Taiwan Was Never Part of China's Civil Wars: Part I

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Sunday March 01, by Jerome F. Keating Ph.D.

If you ask people when China's Civil War occurred, be prepared for a variety of answers. Some will say from 1945 to 1949; others will add the years 1927 to 1937 and still others will point out that it continued intermittently throughout World War II. In giving their answers most will be thinking of the power struggle between the two Leninist modeled parties, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). But I propose a different perspective.

China's Civil War began in 1911 and has continued in a variety of forms up to the present. Within that period there has been the occasional peaceful hiatus, but for all practical purposes the war has been continuous. The only difference is that the participants have regularly come and gone; some were changing sides like those changing partners in a dance. Each has desired perhaps a better partner; each desired to dictate the tune that the band should play.

A rose by any other name would smell just as sweet, and a rose by any other name is still a rose. What then about civil war? The American Heritage Dictionary provides a suitable definition as a "war between factions or regions of the same country." Examined this way, the civil war began in China in 1911 with the Wuchang coup. From that time on, different factions, groups, warlords and regions have vied with each other for power; sometimes in open conflict, sometimes in plotting subterfuge; each has claimed that it wanted to liberate but in effect it wanted to gain control of China.

Why do we say liberate? In 1644, the Manchus from the north had set about to conquer China. After taking China, they went on to conquer and/or take Mongolia, Tibet, the region of Xinjiang and the western half of the island of Taiwan. This Manchu Kingdom became known as the Qing dynasty. It was a Manchu kingdom and the conquered Chinese were part of it having to wear the Manchu queue.

This Manchu Kingdom ruled all those countries for some 266 years putting down periodic rebellions and uprisings in that period. In 1911, however, the Wuchang coup began the final uprising which would sound the death knell of the Qing Empire and the beginning of a flowing continuous Civil War in China. It would also bring turmoil and disaster for the other lands and countries that the Qing had conquered.

In the first six weeks after the Wuchang uprising, some fifteen provinces had seceded and the war between factions or regions of the same country began. The fifteen provinces were not victorious for they had to contend with Yuan Shikai who controlled the formidable Beiyang Army and had the support of the Northern provinces. Yuan was not fighting to defend the emperor for he would force him to abdicate in February 1912; nor was he fighting for the developing republic. In effect he became a warlord, "a military commander exercising civil power in a region, whether in nominal allegiance to the national government or in defiance of it." The civil war continued.

Negotiations were held between Yuan and the forming republic and a compromise was reached. Sun Yat-sen stepped down and Yuan Shikai became provisional president of the seeming new republic. Elections were held and the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) won a majority of the parliamentary seats, but a key leader Song Jiaoren was assassinated in 1913 and Yuan made moves to establish a monarchy. First he got himself officially named president by the parliament in 1914 and then promptly disbanded it. Sun Yat-sen in the meantime had fled to Japan after calling for a second revolution to continue the civil war. Yuan quickly put down the rebellious KMT provinces and bought the loyalty of others.

The war did not end with these victories, for Yuan went too far by deciding in 1915 that he should become not just monarch but emperor. This cost him the loyalty of his closest supporters and a different civil war broke out again between Yuan and other factions and regions of the country. Yuan would die in 1916, but that civil war would continue.

This period is usually spoken of as the warlord period, but in fact, warlords had always been part and parcel of the reality of China's continuing civil war. An official government existed in Beijing and carried out diplomatic functions with limited rule over the country. It was in this setting that Sun Yat-sen with many of the KMT returned from Japan in 1917; Sun would ally himself with warlords in the south in opposition to the government in Beijing and set up a rival military government in Guanzhou in 1921. Civil war continued.

A new factor entered this civil war with the founding of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in 1921. The CCP and the KMT would work together though seeking separate ends. Eventually after Sun's death (1925), their differences would become irreconcilable. Chiang Kai-shek began the Northern Expedition to eliminate the northern warlords in 1927 as well as to capture the government in Beijing. At this time Chiang with the KMT also attempted to eliminate the CCP. The massacre in Shanghai followed, Mao's Great March, the Xian incident, the Japanese invasion etc. all leading up to and involving World War II.

From what is seen, China had had some type of civil war, some type of continuous struggle between factions and regions of the same country, from 1911 on. That the factions changed, rose and fell, and possessed different ideologies mattered little; in effect a state of a continuous civil war existed. But by the time the Sino-Japanese war began in 1937; the struggle had narrowed down to two surviving factions, the KMT and the CCP. This is the civil war that most speak of; it would continue into and after World War II.

What about Taiwan? Where was Taiwan throughout this whole period? The partial half of the island of Taiwan that the Manchu Qing had conquered and loosely ruled from 1683 on had become a province of the Manchu Kingdom in 1885 but it quickly exited the stage in 1895. This was long before 1911 and China's Civil Wars.

After losing the war with Japan in 1895, the Qing government had ceded Taiwan, Penghu, and the Liaotung Peninsula to Japan. Western powers would pressure Japan to return the Liaotung Peninsula but Taiwan would subsequently become a colony of Japan from 1895 to 1945. Japan would take over both halves of the island and be the first to unite and rule all of Taiwan.

When the Chinese had their own rebellion against the Qing rule and the start of their civil wars in 1911, Taiwan had already been a part of Japan for sixteen years. For this reason it is easy to see that the Taiwanese experience has been totally different from that of China. The people of Taiwan possess a different history from that of China. This brings us up to 1945 and the end of World War II and of Part I of this presentation. One can easily see that so far Taiwan was never a part of China's Civil Wars.