The fate of Taiwan, an island at the mouth of the South China Sea equidistant between China, Japan, and the Philippines, has returned to the top of the list of geopolitical worries. The Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, has reserved “the option of taking all necessary means” to incorporate Taiwan into the People’s Republic of China. The United States, on the other hand, officially regards any effort to change the status of Taiwan “by other than peaceful means… [as] a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific” with all that follows.
It may come as a surprise to many readers to discover that, not so long ago, China forgot about Taiwan, treated it as part of a foreign country and even regarded its people as part of a separate Taiwanese nation. This remained true for almost half a century, from the loss of the island in 1895 until the “rediscovery” of the island by China’s Nationalist government in 1942.
Taiwan was signed away on April 17, 1895 in the wake of the Qing Empire’s defeat in the Sino-Japanese War. Just over a month later, the acting governor of the island, who was from the mainland, and a few other officials and merchants, declared independence in the name of a ‘Taiwan Republic” rather than submit to Japanese rule. The Republic collapsed after just 11 days, but resistance continued. It took a further five months for Japanese forces to occupy all the cities and a further five years before the last vestiges of banditry were completely crushed.
Throughout this long campaign, the Qing court declined to offer any support to its former subjects in its former province. In fact, material support for the rebel Republic was explicitly banned by edict in May 1895. The fate of Taiwan was simply not important enough for Beijing to risk further conflict with Japan. Nor did Taiwan’s fate become a public cause celebre. While sundering the island from the body of the Qing Empire was a major blow to the prestige of the imperial court, it barely disturbed the general population.
The mainland’s relationship with Taiwan in 1895 could be described as, at best, “semi-detached.” Even after its partial annexation in 1684, the Qing had treated the island as a dangerous frontier, notable mainly for its wild “aborigines” and deadly diseases. The court only declared it to be a province 200 years later, in 1885, after war with France. Taiwan remained a province for just a single decade, before it was ceded to Japan.
Surprisingly perhaps, the same insouciance about Taiwan’s fate also characterised the Chinese revolutionary movement of the 1900s. Sun Yat-sen and his comrades made no demands for the return of the island to Qing control. At no point, so far as we know, did Sun concern himself with the resistance to Japanese rule, even though it continued to smoulder. For Sun, Japanese-controlled Taiwan was more important as a base from which to overthrow the Qing Dynasty than as a future part of the Republic.
The “Provisional Constitution” of the Republic of China, approved by Sun Yat-sen’s government immediately after the revolution, set out in relatively precise detail what it believed the territory of the Republic should be. It said, in effect, that the new state inherited the boundaries of the Qing Empire as they stood when the revolution broke out. Article 3 stated simply that “The territory of the Chinese Republic consists of 22 provinces, Inner and Outer Mongolia, and Tibet.” The choice of “22” provinces explicitly excluded the former province of Taiwan.
This was echoed in official maps and school textbooks. Although they continued to assert claims to large parts of the former imperial territory which had become independent during the 1920s and 1930s, they did not do so for Taiwan. It seems that, for these cartographers, the “natural” shape of the Republic was exactly the same as the shape of the Qing Empire at its collapse in 1911. Mongolia was included, Taiwan was not.
In retrospect, what is remarkable is how uncontroversial this was at the time. The Communist Party had long supported independence for Taiwan, rather than reincorporation into China. At its sixth congress in 1928 the Communist Party had recognised the ‘Taiwanese as a separate nationality.” In November 1938 the party plenum resolved to “build an anti-Japanese united front between the Chinese and the Korean, Taiwanese and other peoples,” implicitly drawing a distinction between Taiwanese and Chinese. At this time, in the Communist view, the Taiwanese were a separate minzu or nation. This continued into the early 1940s with articles by both Zhou Enlai, in July 1941, and Marshall Zhu De, in November 1941 describing the future liberated Taiwan as a separate nation-state. Even when the Communist Party declared war on Japan in December 1941, its announcement listed the people of Taiwan separately from the Chinese.
It was only after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the entry of the United States into the Second World War that China’s Nationalist government began to see the possibility of the defeat of Japan. Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek saw an opportunity to reclaim Taiwan as a “buffer” to protect the core homeland. This still seems to be the vision of China’s leaders today. Yet the boundaries of China’s territory are recent creations and far from being the sacred national symbols that present-day leaders claim them to be.