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Taiwan is a true cultural crossroads, and over the centuries it has developed a unique identity comprising influences from Austronesian, European and Japanese cultures, rather than just its Chinese colonial past. This cosmopolitan society has developed its own Taiwanese model of democracy between multiculturalism and sovereignty, and is trying to reconcile with its turbulent past.

The country is in many ways a Taiwanese model, a striking contrast to its fellow communist country, China: Just 35 years after its democratic opening in 1987, the country has successfully shifted from an authoritarian regime ruled by a state of emergency to a liberal democracy. This was achieved within the framework of a market economy and a strong multiculturalism.

According to the NGO Freedom House, the country leads the rating of the strongest state of democracy and gave it a score of 94/100 in 2021. It also ranked eighth in the Democracy Index 2021, while 75.3% of Taiwanese believe that democracy is the best political system.

The democratic regime is more than a simple form of governance; it has become a marker of Taiwan’s identity. Although the country bears the name “Republic of China” (ROC), it has chosen to acknowledge cultural diversity throughout the decades, while still being firmly anchored to the mainland through family and economic ties. This complex equation is the result of its history, surviving both internal extremism and threats of the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

A true crossroads of populations

Historically, the landscape is the opposite of that described by the PRC, which views Taiwan as a mere Chinese province that has seceded. Until 1624, the island was mainly populated by aboriginal peoples of Austronesian origin, who constitute today 2.4% of the population. The arrival of the Dutch, who considered the island a perfect trading post for exchanges with China and Japan, brought in migrants from the mainland, as economic opportunities became plentiful.  Today, they are the so-called “native Taiwanese”, with a mixed identity between Chinese and Austronesian culture, and Western influences.

It was only in 1683 that the Qing dynasty took a foothold on the island, but completely lost interest in it and solely controlled the western part, leaving the inland to the aborigines. This period was marked by constant uprisings of the local population against the officials sent by the Middle Kingdom, considered corrupt and incompetent. However, Taiwan did not acquire the status of a province until 1885, showing a belated interest of the mainland towards the island.

This situation was confirmed by the Sino-Japanese war, when the Taiwanese proclaimed the Republic of Taiwan, which existed briefly prior to the Japanese invasion. The Japanese promoted the economic and social development of the island, while repressing any attempt at autonomy.

The return of the Chinese administration in 1945 was perceived with a mixture of hope and apprehension, which quickly gave way to disillusionment. The Kuomintang government (in power in mainland China at the time) was perceived as corrupt. Mainlanders took over positions of power, while economic monopoly multiplied and led to inflation. A disastrous policy that resulted in a mass uprising in Taiwan, which was bloodily suppressed by the government.

In this climate of total chaos, the Kuomintang, driven out by the Chinese Communist Party, settled in Taiwan in 1949 with 1.2 million refugees. The regime, led by Chiang Kai-shek, did not want to create a new nation, but saw Taiwan as a rear base for regaining the continent.

From Kuomintang’s rear base to a sovereign state

Still optimistic about its chances of regaining power in mainland China, the Kuomintang was determined not to give in on political and cultural freedoms. Martial law was introduced, Mandarin remained the only language taught in schools, and Taiwan was made province: the Legislative Yuan (parliamentary body) remained representative of the whole of China, with deputies from all regions of China.

The illusion of “one China” is sustained by the government, resulting in a denial of Taiwanese identity and a freeze on power: No elections are allowed until the whole of China is recovered, and all voters can take part in elections. At the same time, a fierce rebellion is orchestrated against the opposition in power, leading to the “White Terror” which will kill nearly 4,000 people.

As hopes of a return to the mainland faded and diplomatic failures accumulated, Chiang Kai-shek’s regime had to adjust to the new situation. In 1971, Taiwan lost China’s seat at the UN to the People’s Republic, while many countries established formal ties with the latter.

From then on, the challenge for the Kuomintang was no longer to reconquer the mainland, but to survive, particularly by deepening its roots on the island and improving its international image. This explains the democratic turn initiated by Chiang Kai-shek’s son, Chiang Ching-kuo, who allowed an opposition party to emerge (the Democratic Progressive Party), lifting martial law and putting an end to the monopolization of political life by mainlanders.

Unlike the PRC, which chose repression at Tiananmen Square in 1989, Taiwan’s student movements were followed by democratic reforms that led to the first presidential election in 1996.

Taiwan’s democracy flourishes

The National Assembly, a symbol of the artificial political scaffolding created by Chiang Kai-sheck, whose aim was to represent the Chinese government in exile in Taiwan, was restructured. Its “eternal” members were replaced by elected members of the Taiwanese people. As a result, the province of Taiwan was abolished: from being a basis for regaining China, the island became the official territory of the Republic of China, which asserted its sovereignty within its land and sea borders. The government revived the island’s rich cultural and linguistic heritage and abandoned its assimilation policy in favor of minorities.

Since then, the government has been divided between the Kuomintang, a supporter of the status quo and even unification with China, and the Democratic Progressive Party, which fiercely defends Taiwanese sovereignty.

Relations with China continue to be the country’s main political divide, repeatedly rocked by scandals and protests from one side or the other. This led to the Sunflower Movement in 2014, in response to a proposed free trade agreement with China that was scuttled under popular pressure.

The failure of this agreement curbs the Taiwanese people’s perception of borders with mainland China in terms of investment and trade yet does not challenge the country’s sovereignty.

Led by President Tsai Ing Wen, who adopts a hard line on Beijing, Taiwan has furthered its democratization process by striving to improve the political and economic inclusion of aborigines. In 2016, the president officially apologized to its indigenous communities for centuries of suffering and mistreatment. In 2018, she further apologized to the victims of the Kuomintang’s persecution during the White Terror.

Although a page has been turned, if the conflict with China remains, Taiwan will not be able to accomplish its political transition process. The idea of a change of regime and the abandoning of the title of “Republic of China” is strongly rejected by Beijing. it is considered a red line by China, and also by a part of the Taiwanese population.

However, this fact does not prevent the emergence of a Taiwanese identity quite unlike that of the Chinese world: according to a survey conducted by the National University of Chengchi, more than 60% of the population would consider themselves exclusively Taiwanese in 2021, compared to 25% in 1995. The proportion of citizens who consider themselves exclusively Chinese has fallen from 18% in 1995 to 2% in 2021.