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My reasons to be interested

The history of Taiwan is surprisingly linked to European exploration in the Far East, in addition to that of its larger neighbours.

Taiwan was a small province of China known to my generation when at school as Formosa. It became newsworthy in 1949 when the defeated Chinese Nationalists, under Chiang Kai-Shek, fled there after the Communists, under Mao Zedong, took control of the mainland. 

When I was in high school Formosa was often in our news and not always positively, with dissidents fleeing the Kuomintang, the ruling party, to the United States and Europe.

Around 1958 I had seen the film Yangtse Incident at our local ‘flicks’.  This stimulated my first interest in the Chinese Civil War. 

It was a stirring story of British daring-do about an incident in 1949 when Communist People's Liberation Army overran the Nationalists along the Yangtze.  The PLA opened fire on a British naval ship, HMS Amethyst, that was in the river.  With the assistance of other British ships the damaged Amethyst eventually navigated the river and escaped at night, running the PLA gauntlet. King George (the present Queen’s father) acknowledged their tenacity and bravery: ‘Up the Empire!’. 

Around the same time I also saw an entirely fictional Hollywood film, Blood Alley, starring John Wayne, about a similar escape under Communist duress.  John commanded a merchant vessel that had to escape and overcome all sorts of Chinese treachery.  This total fiction was presented as if it was true too.

The Korean War was fresh in our minds and the message was clear - the Communist Chinese were very dangerous and very devious.

By the 1960’s the Malayan Emergency then Vietnam dominated our news, confirming these perceptions.  I was in the University Regiment as Vietnam escalated and our Adjutant, a Regular Army officer, went off with our ‘advisors’ and was killed.

From an early age I had a shortwave radio on which I could listen to the broadcasts in English coming out of China.  These were full of bizarre tales and amusing abuse of the ‘running-dog capitalists’ that confirmed my suspicions that the Chinese Communists were as ‘mad as stuck pigs’.

Taiwan remained a bastion against these ‘madmen’, albeit with a single party government under the Kuomintang.  Chiang Kai-Shek remained a military dictator who relied heavily on US support in his vitriolic opposition to Communist China. 

 

Chaing in his office
Chiang Kai-Shek depicted in his office in Taipei

 

In those days we tended to overlook the human rights atrocities of our dictatorial allies. Think of Sukarno in Indonesia, Diệm and Nhu in Vietnam, Marcos in the Philippines not to mention numerous other tyrants and megalomaniacs we, as loyal allies of the US, have ‘turned a blind eye to’ in South America and the Middle East.  

As long as they claimed to be anti-communist they were OK.

As with others of his ilk, during Chiang Kai-Shek’s rule martial law was continuously in place and any political dissent was viciously put down, particularly during the period known as the ‘White Terror’ and his attacks on leading business people described as ‘gangsters’.

He was neither a democrat nor a market economist – nationalising industries and suppressing free enterprise. But he was anti-communist and OK.

Early in 1971, Gough Whitlam, a naughty boy in the crowd cried out ‘Look the Emperor has no clothes!’ as Chiang Kai-Shek passed by. ‘He’s not the real leader of China yelled Gough – I’ll need to go to Beijing to find the real one!’  And so off to China went the Australian Leader of the Opposition. 

It was soon discovered that Henry Kissinger, adviser to US President Nixon, had recently made the same observation.  So that by October that year Taiwan had lost critical US support and was kicked out of the United Nations. China was admitted instead. Chiang Kai-Shek felt betrayed and less than four years later he was dead.

Since that time Taiwan has made great economic and social strides.  It now has democratic elections, albeit they almost always re-elect the Kuomintang and the only time another party won the leaders ended up in jail, convicted of corruption.  

But freedom of speech is allowed and there have even been mass demonstrations against nuclear power – good for Australia as we can sell them more coal.

As a result of educated and empowered women, and rising living standards, the birth rate has fallen to less than replacement level and Taiwan's population growth has dramatically slowed and is now entirely due to aging.

Today it has a population (23.5 million) similar to the whole of Australia.

 

 

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