Social and Political Situation in Taiwan

Taiwan is an island of 36,000 lying on the tropic of cancer, 180 km. off the coast of Mainland China on the western edge of the Pacific Ocean, south of Japan and north of the Philippines. It has a population of about 23 million largely made up of descendants of immigrants from various provinces in China as well as about 500,000 indigenous people from 16 different tribes, the original inhabitants of Taiwan.

Taiwan was briefly occupied by the Dutch from 1622 to 1662  though it was Portuguese sailors who earlier gave it the name Formosa meaning "beautiful Island". The Spanish also had toeholds in the ports of Keelung and Danshui during this time as well. It was in this period that the first wave of Han Chinese settlers arrived in Taiwan. In 1644 the Qing Dynasty was established in China and the vanquished Ming loyalists withdrew to Taiwan in 1662 where they expelled the Dutch and began the systematic sinification of the island: Han Chinese peasants are encouraged to settle in Taiwan, agriculture and the administrative system are developed following Chinese patterns. Then in 1683 the Ming loyalists surrendered to the Qing Dynasty and Taiwan first became part of the Fujian Province, then two years later, a province in its own right.

In 1895, following its defeat in the Korean war, China ceded Taiwan and Penghu Islands to the Japanese. An attempt by the then Chinese ex-Governor to proclaim the Democratic Republic of Taiwan and thereby get help from Western governments did not succeed. Taiwan became a Japanese colony, almost completely isolated from China for the next fifty years. During the final years attempts at full Japanization of the Han Chinese population were attempted. In 1945 Taiwan and Penghu were restored to the Republic of China at the Cairo Conference.

On 28th February 1947, in what is now known as the 2.28 Incident, began the supression of a popular protest and uprising against repressive and corrupt rule of Govenor Chen Yi, where an estimated 10,000 to 30,000 Taiwanese were killed or vanished during "The White Terror". This episode was erased from history for the next 40 years and any reference to it was taboo, but it left a deep and painful scar on the national psyche.

From 1949 to 1986 Taiwan was a one party state ruled by the "Kuomindang" (KMT), the National People's Party under a state of emergency. In 1948/49 more than two million refugees arrive from China and Taiwan becomes the last retreat of the KMT's Republic of China. In 1986 the opposition Democratic Progressive Party was founded and tolerated by the KMT. In 1991 the National Assemble is re-elected for the first time since 1948. In 1996 Taiwan held its first direct presidential election. A native Taiwanese, Lee Teng-hui, was elected and then began a period of reform with increased democratization and Taiwanization. Restrictions on use of Taiwanese (Minnan) in broadcast media and schools were lifted.

Taiwan today is a very free, open and democratic society but it bears the imprint of the four periods of influence; Sinisization, Japanization, KMTization and Taiwanization. The latter two account for much of the bitter animosity and symbolic attitude that precludes rational political debate. Taiwan society also lives in the shadow of Chinese threats. Although travel and commerce with China are much freer than before, both sides of the Taiwan Strait continue to aim real and metaphorical missiles at each other. China is extremely sensitive to the slightest hint or suggestion of Taiwanese independence. For example, any attempt by Taiwan to take part in international meetings or competitions under the name Taiwan meets with resolute Chinese opposition. Only the name "Chinese Taipei" is allowed by China. 

The most common religion in Taiwan is folk religion which is a mixture of shamanism, ancestor worship, magic, ghosts and spirits, and aspects of animism. There is a large element of overlap with an individual's belief in Buddhism and Taoism. The official statistics record Buddhists at 35%, Taoists at 33%, Yiguandao at 3.5%, Protestants at 2.6, Catholics at 1.3% , Tiandi at 1.3% and Miledadao at 1.1%. Comparing temples and churches, the Buddhists have 4,000, the Taoists have 18,000, the Protestants 3,600 and the Catholics 1,150.

The Dominicans first came to Taiwan with the Spanish from 1626 to 1642. Eight Franciscians arrived in 1633 but their sights were on China and not on Taiwan. A number of churches were built and possibly up to 3,000 natives were baptized. However, the mission collapsed when the Spanish withdrew from Taiwan. The Dominicans made two further attempts to stay in Taiwan and finally succeeded in 1859 when they established a base is the south of Taiwan after much effort and hostility. After 36 years only 1,300 people had converted to Christianity. When Japan colonized Taiwan in 1895, the Christians were caught in the crossfire between the Japanese and the Resistance. They suffered two waves of persecution. As the Japanses estabished their rule, the Catholic mission experiences several decades of peace and slow expansion.

Then in 1949 a big influx of people came from Mainland China, among them missionaries expelled from China. With more than one thousand priests, many more religious sisters and well supported financially, they could train and pay lay catechist and so the Church grew in numbers to more than 300,000 in 1965, when the island has only 5 million people. Most of the newly baptized were either Mainlanders or aborigines. The Taiwanese Catholics are mostly descendants of the old pre-1950 Catholics. Following the sudden increase, the situation reverse as many who were baptized in haste slowly left the Church, so the number of catholics has not grown since then, and some say it is clearly decreasing.

The Catholic Church according to the official statistics has less than 300,000 members, or about 1.3 % of the population. In rough numbers one third are Aborigines, one third Taiwanese and one third Mainlanders. The Taiwanese majority of the island is clearly under represented in the Catholic Church. In Taiwan the Church is not so well organized, with its resources scattered between several small dioceses. In the cities some parishes are active and attract new people, but in the countryside the Church is dying out. There are also very few local vocations, so the Church is relying mostly on foreign missionaries. The Church has many institutions – schools, kindergartens, hospitals, activity centers – that are a blessing, but also a burden that is difficult to carry by the new generations of missionaries.