What is Happening in Taiwan?

Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou is meeting Xi Jinping, the President of China, in Singapore on Saturday. Although Taiwan and China have very close economic ties, with Taiwanese capitalists investing massively in mainland China, and many unofficial meetings taking place, as well as many lucrative contracts being signed, this will be the first ever meeting between leaders of the two countries, a historic meeting indeed.


maThe truth is that ties between the two countries improved after President Ma took office in 2008. Ma Ying-jeou belongs to the Kuomintang (KMT) and was its chairman until last year. It is ironic that present day China has better relations with the leaders of the Kuomintang than with any of the opposition parties in Taiwan. The Kuomintang is the party of Chang Kai-shek, who fled mainland China when Mao came to power.

The fact is that today’s Kuomintang is in favor of closer relations with mainland China, now that capitalism has been reestablished there. However, the KMT suffered a crushing defeat in last year’s local elections, which was seen as an expression of opposition to closer ties among the wider electorate.

The chair of the Democratic Progressive Party, Tsai Ing-wen, is the party’s presidential candidate in 2016, and is now leading in the opinion polls. She has expressed concerns at the meeting between Ma and Xi, saying it is harmful to Taiwanese democracy. Tsai represents the more pro-independence wing of the Taiwanese ruling class, and this is what concerns the Chinese president.

China still claims sovereignty over Taiwan and does not recognize it as a separate state, but one that will one day be reabsorbed. They go to great lengths to avoid referring to each other as two separate and distinct states, even though they are de facto two different countries. On Saturday the two leaders will refer to each other simply as Mr. Xi and Mr. Ma, and will not use any official titles.

This is all so much pretense, because the capitalists of both countries do very good business with each other. But that is where the problems now lie. Taiwan’s economy has been showing signs of slowing down throughout 2015, due to falling demand worldwide, and in particular in mainland China.

In these conditions we have seen a growing strike wave in China over the recent period and also massive protest movements in Taiwan. The two leaders have a lot in common indeed: slowing economies, and a process of radicalization among the workers and youth in both countries.

In the light of these events we are publishing an article by a Taiwanese Marxist who provides us with an overview of developments in Taiwan. (Introduction by Fred Weston)

Taiwan is one of the most advanced countries in the world, yet most people don’t know much about it. With a population of 23.37 million people (more than twice that of Greece), Taiwan holds the 26th largest nominal GDP in the world, 5th largest in foreign exchange reserves, 17th largest in exports, and funds 10% of the entire government budget of Haiti annually. Put in a regional perspective, Taiwan holds the second largest purchasing power per capita in East Asia, holding its own against countries like Japan and South Korea.

Taiwan has also produced some of the most powerful capitalists in the world, such as the chairman of Foxconn (manufacturer of all Apple products), Acer, Asus, Evergreen Group, and over 50 billionaires, as measured in USD. At the same time, we also see some of the most advanced political activities in recent years, a highlight being the 2014 Sunflower Movement—the month-long student occupation of the Legislative Yuan (analogous to Congress) against a hastily passed free trade agreement with China. This culminated in a demonstration on March 30, 2014, which saw 500,000—5% of the entire national population—take to the streets of Taipei. Indeed, this had revolutionary connotations. Had demonstrators refused to withdraw peacefully at nightfall, very likely March 30—the date later known as “330”—could have led to the development of a revolutionary situation.

So, how come this pivotal country in Asia and the world is so frequently ignored by the world media, or simply treated as being a part of China? Marxists need to understand Taiwan in order to understand Asia and, indeed at times, the world.

A brief history

Taiwan in ChinaTaiwan, a Pacific island to the east of China, south of Japan, and north of the Philippines, was first settled by Austronesian aborigines more than 8,000 years ago. These indigenous people later developed rich and diverse cultures that were extremely similar to that of the American Native peoples, and practiced primitive communism. Today they constitute one percent of the national population.

Around the 17th century, the ethnic Han (the dominant ethnic group in China), particularly from the southern part of China, began to migrate to the island en masse. One has to keep in mind that at this time, the concept of China as a nation-state did not exist, nor had the Mandarin Chinese language been standardized, both emerging only in the 1900s. Han migrants, mostly speaking Hokkian or Hakka dialects and practicing their local customs, began to colonize the island through the coastal islets of Penghu, and eventually displaced the aboriginal population in a violent manner not unlike the way the American colonialists treated the indigenous populations in the Americas.

While there were numerous settlers from China, the Ming Dynasty, at the time of the first settlement of Taiwan, paid virtually no attention to the settlers (other than fortifying Penghu Island between the coast of Taiwan and China), allowing society to develop with little constraints. At the same time, European explorers began to seek trade routes with East Asia. As legend has it, a Portuguese merchant exclaimed “Formosa!” (Beautiful island!) while sailing by Taiwan, giving the island its first Western name, one that remains in use by some today. The Dutch and Spanish Empires both briefly attempted to colonize the island, but the Spanish lost to the Dutch, and the Dutch were later expelled by a rebel military leader fleeing from China at the time when the Qing Dynasty overthrew the Ming Dynasty.

At this point, early forms of cosmopolitanism took shape in Taiwan, with urban centers around the island incorporating an interflow of Southern Han, European, and Aboriginal cultures, unlike China, which was mostly unengaged by foreigners at this point in time. Later, the Qing Dynasty defeated the rebel forces and fully incorporated Taiwan into its dominion for over two centuries. However, local Taiwanese culture continued to develop towards a distinct cosmopolitan direction unlike that of China, and even produced a Canadian folk hero named George Leslie Mackay, who brought advanced Western medicine into Taiwan during his Presbyterian missionary activities.

In 1885, the Qing Dynasty lost the First Sino-Japanese War to the young, powerful, and rising Japanese Empire, fueled by its indigenously developed capitalism. The Qing Dynasty ceded Taiwan to Japan, beginning its five-decade-long tenure under Japanese colonialism. The Japanese imposed brutal oppression; however, they also invested and brought industrialization and modernization to Taiwan. This led to the creation of the first layer of Taiwanese petty bourgeois, alongside landlords and local gentry, as social elites subordinated to the Japanese. Japan also began a “Japanization” program aimed at the Han and Aboriginal population, seeking to assimilate the people of Taiwan into Japanese culture. This intensified towards the end of World War II. As a result, during the Japanese colonial period, the lingua franca among the Taiwanese elite was Japanese, while the most spoken language was a version of Hokkian increasingly influenced by Japanese, now commonly known as Taiwanese.

On the eve of Japan’s surrender to the Allies in 1945, the US Navy ferried troops of the Republic of China—then still under the control of Chinese bourgeois dictator Chiang Kai-shek—as part of Chiang’s endeavors to take Taiwan back from Japan. The Nationalist KMT troops, disgusted by the Japanese-speaking Taiwanese, quickly instituted a slew of draconian cultural, political, and economic policies according to the new standard of “Chinese” that was created by the KMT. This quickly antagonized the Taiwanese, bourgeois and proletariat alike, and soon erupted in an island-wide rebellion against the KMT. The spark for the rebellion came when a KMT agent brutally assaulted a Taiwanese woman in the streets of Taipei for selling untaxed cigarettes. Chiang responded to the rebellion by sending troops from China to Taiwan, and ordering them to fire indiscriminately in the urban centers until KMT control was restored. This tragic day is now known as the “February 28th Incident” in Taiwan, and is at the root of the widespread feeling that Taiwan should be an independent country free of anyone’s control, be it China or Japan.

In 1949, Chiang and the KMT were overthrown by Mao Zedong’s advancing People’s Liberation Army. Chiang fled and moved his government to Taiwan, bringing with him a huge influx of new migrants fleeing the Chinese Communist Party, which included rich urban bourgeois, military personnel, Chinese petty bourgeois, and bureaucrats. This new layer of migrants came to constitute the sub-ethnic group now commonly referred to as “Waishengren,” or “people from out of the province,” that is, those born in mainland China and their descendants. At present, “waishengren” constitute 10% of the Taiwanese population.

Defeated and humiliated, Chiang managed to avoid total defeat by Mao, surviving as a regime on Taiwan, due to American intervention and the eruption of the Korean War. Chiang instituted the White Terror and martial law, against the faintest suspicion of Communist activities on the island, which lasted for 38 years, placing Taiwan under the single-party rule of the KMT—at the time, the longest period of martial law in the world.

At the same time, Chiang also enacted a series of party restructurings that incorporated local Taiwanese bourgeois into its fold, and formed “unions” directly under KMT control. Against this background, and compounded by the overwhelming influence of Maoism over Left movements in Asia, the conditions for the development of genuine Marxism within Taiwan at that time were not at all easy.

In the decades that followed, as the working class and local petty bourgeois developed and began to fight for their rights, and with pressure from American imperialism demanding the KMT government gradually move Taiwan away from Bonapartist methods of rule, a series of democratic reforms were introduced in an attempt to hold back the mass movements.

In the early stages, in the 1950s and 1960s, Taiwan received huge amounts of aid from the United States. In the decade 1952–61, its economy grew at the rate of 9% each year, shifting it from a mainly agriculturally based economy to an urbanized industrial economy. And later it shifted again, from cheap labor-intensive production to a more sophisticated production, including such sectors as electronics, etc. The reason for massive US aid and investment in Taiwan was to establish it as a bulwark—together with other countries in the region such as Singapore and South Korea—against “Communist China.”

The country experienced another boom in the late 1970’s and most of the 1980’s. This massive development of capitalism also gave rise to a modern industrial working class, and an educated layer of professionals who started to move into opposition to the KMT for a myriad of reasons, but were opposed mostly to its authoritarianism. This produced a layer of activists who later began to host street rallies, publish newsletters, and organize other anti-KMT political activities under a call for a democratic system, as well as forming an active overseas diaspora supporting democratization.

However, while these people valiantly risked personal safety for their ideals and justice, a labor-centered perspective among them remained very limited. This led to the formation of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), an anti-KMT, pro-Taiwanese Independence mass party in 1985, in defiance of martial law.

Under internal and international pressure, including the “Wild Lily Movement” student occupation of Memorial Plaza in Taipei in 1990, involving 20,000 students, the KMT government was forced to lift martial law and allow multiparty elections. This snowballed into Taiwan’s first real presidential election by popular vote in 1994. Although the KMT’s candidate, Lee Teng-hui, triumphed in this inaugural election, he proceeded to introduce democratic reforms and affirmed Taiwan’s status as an independent country, also considered the “spiritual leader” of the pro-independence Taiwan Solidarity Union (TSU)—although he was never a member—all of which led to his later expulsion from the KMT. He now remains an important bourgeois opinion leader in Taiwanese politics.

Current status

Since 1994, a slew of reforms under Lee Teng-hui has liberalized Taiwan democratically and economically, including legalizing the freedom to unionize. The DPP also swiftly grew in size to become the second largest party and the main opposition to the KMT. The KMT has been transformed from a Bonapartist party controlled by the upper strata of the party into a general bourgeois party, while the DPP consists of mostly liberal petty bourgeois. However, labor is almost completely devoid of a voice in either party.

The DPP produced its first President in 2000, Chen Shui-bian, the first time the KMT failed to win the position. He is remembered as being vocally suspicious of China while actively pursuant of Taiwan’s international recognition as a country, rather than being a part of China or considered as being within the framework of the KMT’s “Republic of China.” His two-term presidency was plagued by a rise of right-wing Taiwanese nationalism and economic decline, and also corruption scandals that involved him directly, although he did attempt to reverse many of the KMT’s draconian cultural policies.

The KMT retook political power through popular vote by way of Ma Ying-jeou, who, during his election in 2008, was considered to be a major hope for the KMT for his clean, non-corrupt image and pro-business, pro-China stance. Nevertheless, while Ma did enact much more open policies towards China, the economy did not improve significantly, while China began to gain larger access to Taiwan’s market, and his presidency later came to be marked by a suspicion of a resurgence of KMT authoritarianism.

At one point, Ma’s approval rating was down to 9.2%, and popular discontent towards him erupted in March 2014, when the KMT attempted to fast-track a highly controversial free trade agreement with China through extra-legal measures. This infuriated the population, and within hours of the passage of the bill, over 200 university students broke into the parliament building and barricaded themselves inside, demanding a reexamination of the bill through proper procedure. The next day, the actions of the students exploded into a nationwide political movement against President Ma and the KMT, which lasted for over a month with many demonstrations against the bill. The government eventually relented under tremendous pressure.

What is lacking in all these debates with regards to the worsening economy, the increasing income inequality, and the rocketing youth unemployment is the understanding that this is part of an organic crisis of global capitalism—and Taiwan, being an integral part of the system, cannot escape it. In the span of sixteen years we saw two wings emerging within the Taiwanese elite on the question of trade policies vis-à-vis China, one suspicious and guarding, the other welcoming and embracing. Yet, both of these strategies failed to stop the economy from stagnating, while the Chinese bourgeois control over Taiwanese media and real estate markets has increased.

Taiwan’s electoral cycle is precariously in sync with that of the US. It will also have a presidential and parliamentary election in 2016. Thus far, the DPP candidate Tsai Ing-wen is considered hopeful for Taiwan by much of the population, due to the collapse of the KMT’s credibility. However, the DPP is still under the strong influence of the big bourgeoisie, who have considerable business interests in China. Amidst all these parties, a major voice for labor is still yet to be seen.

The national question

Unlike most countries in the world, whose politics usually face the choice of Right or Left, Taiwan’s major political focus has always been on the national question: whether Taiwan is a part of China or not.

Objectively, the state governing Taiwan—known as the Republic of China (ROC)—is, to all intents and purposes, a de facto independent state. It has its own political system, currency, standing military, diplomatic relations, and all other traits of a sovereign country. However, its constitution still lays claims over the entire country of China and Mongolia, and the titular capital city remains the Chinese city of Nanjing (Chiang’s capital when the KMT controlled China). At the same time, as a result of the expulsion of the ROC from the United Nations and its replacement by the People’s Republic of China under US sponsorship in 1971, all but 21 UN member states do not recognize Taiwan as a sovereign nation to this day. Those that recognize the People’s Republic of China as the only China in existence (known as the “One China” policy), consider Taiwan as being a part of this version of China. By contrast, the People’s Republic of China, that is, mainland China, still maintains a public agenda of retaking Taiwan and establishing a unified political system across all its territorial claims.

However, the reality on the ground is that after over more than a century of de facto separation and separate development, the Taiwanese mostly do not consider themselves to be the same as the people of China. Moreover, the Taiwanese population is also repulsed by the state capitalist dictatorship of China (developed out of the Maoist deformed workers’ state) in contrast to the bourgeois democracy that they have fought for and won. A poll conducted in 2014 shows that only 8.9% of the Taiwanese population wish to be incorporated into the PRC, while 54.7% calls for an immediate declaration of independence, and the rest wish to maintain the status quo.

This creates a complicated yet interesting national question puzzle for Marxists. On the one hand, Taiwan’s crisis-ridden capitalism needs to be overthrown and replaced with a healthy workers’ state. On the other, we should oppose the imperialist aspirations of the openly capitalist dictatorship of China over Taiwan and its attempts to further oppress Taiwan’s working class. Here, examining Lenin’s debate with Rosa Luxemburg on the question of self-determination might be useful to seek a correct stance.

Lenin and Luxemburg disagreed on the issue of the self-determination of smaller states in Europe. Luxemburg believed that, in the name of internationalism, the smaller states should automatically be incorporated into larger entities such as Germany, France, or other continental powers. Lenin, on the other side, understood that this question needs to be treated more delicately, and thus argued for supporting the right of self-determination for people who are clearly fighting the oppressors, while not supporting the bourgeois who use nationalism to defend their own interests. Lenin based his argument on the fact that there is a natural alignment of the goals of the oppressed nationalities and the goals of the oppressed proletariats, and that only through a complete respect of the grievances of the oppressed nationalities can we establish a solid foundation of a workers’ state after a successful socialist revolution.

If we examine the situation in Taiwan today, we can see that China’s attempt to reabsorb it has largely been overtly through the power of capital, such as the free trade agreement in the service sectors that the CCP and the KMT have signed, and which was resisted during the Sunflower Movement. Most Taiwanese now clearly recognize that China is not a communist country, and the working class understands the implication of China’s economic invasion of Taiwan. This is evident in the explosive surge of Leftism within the narrative of the Taiwanese independence movement starting from 2014, which even produced a self-proclaimed pro-independence Leninist party with a sizeable initial membership. This is not unlike the kind of Left nationalism we see in the Venezuelan revolution. Although students lead most of these movements, there have been considerable attempts to defend labor rights and link up to union organizations (though to no avail), and one of the primary leaders of the Sunflower Student Movement, Chen Wei-ting, actually has a long history of labor rights activism.

All these phenomena sharply contrast with earlier forms of Taiwanese nationalism, under which nationalist theories of so-called “pure blood Taiwanese” went hand in hand with “anti-Waishengren” chauvinism. Such nationalism played up the ethnic and sub-ethnic tensions which exist within Taiwan between those descended from the “native Taiwanese” who were the Han descendants of those who have had a presence in Taiwan for hundreds of years, and the “waishengren” descendants of those who came over from the mainland after 1949. But the current form of Taiwanese nationalism is anticapitalist, class conscious, inclusive, and enjoys widespread appeal among young and old. All this points towards a position that, as a Marxist tendency, we should support the right of Taiwanese self-determination in unequivocal terms.

At the same time, Taiwan’s sovereignty and statehood issue is also a product of the follies of the nation-state, which is a product of capitalism. Here we have a sizeable country with formidable economic power and all the traits of a country, only to be denied being treated as a one due to external imperialist interests from China and the US. The only way for Taiwan to achieve a robust form of self-determination resilient to imperialist influence would be through a true socialist revolution that would shatter and deny the logic of global capitalism, and that could establish links to workers all over the world, including China, in order to defend its own interests as a people.

There have been “internationalist” arguments made primarily by Maoist-Stalinists who believe that any form of Taiwanese self-determination sentiment is detrimental to internationalism. However, if you press these “theorists” further, you find that they usually confine their analysis within the context of China, and neglect the importance of incorporating Japan, Korea, Russia, and so on into the fold under the banner of internationalism. Moreover, this kind of Sino-centric internationalism willingly neglects the interests of the Taiwanese working class in the name of creating a broader sphere of whatever kind of “socialism” they are trying to create. Such kind of logic is found only within Stalinism, and should not have anything to do with a correct Marxist program. In fact, Lenin staunchly opposed Stalin’s brutal neglect of Georgia’s wish to be an SSR within the Soviet Union, and Lenin exhibited an understanding and practical attitude in theorizing a resolution of the national question through internationalism: the oppressed nationalities must be respected by the former oppressor nationalities.

Recently, well-known Taiwanese Maoist academic Zhao Gang published a damning polemic against Taiwanese independence filled with a dishonest recounting of a week-long occupation of Taiwan’s Ministry of Education by high school students which took place in early August. Zhao claimed that the occupation was implicitly anticommunist in nature and that the occupation site, as with the Sunflower Movement occupation before it, was filled with banners of anticommunist slogans. Apart from the fact that this was blatantly a lie, all evidence was that the political drift of recent social movements in Taiwan is generally towards the left, with a number of the high school student leaders of the occupation openly professing that their independence stance is from a politically Left perspective: the position of so-called “Left Independence.”

But even then, Zhao had to admit that he is perplexed by how the cause of Taiwanese independence can garner so much support. Here, we can see a typical, limited, Stalinist analytical framework: one that permanently fails to understand social changes on the basis of economic and class contradictions, one that dogmatically distinguishes Chinese imperialism as more benevolent than others, simply because it is Chinese.

If a rhetorical point may be made here, it is this: the people of Taiwan simply want to be free from oppression. We simply wish to be true masters of our own destiny, an all too reasonable desire shared by the working class everywhere. While the logic of capitalism repeatedly tries to convince the global working class to accept that the world is permanently divided between winners and losers, Marxism rebuts such propaganda in the most scientific, concrete manner. We, as Marxists, should always remember that our idea is one that liberates all, and should never sacrifice the welfare of one group of proletarians for the aim of winning over another.

A fertile soil for Marxism

Under decades of extreme bourgeois Bonapartist martial law akin to Francoism (Franco and Chiang reportedly saw each other as kindred spirits), and the shadow of Maoism across East Asia, a true Marxist perspective had a difficult time finding its way into Taiwan until the 1990s. Anticommunism was shoved down people’s throats for many years; but on the other hand, a general suspicion of the KMT also allows room for an interest in genuine Marxism in present day Taiwan.

We have a dialectical development here; generally the Taiwanese Left youth now has a sympathetic attitude towards Marxism that is devoid of Stalinism or Maoism, having fully recognized that contemporary China is far from being a real socialist country, and that its attempt to subjugate Taiwan is through the power of capital. There have been encouraging signs; in statements, one of the mass organizations that opposed the Ma administration’s attempt to join the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), China’s attempt to create an IMF analogue under its auspices rather than America’s, uses much of Marx’s concepts correctly, such as capitalism’s overproduction, and the organic crisis of capitalism. On the other hand, as in most of the world, the general public’s fear of communism has been replaced by ambivalence, or at least a lack of awareness of it.

A looking glass into China

While Taiwan is decidedly not a part of China, we can view the Chinese state’s handling of Taiwan as a projection of the aspirations of the People’s Republic of China to play a bigger role within the region, both economically and militarily.

The modern concept of “China” had always been a vague understanding, and later the nation-building project on the part of the bourgeois-democratic Sun Yat-sen determined that an engineering of Chinese nationalism should be prioritized over resolution of the class struggle. This naturally gave way to his successor, Chiang Kai-shek, who was right wing to the core, and took only the nationalism and nothing else from Sun’s ideas. Ironically, the same concept was also adopted by Mao, who used mostly nationalist rhetoric against the Japanese imperialist invasion of China during WWII, as well as during his subsequent struggle against the KMT. As a result, Mao’s twisted version of “Marxism-Leninism” also had its priorities largely subordinate to Chinese nationalism, which leads to the conclusion that Taiwan, as a Han-dominated territory, must be conquered and incorporated into China’s fold.

At the same time, this ideology of Chinese nationalism in Mao led to a series of disastrous policies towards the ethnic minorities. Mao chose to subordinate all ethnic groups within China under the logic of Chinese nationalism, and thus created the conditions for the emergence of pro-capitalist tendencies within the Tibetan people—which now has friends in Hollywood—as well as within a small group of Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang who resort to terrorism to this day.

Many of the problems that capitalist China faces right now could have been easily resolved by the implementation of Marxist policies, including a class analysis of ethnic conflicts, the establishment of a true workers’ democratic state, and so on. Instead, the Chinese government is increasingly assertive with its nationalist rhetoric and territorial claims, attempting to promote domestic militarism against foreign countries in the region, particularly Japan. Under these circumstances, advances towards Taiwan have always been an attempt to justify their growing nationalist aspirations.


Based on a Marxist analysis of the national question in Taiwan, the IMT expresses sympathy for the young mass Left Independence movements in Taiwan, who are making efforts to connect with the working class. The IMT defends the right to self-determination of the Taiwanese people, and we are opposed to any form of so-called “internationalism” that subordinates one nation to another.

At the same time, the most important task is to explain to the workers of Taiwan that they need class independence, that neither the KMT nor the DPP can offer them a way out, and that only they themselves can transform society by forming a mass party of labor. The national question should obviously be addressed with clarity, but an equally firm stance to support the working class of China should also be asserted.

When this happens, and such a Taiwanese workers’ party becomes victorious and forms a socialist government, it will serve as a resounding rallying call for the workers of Asia and the world, including China, to fight against their real oppressor: capitalism. Only then will the people of Taiwan achieve what they’ve wanted all along: freedom from the oppression of others, and being the masters of their own fate.

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