a member of the UN and most international bodies. Only the Vatican and a few African and Central American states (about 30 in all, none important) recognize the Republic of China on Taiwan, as a result of Taiwan's largesse with aid programs. Consequently, most foreign countries have relations with Taiwan under the guise of "cultural exchange" offices and similar ventures, although in fact these are embassies. China continues to put great pressure on Taiwan, getting it excluded from international organizations and generally keeping it in diplomatic isolation.
The United States is the island's primary ally, market and defender and has a long history of involvement for both good and ill with the island. Under the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), the US is committed to providing for the defense of the island, but the law is so worded that the US could choose to do nothing at all if Taiwan is invaded. Taiwan also falls within the purview of the US-Japan security treaty. Recently the Clinton Administration formally (and cravenly) stated that the US would not support Taiwan independence, although it claims it would oppose any attempt to take the island by force. Given the western non-reaction to Russia in Chechnya, it seems like that the US will not intervene in the Taiwan situation either should China attempt forcible annexation. Now that Macao has been returned, the pressure will be mounting on Taiwan.
My belief is that at some point in the future it is likely that the island will be annexed to China as long as the US and other powers remained cowed (the KMT-controlled military recently said it would not defend the island in the event it declares independence). Most long-term foreign residents of the island would probably agree with me, as well as the majority of educated Taiwanese. Practically every Taiwanese with the chance has a US green card or US citizenship (the debate between pro-annexation and pro-independence groups is being carried out by dual citizens and green card holders on both sides. Many ordinary Taiwanese bitterly resent this lack of commitment to the island by its elites). The Communist Party has made the annexation of Taiwan an important plank in the party platform and three generations of Chinese have grown up with the Party's propaganda claims. Were Taiwan to formally declare and retain independence, the CCP would lose unacceptable amounts of face. Chinese views of Taiwan are remarkable for their uniformity (regardless of how liberal they are, few Chinese scholars support independence for Tibet or Taiwan), militancy and ignorance (Chinese know nothing of Taiwan). A democratic China would probably be no less militant.
The election of Chen Shui-bian in 2000 eliminated the threat that the ruling party-run foundation for negotiations with the Chinese would sell the island out. China recently announced that it would attack Taiwan regardless of the international or domestic situation if it continued to drag its feet on annexation, giving the island a deadline of 2003. Violence may break out. Keep a close eye on the international scene.
Whatever happens in the short-term, in the long-term, however, war between China and some combination of powers is almost certain. China is a tottering one-party state with a massive unemployment problem, deep economic difficulties, an expansionist ideology, ongoing genocide in Tibet, a mythical history of humiliation, an anthropology that is struggling desperately in the face of mounting DNA evidence to prove the unique origin of the Chinese, a linguistics that denigrates local languages, cultural beliefs in the superiority of Chinese culture to all others, a military itching for confrontation, and territorial claims on all its neighbors. Not since Nazi Germany has there been a package so complete, and not since Nazi Germany has a nation been so deferred to by the Western powers. Due to this, it is highly likely that war will break out, if not over Taiwan, than over one of the many other expanionist claims of China. By 2003 or so, China's military will possess overwhelming advantages over Taiwan's. Expect bad news.
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THE PEOPLE OF TAIWAN
The Taiwanese generally group themselves into four ethnic communities: Mainlanders, Taiwanese, Hakka and Aborigines (these four "ethnic" communities are in many ways constructions of, and responses to, government policy). How people view ethnic identities on Taiwan is a subject of endless study, discussion and debate. One sign that you have been accepted is when people began talking about it with you.
Mainlanders are those Chinese and their descendents who came over in the post-1945 period (less than 15% of the population). They tend to have nuclear families and work in government, law, the military and similar politically-sensitive, high social-status posts. In the old days the bulk of high-level government jobs were reserved for mainlanders, and they were the first hired and last fired in the public and ruling party businesses. This has changed as the KMT has become a majority Taiwanese party. Now one hears the Mainlanders complaining about how much they are "suffering" under the Administration of President Chen. What it really means is that they have lost the privileges that formerly enjoyed, and now must live as ordinary citizens in a democratic society. Many of them find that difficult to accept. Most mainlanders live in northern Taiwan, in Taipei and Taoyuan counties (and vote for the KMT en bloc). Consequently, these areas are very different from the "Taiwanese" central and south. People who have been only to Taipei have never been to Taiwan.
The Taiwanese are descendents of Chinese, mostly from Fukien (but some from other places in south China) who came over in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries (more than 70% of the population). In contrast to mainlanders, they tend to be businessmen with large extended families. For years they were looked down upon as uneducated bumpkins by the mainlander elite and lampooned in the media (although in fact, on average, the Taiwanese were more highly educated than the mainlanders when the latter first arrived). In the old days it was forbidden to speak Taiwanese in offical settings such as the legislature or the schools. Much resentment still lingers among people in their late 30s and above. Since martial law was lifted there has been an explosion of Taiwanese language and culture as the populace attempts to explore its long-suppressed identity.
Hakkas ("guest people") are probably related to the Japanese and Mongols (they constitute about 15% of the island's population). Originally from northern China, they speak a non-Chinese language but have been living among the Chinese for centuries, much as the Jews lived in Europe. Hardy, education-oriented and bold, they have influence all out of proportion for their numbers, and many famous Chinese, such as Mao's general Chu Teh, Deng of China, Lee Kuan-yaw of Singapore and Taiwan's President Lee Teng-hui (half) were actually Hakkas. They constitute about one-fourth of the pre-1945 Taiwan population and have a long history of conflict and interaction with the ethnic Taiwanese. Many Hakkas resent the Taiwanese-vs-Mainlander competition which is a dominant theme of local politics. No matter who wins, they are still on the outside looking in.
Finally, there are a small number of Aborigines (less than 2%) of the population. They were divided into a large number of ethnic groups, but many of their customs and traditions have been lost and no one really knows how many or what they were prior to colonization by the Chinese. They live mostly sorry lives, doing the grunt work of construction and other dirty jobs, with much alcoholism and homelessness. Everything seen today in "aboriginal villages" is a construction of the postwar period and all the "artifacts" you can buy there are made in factories. Any real artifacts are in museums, such as the excellent little museum on the campus of National Taiwan University in Taipei (open Fridays).
To confuse the issue further, Taiwanese and Hakkas are usually lumped together in the term "Taiwanese" when the term is used as opposed to "mainlanders" (who are all "mainlanders" regardless of whether they come from Hubei, Shanghai, etc).
Of course, all these lines, so clear on paper, are completely blurred in reality. Few people are actually "pure" anything (for one thing, all pre-1945 Taiwanese have aboriginal genetic markers, according to studies) and intermarriage among these groups is common. Ethnic tensions remain despite ruling party propaganda to the contrary and many politicians manipulate them (mainlander politicians have learned Taiwanese in order to get elected, for example). Ethnic conflict has been exacerbated by the fact that the political power has historically been in the hands of the mainlanders (but not all the mainlanders, the soldiers who came over in 1949 were left out of the economic miracle and excluded from political power), while the economy (and the wealth) has been controlled by the Taiwanese. There is also a mild-to-medium Taiwanese prejudice against Hakkas.
The government's official position is that Taiwanese are Chinese (just as Taiwan is a province) and it suppressed Taiwanese culture in the old days. Since the lifting of martial law this policy has become unsustainable. So much has changed. The political terror is openly discussed and debated in the newspapers. People celebrate Taiwanese culture. The new Junior High Textbook, "Getting to Know Taiwan," sparked a huge controversy for its Taiwan-centered content. At the same time, the government continues to emphasize the Chineseness of the island, promoting Chinese culture, arts and history while labeling the island (hilariously) a bastion of traditional Chinese culture.
In practice people identify themselves in all kinds of ways. Even the most ardent Taiwanese nationalists may refer to themselves as "Chinese" depending on context and in conversations among themselves the younger generation is more likely to speak Mandarin than Taiwanese. In the most recent polls, however, the majority of people have been indentifying themselves as "Taiwanese."
Culturally, Taiwanese, Hakkas, Mainlanders and Aborigines have their own customs, practices and languages, just as French, Germans and Americans do. Today Japan and the United States remain the pre-eminent outside cultural influences in Taiwan. Most elder Taiwanese were educated under the Japanese and speak at least some Japanese (my in-laws speak Japanese among themselves when they don't want us younger people to know what they are saying). Japan and the US are the island's most important markets and sources of technology. They have a long history of political involvement with the island. They were also the major havens when Taiwanese who supported democracy and independence went into exile in the 1950s and 1960s. Japanese and American TV programs and movies are common on Taiwanese cable TV, and Japanese books, magazines and fashions dominate. Japanese foods are very popular. When Taiwanese travel, they love to go to Japan. (Map of the island's cultural attributes here)
Religion on Taiwan is a fantastic mishmash of beliefs. The Taiwanese generally follow Chinese traditional religion, believing strongly in ghosts and luck, worshipping the gods at the temple. The popularity of temples is directly related to whether their god reliably grants the wishes of his/her supplicants. Temples with good reputations in that regard make lots of money. Fortune-telling is to Taiwan what psychiatry is to New York City, and in the cities there are streets which specialize in fortune-telling. "It's bad luck" is generally considered a wise reason for foregoing a given action. All Taiwanese ferevently believe in ghosts and spirits and will go to great lengths to avoid upsetting the supernatural. An entire month of the lunar calendar, usually around August-September, is "ghost month" when the ghosts roam freely. It is considered inadvisable to contract business during this period, so people basically quit making serious purchases. As a consequence, sensible people can get good deals on big-ticket items like cars, fridges, moving costs, houses, etc, since businessmen are anxious to move inventory. The upside of this nonsense is that the Taiwanese will generally accept whatever beliefs you have. This is all to the good, as atheism carries no stigma here as it does in the States.
Taiwanese are not like Africans, with a veneer of Christianity that vanishes instantly whenever something really serious happens. Rather, when they become Christian or Buddhist or whatever, they tend to add those beliefs to their existing stock of religious superstitions, much as a person buying a new load of books will rearrange her shelves, tossing some, moving others to the back. Thus one of the more popular cults on the island is Yi Kuan Tao, a syncretic hash of the three major religions of the island, whose gurus make a lot of money (there's a shock).
Various flavors of Buddhism, Taoism and Christianity (distant third) are the major religions, but the island has been the home of a number of syncretic religious beliefs and is a fertile ground for cults and religious fads. There are also a few Muslims. Buddhism has major advances in the last decade, going from a few hundred thousand adherents in the early '80s to over 4 million today. Dedicated Buddhists make an important contribution to the island's society through non-profit organizations. Tibetan Buddhism is relatively popular on the island and the Dalai Lama is revered throughout Taiwan. Christian churches/missions can be found everywhere and the Presbyterians, to their credit, have been among the most important champions of human rights and democracy on the island. Right-wing Christian missionaries from the States work assiduously on Taiwan, although they have not achieved much success (no, you cannot escape Jehovah's Witnesses knocking on your door here either). Being a practical people, probably a third of the population wastes little or no time on religion at all.
Taiwanese family relations are enormously complex. Unlike the US, where the ideal is to keep the government out of family affairs, in patriarchical Chinese society family relations (and male authority) are often formalized in and enforced by the law, though those laws are now considered archaic. Oppression of women is a feature of Taiwanese culture, built into the law. Men are more likely to get custody of the children in a divorce, have more property rights and can withhold permission for their wives to divorce. Citizenship descends through the male, as does ancestry. The children of Taiwanese women married to Mainlanders are considered Mainlanders under the law, for example.
Women are ideally considered to have left their families when married and thereafter repair to the husband's family's house on holidays, with some traditional exceptions (there are some traditional situations in which the husband moves in with the wife's family, and of course modern society is more flexible). Taiwanese men tend to be spoiled and mother-dominated, especially in families in which they are the sole male. Consequently, the husband's mother often wields tyrannical power over the wife and can make her life hell. You will hear many bizarre stories of mother-son-daughter-in-law relationships which would make you laugh if the consequences for people's lives weren't so serious. By the same token, here and there there are Taiwanese males who help out around the home and are involved in their children's lives.
Generally the oldest child, male or female,
the heaviest responsiblity. It is they who must show up for all family
functions, take care of mom and dad and give their parents money.
in Taiwanese society have great difficulty attaining any kind of
from their parents and often express great bitterness at the way their
parents maintain control over them as they grow into adulthood and come
to understand their culture in a deeper way. There are few templates or
guides for the growth of personal autonomy in Taiwanese culture and
parents and children must find their own way. When presented to
this control is often recast as closeness (as opposed to Westerners,
are said to be "distant"), but in reality it is sheer exercise of
even if often tempered by a genuine but inexpressible love. How
times in your life have you heard a grown American saying that they
wait for their parents to die so they can stop controlling his life?
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