Briefing: Taiwan

In preparation for my stay in Taiwan, I have decided to write briefings on various topics that need some clarification. Taiwan is a relatively small country, far away from most of this website’s visitors. These briefings are meant as background information to everything else I write about Taiwan and my stay there. Since they are at least partly written for your benefit, please don’t hesitate to ask questions or to suggest topics for further briefings. This first briefing is meant for those of you who aren’t at all familiar with the country.

Taiwan

Taiwan is a small country off the east coast of China (see map to the left). It is somewhat smaller than Switzerland or Denmark, and is inhabited by roughly 23 million people. Because of its small size, population density is among the highest in the world (there are 30 times more people per square kilometre than in Sweden). In terms of purchasing power parity per head (a way of measuring how wealthy a country is based on how much can be bought for a given amount of currency), Taiwan and Sweden are roughly equal. Compared to its neighbour, China, Taiwan is roughly six times as rich, using this measurement. Taiwan’s climate is marine tropical, although the north is subtropical, and the island is covered mostly by mountains. The majority of the population lives on the flatter west coast.

The question whether Taiwan is a state or not depends on what definitions one uses. A de facto definition makes Taiwan a state, because its government is sovereign and has a monopoly on power. A legal definition is more complicated. In 1947, Chinese nationalists under Jiang Jieshi (Chiang Kai-shek) fled from the mainland after an internecine civil war continuing in the wake of the Second World War. After being defeated by the communists under Mao Zedong, the nationalists (a faction called Kuomintang) established a new base on the island of Taiwan under the name of the Republic of China. The communist government soon proclaimed the People’s Republic of China on the mainland. Both governments claimed sovereignty over Taiwan as well as over the rest of China. This remains a debated question today, but a status quo has been reached in which Taiwan is a sovereign country practically speaking, but isn’t recognised by most countries world wide (only 23 minor countries recognise Taiwan). Since the two countries’ definitions of themselves overlap, it isn’t possible to recognise Taiwan and China simultaneously.

Before the Kuomintang arrived, Taiwan was ruled by the Japanese for almost fifty years, but they were forced to cede the island to China after World War 2. After that, Taiwan was ruled under martial law until 1987, when democratisation began. According to an index published by the Economist, Taiwan is today a “flawed democracy” scoring roughly as high as countries such as Italy, South Korea and Estonia. Very high scores were recorded for civil liberties, but political climate and participation were not deemed as high. In 2000, the opposing Democratic Progressive Party managed to seize power from Kuomintang for the first time. They held on to power and strived towards Taiwanese independence until March 2008, when Kuomintang won landslide victories both for the legislature and the presidency. This will without doubt lead to a less tense relation with China and the United States.

The relationship between Taiwan and China has by many observers been deemed as one of the most dangerous to world peace. A proclamation of independence in Taiwan could lead to a war with China, who has vowed to stop Taiwanese formal secession with armed force if necessary. However, the United States is obliged by Act of Congress to intervene in such a conflict and do whatever it can to defend Taiwan. At present, this situation doesn’t seem very probable, because as was obvious in the March elections, the population of Taiwan favours closer integration with China and less focus on independence. It would make no sense to invade a country which is already moving in the desired direction. The future looks bright at the moment, with a growing economy, stabilising domestic politics and a friendlier relationship to important international players.

Sources and further reading
Country Briefings: Taiwan. (The Economist).
Republic of China. (Wikipedia).
Rubinstein, M.A. (1999). Taiwan: A New History.

This post was updated in July, 2009.

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  1. Warp2243’s avatar

    I’m a little late to the party, but that was a nice text. The more I read about Taiwan, the more I realize it interests me much more than mainland China (and this is partly thanks to your influence). Taiwan just seems more traditional, more charming to me… And I guess there’s that Japan-like insularity effect that makes it look like a bubble of unique culture you want to get into.

    Reply

    1. Olle Linge’s avatar

      Almost five years. That’s a very long time. It’s hard to imagine that I had studied Chinese for about eight months when I read that article and basically had no idea what would happen later. More on topic, I like Taiwan because it’s a very accessible combination of a modern democracy (even though it has its flaws) and a traditional Chinese society. If people ask me what I think about Taiwan, I usually say that I don’t have any particular opinion about the country itself, but that I do like the people here. I’ve perhaps grown older and less adventurous since I first came to Taiwan, but that certainly isn’t the fault of its people.

      Reply

    2. Warp2243’s avatar

      Awesome, you answered my question before I even asked it ! (that was : where were you in your Chinese learning journey at that time?). You seem so young and inexperienced in that text, compared to now !

      Liking the people, that’s probably the best thing one could ask for.
      So there was that August 2008-July 2009 one year stay in Taiwan as your first time. What were your following trips/stays in Taiwan (and China?) after that and until today?
      (it’s probably written somewhere on your blog but I don’t know where, if you don’t have the time to explain this again, I don’t mind a few links).

      Reply

      1. Olle Linge’s avatar

        I don’t blame you, most things can be found somewhere on this blog, but sifting through more than a thousand articles is not something I recommend. :) In this case, though, I haven’t updated my personal info in several years, so it’s quite inaccurate. Thanks for reminding me about that! I will update the information and then tell you about it. :)

        Reply

        1. Olle Linge’s avatar

          Okay, I have updated the informamation now, just check the “about” link in the left-hand menu!

          Reply

        2. Warp2243’s avatar

          Awesome ! That’s exactly what I wanted. And we even get a nice picture of you!
          Would you mind putting the months as well in your curriculum? Especially since I don’t know when the school year starts in Taiwan. Would like to know until when in 2014 you’ll be in Taiwan, for example, so that I can drop by and say hello :)

          Reply

          1. Olle Linge’s avatar

            Adding months to the summary is a bit too detailed I think, but I can give you the details here. I’ll (most likely) be here from the beginning of September to the end of June this year and next, with a possible exception for the winter vacation next year when I might go back to Sweden. Where do you live currently?

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          2. Warp2243’s avatar

            Oh okay. Well for now I live in Paris full time. I want to go to Taiwan for 1 to 3 months, but haven’t decided when. If everything goes well, I’ll start my PhD this summer. It may be in France, but I may go abroad as well (in that case Japan would be ideal, and Taiwan my 2nd choice). In all cases I’ll probably be able to do this kind of trip whenever I want, given the flexibility you have as a PhD math student, ahah.

            I originally wanted to go to Taiwan this summer, but in that case I should have had a solid plan by now, which I don’t and don’t even have the time to make… Language-wise I probably would have been at an optimal level for full immersion though. How was it for you with 8 months of learning? Right now I’m almost at 6 months, only Ankiing everyday; time flies, really.

            Reply