Following the KMT defeat by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) on the mainland in 1949 and faced with instability on the island on which he had to reestablish his base, KMT leader Chiang Kai-shek (Jiang Jieshi, 1888–1975) and his party reformed their regime politically and established a “socialist-minded state control” over heavy industry. Mainland refugees took over most aspects of governance, the economy, and the education system. The “loss of China” in 1949 and the onset of the Korean War (1950–53) against communist-run North Korea and its Chinese ally impelled the United States to help the Republic of China on Taiwan to become a bulwark against communism. The U.S. 7th Fleet was assigned to patrol the Taiwan Strait to prevent an invasion of Taiwan. The United States provided economic and military aid, and in 1954 a mutual security treaty was signed with the Republic of China as part of Washington’s Cold War policy of containment of the Beijing regime. But military aid was limited to what Taiwan needed to defend itself against the People’s Republic of China and not to support Chiang Kai-shek’s dream of “returning to the mainland.” [Source: Library of Congress *]

The government established on Taiwan in 1949 had national and provincial levels. The national level, with elected and appointed officials brought from the mainland, represented itself as the Republic of China in international forums and ostensibly prepared for a return to rule over all of the mainland. At the onset, the KMT controlled Taiwan, small offshore islands belonging to Fujian and Zhejiang provinces on the mainland, and Hainan Island, south of Guangdong Province. Although they lost control of Hainan and Zhejiang’s Chou-shan Islands in 1950 and Zhejiang’s Ta-chen Island in 1955, the islands appertaining to Fujian—Kinmen (Chin-men, Jinmen, or Quemoy) and Matsu (Ma-tzu)—were still under the control of the Republic of China in 2005. *

According to Lonely Planet: “At the time of the KMT arrival, the Taiwanese had been heavily indoctrinated by the Japanese and spoke little Mandarin. They were also accustomed to a higher standard of living than the mainland Chinese and felt an ingrained superiority towards the poorer and less well-educated immigrants, especially soldiers who often came from humble backgrounds. The KMT issued laws requiring all Taiwanese to speak Mandarin, in an attempt to ‘resinicise’ the population. The Taiwanese resented the heavy handedness of the KMT, and there were various outbreaks of rebellion and clashes with military police.”

Kuomintang Flees to Taiwan

As the Communists advanced across China, large numbers of Chinese fled to Taiwan. In 1949 the Chinese communist defeated the nationalist army of Chiang Kai-shek who then fled to Taiwan with two millon refugees, most of them businessmen, soldiers and people with ties to the Kuomintang government, and most of China's gold reserves and its greatest art treasures.

Chiang set up a government in exile in Taipei and hoped one day to regroup his forces and reclaim the mainland as MacArthur reclaimed the Philippines. One Taiwanese man told National Geographic, "The old leaders here were outsiders. To them, Taiwan was a hotel. They reckoned they were going back to the mainland so they spent huge sums on the armed forces and next to nothing on roads, rails, and harbors." [Source: Arthur Zich, National Geographic, November 1993]

According to Lonely Planet: Chiang Kai-shek was followed by a steady stream of soldiers, monks, artists, peasants and intellectuals. One of the first things Chiang did when he arrived in Taiwan was to send Chen Yi back to the mainland (he was later executed). By 1949, the ROC consisted of Taiwan, Penghu, and a number of islands off the Chinese coast including Matsu and Kinmen. These straits islands were quickly set up as military zones, both to rebuff any mainland attack and to set up a base of operations from which Chiang vowed he would use to retake the Chinese mainland. [Source: Lonely Planet ++]

Chinese Attacks on Taiwan in the 1950s

China put military pressure on Taiwan in 1949-50, 1954-55 and 1958. The Korean War may have been what saved Taiwan from a communist invasion. The Chinese were mounting an assault on Kinmen (Quemoy) when North Korea crossed over the 38th parallel into South Korea in 1950. In 1954, after the Korean War ended, the Communists seized the small, distant Tachen islands and Taiwan and the United States signed a mutual defense treaty.

The United States was caught asleep at the wheel by the events in Korea. U.S. President Harry Truman was preoccupied with the threats by the Soviets in Europe and plans by Communist China to launch an invasion of Taiwan. Believing the invasion of South Korean was part of a a large scale Communist attack, Truman ordered the 7th Fleet into the Taiwan Strait to block of Chinese invasion of Taiwan.

Kinmen island lies just 2,100 meters off the coast of China at its nearest point. This hilly island is composed mostly of granite. In 1958, Kinmen and Matsu islands were bombarded for 44 days by the mainland Chinese from Fujian, setting off an international incident. During the peak of the bombardment 57,000 rounds fell in one two-hour period. Spent shells were so abundant that local people fashioned them into knives, pots and axes. Describing what happened during a bombing in 1958, Kinmen Island resident Chang Kinshyr said, "One day after dinner, a bomb dropped into our kitchen and exploded on the burner, and the next morning we had no breakfast! We are used to shelling." About 2,500 Kuomintang soldiers died and around 200 communist troops were killed. The battles is seen by historians as a decisive victory for the Kuomintang that prevented Mao’s forces from overrunning the island.

Guningtou Battlefield on Kinmen was the scene of the 56-hour bloodbath that began when Communist troops landed on the shore and ended in victory for the Nationalist forces. The battle left 439 Taiwanese soldiers dead or missing, with 1,870 others injured.

The Taipei Times reported: The conflict, known internationally as the Battle of the Taiwan Strait, began on Aug. 23, 1958, when China began heavily bombarding Kinmen. The Chinese military fired more than 30,000 shells in the first 85 minutes alone. The Chinese military did not suspend the bombardment until Oct. 6, when the intensive action had continued for 44 days. On Oct. 20, however, China resumed shelling. This second phase of shelling ran through Oct. 25, when Beijing announced it would shift to the strategy of bombing Kinmen on odd-numbered days and resting on even-numbered days. When the battle finally came to an end on Jan. 7, 1959, the Chinese troops had fired approximately 480,000 shells, but still failed to pound Kinmen into submission. [Source: Taipei Times, August 23, 2009]

Chiang Kai Shek in Taiwan

Chiang Kai-shek ruled Taiwan from 1945 until his death in April, 1975. For decades, he held out hope that he would someday retake Beijing.

During his rule, Chiang lived in spacious home in suburban Taipei. His portraits were everywhere and on everything from travel posters to digital clocks. His likeness wasn't dropped from Taiwanese banknotes until 2000.

Chiang Kai-shek was 86 when he died in April, 1975. His death was accompanied by nearly a month of national mourning, in which television stations switched from color to black-and-white broadcasts and newspapers refrained from using red ink, a color that symbolizes joy.

Madame Chiang Kai-shek

Madame Chiang Kai-shek was famous for her ability to charm Washington and get support of the U.S. for the Taiwanese cause. Arguably she did more to elevate Taiwan’s status, especially in the United States, than Chiang Kai-shek.

Congress especially seemed to be taken by her good looks, her southern American accent and pro-American stance. She was the second woman to address Congress and was praised by the Roosevelts, Shirley Temple, Rita Hayworth and welcomed by an audience of 20,000 at Madison Square Garden and 30,000 at the Hollywood Bowl.

Madame Chiang’s family pocketed hundreds of millions of dollars of American aid. From Taiwan and the United States she condemned the Communist government in China of stirring up “convulsions and perfervid paroxysms” during the Cultural Revolution and being “dastardly Communist poltroons” during Tiananmen Square.

Madame Chiang Kai-shek moved to New York after the death of her husband in 1975. She lived in semi-seclusion, spending most her time in her Manhattan apartment or her family estate in Long Island. She took regular walks in Central Park. Into her 80s and 90s, Madame Chiang continued to have an influence on Taiwanese politics. When her stepson died in 1988, she tried to rally her old allies and maneuver her choice into the office of president. She celebrated her 100th birthday in New York in 1997. Madame Chiang Kai-shek died in New York in October 2003 at the age of 105. She has treated for cancer and a number of other ailments. She reportedly left behinnd no diaries or memoirs and little wealth.

Taiwan Government Under Chang Kai-shek

Beginning in the early 1950s, county, municipal, and provincial—but not national—elections were held. In 1959 the Taiwan Provincial Assembly was established, a situation that gave the Taiwan people an opportunity to participate in provincial life even though the central government maintained three parliamentary bodies—the National Assembly, the Legislative Yuan, and the Control Yuan, with seats largely held by mainlanders who had been elected prior to 1949—whose interests were not local but concerned a national territory that they no longer controlled. The tenures of these holdover representatives were extended by presidential order, but as they died off, the regime was forced to hold an election in 1969 to fill the empty seats. The two-term limitation on the presidency was amended by the National Assembly in 1960 to allow Chiang Kai-shek to remain in office during “the period of communist rebellion.” Local politics were controlled by the KMT through influence exerted on local politicians and manipulation of elections. [Source: Library of Congress *]

According to Lonely Planet: “On Taiwan, Chiang proved the able state governor that he never had been in China, instituting a series of land reform policies that successfully laid the foundation for Taiwan’s future economic success. While advertising his government in exile as ‘Free China, ’ based on the democratic ideals of Sun Yat-sen, Chiang’s Taiwan was anything but free. While economic development was swift, Chiang’s rule was quick to crush any political dissent. The White Terror era of the 1950s was a frightening time in Taiwanese history, when people literally disappeared if they spoke against the government. Political dissidents were either shipped to Green Island to serve long sentences or executed outright. [Source: Lonely Planet ++]

Economic prosperity in Taiwan brought increasing pressure for political reform. As the original generation of mainlanders retired from positions of authority in the party, government, and military, they increasingly were replaced by Taiwan-born individuals. Even though a few independent Taiwanese politicians were elected to local and provincial positions, the KMT continued to hold a monopoly of central power. When Chiang Kei-shek died in 1975, he was succeeded by his son, Premier Chiang Ching-kuo (Jiang Jingguo), as head of the party and president of the Republic of China. *

Kuomintang and Authoritarianism in Taiwan

The Kuomintang insisted for decades that it represented the true government of all of China. It kept in place a number of central political bodies that were established on the mainland in the 1940s with the understanding that sometime in the future the Kuomintang would take their rightful place once again as leaders on the mainland.

During the Chiang Kai-shek era, in the 1950s, 60s and early 70s, the Kuomintang resisted holding elections by insisting that the National Assembly represented all of China and new election could not be held until the Kuomintang took over the mainland.

The members of the rubber-stamp legislative Yuan that governed Taiwan in the 1960s and 70s were the same ones that were chosen as part of the 3,000-representative legislature in Nanking in 1948 and came to Taiwan in 1949 when the Kuomintang fled China. Between 1949 and 1972, the Yuan shrunk from 760 members to 435. The missing members were mostly old men who died and weren’t replaced. In the 1980s, 76 members of the 399-member Yuan were older than 80, 200 were between 70 and 80.

In 1972, the Kuomintang sponsored new election, theoretically, only for Taiwan province. The election added 53 new members to a legislature. Elections for local offices had been held periodically since 1949.

A survey in one a Taiwanese magazine found that what many Taiwanese want is "rule by law, not greater freedom." In the 1970s, 80s and early 90s, authoritarian governments in Asian countries such as South Korea, China, Indonesia, Taiwan, Singapore and Malaysia did a better job at alleviating poverty than democracies in India and the Philippines. Taiwan, Singapore and South Korea all "grew rich under highly authoritarian governments."

Advances and Land Reform Under Chang Kai-shek

Under the Kuomintang, universities were opened up; schools were built; and a public health program was adopted. Illiteracy was dramatically reduced. School enrollment dramatically increased. Free inoculations helped curb typhoid and reduce cholera. Important railroads and roads were built. Agriculture prospered with fertilizer made by Taiwanese chemical plants. Power came from huge dams that were built. In 1950, elections were held for mayors, councilmen and other local officials.

Taiwan underwent land redistribution in the 1950s in which land was taken away from large landowners and given to 800,000 small farmer who worked the land. Laws prohibited farms larger than 7.7 acres (the average size was 2.2 acres). The Kuomintang favored land reform because it had no associations with the landlord class of Taiwan and it needed the political support of the peasants.

One former landowner told National Geographic, "I used to have 14,820 acres of good land and thousands of tenants. Now I have seven acres and no tenants. And I'm much better off. The government paid for the land. They did not confiscate it as in Communist China. But they did not pay in money—there wasn't much money then. I was paid in stock in Japanese owned industries that had become government property when Taiwan was returned to China." He ended up with the stock for a cement factory which he turned into a profitable enterprise. [Source: Helen and Frank Shreider, National Geographic, January 1969]

A former peasant told National Geographic, "My family has farmed here for generations. We used to live in a mud house. We paid half our crop to the landlord. If we had a bad year, we had to pay anyway...Then the government bought the land and sold it to us. We paid in rice, and in ten years the land was ours—for less than we had been paying in rent. For the first time we could save money. We tore the old house down and built a new one...But most important, I can educate my sons." [Ibid]

United States and Taiwan Foreign Policy Under the Chang Kai-shek

The Republic of China (Taiwan) did not fare well in the international political milieu. Although a permanent member of the United Nations (UN) Security Council when the UN was formed in 1945, the Republic of China was ousted from the China seat in 1971 by a vote of the UN General Assembly. Formally, Chiang Kai-shek withdrew the ROC from the UN Security Council in 1971 after the council’s admission of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). [Source: Library of Congress *]

At the same time, the United States was changing its own policy of containing the People’s Republic of China, switching official recognition from the ROC (Taiwan) to the PRC (mainland China), which led to further isolation of Taiwan. Washington’s recognition of Taipei ended in 1979, but quasi-official relations continued under other arrangements. *

During the Korean War, the Americans were protective of Taiwan, assuring the Taiwanese that they would repel any communist attacks. Military outbreaks between China and Taiwan were common in the 1950s and 1960s, with Kinmen subjected to regular shelling. Events such as the August 23rd Artillery War kept Chiang’s ‘Free China’ firmly entrenched in the hearts and minds of anti-communist America. [Source: Lonely Planet]

"The Nationalist's Party's rule in Taiwan would probably have been short-libbed had it not been for the outbreak of the Korean War, in June 1950," wrote University of Wisconsin scholar Maurice Mesnier in the Los Angeles Times."That gave president Harry S. Truman the fortuitist pretext to order the 'neutralizing' of the Taiwan Strait—making the Chiang regime dependent of the Seventh Fleet, and making Taiwan a de facto U.S. military protectorate."

As part of its effort to fight Communism in Asia, the United States helped Kuomintang establish itself in Taiwan by providing diplomatic, military and financial support. Between 1949 and 1976 the U.S. supplied Taiwan with over $3 billion in military aid, including the training of over 24,000 military personnel, and $1.5 billion in development funds. In 1975, the U.S. had 4,500 troops stationed in Taiwan.

After the U.S. recognized China, US policy towards Taiwan has been dictated by the Taiwan’s Relations Act, which promised to protect Taiwan militarily in the case of attack by mainland China while recognising Beijing’s sovereignty over capital, which includes Taiwan.

Taiwan Advances Economically Under the Kuomintang

In the 1950s, the government transferred industries seized from the Japanese in 1945 to private management. Land reform also took place and greatly reduced tenancy. By the 1960s, following a decade of manufacture of consumer goods for domestic consumption, Taiwan shifted to the export trade, using low-paid labor to produce consumer electronics and other desirable goods. Americans and Japanese invested heavily in Taiwan’s industries, and export processing zones were established in Kao-hsiung and T’ai-chung, replete with tax incentives and export-tax exemptions.

The Second Indochina War (1954–75, including the Vietnam War) also stimulated the island’s economy. As further shifts to heavy industries, such as steel and petrochemicals, took place, the island became increasingly urbanized. Exports grew eightfold during the 1960s, as Taiwan became the world’s fastest growing economy. Personal income also increased, and the government began investing more in education. In 1965 the population stood at 12.6 million, and by 1985 had reached 19.2 million. By 1988 Taiwan’s gross national product (GNP) had reached US$95 billion, and per capita GNP, at US$4,800, was 10 times that of mainland China. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Taiwan prospered during the 1950s and 1960s, her economy becoming one of the richest in Asia, and her population growing to 16 million, ane began making substantial economic advances in the 1970s and 80s—which brought Taiwan the characterization as one of the “Four Tigers” (along with South Korea, Hong Kong, and Singapore) of economic prowess in Asia

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourism Bureau, Republic of China (Taiwan), Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated June 2015

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