It has rekindled questions about the complex and sometimes adversarial relationship between the two sides, which broke up in the middle of the civil war in 1949 and have followed very different paths since then – one towards liberal democracy, the other towards increasingly repressive authoritarian rule under the Chinese Communist Party, which lays claim to Taiwan, despite never having ruled the island.
The following is an overview of this background and the current situation between the parties.
WHAT IS THE STORY BETWEEN CHINA AND TAIWAN?
Taiwan was only a province of China for 10 years before being ceded to Japan as a colony in 1895 and then handed over to Chiang Kai-shek’s Republic of China at the end of World War II. Taiwan separated from China again in 1949 when Chiang transferred his government to the island as Mao Zedong’s communists took power on the mainland.
Although they have established strong economic ties, political reconciliation efforts have stumbled in recent years as Taiwan asserts its own identity and China steps up its demands for the island to agree to its terms of unification between the parties.
WHAT ABOUT DIVISIONS WITHIN TAIWAN?
Migrants from Taiwan and the mainland were initially divided by language, culture and politics, with mainlanders continuing to identify closely with China and clinging to Chiang’s dream of eventually returning home as victors. During nearly four decades of martial law, political power rested primarily with mainlanders while Taiwanese dominated the private sector.
Although there were intermarriage, friction, confrontation and bullying between them was not unusual. Some young people on the mainland have formed gangs linked to organized crime, the government and the military, in part to defend their interests. Among young islanders, these divisions have largely receded with the flourishing of distinct Taiwanese identity.
Now 68, Chou seems to have been fairly typical of the cohort of “second-generation mainlanders” who never fully integrated into Taiwanese society or came to see the island as anything other than a province of China with which they continued to identify.
Chou appears to have left Taiwan before the process of democratization and Taiwanese identity took hold, so his participation in the pro-reunification group, by “Taiwanese standards, is quite marginal,” said James Lin, a historian of Taiwanese history at the University of Washington.
Taiwan politics “is different from fringe diaspora politics,” Lin said.
WHAT ARE THE GOVERNMENT POLICIES?
China claims that Taiwan is part of its territory without the right to independent recognition as a state or representation on the world stage. Since Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen took office in 2016, Beijing has refused any contact with her government.
China regularly sends military planes into the identification of Taiwan’s air defense in what it calls an advertisement of its threat to use force. He adopted increasingly threatening language, warning that Tsai, his ruling pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party and others will pay a terrible price for refusing his demands and that Taiwan will be attacked if it officially declares independence.
Tsai says Taiwan does not need to make such a declaration since it is already de facto independent and has refused to meet China’s basic demand to recognize Taiwan as part of the Chinese nation. She built on Taiwan’s traditionally strong ties with the United States, Japan and other allies as she sought to bolster the armed forces’ ability to withstand a possible Chinese invasion.
HOW DO THEIR AUDIENCES PERCEIVE THE SITUATION?
China does not allow any independent polls on the issue, but public sentiment tends to be strongly in favor of its arguments about the necessity and inevitability of unification between the parties. This fits perfectly with the Communist Party’s relentless propaganda on the issue and the strongly nationalistic tone it has adopted since abandoning orthodox Marxism.
By contrast, support for unification has fallen to single-digit percentages in Taiwanese public opinion polls, with the vast majority favoring continuation of the status quo of de facto independence. Most now identify exclusively as Taiwanese, with the government and many social organizations supporting this view. The Presbyterian Church, whose parishioners have been attacked in the Church of California, has been closely associated with the pro-democracy movement and the promotion of Taiwan’s independent identity. It remains unclear whether the shooter targeted the church because of his Presbyterian affiliation.
Concerns have also grown over Chinese influence on Taiwanese media and the impact of propaganda campaigns by the Communist Party’s United Front Work Department, which works in overseas and under-the-radar Chinese communities. in Taiwan to promote China’s political agenda. At a news conference in Taipei on Wednesday, Presbyterian pastor Chen Shin-liang said the government should seize on the incident to “address the hate speech being spread by some United Front groups in Taiwan.”
ARE CONFRONTATIONS FREQUENT?
Tensions are higher now than they have been in years, but aside from military threats from China, they have largely been relegated to rhetorical and diplomatic fights.
Overseas, the Chinese and Taiwanese communities overlap in some situations, but Beijing’s demand for political loyalty is creating deep fissures. Taiwanese and Chinese maintain their own student groups on campus, with China maintaining tight control over its nationals. This situation is reflected in the business community and politically aligned groups such as the China Council for Promoting Peaceful National Reunification, with which Chou is said to have had ties. Since filming, photos have surfaced of Chou speaking at one of the group’s events at his Las Vegas home.
Associated Press writer Huizhong Wu and video journalist Johnson Lai contributed to this report.