Taiwanese believe they have a distinct society, and that is largely because of their history. Primarily populated by indigenous peoples until the 17th century, Taiwan later saw centuries of immigration (coupled with colonisation by multiple empires), which resulted in localised arts, cuisine, religious worship patterns and social structures. The country’s long road from authoritarianism (which sought to destroy that localisation) to democracy is another key part of the distinction people feel, and understanding this is essential for grasping the issues of the day.
Archaeological sites on the east coast, in particular the Baxianshan Caves, show humans existing in Taiwan as early as 50,000 years ago, as part of what is known as the Changbin Culture.
The ancestors of today’s traditional peoples likely came to Taiwan by sea from southeast China around 6000 years ago, landing in such places as Bali on the north coast and various spots down the west coast. They brought agriculture and advanced forms of culture (such as pottery), and quickly spread all over the island. Around 2000 BC they even began to move off the island and there is good linguistic and archaeological evidence that this diaspora was the source of all of today’s Austronesian peoples.
The Dutch Colonial Era
Though Chinese fisherfolk began to settle in Penghu around 1000 years ago, until the 16th century Taiwan was isolated and almost exclusively populated by indigenous peoples. Official Chinese records were even unclear if it was one island or many until the late Ming dynasty. What happened to change the status quo? Trade. This was the era of increasing maritime commercial activity throughout East Asia and Taiwan quickly became a critical link in the routes between China (mostly Fujian), Japan, Manila and Macau.
Of particular importance were the routes established by the Dutch East India Company (abbreviated VOC). In 1602 the VOC was given a trade monopoly in the east. Unfortunately for the VOC, the company was very late in the game and to become a serious player it had to first break the Spanish and Portuguese monopolies.
In the style of the age, the VOC fleets launched indiscriminate attacks on Portuguese and Spanish ships. By 1622, realising they needed a secure base in the region, the VOC sailed to Penghu (aka the Pescadores), an island group they had explored earlier, and built a small fortress.
From Penghu, the Dutch launched raids off the Fujian coast and disrupted Chinese trade with Manila (under Spanish control). The exasperated Chinese offered the Dutch permission to trade from Taiwan proper. The VOC caught the veiled threat and left Penghu for Tayouan (what is now the Anping area of Tainan), where they established Fort Zeelandia.
The Dutch initially considered using Taiwan as an entrepôt but quickly realised they would not be safe from indigenous Taiwanese and Chinese attacks, nor from trade rivals Spain and Japan, unless they could control the island. With this in mind they set out to pacify Plains peoples, import Chinese labour and destroy rival Spain. They also began the first modernisation program of Taiwan, establishing schools, missions (to convert locals) and kilns, as well as issuing licences to Chinese fishers and taxes on the deer-meat trade. Their work was noted, and not always favourably.
In the early 17th century, Spain controlled the trade route between Fujian and Manila. The new Dutch presence on Taiwan, an island separated from Fujian by a narrow strait, was perceived as a major threat. In 1626 the Spanish landed and occupied the northern area of Taiwan around what is now Keelung and Tamsui. Over a 10-year period they established four forts, including Fort San Domingo in Tamsui, which remains intact to this day.
Though the Spanish engaged in military actions as far down the coast as Yilan and Hualien, their presence was always small. When the Manila governor, unimpressed with trade, further reduced troops, indigenous groups attacked outposts. The Spanish withdrew to Keelung, where they were then hit by the Dutch. By 1642 they had withdrawn from Taiwan entirely, giving the Dutch control from north to south.
In the 1640s instability in China (the Ming dynasty lost its capital to the Qing in 1644) was causing a wave of immigration from Fujian province into Taiwan. The new settlers chafed at European colonial rule and staged a revolt in 1652. Though the Dutch were successful in quelling that uprising, 10 years later they would be defeated and driven off Taiwan by a Chinese admiral and Ming loyalist called Cheng Cheng-kung.
Cheng Cheng-kung, known in the west as Koxinga, was a colourful character, the son of a pirate turned admiral and his Japanese concubine. When Qing forces began to conquer China in the 1640s, the father capitulated but Koxinga fought on for the Ming's Yongli Emperor.
After a massive defeat in 1659, Koxinga sought refuge with his troops on Kinmen. There, a deputy suggested he invade Taiwan and overthrow the Dutch. Koxinga declined at first, but when both Dutch and Qing policies began to cut into his ability to trade and reprovision his troops, the stage was set.
Koxinga built a new fleet on Kinmen and in April 1661 sailed first to the Penghu Islands, before moving on to Taiwan proper. The outnumbered and outmanoeuvred Dutch surrendered Fort Provenitia, now rebuilt as Chihkan Towers, to him in five days. By February 1662 they had surrendered Fort Zeelandia. The 38-year colonisation of Taiwan by the Dutch was over.
Around 25,000 to 30,000 Chinese came to Taiwan with Koxinga (adding to a population that was around 100,000 indigenous people and a smaller number of Chinese). With them the admiral set out to create a military base for the retaking of the mainland. As with the Dutch he continued to expand the agricultural system (soldiers had a dual role as farmers), but also introduced Ming-style administration and cultural elements: he built Taiwan’s first Confucius Temple and introduced civil service exams. However, his dreams of overthrowing the Manchu were never realised. Koxinga died a year after landing on Taiwan at the age of 37.
After the admiral's death, his son Zheng Jing ruled Taiwan as sovereign of the Tungning kingdom (1661–83). The young ruler encouraged trade, industry and immigration, not just of farmers and soldiers, but also scholars and administrators who did not want to serve the Qing. His death in 1681 led to bloody fights over succession, and in 1683, the Qing, under Admiral Shi Lang, moved in and captured Taiwan.
Afterwards, in one of the pivotal moments of Taiwan's history, Shi Lang convinced the sceptical Kangxi Emperor of the island's strategic importance. The emperor agreed to annexation, and Taiwan became Taiwanfu, a prefecture of Fujian province with a capital in present-day Tainan.
Taiwan in the Qing Dynasty
Taiwan developed rapidly under the Qing. The population grew and Han Chinese became the dominant ethnic group as they spread over the western plains and across the Taipei Basin. Sugar-cane production had dominated the economy under the Dutch, but now rice growing was added. With increased migration to the centre and north of the island, as well as the development of irrigation systems, almost all the arable land became utilised over time.
Immigration from China also increased and the imbalance of men to women led to increasing social problems, including the formation of secret societies. Grievances often led to violence.
During this period almost all immigrants came from the same three areas in China: Zhangzhou and Quanzhou in Fujian, and various locations in Guangdong province. The first two regions are the source of almost all ethnic Taiwanese (Hoklo); the latter the Hakka.
Though Taiwan was becoming Chinese during this era, it was also evolving unique associations and traditions to deal with the unusual immigrant circumstance. For example, lacking family ties, immigrants created social structures based on shared names, village origins and worship of similar folk gods. Even small differences could be a source of conflict: the Zhangzhou–Quanzhou distinction, for example, would be the cause of many small but deadly battles in Taiwan’s history.
The latter half of the 19th century was a period of great turmoil for the Qing. Among other crises, they had to contend with the Taiping Rebellion and forced trade with Western powers. Much of this directly and indirectly influenced Taiwan in profound ways.
After the second Opium War ended (1860), for example, Taiwan was opened to trade with the West. Into the now free ports of Tamsui, Keelung, Anping and Kaohsiung flowed Western merchants, missionaries, soldiers, diplomats and scholars. Foreign trade increased rapidly, merchant houses such Jardine, Matheson & Co flourished, and Taiwan’s economy became linked to global trade. The island became the largest camphor-supplying region in the world, and its excellent teas were traded widely.
Nearly all the major Western and regional powers also had some kind of skirmish or 'incident' on Taiwan soil in the 19th century. The most significant was the Mudan Incident (1874) in which Japan sent 3600 troops on a punitive mission to the south over the butchery of 54 Japanese sailors by Paiwan locals in Mudan, Pingtung County, three years earlier.
The incident revealed to the world both the weakness of the Qing government and their limited control over Taiwan (the Japanese had tried to bring their grievances to the Qing court, only to be told that the Paiwan were outside Chinese control). A decade later, French troops invaded and occupied Keelung during the Sino-French War. At last recognising the strategic importance of Taiwan, the Qing began to shore up its defences and spur development. Taiwan was made a province in 1885, with Liu Ming-chuan the first governor.
Liu, a former general who had fought the French in Vietnam, believed in Taiwanese self-reliance. Among his many initiatives were building cross-island roads (the present Hwy 9 from Taipei to Ilan mostly follows his route), pacifying mountain peoples and improving the economy. He implemented land reform, built the first railway from Taipei to Keelung, established a postal system, laid a submarine cable to Fujian, and created bureaux to handle railways, mining, telegraphs and other modern specialities.
Not all of Liu's reforms were successful, but it didn’t much matter. Taiwan would not be Chinese territory for very much longer.
The Japanese Colonial Era: 1895–1945
In 1894 war broke out between Japan and China over the Japanese invasion of Korea. China's poorly equipped navy was no match for Japan's modern fleet, and in April of 1895 China signed the Treaty of Shimonoseki which ceded the Ryukyu Islands (Okinawa), Taiwan and the Penghu Archipelago to Japan.
On Taiwan, locals responded to the treaty with alarm. Social and political leaders encouraged Governor Tang Jing-song to issue a statement of self-rule, which led to the declaration of the Taiwan Democratic Republic (also known as the Formosan Republic) on 23 May. Any hopes that foreign powers would intervene were quickly lost, however, and by 3 June, Japanese forces had taken Keelung. Tang fled and with chaos engulfing the city, elites in Taipei asked Koo Hsien-jung (a businessman whose family is still influential in Taiwanese politics and business) to open the gates to the Japanese.
Resistance continued in the south in the name of the Republic but when the Japanese army entered Tainan on 21 October, the Republic fell for good. On 18 November the Japanese declared Taiwan 'pacified', though violent, localised resistance would continue for years, especially among indigenous groups, who were treated as savages to be conquered and pacified during the entire colonial era.
In general, though, Japan set out early to turn Taiwan into a model colony, attempting in part to show Western powers that they could match, or outdo, them in every way. They began with thorough studies of Taiwan's land, climate, people, history and natural resources. In 1899 they formed the Bank of Taiwan to facilitate investment; by 1914, Taiwan was not just financially self-sufficient but contributing taxes.
Over the coming decades, hundreds of kilometres of roads were constructed, and rail lines linked Keelung to Kaohsiung, and Hualien to Taitung. Schools and teaching colleges were established, a relatively fair legal system was implemented based on Western concepts of the rule of law, and cities and towns were redesigned on modern principles of urban planning (which included provisions for sanitation). Advanced agricultural practices saw food production increase over 10-fold, and living standards and life expectancy rose rapidly. Taiwan's population surged from 2.6 million in 1896 to 6.6 million by 1943. And this was just the start.
Within Taiwanese society and culture, huge changes were also taking place. Formerly a rural, superstitious and clan-based people, the Taiwanese became increasingly urban and modern. A professional class developed, and while there was still great inequality, it was less entrenched than before. By the 1940s over 200,000 students had studied higher education in Japan and 60,000 had received college degrees.
As early as the 1920s the economy began changing from primarily agricultural to a mix which included light manufacturing and industries such as petrochemicals and machinery. With rising wages and living standards came Western-style leisure activities. People indulged in movies, concerts, sporting events and tourism. Civic associations also began to form among housewives, teachers and youth groups.
The early colonial experience also nurtured a growing sense of a unique Taiwanese (as opposed to Chinese) identity. This identity is sometimes said to have been sparked by the formation of the Formosan Republic in 1895, but it certainly began to take shape during the 1920s as Taiwanese chafed under colonial rule (which still treated them as second-class citizens in their own land), and local leaders pushed for civil rights and self-representation.
One of the most important figures in colonial rule, Gotō Shin-pei, Chief of Civil Affairs from 1898 to 1906, has been called the father of Taiwan's modernisation. Gotō was quick to suppress dissent, but he also believed that Taiwan should not be exploited for the benefit of Japan. As such, he helped lay the foundation for transportation systems, public buildings and urban planning, healthcare and a modern economy.
The Japanese colonial era is usually divided into three periods, which reflect the government's distinct developmental policies. After the first several decades of laying the groundwork for economic development, the colonial government began to assimilate the Taiwanese socially. Education policies began to mimic those in Japan, as did local governance and laws.
In 1937, after the outbreak of the second Sino-Japanese War, the Japanese government initiated the Kominka movement, in which Taiwanese were encouraged to become truly Japanese by changing their names, abandoning Chinese folk worship for Shintoism, speaking Japanese, and pledging allegiance to the emperor. The policy was successful to a degree and many older Taiwanese still living, such as former President Lee Teng-hui (born 1923), have said they believed at the time that they were Japanese. Lee himself went by the name Iwasato Masao.
During the war, Taiwan's economy saw industrial production surpass agriculture. The southern and eastern ports became bases for the imperial navy, as well as training grounds for kamikaze pilots. Around 140,000 Taiwanese would serve in the war, with some 30,000 dying. This, along with the population's widespread adoption of Japanese cultural traits, did not sit well with the Chinese when they gained control of Taiwan following WWII.
Taiwan Under KMT Rule
Taiwan's history after WWII is intimately tied to the Republic of China (ROC), founded in 1911 (in China) after the Qing dynasty was ended by the revolution of Sun Yat-sen (a doctor and Chinese revolutionary considered the father of the modern Chinese nation). Though Taiwan was little discussed in the early decades of the Republic, after the start of the Sino-Japanese War it became part of a rallying call demanding the restoration of territory the Chinese considered stolen by Japan.
That demand was met on 25 October 1945, in a ceremony at Taipei's Zhongshan Hall. There, Chinese General Chen Yi, on behalf of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, leader of the Chinese Nationalist Party (Kuomintang; KMT), accepted the Japanese instrument of surrender on behalf of the Allied Powers. Though mandated only to administer Taiwan, Chen Yi quickly declared the island was once again Chinese territory. Proindependence Taiwanese sometimes point to this moment as the beginning of what they consider the KMT's illegal occupation of Taiwan.
However, at first, Taiwanese were mostly pleased with being returned to Chinese rule, and local elites hoped that they would finally have a chance at the autonomy they had struggled for under the Japanese. Unfortunately, under Governor Chen Yi, goodwill would be short-lived. Chen Yi refused to share power (he, and many KMT leaders, considered the 'Japanised Taiwanese' as deracinated and degraded beings), and began allowing his ragtag army and civil service to loot, confiscate property and businesses, and monopolise trade. Basic public services, such as rubbish collection, that people had grown used to under the Japanese were also abandoned. The economy went into a tailspin, hyperinflation hit, and in 1947 riots against the government broke out, leading to the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians.
Meanwhile, in China, Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist regime was engaged in a civil war with the Communist Party for control of China: and they were losing badly. On 1 October 1949, Mao Zedong proclaimed the creation of the People's Republic of China (PRC). Two months later on 10 December, Chiang fled to Taiwan, followed by two million refugees comprising soldiers, businesspeople, landowners, monks, artists, gangsters, peasants and intellectuals.
Despite bringing all of China's gold reserve with them, Chiang's regime was broken. Many predicted it would fall soon to the communists but the Korean War convinced the US that Taiwan was too strategically valuable to hand over to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). In 1950 US President Truman ordered the US Navy to protect the Taiwan Strait. US monetary aid followed, and for the next two decades it was vital to keeping the Chiang government afloat and funding in part or in whole nearly every public works project.
Chiang kept alive the hope of retaking the mainland until his death and his rule was quick to crush any political dissent, real or imagined. However, concurrent with the brutality and paranoia, there were also sound economic reforms that would soon make Taiwan one of the wealthiest countries in Asia. Among the most famous of these were US-guided land reforms, which saw rents reduced, leases extended and government land sold off cheaply. Tenant farmers went from 49% of the total in 1949, to 10% in 1960. Agricultural productivity rose, which helped fuel more demand for industrial goods. At the same time, the reforms shifted the huge land capital of Taiwan's gentry class into investment in small- and medium-sized industrial enterprises. By 1960 industry had once again replaced agriculture as the largest share of GDP.
The political changes in this era were no less startling. In 1971 the UN Security Council admitted the PRC. Chiang Kai-shek responded by withdrawing the ROC. The following year US President Nixon travelled to China to normalise relations. In 1979, under President Carter, the US switched official recognition from the ROC to the PRC. US policy towards Taiwan would now be dictated by the Taiwan Relations Act, which allows the US to provide defensive arms to Taiwan, and considers any move to settle the status of Taiwan with military force to be a threat to US security. The act also officially ended US recognition of the ROC government.
When Chiang Kai-shek died in 1975, Yen Chia-kan became president for a three-year term and was then replaced by Chiang Ching-kuo (CCK), Chiang Kai-shek's only biological son. CCK had held various positions in the KMT government, including head of the secret police, and later premier. In the latter role, and as president, he initiated a series of major infrastructure projects which helped accelerate Taiwan's economic growth and per capita income.
CCK also began to bring native-born Taiwanese into the highest levels of government. The most important of these was Lee Teng-hui, who had served as agriculture minister and Taipei mayor. Lee was appointed vice president.
The final years of CCK's presidency saw unexpected concessions to a rising democratic spirit within Taiwan. In 1986, with martial law still in effect after 38 years, the president chose not to suppress Taiwan's first opposition party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), after they announced their formation. In 1987 he also declared the end of martial law. The following year he passed away and Lee Teng-hui became the ROC president. For Taiwan, a new era had truly begun.
The Post-Martial-Law Period: 1988–2000
In the late 1980s Taiwan had its first native-born president, but it was still a far cry from a democracy. In the first place, Lee Teng-hui had not been elected by the people, but appointed by Chiang Ching-kuo and voted in by the National Assembly, a body that had last been elected in China in 1947 and was still officially in session over 40 years later – and with largely the same people.
Lee initiated constitutional changes to allow for direct elections of the president and Legislative Yuan (Taiwan's parliament), as well as for the eventual dissolving of the National Assembly. He also ended the provisions that had allowed for martial law and the suspension of civil liberties. In 1991 he officially ended the state of war between the ROC and China.
Lee furthered CCK's policy of bringing more native Taiwanese into government and concurrently began a process of 'localisation' or 'Taiwanisation'. In effect this meant destressing a pan-China (and mostly northern China) focused view of history and culture. Taiwan was now its own centre, with a history and culture worth studying and promoting. In practice this meant emphasising Taiwan's southern Chinese roots, its strong folk religious traditions, its Dutch and Japanese influences, and its multiethnic make-up: Hakka, Hoklo, indigenous and mainlander.
The elections in 1996 were a watershed moment in Taiwan's advancement towards democracy. For the first time, Taiwanese would directly elect their leader. Lee ran against democracy advocate Peng Ming-min (and a host of others).
China, outraged that free elections were going to be held in Taiwan, and suspicious that Lee held independence sentiments (which he did, as it turned out), held a series of missile tests from July 1995 to March 1996. The US responded with a build-up of ships in the region, the largest military display in Asia since the Vietnam War. The people of Taiwan, more angry than scared, responded by giving Lee a clear majority vote (54%).
Lee's second term was marked by deteriorating social order, especially in the first year, which saw three high-profile murder cases involving organised-crime figures terrify the public. Many openly longed for the return of martial law and Lee himself was blamed. More interestingly, critics blamed Lee for using heidao (gangsters) himself in order to keep the KMT in power.
However, the infiltration of politics by organised-crime figures both predates the Lee presidency and continues to this day. Even in 1996 intelligence reports showed that 40% of town representatives, 27% of city councillors and 3% of national representatives had organised-crime backgrounds. Criminologist Ko-lin Chin says Taiwan is pretty much unique for having such a high level of gangsters in elected office (not even the Italian Mafia, he says, dare to run openly, but try to influence from behind closed doors).
On a more positive note, Lee's second term also saw the continuation of democratic and civil reforms. With respect to cross-Strait relations, the president argued that with the legitimacy of Taiwan's government now solely in the hands of Taiwan voters, the notion that the ROC 'represented' all of China could no longer hold. In 1999 Lee declared that China and Taiwan now held 'special state to state relations'. Neither the Chinese nor the Americans were amused by what they saw as a push towards a formal declaration of independence.
In 2000, Lee, unable to run for a third term, appointed the wooden Lien Chan as his successor. The popular and charismatic James Soong, former provincial governor, believing he should have been chosen to represent the KMT, ran as an independent. This split the KMT's vote, and the DPP's long-shot candidate Chen Shui-bian won with a little over 39% of the vote. Over 50 years of continuous KMT rule came very unexpectedly to an end.
Taiwan in the 21st Century
Chen Shui-bian would serve Taiwan as president for eight years, during which time many long-term trends in politics and society became settled and mainstream. By the end of Chen's second term, for example, both the military and the civil service had generally become neutral bodies, loyal to the country and not just the KMT. Judicial reforms gave people Miranda Rights (such as the right to an attorney) but attempts at education reform, land-use legislation, police reform and streamlining government either failed or stalled.
Lee Teng-hui's localisation and de-Sinicisation policies were kicked up a notch and the names of many public companies and institutions were changed from 'China' to 'Taiwan'. Chiang Kai-shek International Airport was renamed Taoyuan International Airport, though attempts to rename CKS Memorial Hall resulted in a backlash. Still, Taiwanese of all stripes began to identify with Taiwan more and more; even the children of mainlanders began to call themselves Taiwanese and not Chinese.
To many, though, it sometimes seemed this era was nothing but pure chaos. It began well. Recognising that he had won less than 50% of the vote and lacked a clear mandate (to say nothing of lacking control of the legislature, civil service and military), Chen filled his cabinet with many KMT appointees. He spoke of representing all Taiwanese, including mainlanders, and his message to China was simple: don't attack us and we won't declare formal independence. The president's initial approval rating reached 80%.
Things began to slide when Chen cancelled construction of the fourth nuclear power plant in October 2000, incensing the KMT, whose patronage networks across Taiwan are intimately linked to big construction projects. The following year Taiwan was hit with two economic whammies: the fallout in the agricultural sector from admission to the WTO (Taiwan was forced to open its markets to imported rice) and a recession that resulted from the dot.com bust. As is usual in Taiwan, the president was blamed, and many people openly wondered if the DPP could be trusted to run the economy.
In terms of economic policy, Chen moved away from Lee's slow and careful investment approach to China, and there was an exodus of business, talent and investment across the Strait. Though GDP growth remained reasonably good in Taiwan, stagnating wages and opportunities again left many critical of the president. Among the economic successes of the Chen years, the creation of a tourism industry ranks high. Inbound tourist numbers doubled from 2002 to 2008 and continue to rise today.
Relations with China, which had deteriorated under Lee Teng-hui, went from bad to worse. The nadir was reached in 2005 when China promulgated an Anti-Secession Law that codified China's long-standing threat to attack Taiwan should the island's leaders declare independence. The move was met by mass protest rallies throughout Taiwan.
Chen won re-election in 2004 by a tiny margin. The day before the election, both the president and vice president were mildly wounded in a botched assassination attempt. The KMT immediately cried foul and led weeks of mass, violent protests. To this day, many are convinced (though without evidence) that Chen was behind his own shooting.
Chen's second term was a classic lame duck, as the KMT-dominated legislative assembly blocked his every move. In 2006 Chen's approval rating hit 20% as a series of corruption scandals implicated both his wife and son-in-law.
After stepping down in 2008, Chen Shui-bian immediately lost presidential immunity; within six months, he was arrested on charges of money laundering, bribery and embezzlement of government funds. Chen was sentenced to life imprisonment in September 2009, reduced to 20 years in June 2010 as later trials found him not guilty of embezzling government funds. Taiwan observers claim Chen's conviction did enormous long-term harm to his party and to the cause of Taiwanese independence.
In early 2008 the KMT won a decisive victory in the legislative elections. Two months later former justice minister and Taipei mayor, Ma Ying-jeou, won the presidency with 58% of the vote. Ma Ying-jeou's clear victory that year (and again in 2012) signalled yet another new era for Taiwan. The Hong Kong–born Ma began a radical departure from Lee and Chen's policies, especially concerning cross-Strait relations. Once again, under Ma the ROC was declared the legitimate government of all China, and relations between Taiwan and the mainland merely those of special regions within that country. This did not, however, mean accepting PRC rule over Taiwan.
On coming to power, Ma focused on streamlining government (successfully), ending corruption (very unsuccessfully), re-Sinicising society, and bringing economic and cultural relations between China and Taiwan closer. Highlights of the latter include signing an economic agreement, the ECFA, covering trade, finance, services and security; opening Taiwan to direct cross-Strait flights and ferries; encouraging Chinese students and professionals to study and work here; and facilitating the rise of mass Chinese tourism.
Under Ma's leadership, Taiwan’s economic performance fell behind that of the other three Asian Tigers – Hong Kong, South Korea and Singapore. Ma also failed to improve cross-Strait relations. If anything, his gestures towards China were seen as part of a grand scheme to unite Taiwan with China, so that he could go down as the Taiwanese president who made history. This struck fear into the hearts of many Taiwanese who saw the fate of Hong Kong as something to be avoided at all costs, and caused more to identify as Taiwanese rather than Chinese. A series of polls showed widespread dissatisfaction with Ma's policies. In late 2015 Ma's efforts culminated in a sudden meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping and a historic handshake, just before the DPP assumed power.
In May 2016 the proindependence DPP scored a landslide victory in the presidential elections, making its leader Dr Tsai Ing-wen the island’s first female president. Tsai won 56% of the votes, almost double the 31% of her KMT opponent Eric Chu Li-luan. Eight years ago, when Ma took the helm, the KMT was riding high. His policies clearly had a hand in sending the KMT to its demise, from which, it is believed, it can recover only with vigorous reform. After losing the elections, Chu Li-luan resigned as party chair and apologised to supporters.
In her campaign, the charismatic Tsai promised to build consistent and sustainable cross-Strait relations with China and work towards maintaining the status quo for peace and stability. It remains to be seen how this will play out in her policies towards and negotiations with Beijing in the years to come.