Ties That Do Not Bind: The Myth of Taiwan-China Civilizational Unity
Image Credits: Fang Yiyang
Abstract: Common public perception is that for a long part of history, Taiwan had been fully integrated into China and Chinese civilization, and their separation for the last seven decades (and the half-century of Japanese colonial rule) is a mere aberration to an otherwise long and peaceful civilizational unity. This view is historically inaccurate, and a more accurate understanding of Taiwan’s historical relationship to the Mainland would unravel the distracting and distortive romanticization of Taiwan and China’s civilizational unity, allowing us to more properly understand the Taiwan issue through a modern geopolitical lens.
Territorial disputes, of all geopolitical disputes, tend to most strongly evoke the past. There are, of course, the usual arguments about who has the stronger historical claim — who found it first, who held it longer, whose people populated it, which treaties are valid, and so on. But in the case of Taiwan, there appears to be, at times, a more romantic but erroneous narrative that presents reunification as a culturally attractive and almost inevitable development driven by the gravity of Chinese civilization.
In a September 2023 speech at the Asia-Pacific Forward Forum held in Taipei, Singapore’s former Foreign Minister George Yeo remarked that “Chinese civilization is bound together… in the everyday beliefs of Chinese communities, not just on both sides of the Taiwan Strait but throughout the world… the ideal of a universal Chinese family is deeply ingrained even though they have their internal divisions.” His point was that, given the deep cultural — indeed, civilizational — similarities tying together both sides of the Strait, in addition to their close economic ties and the infeasibility of independence, Taiwan should move “towards gradual convergence with Mainland China”. Optimistically, it could first take the form of some kind of “Chinese Commonwealth”, leading in the very long term towards reunification as one Chinese nation.
The cornerstone of this mode of thought, it seems, is a rosy view that Taiwan and Mainland China’s civilizational unity would exert a timeless gravity transcending the short-term political contingencies of the past few decades, and pull the two territories towards reunification. Earlier in May the same year, Mr Yeo likewise remarked in a speech to the EUI School of Transnational Governance that “the great majority of Taiwan’s people are self-consciously Chinese in a cultural sense even though many do not want to be citizens of the PRC.” Without external involvement, peaceful reunification will eventually occur.
It is not my intent here to argue against specific details made by Mr Yeo, but rather, the general mode of thought demonstrated by his comments, which I believe are representative of the intellectual habits of many thinkers who are sanguine towards China. It is a way of thinking that is not only inaccurate and unhelpful, but also, wittingly or not, conveniently works in the favour of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), by augmenting its political goal of reunification with the narrative of an irresistible historical and civilizational force of attraction.
Namely, it is the view that Taiwan — both the territory and its people — has historically long been an integral part of China and Chinese civilization. Or as a 1993 PRC White Paper put it, “Taiwan has belonged to China since ancient times”, and the separation of the island from the Mainland for the last seven decades (and the half-century of Japanese colonial rule prior to that) is a mere aberration to an otherwise long and peaceful civilizational unity.  This aberration, presumably, should have been corrected with the end of the Second World War, where the Allies agreed to return Taiwan to China in the 1943 Cairo Declaration. Naturally, the continued separation of Taiwan from the Mainland would be, in this view, another aberration impeding the return of Taiwan to its historical place as part of China. This is a narrative that the PRC has been extraordinarily successful in promoting. 
In Beijing’s account, the separation of Taiwan from the Mainland resembles the separation of East and West Germany and North and South Korea — “three ancient countries that were artificially divided by the Cold War at the end of [World War II]”.  But just as Germany reunified, so would China and Taiwan. As one scholar puts it, this narrative of “Chinese continuity” appeals to “being part of a great Chinese culture and a Chinese super power”, by propagating the myth that “Taiwan is eternally Chinese, culturally and politically”.  Taiwan’s separation from the Mainland is, in this view, artificial and unnatural, and in the absence of political intervention, the sprawling grasp of Chinese civilization ought to pull the island back to where it belongs.
However, this civilizational lens fails for two reasons. Internally, it is plagued by historical inaccuracies; externally, this civilizational lens simply does not provide a helpful framework of looking at the Taiwan issue as a geopolitical issue in a world of modern nation-states. Changes in political and civic identity since the 1980s, but particularly in the past few years amidst growing authoritarianism in China, strongly indicates that a growing number of people in Taiwan predominantly identify as Taiwanese rather than Chinese. This latter point does seem rather obvious; for this reason I will discuss it only towards the end of this paper.
What I wish to focus on first is how the civilizational view is internally propped up by an incomplete and misleading understanding of Taiwan’s history, which has a much weaker historical connection to the Mainland than widely believed. Even those sceptical of the explanatory power of the civilizational lens may not be aware that territorially, Taiwan was only under direct (and disinterested) Chinese rule relatively late in Chinese history and for only a brief period of time. Culturally, the brief but intense experience of Japanese colonial rule has also forged a distinct Taiwanese cultural identity and historical memory. As some commentators have explained, “[o]ne of the challenges facing Taiwan externally is the ability to tell its story right”. Some unlearning is required for a public used to the PRC narrative.  What follows below is a brief chronological account of Chinese “rule” over Taiwan, which would expose the idea that Taiwan has long been an integral part of China as a myth.
Taiwan first came under direct Chinese rule only during the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911), the last of the Chinese imperial dynasties. Prior to the Qing, Taiwan was partially colonised by various European countries. In 1661, in a move parallel to the KMT’s in 1949, Ming loyalists fleeing the new Qing government on the Mainland fled to Taiwan island, before finally being defeated by the Qing in 1683.  The Qing then formally integrated Taiwan island into the Mainland for the first time in Chinese history, governing it as a prefecture of Fujian Province (Taiwan would become its own province only in 1887). 
Qing rule, however, was limited and disinterested. It did little to develop the island and had effective control over only its western half, and never succeeded in reaching beyond the mountainous centre of the island to its eastern coast.  This disinterest was clearly displayed in what is now known as the Mudan Incident, where a few dozen shipwrecked Ryukyuan sailors were murdered in 1871 by indigenous people in southeastern Taiwan. When in 1872 Japan demanded compensation from the Qing government for their murder, the Qing replied that its administration did not stretch to that part of the island and thus could not be held responsible.  Evidently, Taiwan was never an integral part of Imperial China, as its integration to the Mainland came late and was treated with a disinterested and semi-detached attitude — an attitude that persisted until the peak of the Second World War.
In 1895, Taiwan was ceded to Japan under the Treaty of Shimonoseki after the Qing’s defeat to the modernised Meiji forces. Taiwan would remain under Japanese rule until the end of the Second World War. During this half-century, however, neither the Qing court nor the reformists nor the revolutionaries, including Sun Yat-sen, demanded the return of Taiwan from Japan. As the British journalist Bill Hayton puts it in The Invention of China, “The Qing court, the revolutionaries and the reformists all took the same view: Taiwan had been ceded by treaty and lost to China… the island virtually disappeared from political discussions in the decade before the revolution of 1911/12”.  Their indifference, of course, was probably partly for pragmatic reasons — Western imperialism and domestic unrest were bigger preoccupations, and Chinese revolutionaries relied on the sponsorship of the Japanese. But even after the revolution, Sun and his supporters continued to ignore the fate of Taiwan.  Up to the 1920s and 1930s, Chinese textbooks all ignored Taiwan, and the proper shape of the Republic was seen as the shape of the Qing when it collapsed.  Put simply, there was no compelling effort to regain Taiwan at all during this period.
Even when war broke out with Japan again in 1937, Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek did not lay claim to Taiwan, and neither did the CCP (which was then allied with the KMT against Japan). Instead, both parties were supportive of Taiwanese independence from Japan.  In fact, as early as 1928, the CCP had recognised Taiwan as a separate nationality, and reaffirmed this in 1938 amidst the war.  In the same year, Chiang declared support for Taiwanese and Korean independence, but like the CCP did not see the need for Taiwan’s reincorporation into the Mainland. 
What changed was the pragmatics of military strategy. The US’ entry into the war in December 1941 made a Japanese defeat imaginable, prompting Chiang — and subsequently the CCP — to extend Chinese claims to territories occupied by the Japanese prior to the war and to renounce the Treaty of Shimonoseki.  But this much delayed shift clearly shows Taiwan was never originally a preoccupation of the KMT and CCP — both were quite ready to concede that it was a territory long lost to the Japanese, and to live permanently with a Chinese republic without the island. Taiwan, after all, was just a blip in a much longer Chinese history; it was a territory that was acquired by accident and maintained with minimal interest. The actions of both the KMT and the CCP up till the peak of World War II reflected the fact that Taiwan was not widely seen as an integral part of Chinese civilization.
One legalistic argument those favouring reunification tend to advance is that during the war, the Allies agreed on returning Taiwan (among other territories) to China (then the ROC led by Chiang Kai-shek). In the 1943 Cairo Declaration, Taiwan, alongside other territories “stolen [by the Japanese] from the Chinese”, was to be restored to China; this was reiterated in the 1945 Potsdam Declaration. The Cairo Declaration remains a convenient milestone for those in favour of reunification — it shows that in the agreed-on postwar order, Taiwan was supposed to be part of China once again, and not a separate entity on its own.
However, the Cairo Declaration was a mere political declaration with no binding force under international law. Only an international treaty can settle specific territorial disputes; the Cairo and Potsdam Declarations were mere statements of intent. Similarly, Japan’s Instrument of Surrender (which accepted the Cairo Declaration) does not count as a treaty. What is legally binding is the 1951 Treaty of San Francisco that settled Japan’s postwar losses. By 1951, the separate governments in Beijing and Taipei had already been set up; the terms of the treaty therefore merely stipulated that Japan would renounce sovereignty over Taiwan without stipulating to whom sovereignty would be transferred to.
In more concrete, rational-legal terms, therefore, the historical claim of Taiwan being rightfully and lawfully returned to China in the postwar settlement is again a selective interpretation of history. It presents a neatly packaged narrative of how the historical aberration of separation — which we have seen is already an erroneous view — is rectified by the Cairo Declaration. The actual history of Taiwan, however, points to something much more bland and muddled. Nothing in the history we have seen indicates that Taiwan shares a deep historical unity with China. If anything, it has historically been more outside than within Chinese civilization, and it is the few years of integration into China that should be considered a historical aberration.
The civilizational narrative thus fails by its own standards — the narrative it conjures is more a political mirage than historical reality. Unfortunately, this myth appears to be widely believed in and propagated to promote the necessity and desirability of reunification. Indeed, the term “reunification” might even be putting the case too strongly — Taiwan spent just slightly over 200 years loosely attached to Qing China, and in the 128 years since 1895 has only re-integrated to the Mainland for about a handful of years between the end of World War II and 1949, a reintegration that was intended only at the last minute. The “re-” in “reunification” plays a very weak and highly misleading role.  No doubt, the Taiwan issue is one of the most significant and dangerous territorial disputes today, but without the civilizational overtones, reunification no longer appears compelling, and the separation of Taiwan from the Mainland loses its sense of historical rupture.
Earlier I pointed to a second way to object to the civilizational view — that quite apart from its internal errors, the civilizational perspective is simply a poor framework to understand the Taiwan issue (and geopolitical conflicts today more generally). No doubt, strong ethnic ties, cultural similarities and a common heritage do exist and can matter in geopolitics, but their strength should not be overstated. Up to now I have focused on the history of Taiwan as a territory, and shown that its historical connection to the Mainland is severely limited. But culturally, its inhabitants are, indeed, predominantly Han Chinese, and their Chinese heritage, presumably, would draw them back into the “family” of the Mainland eventually — a view that Mr Yeo, for instance, seems to favour. For this reason, the civilizational perspective might still appear plausible. But this once again overstates the strength of civilizational and cultural factors as a framework to understand the Taiwan issue. In the modern world of nation-states, national identity is shaped less by primordial ties than by civic factors and a common historical memory. I shall show that in both areas, the growth of a distinct Taiwanese identity has left little room for co-existence with Chinese national identity.
About 95% of Taiwan’s population today are Han Chinese, whose origins can be traced to two waves of arrival: the waishengren (外省人) who arrived in 1949 with the KMT, and the benshengren (本省人) who trace their ancestry to the Qing era. During the authoritarian phase of KMT rule, the benshengren, making up about 80% of the population, were unsurprisingly favoured for political and administrative positions while the waishengren were marginalised. Unlike the benshengren, the waishengren had lived through Japanese rule, and many grew up not speaking Chinese owing to the de-Sinicization policies of the Japanese; as a result they had to go through a re-Sinicization policy under the KMT.
The early opposition movement against the KMT — which spawned what is today the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) — were largely led by benshengren, whose grievances against the KMT were two-fold: firstly, its heavy-handed authoritarianism; secondly, its treatment of benshengren as second-class citizens.  The former corresponded with calls for democratisation, the latter with Taiwanisation — “identification with Taiwan, consciousness of Taiwan, and even a Taiwan nationalism”.  Of course, not all who promoted a Taiwanisation also supported democracy (and vice versa), but broadly the movement opposed the KMT on these two grounds. From an opposition movement, Taiwanisation soon became national policy under President Lee Teng-hui (1988–2000) — Taiwan’s first benshengren President — and developed in parallel with democratisation.
That the democratisation movement was successful is beyond doubt; what may be less recognised is that the process of Taiwanisation has also greatly re-shaped national consciousness on the island, for both benshengren and waishengren alike (the distinction between the two, of course, being increasingly blurred over time owing to reconciliation and cross-marriages). Taiwanisation involved incorporating the historical memory of the benshengren, in addition to the immense pride in Taiwan’s successful and peaceful democratic transition.  This pride has only strengthened in recent years in reaction to the PRC’s growing authoritarianism, above all its crackdown on pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, whose “one country, two systems” framework was originally formulated by Deng Xiaoping to apply to Taiwan. The 2014 Sunflower Movement in Taiwan — which unfolded in parallel with the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong — had “Today’s Hong Kong, Tomorrow’s Taiwan” as one of its slogans.  Two newspapers compared the PRC’s crackdown on the protest to Taiwan’s 228 massacre (a 1947 crackdown by the KMT that led to 18 to 28 thousand deaths).  Likewise, in the Presidential elections that occurred shortly after the 2019–20 Hong Kong protests, the DPP’s Tsai Ing-wen — originally trailing the more Beijing-friendly KMT — won a landslide victory thanks to her more pro-independence platform. This reflects a rise of civic nationalism where being a democracy is internalised into national identity, and consequently also becomes a way to distinguish Taiwan from the PRC.
Increasingly, being Taiwanese also means being not Chinese.  Surveys conducted by the Election Study Center of National Chengchi University have shown that the number of people identifying as “Taiwanese” has increased while the number identifying as “Chinese” or “both Chinese and Taiwanese” have decreased. In 1992, the figures were 45.4% for “Both Taiwanese and Chinese”, 26.2% for “Chinese”, and 17.3% for “Taiwanese” (along with an 11% non-response). In 2003, the response for “Both” stayed constant, but “Chinese” identity fell to 9.9% and “Taiwanese” shot up to 41.5% (no-response rate was 4.9%). Today, “Chinese” identity yields just 2.5%, compared to 62.8% for “Taiwanese” and 30.5% for “Both”. As long as “Chinese” identity evokes the Mainland, there appears to be pitifully little room today for coexistence with Taiwanese national identity.
The idea that civilizational commonality would eventually pull the peoples on the two sides of the Taiwan Strait together, therefore, once again glosses over the historical development of Taiwan. This is an error which, I suspect, stems from overstating the strength of culture and heritage, and underestimating the explanatory power of civic and political identity in the modern world of nation-states. The strength of Taiwanisation and civic national identity, both rather recent phenomena, are underestimated in this framework, but it is these factors that weigh heavier on Taiwan’s political trajectory. Statehood is a product of modernity, and it does not work well with the logic of civilizations. Civilizations are sprawling, absorbing and not entirely tangible, while states operate on hard borders and a unique national identity based on common historical memory, experiences and values. Explanations for national identity are therefore more compatible with present-day identifications than civilizational forces that stretch distantly into the past. Speaking the Chinese language and sharing some common traditions and heritage may indeed create some degree of cultural affinity, but it would be a mistake to amplify their influence on national identity.
For this reason, we should not expect that a common Chinese identity would tend Taiwan and China towards reunification; in fact, we should anticipate the opposite — the trend is towards a stronger and more distinct Taiwanese identity, while ethnic identity is pushed into the private, cultural sphere. With younger generations born after Taiwan’s democratisation and Taiwanisation, we could only expect this trend to continue, at least as long as the PRC’s current political arrangement endures. Indeed, one need only look at how Hong Kong, which despite having been politically re-absorbed into the Mainland, has only drifted further from it in national identity. Taiwan, whose political trajectory has allowed it to move more actively away from the Mainland, would surely drift away even further.
As of the time of writing, Taiwan is entering into hotly-contested national elections where the results would both be heavily influenced by and influence the issue of (re)unification and cross-strait relations. A win for the DPP would indicate continued, or even greater, assertion of Taiwanese identity and autonomy. However, the DPP is aware that there is little public appetite for moving towards independence (which would provoke the CCP), and could thus be expected to act more prudently. Similarly, the KMT appears aware that voters favour the status quo of preserving a distinct Taiwanese national identity without declaring independence; it may thus seek only closer economic, but not political, ties with Beijing. Such a moderation of the KMT’s position would indicate that the rejection of (re)unification is motivated by a genuine sense of a separate national identity, while the avoidance of independence is motivated merely by prudence.
China, no doubt, inherits one of the world’s oldest and most significant civilizations. But we should resist the temptation of examining China and Taiwan today through a civilizational narrative that attractively paints reunification as a natural and legitimate development. It is a narrative that distorts Taiwan’s more open-ended historical relationship with the Mainland, and distracts us from developing a more accurate and helpful understanding of the Taiwan issue. Political narratives are common, and most common when it comes to territorial disputes — but the most effective (and hence dangerous) ones are those which are widely and unquestioningly assumed as true. The myth that Taiwan has historically been an integral part of China, and thus needs to be restored, has been surprisingly resilient, to the PRC’s advantage and Taiwan’s detriment. A more accurate understanding of history allows us to resist this framing of history in one of the world’s most important geopolitical issues.
Jacobs, J. Bruce. ‘Whither Taiwanisation? The Colonization, Democratization and Taiwanisation of Taiwan’. Japanese Journal of Political Science 14, no. 4 (December 2013): 567–86. https://doi.org/10.1017/S1468109913000273.
Kaeding, Malte Philipp. ‘Identity Formation in Taiwan and Hong Kong: How Much Difference, How Many Similarities?’ In Taiwanese Identity in the 21st Century: Domestic, Regional and Global Perspectives, edited by Jens Damm and Gunter Schubert, 258–79. New York: Routledge, 2011.
Neo, Chai Chin. ‘Taiwan Votes 2024: The Best and Worst Case Scenarios for the Island’s Foreign Policy and Cross-Strait Ties’. CNA, 1 January 2024. https://www.channelnewsasia.com/asia/taiwan-election-2024-presidential-candidates-cross-strait-foreign-policy-best-worst-case-scenarios-4015011.
Wong, Wai Kwok Benson. ‘The Ties That Bind: Mutuality of Political Destiny between Hong Kong and Taiwan’. Asian Education and Development Studies 8, no. 2 (8 April 2019): 137–48. https://doi.org/10.1108/AEDS-07-2018-0117.
 FANG Yiyang. Third Year Undergraduate, Department of Political Science and NUS College, National University of Singapore (NUS). The author would like to thank Dr. Alexandre Gandil and Mr. Quentin Couvreur, whose courses on Taiwan at Sciences Po Paris (Le Havre campus) were invaluable in developing the interest in and depth of knowledge on this topic. All views and errors, of course, are my own, and should not be taken as a reflection of my former tutors’ opinions and quality of teaching.
 Quoted in J. Bruce Jacobs, ‘Whither Taiwanisation? The Colonization, Democratization and Taiwanisation of Taiwan’, Japanese Journal of Political Science 14, no. 4 (December 2013): 568, https://doi.org/10.1017/S1468109913000273.
 Ibid, 59.
 Ibid, 58–59.
 Ibid, 57.
 Ibid, 12–13.
 Ibid, 13–15.
 Ibid, 189.
 Ibid, 199.
 Ibid, 207.
 Ibid, 207–8.
 Ibid, 207.
 Ibid, 208–9
 Indeed, the Election Study Center at National Chengchi University uses “Unification” instead of “Reunification” in its public surveys.
 Malte Philipp Kaeding, ‘Identity Formation in Taiwan and Hong Kong: How Much Difference, How Many Similarities?’, in Taiwanese Identity in the 21st Century: Domestic, Regional and Global Perspectives, ed. Jens Damm and Gunter Schubert (New York: Routledge, 2011), 270–71.
 Wai Kwok Benson Wong, ‘The Ties That Bind: Mutuality of Political Destiny between Hong Kong and Taiwan’, Asian Education and Development Studies 8, no. 2 (8 April 2019): 137–48, https://doi.org/10.1108/AEDS-07-2018-0117; The Sunflower Movement broke out in protest of the KMT developing closer economic ties with the PRC; the fate of Hong Kong was thus particularly poignant in this context — the protesters feared that closer economic relations with the Mainland would lead Taiwan gradually down the road of Hong Kong.
 Ibid, 141–142.
 Jacobs, ‘Whither Taiwanisation?’, 576.