Taiwan – Little China in the shadow of the People’s Republic

von | 28. Jun. 2024 | English content

In the following article, Dominik Schwarzenberger analyses the political situation in Taiwan with his usual sharp eye. As he clearly explains, analysing and assessing the current situation of this island state is very valuable, as the question of its independence in particular is of major geopolitical significance.


Presidential and parliamentary elections were held in Taiwan on 13 January 2024. These elections were awaited with excitement and concern, as the favourite, Lai Ching-te, is favourably disposed towards independence for the island as such, beyond any Chinese statehood.


The Taiwan issue, as an international as well as an internal Chinese conflict, is another instructive example of complex geopolitical contexts, subtleties of international law and unresolved questions of identity. This makes it necessary to analyse external and internal conditions.

What is the Taiwan issue and the de facto independent island all about? What does „one-China policy“ mean? How do the inhabitants of Taiwan feel about it? Is there a Taiwanese nation?
How could the People’s Republic react to an official declaration of independence?


„One China policy“


Both the People’s Republic (Beijing) and Taiwan (Taipei) are committed to the „One China Policy“, i.e. both see themselves as authentic China and successors to the empires and the old republic of 1912. Consequently, Taiwan also officially refers to itself as the „Republic of China (on Taiwan)“, which means that the island is not the republic, but its last bastion. The mainland is considered to be occupied by usurping communists. Although the island exists independently with all the characteristics of a sovereign state, de jure it is only considered the last remaining non-communist part of an overall China to which both states refer. A Taiwanese declaration of independence would therefore detach the island from this only ideally existing whole of China. Until 1971, the „Republic of China (on Taiwan)“ was recognised by most states as the representative of the whole of China, was a founding member of the UN and even had a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. Due to the growing importance of the People’s Republic (Beijing), this relationship changed fundamentally and even the USA and Japan followed this trend[1]. Bilateral relations with Taiwan are maintained as „economic and cultural offices“ under subtly sensitive terms. It should be noted that Taiwan has never declared itself independent and has never questioned its affiliation to the whole of China – on the contrary: Taiwan wants to be the legitimate remnant of the whole of China and reunite with the mainland after the fall of communism.

The explosive and curious nature of the Taiwan issue has recently been illustrated by twoexamples: Lithuania and Nauru.


• The Baltic EU and NATO member state Lithuania opened a „Taiwanese Representative Office in Lithuania“ as a de facto Taiwanese embassy in 2021. The problem was not the close relations, but the insensitive labelling. Beijing broke off relations with Lithuania and even temporarily imposed economic sanctions.

• The Pacific island state of Nauru established official diplomatic relations with Beijing in January 2024 and severed its ties with Taiwan. In return, the now destitute island was rewarded with loans.


This claim to sole representation is reminiscent of the „Hallstein Doctrine“ of the old FRG, according to which the Bonn Republic was the sole heir to the German Reich and represented the whole of Germany. Recognising the GDR’s statehood as well as West Germany’s own detachment from an only ideally existing unified Germany would therefore be a betrayal[2]. Consequently, Bonn also opposed the official recognition of the GDR by third countries.


Chinese understanding of nationality


For Europeans, the Chinese understanding of the nation is particularly strange, although it is not so rare, as it is also found in other cultural areas of the world: among Arabs, some religious communities, the ancient Greeks and for a long time also among Russians. This understanding of the nation is a civilisational one, i.e. a worldview with its own holistic conception of the earth, cosmos, morality and ethics. It can be compared with the Catholic-Western consciousness of the Middle Ages, which was not bound to statehood, territory or ethnicity. Accordingly, several states can exist separately within a spiritual civilisation, but distinguish themselves from other civilisations. The Chinese emperor was more a spiritual-religious symbol of this civilisational unity (like the Pope today), whose „power ends at the village hedge“ (Chinese proverb). In contrast, anti-imperialist Chinese intellectuals of the late 19th century did indeed strive for a nation in the Western sense, but were well aware of the problem: the purely civilisational consciousness had to be expanded through an educational dictatorship and cultural revolution. In addition, there was no ethnic basis: the population of the giant empire was „like a pile of loose sand“ (Sun Yat-sen). Two concepts competed with each other: „Qing Chinese“ vs. „Han Chinese“. The Han represents a convention to create a homogeneous ethnic foundation for China – in this case, all inhabitants at the time of the popular Han dynasty were designated as Chinese. In fact, Han are racially, linguistically and culturally very different from each other[3]which is reflected in the official recognition of main groups and thus counteracts their intended homogeneity. In turn, the Qing concept defined all inhabitants of the empire at the time of its greatest expansion in the 18th century as „Chinese“[4]a moderate form „only“ the current inhabitants of the 1890s.


Taiwan’s former Guomindang Unified Party (GMD) as the guardian of the all-Chinese claim to sole representation


The Guomindang (GMD) – often simply translated as the „National People’s Party“ – has shaped the face of the island since 1945, when the Japanese occupiers withdrew and the „National Chinese“ of Chiang Kai-shek took power. After the victory of the communists, the military, entrepreneurs, intellectuals and officials of the defeated old „Republic of China“ fled to the island, including Chiang Kai-shek himself. The Taiwanese GMD is the third party of this name, which has organisational but not ideological continuity. The original GMD was left-wing nationalist-socialist and committed to the ideals of its founder and chairman Sun Yat-sen: the „Three Principles of the People“[5]. Sun himself wavered for a long time between the Qing and Han conventions and decided in favour of a compromise: the Han represent the core and some
arbitrarily selected peoples of the late empire belong to the nation as an autochthonous „addition“[6]. After Sun’s death, the GMD, integrated only by its popular founder, split into left-wing pro-communist and right-wing anti-communist wings, which solidified into separate organisations with armed arms. The right-wing GMD was led by the charismatic Chiang Kai- shek, who was married to Sun’s wife’s sister. Chiang experimented with fascist ideas until the late 1930s and restored some of the values of Confucianism that Sun, a Christian socialist, rejected as reactionary, which is why the attribute „right-wing“ is not entirely wrong. Even today, the Taiwanese GMD can still be characterised as a national-radical conservative party[7] but the fascist and corporate elements are marginal or split off from the parent party. During the Mainland Cultural Revolution (1966-76), Taiwan saw itself as a guardian of Chinese culture and tradition, albeit under modernist auspices. Sun Yat-sen is nominally revered in the People’s Republic as well as in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau and in the diaspora as an anti-imperialist pioneer. Until the 1980s, the GMD was an authoritarian party that was paranoid about communist conspiracies everywhere.[8] and suppressed every individual Taiwanese movement beyond the „Chinese“ due to its claim to be the only legitimate representative of the „Republic of China“. For a long time, the left-wing nationalist pan-Chinese communists with their numerous front organisations were indeed a threat. Since the 1980s, the greater challenge has come from parties of marginalised Taiwanese who immigrated before 1945 (see ethnography below): in addition to political participation, some are also striving for the formal independence of their island. Irony of history: GMD and its former communist wartime opponent have more in common again today; in fact, Xi’s course is more reminiscent of Chiang than of Mao.

The importance of the GMD for Taiwan is reflected not least in its national symbols. Taiwan’s flag is identical to that of the „Republic of China“ (until 1949) and the GMD. Taiwan itself has no sovereign symbols of its own, as this would thwart its claim to be the whole of China. Parties striving for a sovereign Taiwan consistently avoid this all-Chinese symbolism – if only because the all-Chinese national flag is also the party symbol of the GMD. The same applies to the national anthem, which was adopted from the old republic and glorifies the „Three Principles of the People“, whose sole organisational manifestation was the original GMD. The „Democratic Progressive Party“ with its allies is the major opponent, but is internally strongly divided into ideologies and identities. Only internal currents belong to the openly separatist parties. The regionalist parties on Taiwan, which campaign for specific island issues, can be seen as a legal curiosity. This Taiwanese regionalism is not formally identical with Taiwanese nationalism, but represents Taiwan’s interests within the ideally existing whole of China. A rogue who thinks evil of it.




Taiwan is a miniature China, i.e. there are the dominant Han as supposedly authentic Chinese (with 98%) and non-Chinese minorities[9] as well as a variety of languages and religions. In contrast to the People’s Republic, the Taiwanese Han are strongly divided: here they emphasise their ethnic and linguistic diversity[10] and preserve it. The reasons for this are the minor significance of non-Chinese minorities as a potential threat, the stable cultural and linguistic communitarianism of the mainland Chinese (Benshengren) who successively immigrated from the empire from the 17th century and, from 1945, the sinicisation pressure of the most recent immigration group[11] (Waishengren), which triggered defiant reactions. These highly qualified new immigrants (Waishengren) established a de facto ethnocracy[12] with a kind of caste system and rigid language policy, which is why at least they built up a homogeneous identity despite their different origins. They brought with them the foreign currency of the old republic.


Historical milestones


• Early 17th century: successive colonisation from the mainland and displacement of Austronesian natives
• At the same time: colonial rule by the Dutch with strong Christian missionisation of the indigenous people
• 1661-1682: loyal supporters of the Ming dynasty retreat to Taiwan from the Manchurian Qing
• 1682: Conquest by Manchurian Qing: Sinicisation and de-Christianisation of the lowland natives
• 1886: Taiwan becomes an independent province of the empire
• 1894/95: Sino-Japanese War: Taiwan becomes part of Japan
• May to October 1895: „Democratic Republic of Taiwan / Republic of Formosa“ as a territory free from Japan
• 1915: End of organised armed resistance against Japan
• During Japan’s rule: construction of railway and roads; promotion of medicine, education and Buddhism
• 1945: Taiwan is returned to the „Republic of China“
• Incident on 28 February 1947: an uprising by the long-established Benshengren against the GMD government, defamed as communist, is bloodily suppressed
• 1949: Retreat of the GMD leadership under Chiang Kai-shek with anti-communist mainland Chinese (Waishengren) to the island
• 1949 to 1980s: permanent state of emergency and one-party government, but also a considerable surge in prosperity
• from the mid-1980s: gradual liberalisation and emancipation of the old immigrant Benshengren


Position on Japan


In addition to the relationship with the People’s Republic, the Taiwanese are also divided in their attitude towards Japan, which correlates with the three identities (see below). The Koreans suffered under the Japanese occupation, whereas Taiwan benefited to some extent: in order to alienate Taiwan from mainland China, the Japanese promoted a kind of Taiwanese identity early on and pushed ahead with modernisation (road construction, railways, education and medicine) and industrialisation. The occupation policy was comparatively mild. The Taiwanese economic miracle, unlike that of South Korea, was therefore not least due to Japanese pioneering work. While the Waishengren, as loyal Chinese, are clearly anti-Japanese, parts of the Benshengren see Japan as a role model and ally.




The following identities can be identified among Taiwanese:

• Pan-Chinese: Waishengren and significant parts of the Benshengren; in favour of unification with the mainland if their political system is reformed or alternatively: one state with two systems (like Hong Kong and Macau) is accepted; anti-Japanese; parties: GMD and more radical splits, but also left-wing nationalist communists

• Cultural Chinese: linked to Chinese civilisation, but for separate states (such as Singapore); a few Waishengren and growing parts of the Benshengren; pro-Japanese; parties: parts of the collective party „Democratic Progress Party“ as well as smaller parties of the Social Democrats and Liberals • Taiwanese: see themselves as an ethnic group independent of the mainland; mainly Benshengren and indigenous people; pro-Japanese; parts of the collective party „Democratic Progressive Party“; small independence parties of the centre-left

• Indigenous people: in favour of an independent island state; dominance of various Christian denominations; associated with Taiwanese; anti-Japanese and anti- establishment; own political associations, but mainly represented by the „Democratic Progressive Party“



The religious conditions are similar to those in the People’s Republic: the traditional universalist varieties, a sinicised Buddhism as well as Islamic and fragmented Christian minorities dominate. There is an identity-forming correlation: apart from shamanistic remnants, the indigenous people belong to a wide variety of Christian denominations, whereby Taiwanese Christianity is also gradually spreading among the „Chinese“. Unlike on the mainland, religion is not yet a political issue[13] .


Intra-Taiwanese lines of conflict


The incompatibility of identities is evidence of an irreconcilably divided society, but there are also other lines of conflict:

• Polarisation of traditional values and family image vs. progressive liberal values of an „open society“
• Polarisation Anti-immigration vs. openness to immigration
• Polarisation proUSA vs. anti-USA[14]

There is no correlation between the poles.


The quality of Taiwanese nationalism


Taiwanese nationalists (i.e. Taiwanese) are a very recent phenomenon that is reminiscent of the liberal-emancipatory phase of Western European nationalism of the left and Freemasons. This nationalism is more of a sovereigntism and still committed to the „open society“, and is therefore associated with liberal and social democratic parties. Taiwan’s right-wing (conservatives and fascists) and underground left-wing nationalist communists are clearly pan- Chinese. A shift to right-wing varieties is only a matter of time, namely when conservative Taiwanese with a traditional family image and anti-immigration views no longer feel represented by parties such as the Democratic Progressive Party.

Immature Taiwanese nationalism is in the making, but lacks meaningful symbols and historical points of reference. The short-lived „Republic of Formosa“ of 1885 and anti-Japanese actions
are only suitable as a model for pan-Chinese nationalists due to their loyalty to mainland China, just like the brief years under the Ming Dynasty, which wanted to liberate China from the foreign Manchurians (Qing Dynasty) from Taiwan. This is just one promising reminiscence for Pan-Chinese. Then there is the difficult question of the possible official language: standardised Mandarin as under the GMD regime or the languages of the ethnic groups side by side? Or even English? How far do you want to move away from the Chinese civilisation myth? What is the attitude towards the marginalised indigenous people? What contribution can they make to a Taiwanese identity? The name „Taiwan“ (adopted by the indigenous people) or „Formosa“ (adopted by the Portuguese) lend themselves to being used as state names because of their non-Chinese origin and are therefore popular.

Depending on the behaviour of the People’s Republic, the new Taiwanese nationalism can be fuelled or inhibited.


Importance of Taiwan for China, Japan, USA and Southeast Asia


China’s position: Despite de facto independence, Taiwan remains part of the Chinese nation with future integration options such as Hong Kong and Macau. De jure independence can provoke separatist tendencies in its own provinces. Geostrategically, Taiwan is indispensable as an outpost and flank defence in the Japanese and Southeast Asian region. A pro-Western and pro-Japanese Taiwan represents a considerable security risk – similar to Cuba-USA. Economically, Taiwan is very important for Beijing.

Japan’s position: some territorial claims still exist. Taiwan is currently a buffer to the mainland and an ally. Economically more of a competitor.

Position of the USA: Like Cuba, Taiwan represents an ideal bridgehead against the mainland. Economically more of a competitor.

Position Southeast Asia: The Southeast Asian states, with their many ethnicities, cultures and religions, are deeply divided, but are very sceptical about the rising China. Taiwan currently acts as a buffer, which it is hoped to maintain.




A military confrontation with the People’s Republic or even a Ukraine-style invasion remain extremely unlikely, despite or precisely because of Xi’s martial demeanour. An old Chinese stratagem warns: „If you are weak, feign strength“ (and vice versa). We say: „Dogs that bark don’t bite“ – or rather: dogs that can’t bite because the risk is too great should at least bark loudly and fiercely. When assessing the situation, we should take into account Taiwan’s powerful, well-equipped army with high mobilisation potential[15]. This military is no match for the People’s Republic, but can still cause massive damage to the fragile People’s Republic. In
addition, the two opponents are strongly intertwined economically. A military conflict is more likely to escalate through a war between Beijing and Washington, i.e. Taiwan can be drawn in via the USA (as a bridgehead) or intervene itself if Beijing is weakened. Taiwan’s importance for the global economy cannot be overestimated: The island produces by far the largest and highest quality quantity of semiconductors and has a global presence through companies. The island has two other things in common with the People’s Republic: it lacks resources, which is why its dependence on energy and food imports jeopardises its existence. Secondly, the sharp drop in the birth rate with increasing ageing. The socio-economic upheavals seen on the mainland have not yet materialised. The conflict also testifies to the East Asian peculiarity of attaching the utmost importance to forms, concepts and rituals and always having to save face. Ultimately, nothing is eaten there as hot as it is cooked. In Europe, the USA and Arabia, on the other hand, food is often eaten hotter than it was previously cooked.


[1] Only a few completely insignificant states, but also the symbolic Vatican, still stand by Taiwan as the exclusive representative of China as a whole.
[2] After Adenauer’s chancellorship, this doctrine was increasingly watered down and abandoned with Brandt’s chancellorship.
[3] Even Vietnamese were and are occasionally counted among the Han.
[4] The Qing concept is still a favourite among some nationalists, especially in Taiwan and overseas.
[5] These principles, which are still mistranslated and misinterpreted in German, have the same sacred character in the People’s Republic and other Chinese-influenced regions as Atatürk’s six principles for the Turkish world.
[6] Sun’s first and most important principle is often translated as „nationalism“. Rather, it is a demand for „uniting the multi-ethnic population into one consciousness“.
[7] In terms of the history of ideas, it is nevertheless a left-wing variant with some traditional elements, since a) the narrow nationalism is opposed to the idea of empire, b) the religious element is missing and c) imperialism is indispensable for Confucianism.
[8] The notorious „World Anti-Communist League“ was founded by Chiang Kai-shek and based in Taiwan, whose members included Latin American death squads, Nazi collaborators and neo-fascists.
[9] These are 16 recognised small Austronesian language peoples of varying sizes who were outside of society until the 1980s.
[10] For example, Hoklo with 70% and Hakka with 14%, but again these are only collective names. A considerable proportion probably have Austronesian ancestors.
[11] So-called „Waishengren“ (14%): non-communist refugees from the mainland.
[12] The Waishengren dominated politics, administration, the military, culture and the economy. Until 1990, the regional origin was noted in Taiwanese passports alongside the place of birth, which is why the Waishengren were identifiable even after decades of flight. The harsh language policy, which aimed to make Standard Chinese (a standardised Mandarin) the official language and, if possible, also the colloquial language, proved to be particularly bitter, while 86% of the population cultivated their own languages.
[13] It is worth remembering the syncretic religious mass movement Falun Gong and the evangelical Christians who are spreading, especially in the south, who appear politically neutral but have become a refuge for anti-system circles. Piquantly, both phenomena are very popular among Communist Party members, as they were initially encouraged by the regime. In China’s history, rebellious movements were mostly religiously based.
[14] Just as in South Korea and Japan, the USA is not seen as a friend (as in the narrative of the FRG), but as a necessary evil and increasingly also as a burden. The Western decadence surrounding „Tittymania“ in particular is perceived as a threat in Taipei, Tokyo and Seoul.
[15] With the exception of Taiwan’s left-wing nationalist communists, all parties would be
united in the anti-Chinese defence struggle.