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How Has Taiwan Changed Since 1968?

Paul lived in Kaohsiung, Taiwan 1973-1979. He also studied Chinese Mandarin and Taiwanese at Yangmingshan near Taipei in 1984 and 1985.

Flag of Taiwan also known as the Republic of China


Changes in Taiwan

There have been astonishing changes in Taiwan since 1968. These changes have been as great as the difference between day and night and as divergent as 180 degrees. They have transformed Taiwan from a primarily agrarian, labor-intensive industry developing nation into an industrialized, high-tech developed country.

First Experience in Taiwan in 1968

My first experience in Taiwan was in November 1968 when I arrived in Taipei as a member of the U.S. Navy. Before landing, I knew next to nothing about this land. I only knew that it was a small island off the eastern coast of China and that it was governed by Chiang Kai-Shek and the Chinese Nationalists. Upon seeing the local people, my initial impressions were that they looked all the same and were dressed very poorly. I also thought they were all Chinese from the mainland. At that time, most people in the United States knew Taiwan by its traditional name Formosa. If you mentioned the name Taiwan, most people would think you were referring to Thailand.

How Taiwan Has Changed From 1968 Until the Present

I still have vivid memories of Taiwan I knew during my military service in Taiwan during the period 1968-1970. There is a saying that "you can't go home again," and I never realized how true it was until I returned after many years and experienced Taiwan for one week in 2005. I was literally in culture shock because everything which I had loved and enjoyed in 1968 was virtually gone and replaced by an imitation of the West. In this article, I will compare and contrast the political, military, infrastructure, social-economic, entertainment, and educational situation in Taiwan in 1968 with that of today.

1. Political Situation and International Standing

A. Taiwan in 1968

In 1968, Taiwan, or the Republic of China as it was formally known then, was a member of the United Nations claiming to represent all of the people in mainland China. Its government was controlled by the Nationalist or Kuomintang (KMT) Party led by President and General Chiang Kai-Shek. Taiwan was merely one province of China where Chiang had his temporary base in hope of returning to govern on the China mainland. There were no opposition political parties because the Nationalist government was still engaged in a state of war with Mao Tse-Tung's Chinese Communists which justified the imposition of martial law in Taiwan.

B. Taiwan Today

Although the name Republic of China is still used by the government today, the designation Taiwan is formally used by the international community and almost all people in Taiwan. Today, Taiwan is not a member of the United Nations and is not recognized by the U.N. The island nation, however, has had political freedom from Communist China since 1945, and it is practicing undeclared de facto independence. To placate Communist China, Taiwan uses the name "China-Taipei" to participate in the Olympic Games and international organizations such as the World Health Organization. Communist China still regards Taiwan as a renegade province; however, the President of China has been recently urging peaceful reunification. Although the Nationalist Party is presently in power, Taiwan has a western-style democracy with multiple opposition parties. The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) is the biggest opposition party, and it controlled the government from 2000-2008 after President Chen Shui-Bian was popularly elected twice. On January 16, 2016, the chairman of the DPP was elected president of Taiwan,

2. Military Situation

A. Taiwan in 1968

In 1968 the Republic of China in Taiwan had at least one million servicemen on active duty and millions as reserves. The primary mission of the military at that time was to retake the China mainland from Chinese Communist control. Chiang Kai-Shek also had a military presence on the small islands of Quemoy and Matsu a few miles off the coast of Fujian Province. At this time the United States had a very close military relationship with Taiwan in the form of a Military Assistance Advisory Group (M.A.A.G.) and numerous bases throughout Taiwan. Taiwan was viewed as an unsinkable aircraft carrier off the eastern coast of China, and it factored heavily in the containment of Chinese aggression during the Cold War. When I first arrived in Taiwan, I was welcomed by many of the local people as an anti-communist warrior to Taiwan.

B. Taiwan Today

Today Taiwan has less than 300,000 active duty servicemen and about three million in its reserves. The primary mission has shifted to that of defense of the island against an attack by Communist China or a naval blockade. Taiwan still controls Quemoy and Matsu, but they are now tourist attractions devoid of soldiers or any military presence. Although the United States closed all of its bases and pulled its troops off Taiwan when it established diplomatic relations with Communist China in 1978, the U.S. still provides military aid to Taiwan in the form of weapons sales for Taiwan's self-defense.

3. Infrastructure and Transportation Situation

A. Taiwan in 1968

Taiwan in 1968 was using decrepit, old infrastructure constructed by Japan during its occupation from 1895-1945. All international and domestic commercial and military aircraft took off and landed at Songshan Airport in the northeastern section of Taipei. Train stations were all outdated and the trains were either diesel or coal-burning steam engines. A 250 km journey from Taipei in the north to Kaohsiung in the south took at least 7 hours. There wasn't one freeway on the island, and two-lane highways ran from north to south. It was very common for the trip from Taipei to Kaohsiung to take 10 hours. No nuclear power plants operated on the island, and numerous open sewage ditches were evident throughout Taipei. Motorcycles and bicycles were prevalent means of transportation as well as small Datsun Bluebird taxis. They were extremely cheap with the meter starting at 6 NT (New Taiwan) dollars for the first 1.25 km. In 1968 one U.S. dollar could be exchanged for 40 NT dollars. If a person needed to save money, he could take a public city bus which would ride him around the city for 1 NT.

B. Taiwan Today

The infrastructure in Taiwan today is similar to that in any developed western country. The modernization of Taiwan's infrastructure began in the middle of the 1970s shortly before Chiang Kai-shek's death in 1975. The United Nations' recognition of Communist China in 1971 and a gradual realization by the Nationalists that they would not retake the mainland before Chiang died caused policymakers to divert money meant for the military to use in upgrading infrastructure. During the 1970s Taiwan embarked on its Ten Great Construction Projects which included a north-south island freeway, a new harbor for Taichung City, export processing zones, a new international airport at Taoyuan, railroad electrification, nuclear power plants, and a high-tech science park at Hsinchu. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Taiwan continued to modernize its infrastructure by constructing a subway and adjoining light rail in the greater Taipei metropolitan area. It built a state-of-the-art train station in Taipei, another north-south island freeway, and additional nuclear power plants. Since 2009 Taiwan has completed the construction of a high-speed magnetic levitation rail which has cut travel time from Taipei to Kaohsiung to 96 minutes. Taxis are more expensive today, but still cheaper than in the U.S. The meter starts at 70 NT for the first 1.25 km. Bus fares in Taipei have also increased, and 15 NT will take you on a moderate-length route. The exchange rate today is one U.S. dollar buying only about 31 NT dollars.

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4. Social-Economic Conditions

A. Taiwan in 1968

In 1968 Taiwan was still a primarily agrarian society that was beginning to develop labor-intensive industries to supplement farm income. These labor-intensive industries supplied such products as textiles, umbrellas, handbags, and suitcases for export to western countries. The per-capita annual income was about 8,000-10,000 U.S. dollars. Upon graduation, more and more of the youth were leaving the rural villages to work in factories in the cities. There wasn't much tourism at this time, but a service industry for U.S. servicemen both stationed in Taiwan and visiting from Vietnam on R and R (Rest and Recreation) was rapidly developing in Taipei.

B. Taiwan Today

Wikipedia lists Taiwan as having the 19th largest economy in the world by Parity Power Purchasing and 24th in nominal GDP of investment and foreign trade. Taiwan today is truly an industrialized developed country focusing on capital and technology-intensive industries. Only 3 percent of its GDP comes from agricultural products. Taiwan exports electronics such as computers, iron and steel, chemicals, vehicles, and communication and information technology products. Because wages have risen in Taiwan, many companies are turning to an influx of foreign workers from countries like Thailand and Vietnam for cheaper labor. Taiwanese businessmen are also doing a lot of investing in the China mainland where labor costs are even lower. The average per-capita income is about 30,000 U.S. dollars and there is a larger disparity in wealth than there was in 1968. As for tourism, it is interesting to note that the number of mainland Chinese tourists has now exceeded the number of Japanese tourists.

5. Recreational and Entertainment Situation

A. Taiwan in 1968

When I first arrived in Taiwan, there was only one TV station. Programming didn't start until about noon and the first program I remember watching was "Twelve O'clock High". Listening to the radio was very popular. A typical Taiwanese or Chinese family would spend a night out by either eating at a restaurant or going to watch movies in huge cinemas. Other forms of family entertainment were variety shows played in huge theaters, puppet shows set up on the street, and also traditional Peking and Taiwanese operas. Both were widely seen on TV. Entertainment for men only included taxi dance halls, wine houses, and salons. Western-style bars, clubs, and supper nightclubs catered to Japanese tourists and U.S. servicemen.

B. Taiwan Today

Taiwan today has both cable and satellite TV like the West where hundreds of stations can be viewed. Besides Chinese Mandarin stations, there are stations in Taiwanese, Hakka, English, and Aboriginal languages. Movies are still popular, but a lot of people like going with their friends or alone to karaoke which didn't exist in 1968. Young people will go to pubs or nightclubs. Baseball has always been popular in Taiwan, and now for the past 25 years, there has been a professional baseball league throughout Taiwan. Many families have more disposable income and are spending it on trips out of the island to such places as Thailand, Hong Kong, Korea, and Singapore

6. Education Situation

A. Taiwan in 1968

In 1968 Taiwan had just initiated a nine-year free compulsory education system. At that time all instruction was in Mandarin, and students were punished for speaking dialects like Taiwanese and Hakka in class. Students all assembled on the school campus and sang "San Min Chu Yi" (The Three Principles of the People) as the national flag was hoisted each morning. All students received political indoctrination in the KMT's Three Principles of the People as written by Sun Yat-Sen the founder of the Republic of China. Older students also had military instruction. Upon graduation from the 9th grade, students had to take stiff entrance exams for admission to an academic senior high school. If a student didn't do well on the test, he would most probably enroll in a vocational school to continue his education. English was taught in the schools, however, there weren't any foreign teachers. The only foreign teachers at the time were teaching mostly college students and adults in private language schools.

B. Taiwan Today

Although Taiwan still has a nine-year free compulsory education system, the government is now pushing for 12 years of compulsory education beginning in 2014. Mandarin is still the official language of instruction, however, students are now able to elect some classes in Taiwanese, Hakka, or aboriginal languages. There is no longer any political instruction. Senior high school students continue to have some military instruction. One big change now is the widespread teaching of English in all schools in Taiwan. Numerous private schools recruit foreign native English-speaking teachers for their 4-5-year-old kindergarten students. The teaching of English as a foreign language in both public and private schools is very popular in all schools throughout the island.

Taiwan has changed immensely in the past 54 years. Not all of the change has been bad because a lot of it was necessary to modernize Taiwan to compete with western countries. What I miss and regret is the displacement of traditional Chinese and Taiwanese culture with a western culture I still can not reconcile.

Statue of Chiang Kai-Shek in the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial in Taipei


What is Chinese Taipei

Taiwan in the 60s and 70s

Taiwan in 2013

89th Floor of 101 Building in Taipei

How Taiwan Has Changed

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This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2011 Paul Richard Kuehn


Paul Richard Kuehn (author) from Udorn City, Thailand on July 10, 2020:

You should go back to Taiwan for a visit, John. Although you won't see much that remains from 68-70, you will experience the new political freedom that the Taiwanese have.

John Des Portes on July 10, 2020:

I lived on Taiwan from August 1968 to August 1970. My father was chief of staff for Taiwan Defense Command. A fascinating and life-changing two years was our family's experience. Such a different culture back then and such great people. Would love to go back for a visit.

Paul Richard Kuehn (author) from Udorn City, Thailand on January 22, 2013:


Thanks for your reading this hub and your comments. According to my knowledge of Chinese history, the Nan King massacre was around 1927. Chiang Kai-Shek didn't flee to Taiwan until 1949; however, a lot of his soldiers arrived before him right after Japan which controlled Taiwan was defeated in the War in 1945.

eslinsider on January 21, 2013:

I watched some video on the Massacre of Nan King (I think?) and how Chiang Kai Shek flew to Taiwan and deserted his fellow army and soldiers in Shanghai. They all died. That didn't make him look so good.

Mary Hyatt from Florida on October 13, 2011:

Your Hub brought back memories of World War II (oops, am I giving away my age???) I remember when it was Formosa. I'd love to go to Taiwan

maddot from Northern NSW, Australia on October 12, 2011:

I've not been to Taiwan but your hub is very interesting. It's always fascinating to watch a country change over the years.

gogogo on October 12, 2011:

Very interesting, I have been to Taiwan twice, it is a beautiful and interesting country. Thnaks for all the info I was not aware of the politics

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