The third “China” on the list is what is now referred to as Taiwan. Although the legal name of the territory is the “Republic of China,” “Taiwan” will be used for clarity’s sake in this article.

Taiwan was historically a sort of wayward province occupied by pirates and other unsavory types, but was more or less brought under central control during the Ming Dynasty. Not much happened there for a few hundred years.

In 1911, a revolution took place in mainland China that ended the dynastic era and created the Republic of China. Its first president was a Western-educated, Christian doctor named Sun Yat-sen. Despite what happens beyond this point, both mainland China and Taiwan revere him as a hero and the “George Washington” of China. He’s on the front of every Taiwanese dollar bill.

Dr. Sun died in 1925 and an enormous power struggle took place to choose his successor. The man who finally took control of the new republic and the ruling Kuomintang (KMT) Party was General Chiang Kai-shek. Immediately he sought to consolidate his power and reunify a China that had been partitioned off by warlords since the revolution. He was largely successful in this regard, and moved the national capital from Beijing in the north to Nanjing on the east coast.

In 1937, Japan invaded China, thus beginning World War II. Chiang, being an extreme anti-communist, thought it would be better to turn many of his weapons against a growing communist movement in the countryside rather than fight off the invaders. This did not go over very well with the general public, and eventually a military alliance was signed between the Chinese Communist Party (led by a young man named Mao Zedong) and the KMT. The KMT did much of the regular fighting and ended up taking over 90 percent of the war casualties. Just as the war was coming to a close in 1945, Chiang turned on his communist partners and attempted to eradicate them once and for all. Despite superior numbers and equipment, Chiang lost the ensuing civil war. In 1949, completely beaten and with no further support from the West, Chiang retreated to Taiwan with 2 million supporters. Mao Zedong became leader of mainland China, and established the “People’s Republic of China,” while Chiang called Taiwan the “Republic of China” and plotted an invasion strategy.

This invasion never occurred of course, but Taiwan maintained a seat on the UN Security Council for 25 years. The whole world except for the Soviet bloc thought of Taiwan’s few million residents as “Free China” and the mainland as “Red China.” Free China, with it’s capital in Taipei, was given full diplomatic representation. During the 1970s, diplomatic recognition was switched to the communist government in Beijing, and Taiwan was identified as a part of the China polity. The Taiwanese do not approve of this action of course, and maintained de facto independence. In the 1990s, Taiwan transformed from a military dictatorship to a full liberal democracy. The PRC was, and remains, a closed autocracy.

Taiwan’s rapid transformation is especially interesting because it’s still happening. The KMT ruled through military oppression for decades after exile to Taiwan, and it wasn’t until 2000 that the Taiwanese elected a candidate from an opposition party. In 2008, the presidency and over 75% of the legislature returned to the KMT, this time through an entirely democratic election. Taiwan’s politics are certainly more tumultuous than our rather bland version, but they are free and fair. Let’s look at this liberal democracy more closely.

Taiwan is “liberal” because it has a constitution guaranteeing personal freedoms akin to the US Bill of Rights. There is separation of powers between an Executive Yuan, a Legislative Yuan, and a Judicial Yuan. Additionally, Taiwan has two additional branches that the US does not: an Examination Yuan for hiring and testing of civil servants, and a Control Yuan which offers government oversight and auditing. The territory is governed by a president who simultaneously serves as commander in chief of the armed forces. Although not an entirely federalist system, there is a devolution of power down to county and city level. All in all, a system that would seem pretty familiar to anyone who’s read the US Constitution. One unique caveat, as a result of Taiwan’s rather interesting history, is that the constitution often refers to “Chinese” citizens and makes provisions for representatives from the mainland. Remember that when the Republic of China moved to Taiwan, they had every intent of retaking the mainland by force. Today it might seem a bit of a stretch, but when writing the constitution, the authors clearly took the mindset that Taiwan was but a province in the greater Republic, with Taipei it’s provisional capital. Still, license plates on cars and motorcycles continue to have “Taiwan Province” on them.

Taiwan is democratic because since the late 1990’s, a dynamic party system has emerged that has supported very competitive and fair elections. Contrary to the dominant left-right divide elsewhere in the world, the two camps of Taiwanese politics revolve around the Taiwan-mainland China relationship. There are a number of smaller parties with nuanced positions on economics and foreign affairs, but for the most part they have much in common except for the China issue. The “pan-blue” camp, led by the KMT, supports much closer political and economic integration with mainland China, and maintains that Taiwan is part of the Chinese sphere of influence. The “pan-green” camp, led by the Democratic Progressive Party, supports indigeinous Taiwanese culture and full de jure independence. The official line of mainland China, the United Nations, and the United States falls squarely with the pan-blues, but many human rights and democracy advocates support the self-determination of the pan-greens. The two political alginments have gotten in countless fights verbally and physically, often times in the halls of the legislature. But even with each side claiming the other will doom Taiwan, there is no reason to believe Taiwanese democracy and liberty is going away anytime soon.

Unless, of course, mainland China attacks. So far, both sides are relatively comfortable with the status quo. Mainland China rattles off about retaking the renegade province by force, and sticks missiles pointed at Taiwan on its eastern shore. At the same time, Taiwan has a huge stash of (American) Patriot anti-missile systems that would probably destroy most of these missiles in midair. Taiwan also has a proportionally huge army, with 300,000 troops on an island of only 23 million. These troops are fully armed with advanced American weaponry, and would likely be able to put up a considerable fight against the mainland’s 2 million troops of inferior quality. The KMT government has done much to smooth over diplomatic ties with the mainland in recent years, but many Taiwanese feel they are selling out their sovereignty in exchange for only slightly improved ties and a boatload of economic incentives. This is certainly one of the world’s most troubled and noteworthy diplomatic relationships, and worthy of substantial concern for the US. It’s highly likely that the only way Taiwan’s liberal democracy will ever be damaged is through the imposition of mainland policies with military force.