In 1895, the government of the Qing Dynasty in China signed the Treaty of Shiminoseki, officially ceding Taiwan to Japan. For the next 50 years, Taiwan and China developed along different paths.
As a result of the Meiji Restoration, Japan had adopted Western knowledge and new ideas, such as the rule of law, medicine, industry and education, seeing dramatic changes in Japanese society and culture and transforming the nation into a great power in Asia. When Taiwan became a Japanese colony, it too had this Western culture transposed upon it.
Among the many changes Japan made to Taiwan were the construction of roads, telecommunications, schools and hospitals practising modern medicine and hygiene, as well as major improvements to agriculture. Taiwan saw improvements in all aspects of life and soon it was one of the most industrialized nations in Asia, second only to its colonial master, Japan. The Taiwanese, too, were becoming educated, taking on Western concepts and the latest ideas from around the world. In the short space of only 20 years, the Taiwanese public was starting to become politically engaged.
Taiwanese were now demanding political equality, rallying around the idea of the self-determination of peoples currently popular in European countries, and seeking new rights in the spirit of liberty, equality and fraternity. With the subsequent militarization of Japan, such ideas of freedom were being suppressed both in Japan itself and in Taiwan, making the Taiwanese all the more convinced of the need for democracy, freedom and human rights.
Compare this with the contemporaneous situation in China. By this time, the Qing Dynasty was in serious decline, strangled by its dictatorial system and corruption. For thousands of years, the cycle of dynastic change in China had seen different regimes come and go, but the country was never able to escape from authoritarian rule.
Even when Republic of China (ROC) founding father Sun Yat-sen (孫中山) overthrew the Qing in 1911, establishing the ROC, China continued to be under the control of a dictatorial regime. Nothing changed, despite a succession of presidents following the establishment of the republic.
The country soon descended into infighting between local warlords, subsequently becoming embroiled in the Second Sino-Japanese War and then the civil war between the nationalists, under the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), and the communists, led by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
The land was devoid of the rule of law and of discipline, awash with corruption and greed. The people had absolutely no assurances over their possessions or their personal safety and were entirely at the mercy of fate.
Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) and the KMT held the reins of power amid all this chaos. Chiang was the classic totalitarian dictator.
The experiences of the two countries could not have been more different. Suddenly, without warning, the lives of the Taiwanese were again transformed as the KMT forces occupied their island. One can imagine how difficult it was for the Taiwanese having to come to terms with the clash of these two cultures. The Manchurian warlord and KMT supporter Zhang Xueliang (張學良) commented on the situation in Taiwan at about the time of the 228 Incident, saying: “They [the KMT] are trampling on the Taiwanese.”