Taiwan: A Simple Historical Timeline (1945 – present)


1945 - 1970:

Although many Taiwanese were initially happy to get rid of the Japanese at the end of World War II, they soon discovered that the Kuomintang (KMT) party newcomers from China were both corrupt and repressive. This included the arbitrary seizing of private property, economic mismanagement, and the exclusion of Taiwanese from political participation. On February 28, 1947, a small incident lead to large-scale demonstrations, variously called the “2-28 Incident” and the “2-28 Massacre.” This led to the arrest and execution of many leading Taiwanese political figures, as well as students, lawyers, doctors and intellectuals. Scholars estimate that up to 28,000 people were killed.

During what is called the "White Terror" that followed, tens of thousands more Taiwanese were arrested, imprisoned, tortured and murdered by the KMT's secret police, the notorious Taiwan Garrison Command (TGC). In addition to rooting out suspected Communists, its primary responsibility was to suppress activities viewed as promoting Taiwanese democracy and independence. The TGC was finally disbanded in 1992.

On December 9, 1949, Chiang Kai-shek lost the war against the Communists on the mainland. He fled to Taiwan, followed by more than two million Nationalist troops, their families and other refugees. On one hand, Taiwan was poised to absorb the essence of mainland Chinese culture, a starting point for rejuvenation. But subsequent political rule brought both oppression and brutality.

Establishing the Nationalist government in Taiwan posed a major diplomatic problem for the United States. The members of the U.S.-based “China Lobby” who were fiercely anti-communist and strong supporters of Chiang Kai-shek, demanded that the American government recognize the Chinese Nationalist government in Taiwan. This event marked the beginning of the “Two Chinas” scenario that left mainland China under communist control and has vexed American diplomacy until the present time. For the next four decades, the people of Taiwan lived under Martial Law, declared in 1949 by Taiwan’s new Governor, Ch’en Ch’eng. At the same time, the KMT, supported by the United States, attempted to maintain the illusion that they ruled all of China, and would someday "recover" the Chinese mainland.

The mainlanders who came to Taiwan with Chiang Kai-shek constituted only 15 percent of the population of the island, but were able to maintain themselves in a position of power over the 85 percent of native-born Taiwanese. This included tight control of the political system, the police, the military, the educational system and the media, where censorship was common.
On June 25, 1950, North Korea invaded the South. The Chinese military originally planned to invade Taiwan that year, but U.S. President Harry Truman decided to send the Seventh Fleet to the Taiwan Strait to protect Taiwan from the Communists. The Chinese military decided to help the North Korean army instead.

The San Francisco Peace Treaty was signed on September 8, 1951 by Japan and the Allied powers, which officially ended World War II. The treaty was important for the Nationalist government, because it declared that Japan give up sovereignty over Taiwan. However, the treaty did not clearly determine who was to be the beneficiary. As with other international treaties affecting Taiwan, native-born Taiwanese were not involved in any of the San Francisco negotiations.
From 1952 to the 1970s and beyond, Taiwan experienced an economic revival often referred to as the “Taiwan Miracle.” This was due in part to the hard work of the Taiwanese people and Japanese infrastructure, much of which was still in place after the Pacific War. It also was the result of economic reforms initiated by the Nationalist government. These included universal elementary education, agrarian reform, support for light industry and small and medium-sized enterprises, privatization of many government-owned companies, and major construction projects, including highways and airports. Taiwan also enjoyed favorable trade agreements and financial support from the U.S.A. The United States Taiwan Defense Command (USTDC) had an active military presence in Taiwan from 1955 to 1979, and maintained warplanes, missiles and ships at numerous military bases throughout Taiwan. At its peak, more than 19,000 American troops were stationed in Taiwan during 1958.


Yet when it came to diplomacy, drastic changes were taking place. On October 25, 1971 the United Nations General Assembly decided to expel “the representatives of Chiang Kai-shek” from the United Nations and all related organizations. The People’s Republic of China took the seat of the Republic of China (Taiwan). This was due largely to Chiang Kai-shek’s insistence that the R.O.C. remain the sole legal representative of the whole of China. Since China became part of the UN Security Council, it can veto any attempt by Taiwan to rejoin the UN under any circumstances.

At about the same time, U.S. policymakers, hoping to establish economic relations with the People’s Republic of China and use it as a balance against Soviet power, moved toward a closer relationship with China. During the groundbreaking visit of President Richard M. Nixon to China in 1972, the Shanghai Communiqué pledged that it was in the interest of all nations for the United States and China to work towards the normalization of relations, although this would not occur until seven years later. In the communiqué the U.S. "acknowledged" the Chinese position that there is but one China, and that Taiwan is part of China. They also declared that “We have not agreed to take a position regarding the sovereignty of Taiwan.” This “strategic ambiguity” has been the cornerstone of American diplomacy since that time. In 1979, the United States government officially recognized the People’s Republic of China and severed diplomatic relations with the Republic of China (Taiwan). These decisions were done without any involvement or representation of the people of Taiwan.

1980s - 1990s:

Chiang-Kai-shek continued to rule the R.O.C. until his death in 1975. He was followed by his son, Chiang Ching-kuo (1910 - 1988) who remained in power until his death at the age of 77. The younger Chiang had previously served in several important capacities, including supervising construction of Taiwan’s modern highway system, as director of Taiwan’s secret police (1950 – 1965), as Minister of Defense (1965 – 1969) and as Premier (1972 – 1978).

Chiang Ching-kuo, 1985.

Photo credit: National Assembly (Republic of China).

During the final years of his rule, Chiang Ching-kuo realized that in order to survive, Taiwan would need to become a democracy. He ended Martial Law in 1987, and also arranged for his Vice-President, the Taiwan-born statesman and economist Lee Teng-hui (1923 - 2020) to follow him in office. Like Chiang Kai-shek and Chiang Ching-kuo before him, Lee was indirectly elected by the National Assembly, made up of KMT members appointed by the Party. During the 1990s its parliamentary powers were gradually transferred to the Legislative Yuan and the right to vote directly in presidential elections was given to the Taiwanese people. The National Assembly was disbanded in 2005. In 1996, Lee Teng-hui, as candidate of the KMT, became the first President of Taiwan to be elected by direct popular vote, earning him the nickname “The Father of Democracy.”


Taiwan’s transition to democracy was followed by the election of Chen Shui-bian and Annette Lu (Taiwan’s first female Vice-President) in 2000. Chen and liu were candidates of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which favors Taiwan independence. Chen and Liu were reelected in 2004, and were succeeded by KMT candidate Ma Ying-jeou in 2008, who also served two terms. Ma was followed by Tsai Ing-wen of the DPP, who holds advanced degrees from Cornell University and the University of London. She was elected in 2016 and reelected in 2020. She is the first woman to be elected President of Taiwan and the first to have indigenous Taiwanese ancestry.

President Tsai Ing-wen at the Central Epidemic Command Center.
Taipei, April 2, 2020.

Photo credit: Office of the President.



 Notes (Timelines 1 and 2)

The Beautiful Island – An Exhibition of Old Taiwanese Maps and Life (Taipei: National Museum of History, 1992).
Mitter, Rana. Modern China: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).
Chou, Wan-yao. An Illustrated History of Taiwan (Taipei: SMC Publishing Inc., 2010).
“Chinese Nationalists move capital to Taiwan,” https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/chinese-nationalists-move-capital-to-taiwan. Accessed August 22, 2021
“This Day in History: The Chinese Nationalists Withdraw to Taiwan (1949),” (historycollection.com)
Nationalist Party | Definition, History, Taiwan, Ideology, & Facts. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Nationalist-Party-Chinese-political-party
“Cutting the Enemy Lifeline,” The Army Air Forces in World War II, www.ibiblio.org
"Taiwanese favor closer tioes with Japan than any other country." https://focustaiwan.tw/politics/202203180015
New Taiwan, Ilha Formosa: The Website for Taiwan's History, Present, and Future (taiwandc.org)
San Francisco Peace Treaty (1951) - Formosan Association for Public Affairs (fapa.org)
“Economic history of Taiwan,”- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Economic_history_of_Taiwan
General Assembly – 26th Session. https://www.un.org/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=A/RES/2758(XXVI)
“Taiwan’s UN Dilemma: To Be or Not To Be,” https://www.brookings.edu/opinions/taiwans-un-dilemma-to-be-or-not-to-be/
“The Korean War and the fate of Taiwan.” Taipei Times, June 30, 2010. (www.taipeitimes.com).



© 2022 by Nathaniel Altman