In 1927, government officials in China (then the Republic of China) began to faction due to disputes over the country's direction. The split occurred at an ideological level, primarily between nationalism from the Kuomintang party (KMT) and socialism from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Although the two groups had been political rivals since the fall of the Qing Dynasty and founding of the ROC by Dr. Sun Yat-sen in 1912, an attempt to relocate the country's capital city to Wuhan, where the communists had large support, ignited a series of conflicts which resulted in the April 12, 1927 raiding of Shanghai by KMT forces to round up all communist supporters, beginning the Chinese Civil War.
From 1927 until World War II, both the KMT and CCP fought over various territories in China, forcing citizens to choose the sides and fight one another. By the start of World War II, the KMT had been reduced to the area surrounding Shanghai and the east-central region, while the CCP had varying levels of control over the rest of China (with the exception of Manchurioko (Manchuria) in northeast China and Taiwan island which were occupied and colonised by the Japanese).
During the Japanese occupation of Manchuria prior to World War II, the KMT decided to compromise with the Japanese in order to eliminate the CCP. General Chiang Kai-shek believed that only after elimination of the CCP could they be strong enough to reclaim the territories occupied by the Japanese.
By 1937, however, the Japanese launched a full assault on all of China, forcing the KMT and CCP to ally with one another to protect China. The "alliance" was strictly in name only, as the two sides were still bitter rivals, however begrudgingly came together to expel the Japanese. By 1941 due to internal fighting between the two groups and supposed harassment of KMT soldiers by the CPC "allies", Chiang ordered an ambush on several thousand CPC soldiers, ending their "alliance". Until the end of the Japanese occupation (after the Japanese surrender to the United States), both the KMT and CCP armies operated independently and stayed out of each others' way. The CCP's power grew during this time as the KMT suffered massive casualties against the Japanese.
By the terms of the Japanese surrender to the US, Japanese soldiers in China were ordered to surrender to the KMT (who had US support), not the CCP, and in areas which only had CCP support they were ordered to surrender to the Soviet Union. The KMT was concerned they did not have enough resources to secure Manchuria after the Soviet Union's departure, and tried to reach a peaceful agreement with the CCP's leader, Mao Zedong. While no conclusions or solutions were found, fighting temporarily suspended under the final days of USSR-Japanese fighting in Manchuria, when the Russian departure would result in the CCP taking over the region. With US assistance, KMT soldiers were transported to key cities in northeast China to establish power.
By 1946, the truce between the two sides ended and fighting resumed. The CCP, now with support from Soviet Russia, began enticing rural peasants and farmers with promises of a changed society built upon the worker, and their manpower increased exponentially. The United States threw full support behind the KMT, and sent troops and resources to assist. Over the next three years, the CCP began solidly capturing more and more Chinese territories, and after capturing the KMT capital Nanjing, the KMT fled to the island of Taiwan as it was recently returned from Japan and had not been part of the Civil War. They took with them national treasures, gold, and foreign reserves with the goal of regrouping and reconquering the mainland. An estimated 1.3 to 2 million supporters followed the KMT to Taiwan.
After the relocation of the KMT and its establishment of a temporary capital in Taipei in 1949, Mao Zedong and the CCP claimed victory and established what they view as a successor state to the ROC named the People's Republic of China, or the PRC, with its capital in Beijing.
After relocation to Taipei, the KMT established martial law in the interest of national security, and severely limited the rights of people in Taiwan in order to prepare for war. Those viewed as sympathetic or supportive of either the CCP or Japanese or anti-KMT were suppressed or arrested. The ROC's administrative area at this time consisted mainly of Taiwan province, the Penghu archipelago west of Taiwan, Kinmen (Quemoy) and Matsu in Fujian province, and the Dachen islands in Zhejiang province. After the relocation, military action between the two sides decreased considerably.
In 1955, an armed dispute occurred when the PRC attacked the Dachen Islands off the coast of Zhejiang province. The First Taiwan Strait Crisis resulted in the immediate evacuation of both ROC and American support personnel, and the loss of the islands.
By 1958, the Second Taiwan Strait Crisis occurred as a result of a rapid military build-up of Kinmen (also known as Quemoy), an island only two kilometres off the coast of Fujian province. The PRC and ROC began long-range fighting by missiles and artillery shelling. The major fighting ended quickly, however the PRC continued to sporadically arterially shell the island until 1979.
Up until 1979 due to both the ROC and PRC insistence of only one China through the one China policy, "China" was represented abroad by the ROC. After a visit to Beijing from US President Nixon in 1972, relations with the PRC began improving up until the point where the United States changed its recognition of "China" away from the ROC to the PRC. As relations improved, the large majority of the world followed suit, and China's United Nations chair was eventually changed from the ROC to PRC. The ROC began losing world support and lost recognition in international events, being relegated to having representation under the name "Chinese Taipei", created under a compromise between both sides.
After fifteen years of no major military interaction between the two sides, the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis was sparked in 1995 when ROC then-President Lee Teng-hui accepted an invitation to speak at Cornell University about Taiwan's transformation from martial law and a one-party system into a full democracy. The PRC was concerned and requested that Lee's visa be declined as his arrival would be against the one China policy. After the United States refused and passed new legislature that in-effect recognised Lee as president of the government on Taiwan, the PRC became enraged and felt the United States was reneging on its earlier agreements with the PRC by supporting Taiwan independence. As a result, the PRC began preparing militarily and conducting exercises close to ROC-controlled areas, which were thwarted by the United States Navy moving troops stationed in Japan and Korea towards the Taiwan Strait.
Diplomatic relations reached a new low after the election of pro-Taiwan independence Democratic People's Party (DPP) candidate Chen Shui-bian. Several attempts at reforming government and culture to differentiate Taiwan from China were repeatedly panned by the PRC who felt Chen was encouraging the people to commit treason and separate from China. Many Taiwanese are not willing to unify with the PRC as Taiwan Province due to many different reasons, mostly cultural and political, however most prominent is the difference in development of both regions since 1949 and how a unification would be impractical for both sides, citing Hong Kong's awkward integration into the PRC after being returned from Britain in 1997.
After a series of scandals, KMT candidate Ma Ying-jeou was elected in 2008 on a platform of increased cooperation with mainland China. After his election, Taiwan strengthened economic ties with mainland China by creating special trade rules through the ECFA framework, cross-strait flights and ships resumed regular service after 59 years, citizens of both regions can now more freely travel across the strait, economic restrictions have been lessened, as well as many other liberalisations between the two sides. All of these changes are welcomed by the PRC (who actively seeks unification of Taiwan), however the changes in Taiwan are controversial, as some view them as a way to reduce tensions and integrate regionally, while others dislike a strengthening of ties with the PRC.
After the election of Tsai Ing-wen in 2016, relations with the mainland have plummeted to all new lows as the PRC refuses to engage in dialogue with the Democratic Progressive Party and its members, who they feel advocate for an eventual Taiwanese independence from 'China'.
More articles on GuideToTaipei.com about Taiwan's history:
- History of Modern Taiwan (R.O.C.)
- Is Taiwan part of China?
- What is "Chinese Taipei"?
- New Taiwan dollar (NT$, TWD)
- Taiwan Quick Facts
Please note this overview is an attempt to simplify and explain the events of over 100 very complex years. If you are interested in learning more about this fascinating period in China's history, there is a wealth of information available online.