The origins of the ROC date from the Chinese Revolution of 1911 that destroyed the Qing Dynasty. Two years later, military leader Yuan Shikai became president of the ROC after outmaneuvering Sun Yixian (Sun Yat-sen), China's most vocal advocate of republicanism. Rising opposition to his dictatorial rule, especially after he had himself named emperor, continued until his sudden death in 1916. During the Warlord Era that followed, local military leaders waged constant warfare with private armies to build regional political power. In 1918, Sun reorganized his Guomindang (GMD, Nationalist) party at Shanghai and supported protests against the Versailles Treaty during the May Fourth Movement of 1919. He proclaimed reestablishment of the ROC in 1921 at Guangzhou, based on his Three People's Principles of nationalism, democracy, and livelihood. He also formed a political alliance with the CCP and requested military and economic help and advice from the Soviet Union.
Chaos and instability motivated Sun to create a military academy to train officers, appointing Jiang Jieshi as its head. After Sun died in 1925, Jiang became leader of the GMD. In July 1926, he launched the Northern Expedition that reunited China when Nationalist forces marched into Beijing two years later. Not only had Jiang vanquished the warlords, but he had eliminated or undermined the communists after he broke with them in May 1927. In October 1928, following Sun's plan, the GMD adopted a provisional constitution for the ROC as the basis for governing China during a period of tutelage that was to last for six years. With its seat of government at Nanjing, the ROC introduced monetary reform to modernize China's financial system and promote modern industrial development. The Western powers recognized the ROC, granting tariff autonomy and revoking many foreign concessions. But the GMD neglected land reform and rent reduction that would have helped the vast majority of the populace escape impoverishment and oppression. Under the leadership of Mao Zedong, the CCP built support among the disaffected peasants.
In September 1931, Japan began its aggression against China by taking over all Manchuria and transforming it into a puppet state. Instead of defending China, Jiang concentrated on destroying the CCP, launching major assaults against the communists and forcing the CCP to flee to Yan'an in Shaanxi Province. His capture at Xi'an late in 1936 forced Jiang to join a united front against Japan as the price of his release. In July 1937, Japan opened an offensive against Chinese forces that brought it control over much of the coast and major cities, compelling the ROC to relocate westward to the remote Chongqing. After World War II began in Europe in 1939, the GMD government fought as a partner in the Grand Alliance in World War II. Japan installed Wang Jingwei as president of the ROC at Nanjing, while its troops carried out a repressive campaign against the civilian population.
For the ROC, the war was a disaster. Continual fighting destroyed its best troops and bankrupted the government. Spiraling inflation devastated the urban middle class, eroding the GMD base of popular support. Still, Jiang represented China at the Cairo Conference in 1943, where he met with U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. In 1945, the Soviet Union signed a Treaty of Friendship and Alliance with the ROC rather than the CCP, although CCP forces controlled large portions of the country.
The civil war between the GMD and the CCP resumed following Japan's defeat in August 1945. U.S. Ambassador Patrick J. Hurley blamed his failure to arrange a cease-fire and coalition government on treasonous American diplomats in China who wanted a CCP victory. Against the backdrop of the emerging Cold War in Europe, General George C. Marshall's attempt at mediation in 1946 failed as well, creating anxiety for Americans over the prospect of a communist China. Then in 1947, corrupt and incompetent officers further demoralized already-discouraged GMD troops, resulting in a string of communist military victories and causing the United States to reduce assistance to the ROC. Jiang's forces fled to the island of Taiwan after Mao proclaimed the establishment in October 1949 of the People's Republic of China (PRC).
The ROC insisted that it was still the legitimate government of China, but the PRC considered Taiwan a renegade province. Britain, the Soviet Union, and many East European countries recognized the PRC immediately, while India favored seating the PRC in the United Nations (UN). The United States delayed recognition because domestic political critics blamed President Harry S. Truman's administration for allowing the loss of China to the Soviet bloc. But the United States was realistic in accepting as inevitable that the PRC would destroy Jiang's regime.
Taiwan, located one hundred miles off the southeastern coast of China, became a Chinese province in 1885. Ten years later, the treaty that ended the Sino-Japanese War made it part of the Japanese Empire. Following Japan's defeat in World War II, China regained title to Taiwan in accordance with the Cairo and Potsdam Declarations. Celebrating liberation from colonialism, the Taiwanese initially welcomed officials that the ROC sent from Mainland China. But the GMD government treated the island as almost a conquered territory, exploiting its people and resources. Rising friction between the ruling mainland minority and the native majority led to the systematic killing of thousands of Taiwanese leaders in February 1947. Two million Nationalist soldiers and civilians arrived on Taiwan in 1949 and soon depended on government stipends. Jiang Jingguo, Jiang Jieshi's son and chief of the provincial GMD, ruthlessly crushed political opposition and then imposed a rule more harsh, dictatorial, and exploitive than that of the Japanese. The official myth that the ROC was the legal government of China justified a political structure with a national party and government for all China and a separate provincial party and government for Taiwan. Mainlanders dominated this national government at the capital in Taibei, but Taiwanese held most offices in local government.
Cold War security concerns in Asia caused U.S. military leaders to conclude early in 1950 that the United States must prevent communist China from seizing Taiwan. In June, the outbreak of the Korean War confirmed this emerging commitment when President Truman deployed the U.S. Seventh Fleet in the Taiwan Strait. After the PRC sent troops to Korea, the United States signed a military agreement in 1951 with the ROC, and the 1954 U.S.-China Mutual Defense Treaty provided the GMD government with $2.5 billion in military aid and $1.5 billion in economic aid from 1950 to 1965. In 1954, the PRC began shelling islands that the ROC held just off China's southeastern coast, prompting the U.S. Congress to pass a resolution empowering the president to defend Taiwan and "related positions and territories." Four years later, the Second Taiwan Strait Crisis intensified the Cold War in East Asia and caused the United States to strengthen its defense of Taiwan. U.S. opposition, however, did not stop most nations—except for Japan, the Republic of Korea (ROK, South Korea), and a few others—from recognizing Beijing rather than Taibei. By contrast, the United States was able to secure enough votes at the UN to allow the ROC to retain its seat as China's representative.
Cold War tensions kept alive Jiang's dream of returning to the mainland but could not prevent change on Taiwan undermining his authority. Taiwanese entered the GMD bureaucracy and gained election to the provincial assembly, but the National Assembly remained composed of legislators elected in Nanjing in 1948. As these aging representatives passed away, replacements were made by appointment, ensuring that the assembly would not oppose the GMD dictatorship and its assertion of authority through various security forces. But economic development and increasing social stability encouraged greater freedom. In 1969, elections filled vacancies in the assembly, and a few Taiwanese won seats. Jiang Jingguo, who became ROC president in 1978, opened the political process further. In 1986, parties other than the GMD were able to run candidates. Forty years of martial law ended in 1987, as did the ban on ROC citizens traveling to the mainland. When the now widely admired Jiang Jingguo died in 1988, Vice President Li Denghui became the first ROC president born on Taiwan, promising more political reform and restored power on the mainland.
Economic growth on Taiwan and failure in Vietnam resulted in the United States ending aid to the ROC in 1968 and reducing its Cold War commitments in East Asia. When President Richard Nixon sought normalized relations with the PRC to gain leverage against the Soviet Union, the ROC was expelled from the World Bank in 1970 and from the UN in 1971. Nixon's visit to the PRC in February 1972, along with issuance of the Sino-U.S. Shanghai Communiqué that declared Taiwan a part of China, sent relations between the United States and the ROC on a downward slide. In 1979, U.S. recognition of the PRC led to abrogation of U.S.-ROC defense treaties and the withdrawal of U.S. military personnel. In April, continuing bipartisan support for the ROC in the U.S. Congress forced President Jimmy Carter to sign the Taiwan Relations Act, which sought to repair estrangement and build a new relationship based on wider economic ties. But Washington placed increasing importance thereafter on improving its relations with Beijing, advocating steps toward China's peaceful reunification. During the 1980s, the ROC, despite apparent U.S. indifference, improved its international standing as a fledgling democracy with one of the most industrialized and productive economies in the world.
In 1989, the Cold War ended without confirming the status of the ROC as the legal government of China because communist rule on the mainland continued. Moreover, the PRC still claimed sovereignty over Taiwan, although after the death of Mao in 1976 Beijing changed its policy from seeking liberation of the island to calling for voluntary reunification. Within the framework of one China, Taiwan would have autonomy and the right to maintain its own government, military forces, and economic system. The ROC rejected the offer and remained committed to regaining power on the mainland. Meanwhile, unofficial trade between Taiwan and the PRC through Hong Kong grew steadily. Taibei's acceptance of expanded contact with the mainland reflected confidence that its progress toward democratization and socioeconomic opportunity as well as broader material comfort and a thriving cultural life on Taiwan had won the loyalty and support of its citizens. The GMD hoped that the Taiwanese would convey to mainland relatives a belief in the superiority of the ROC's system. But these same factors caused other politicians to argue for declaring Taiwan's status as an independent nation, a course of action that Beijing warned it would prevent with a resort to force. During the 1990s, the ROC was at the center of what had become China's Cold War.
James I. Matray
Clough, Ralph N. Cooperation or Conflict in the Taiwan Strait? Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1999.; Fairbank, John K., and Edwin O. Reischauer. China: Tradition and Transformation. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1989.; Garver, John W. The Sino-American Alliance: Nationalist China and American Cold War Strategy in Asia. Armonk, NY: Sharpe, 1997.; Rubinstein, Murray A., ed. Taiwan: A New History. New York: Sharpe, 1999.; Tucker, Nancy Bernkopf. Taiwan, Hong Kong, and the United States, 1945–1992: Uncertain Friendships. New York: Twayne, 1994.