A common misconception about Taiwan

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"Taiwan was taken over by the Kuomintang (KMT, Nationalist Party) in 1949 when Chiang Kai-shek lost the civil war with the Communists." This bland, false statement is regularly heard on news broadcasts like those made during the recent presidential election. Sometimes, it is merely implied, as in the statement "the KMT has lost power after 50 years of ruling Taiwan". Whether the product of ignorance or ideology, it needs to be refuted if we are to understand how today's attitudes were formed.

In fact, the Chinese army, then under the control of the KMT, entered Taiwan on October 15th 1945 and formally accepted the Japanese surrender of the island ten days later.

Therefore the assertion that the KMT took over Taiwan in 1949 ignores the crucial events of 1945-48, which played a determining role in creating disillusionment with mainland China and generating pro-independence sentiment.

Initially welcomed as liberators after 50 years of Japanese occupation, the Chinese army immediately began a massive looting operation in which they removed as much of the island's equipment as they could ship to Shanghai.

The local élite was sidelined by the régime set up by the provincial governor, Chen Yi, who was already notorious for looting public property and what commentators would nowadays euphemise as "human rights abuses" (ie torturing and killing protestors) during his term as governor of Fujian province up to 1942, when he distinguished himself by the extent of his commercial collaboration with the Japanese authorities (with whom he was supposed to be at war).

During 1946, there was a breakdown of law and order, and in basic public services, notably healthcare: medical aid supplies having been diverted, cholera, malaria and bubonic plague epidemics erupted. Food aid was stolen and sold on the streets. Water supply was limited because of the new régime's failure to restore the Japanese-built water supply system--and because of the repeated theft of water pipes for shipment to Shanghai.

Attempts to establish local autonomy and democracy (not, at that time, independence) were crushed in 1947 in a widespread massacre that lasted for months (although it is, somewhat misleadingly, still referred to as the "February 28th Incident", the day of the event that triggered it) and resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of Taiwanese. 

Chiang Kai-shek had Chen Yi shot in 1950, but it was more than 40 years before a KMT leader (Lee Teng-hui) officially apologised for the 1947 massacre. Chiang himself continued the oppressive practices of Chen Yi, but was successful in establishing the foundations of a successful economy, which eventually helped undermine his authoritarian system after his death. 

It is difficult to understand the subsequent hardening of attitudes on the part of people born in Taiwan towards the mainlanders, including those who arrived in 1948-50 at the end of the civil war, without recalling the events of 1945-48.

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Last updated 20 March 2000.

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