THE immediate problem that confronts Formosa is military. Last winter the Chinese Communists completed construction of a string of airbases along the Fukien coast on the mainland opposite the island. These bases are backed up by a network of airfields—including many built by Americans during the war—stretching across the interior of China to the foothills of Tibet. The new Communist airbases have been stocked with petrol and lubricants, and equipped with radar and anti-aircraft guns. The Communists also have kept near at hand the thousands of junks and other craft they assembled for an invasion of Formosa before the U.S. Seventh Fleet moved in to protect the island in June 1950.

If the Korean war ends without a settlement that includes provisions for Formosa, the Chinese Communists may shift a substantial portion of their strength south. Their high command can then choose between launching a full-fledged invasion of Formosa or putting the Chinese Red Air Force, reported to number about 1,600 combat planes, to work on the island. The Red Air Force can now stage out of relatively secure bases deep in the interior and strike against American planes and ships that have only limited air warning facilities.

In anticipation of possible Communist attack against Formosa, the United States is working with the Chinese Nationalists to organize a defense of their island refuge. A U.S. Military Assistance Advisory Group has been functioning on the island officially since May 1, 1951. During the fiscal year ending June 30, 1951, it supervised the use of about $78,000,000 worth of military aid. The Mutual Security Program for 1951-1952 included an additional appropriation of roughly $217,000,000 to provide military aid to Formosa.

In addition to enlarging several Formosan airfields and modernizing other installations, the American effort has aimed chiefly at reorganizing, training, arming and otherwise rehabilitating the Nationalist military establishment. These Nationalist forces number nearly 650,000 men. They include roughly 90,000 in the Air Force, some 50,000 in the Navy and about 20,000 in the Combined Service Forces. Political officers and garrison troops account for about 120,000. The remaining 370,000 can be classed as ground forces.

But these figures suggest a much stronger force than actually can be mobilized for action. There are several regiments of infantry in the Air Force, used to guard airfields, and the Navy includes a force of Marines. There is a superabundance of officers, including more than 125 admirals and 1,600 generals. Many of the troops suffer from disease, particularly tuberculosis. When the Red Armies completed conquest of the mainland in 1949, the Nationalist soldiers best able to evacuate to Formosa were often the older men assigned to rear area service units near the ports. There is no working retirement system; the Nationalists lack the funds to pay for pensions and instead transfer old soldiers to less active service such as cooking. Each year the entire military establishment grows that much older.

From among these forces the American military advisors are encouraging the Chinese to select the 300,000 who are judged to be potential combat effectives and organize them into a modern fighting force. To accomplish this a drastic reorganization of the Nationalist military is required. Infantry, artillery and armored forces have operated as semi-autonomous units, without training in the combined operations that are so essential for the defense of Formosa's coastal plain. Each branch of the service is jealous of its identity. Old personal rivalries that cost so many battles on the mainland are still much in evidence; but now the generals are all crowded together on one island.

Morale within the Nationalist forces has been hurt by the expanding activities of a corps of political officers under the command of President Chiang Kai-shek's elder son, General Chiang Ching-kuo. Two of these political officers are assigned to each company where they manage political indoctrination and report on the activities of all officers and men. Many Chinese officers complain that a number of their comrades have been imprisoned without trial on charges made by these political officers and that the system generates suspicion and intrigue. Official explanations state that these political officers are needed to counter Communist attempts at subversion, but responsible American and Chinese officers believe that more effective and less destructive methods to insure loyalty can be devised.

The activity of political officers is closely related to the practice of political interference with the military. Officers still are promoted or demoted on occasion without the previous knowledge of their superiors. In practice there is no single clearly defined chain of command—a basic requirement for morale and loyalty. The Generalissimo apparently lacks confidence in a single subordinate command structure and tends to balance one group in the military against another. The resulting duplication of responsibility is another reminder of the military practices that proved so destructive on the mainland.

American efforts to improve upon this military structure are handicapped by the fact that the members of the U.S. Military Assistance Advisory Group are only advisors. They screen Chinese requests for military aid and demonstrate use and maintenance of the new equipment in training. They are helping improve the inadequate diet of Chinese troops and supporting the development of combat rations and improved uniforms. But their suggestions usually are ignored when they affect the crucial personal relationships within the Nationalist military structure. Chinese generals sometimes admit the soundness of American recommendations and then confess their own inability to alter existing arrangements; each of the senior Chinese military leaders is so much a prisoner of his old loyalties and accumulated obligations that none is able to cut across the channels of influence and make drastic changes. These considerations have led some responsible Chinese and Americans to conclude that the military humbug that has plagued the Nationalists for so long can be eliminated, and the combat potential of the Chinese soldier realized, only when an American is placed in command. In the absence of such an arrangement, they feel progress could be made by sending Chinese Nationalist forces to Korea, where it would be possible to reorganize and train them in combat situations under United Nations command.

Even such measures, however, would provide no adequate answer to the strategic problems posed by the threat of Communist attack on Formosa. These strategic considerations can, I think, be summarized as follows:

1. The Nationalists alone never can organize and support a permanent defense of Formosa against the kind of total attack the Chinese Communists can launch if the Korean war ends. This will be the situation even after the United States has outfitted the Chinese forces as now planned.

2. Since the United States has determined that the Chinese Communists must be kept out of Formosa, at the very least for the period that America is responsible for the defense of Japan, it is a minimum requirement that the U.S. Fleet and Air Force continue to participate in the protection of the island and the 100-mile-wide strait that separates it from the mainland.

3. The Nationalists can make only "token" invasions of the mainland, unless they receive American protection, supply and military support, including troops. Such action automatically would involve America in full-scale war with the Chinese Communists and perhaps with the Russians.

4. Although the Nationalists continue to use the myth of an early return to the mainland to bolster their own morale and enlist support abroad, the most sincere proponents of this line of action at present are the native Formosans, who see it as a means of ridding themselves of an unwelcome tax burden.


In many respects the island of Formosa is one of our planet's more attractive garden spots. Almost three-fourths of the land surface is covered by extremely rugged mountain ranges that rise abruptly out of the Pacific and, near the east coast, reach a height of 14,000 feet. Most of the approximately 9,000,000 civilians, including about 8,000,000 native Formosans, live on the lush subtropical plain that skirts the west coast of the 270-mile-long island.

This naturally rich island was systematically developed by the Japanese after they were ceded Formosa by the terms of the Treaty of Shimonoseki in 1895. As part of their pioneer colonial effort, the Japanese introduced a system of public health, and built railways, roads and a hydroelectric power system. They started a sugar industry that achieved a prewar peak production of more than 1,000,000 tons per year. Farmers were taught to use improved seed and fertilizer. Before the last war there was a popular saying on Formosa that the island produced enough rice in one year to feed itself for three; the surplus was shipped to Japan. The Japanese also developed Formosan production of superior varieties of oranges, pineapples and bananas. They organized production of tea, camphor and fish and built cement and paper making plants.

When their police measures failed to keep the rebellious Formosans in line, the Japanese introduced universal primary education as a method of inculcating allegiance. All they sought was to help supply Japan's needs for labor, food and raw materials, but, incidentally, their program also developed for the Formosans the highest material standard of living that is available to ordinary citizens anywhere in the Far East, with the possible exception of Japan itself. Whereas the ordinary Chinese farmer on the mainland usually goes to bed shortly after sundown because he cannot afford to burn an oil lamp, the Formosan farmer stands a good chance of having an electric light bulb in his house. Instead of the straw sandals so commonly used on the mainland, the Formosan wears rubber shoes. Unlike his cousin across the Formosan Strait, an ordinary Formosan expects to own a bicycle. Island farmers haul their heavy goods on ox-drawn wagons with pneumatic tires that carry a ton and a half—a great advance compared to mainland peasants who usually depend either upon wooden wheelbarrows or their own backs.

This prosperous economy suffered substantial war damage. Before V-J Day brought an end to hostilities, American submarines had sunk the Japanese ships that carried fertilizer to Formosa. Our bombers destroyed large areas in several cities, burned railway yards, and, by attacking dams and power facilities, reduced electricity production to one-third of the prewar level.

At the end of the war the United States assisted in the repatriation of all the Japanese administrators, engineers, technicians and businessmen who had managed the island. They with their families numbered about 300,000. The Nationalists, who had difficulty finding enough men to govern the newly liberated coastal cities of China and Manchuria, sent to Formosa only a small number of first-rate technicians. These few, however, did a superior job of patching up essential facilities. The Nationalist Government also dispatched to Formosa a group of loot-hungry officials. The activities of these men, combined with the policy of milking Formosa to feed the mainland, further depressed the standard of living, and in February 1947 goaded the Formosans into open revolt. The uprising was put down by troops brought in from the mainland. Observers on the island at the time estimate that between 5,000 and 10,000 Formosan leaders were hunted out and killed in an action that has left a deep scar, despite the later execution, by the Nationalist Government, of the governor responsible for the slaughter.

When the spectacular Communist victories in 1949 drove the Nationalist Government off the mainland, Formosa was poorly prepared to absorb the influx of refugees and troops crowding the LST's that arrived from Shanghai and Canton. However, the Nationalists came equipped with the desperate determination to survive. And they brought to Formosa many of their ablest administrators, whose energies formerly were dispersed from Manchuria to southwest China.

Within the last two and one-half years these underpaid officials have made significant progress in reassembling the tattered ends of their government. They have introduced new vigor and effectiveness into the Formosan provincial administration and carried through some important reforms. One of the most effective of these is the land-reform program which has denied the Communists an opportunity to organize rural discontent. All rents have been reduced to a maximum of 37.5 percent of the main crop, and tenants have received written land contracts and achieved security of tenure. The program is now in its second stage, with the sale to tenants of public land confiscated from the Japanese. The third and final phase of the program calls for government purchase of large private land holdings and the sale of these properties to tenants. The returns on this effort are already apparent in falling land prices, as capital moves to invest in business and industry. More working capital is now in the hands of actual farmers, and there are greater incentives for production now that peasant families retain a larger share of the proceeds of their labors.

The Chinese have been greatly aided in their efforts at reconstruction and development by a rather unique American aid program. The United States effort, organized originally under E.C.A., and now under the Mutual Security Administration, has developed along three distinct lines. Through its commodity program the American M.S.A. mission finances and supervises importation of critical items such as fertilizer, textiles, bean cakes and replacement parts for industry. As a rule these items are sold on the market and most of the proceeds are used to finance the Chinese Government's deficit. As a second phase of the American aid effort, the United States Government, through M.S.A., finances the employment by the Chinese of the services of the J.G. White Engineering Company to assist industrial rehabilitation and development. The results of this effort have become very evident during the last year. The railway system has been repaired, and daily tonnage hauled is more than twice what it was at the end of 1949. Two and one-half years ago there were about 5,000 spindles operating on Formosa; late last year this number had been increased to more than 95,000. In 1951 the island's plants produced 104,000 tons of chemical fertilizers—an amount far short of consumption needs, which are more than 500,000 tons, but a great improvement over the previous year.

The most distinctive feature of the American aid program has been its support of the Chinese and American Joint Commission on Rural Reconstruction. This Commission, composed of Chinese and American agricultural specialists, was first established under the provisions of the China Aid Act, passed by Congress in 1948. The members of the Commission initiated their efforts on the mainland during the last hectic months of the civil war. However, it is only on Formosa that they have had the time and opportunity to implement a comprehensive program of helping Chinese farmers use more modern methods. The program has affected almost every phase of Formosan farm life. The specialists have worked with local officials to organize self-supporting public health stations in the villages. Improved seed, pesticides and purebred breeding stock have been made available to farmers. Island-wide programs have been carried out to vaccinate cattle against the dread rinderpest, and hogs against cholera. Formosan farmers are being taught new methods and attitudes toward their work and community through illustrated pamphlets, posters and a rural newspaper. Many of these efforts are channeled through the Farmers Associations that were established by the Japanese as a control and distribution mechanism, but now are gradually being converted into member-managed coöperatives. There is mounting evidence of the effectiveness of this kind of aid. Last year Formosa produced the largest rice crop in its history—more than 1,500,000 tons. This crop, which was partly achieved at the expense of a reduced sugar acreage, left a small surplus for export. The island now carries more than 1,800,000 hogs compared to 1,300,000 two years ago—important news to Chinese who value pork as much as Americans do beef. The Commission has found that social change to insure more equitable distribution of benefits is a necessary counterpart of any comprehensive attempt to increase farm production. In keeping with this discovery they are now working to improve rural credit facilities to prevent money lenders from syphoning off returns from increased production.


Despite these substantial achievements, the pressure of the military and governmental burden periodically threatens to wreck the Formosan economy and start runaway inflation. The heavy taxes levied, particularly on Formosan farmers, meet slightly more than one-half of the total internal expenditures on the island. To date the Nationalists have covered part of the deficit by selling gold bullion, and public property such as houses confiscated from the Japanese. The remainder has been financed largely through the sales proceeds made possible by American economic aid. In the fiscal year ending June 30, 1951, E.C.A. allocated more than $97,000,000 for economic aid to Formosa. The Mutual Security Act for 1951-1952 provided almost as much again. However, the new barracks, roads, bridges and runways demanded by the present military program on Formosa all must be paid for in local currency. And the Chinese have very little gold bullion left to meet a financial emergency. The indications are that unless military expenditures are reduced, for example by training more effectively for productive work the several hundred thousand military personnel who are unfit for combat, only increased American aid can save the Nationalists from resorting to printing more money.

Without the present military load most economists agree that Formosa could be both prosperous and self-supporting. This would be especially true if capital were available to develop Formosa's great hydroelectric power and industrial possibilities. However, long-term prospects must take account of the rate of population growth. The records indicate that there were about 2,000,000 persons on Formosa when the Japanese took the island in 1895. Since then the native population has increased about fourfold. The present birth rate is more than 42 per 1,000 and the death rate is less than 11 per 1,000. And yet the island has only 2,000,000 acres of arable land and all of it is cultivated. Rice production per acre per year is higher in Formosa than anywhere else in the Far East; the average yield is about five times as high as it is in the Philippines. There are limited opportunities for further expanding productivity. But, as one American agricultural scientist expressed it, "We can begin to see the ceiling that is feasible with presently known methods." A few of the Chinese leaders are concluding that if they are to avoid a falling standard of living and with it growing discontent, they must somehow limit the rate of population growth. In approaching this problem the Chinese have received no assistance from the United States Government or its representatives on Formosa.

Within the last two and one-half years the Chinese Nationalists have made only rather halting progress in evolving more democratic methods of government. But the obstacles to the growth of democracy include more than lack of faith in a popularly elected government among many senior Nationalist leaders; Formosa is desperately short of democratic experience and education. When the Nationalists retreated to Formosa in 1949 the ranks of their government and army were infiltrated by a large number of Communist agents. Chinese on the island, whose families remained on the mainland, also were easy marks for Communist blackmail. As a consequence, the Nationalists acted hurriedly and sometimes ruthlessly to stamp out Communist activities, arresting and interrogating some thousands of suspects. They captured and executed some real Communist agents and frightened others off the island, but they also intimidated and imprisoned many individuals who appeared to be innocent. At present several thousand persons are in jail, where many of them have been held for more than a year and a half without benefit of public trial.

For the great majority of Chinese on Formosa the fearful feature of this situation is the lack of legal protection for the ordinary citizen. He can be arrested at night by a squad of military police, tried by a military court-martial and sentenced, with little opportunity for appeal. Once taken into custody, the ordinary Chinese is in effect at the mercy of the garrison headquarters. A person may be arrested because he actually is subversive. He can also be picked up because someone who wants his job or property has denounced him as a Communist to the authorities. Responsible Chinese officials state that within the last two years much progress has been made in correcting such conditions, and that no civilian now can be legally arrested without a civil police warrant. To the extent that this regulation is enforced, it should provide the civil authorities with a record of individuals who have been arrested by the various secret police organizations and make it possible to trace persons who disappear. The Cabinet has ruled that defense counsel must be allowed in military courts and that the accused must be permitted the presence of his family and material witnesses during the trial. And the cabinet also has decided that all cases of alleged violations of economic regulations must be dealt with by civil courts rather than by military tribunals.

However, there is still no civilian board empowered to review and rule on the cases of all persons arrested. In the absence of such a board, with supreme authority, and the means to make independent investigations, the garrison headquarters, the special police and several secret police organizations exercise enormous power. Many Chinese feel that with the added security from Communist attack made possible by American participation in the defense of Formosa there is no adequate justification for this lack of due process of law, which tends to discourage even constructive criticism of the Government. They are particularly disturbed by the lack of respect for civilian authority demonstrated by police and garrison officers.

The absence of effective rule by law and resulting limitations on freedom of expression were reflected in the elections held on the county and municipal levels throughout Formosa last year. The elections started in the southern sections of the island where there was considerable freedom to campaign and vote. Indications are that about one-half of the offices in that area were filled by relatively fair elections. But when it became apparent that a great majority of Formosans were winning office, the Kuomintang Party machine stepped in and so managed the elections that their candidates were chosen for most of the offices in northern Formosa. In some districts where its man was not elected, the Kuomintang continues to exercise indirect control either through the police or by placing a party man in the same office with the local official. Some Nationalists have justified this practice on the grounds that there are few local Formosan leaders experienced in managing public affairs.

This approach to the elections, however, reflects a much deeper political conflict within the Nationalist régime; the senior leaders are not agreed upon what kind of government they should develop. A number of Chinese leaders would like to see the creation on Formosa of a genuinely democratic society with protection and opportunity for the individual. These men include several members of the Cabinet, and the Governor of the island. But they lack a commonly agreed-upon, clear-cut program for applying the political principles they have learned from the West. Most real authority on the island, however, belongs to another group that can best be identified as the Kuomintang Reform Committee. The 16 members of this policy-making body of the Kuomintang were appointed by Chiang Kai-shek in his capacity as Director-General of the Party. Most of these men subscribe to the principle of democratic government, but tend to think of it as an objective to be attempted after they have liberated the mainland. Meanwhile, they are working to make the Kuomintang a more efficient and disciplined party. Some of their actions suggest they believe the mainland was lost because their control was not sufficiently thorough. It is significant that the Kuomintang Party reforms, announced in July 1950, adopt as one of the principles of organization the system of "democratic centralism." This permits open discussion in party meetings, but requires that once a decision is reached all members must obey. Therein it is similar to Chinese Communist Party practice.

These conflicting ideologies are developing among a people who have only a vague conception of democracy. Japanese education made the Formosans literate and taught them technical skills, orderliness and respect for authority. It did not encourage appreciation for nonmaterial political and cultural values. And today a large proportion of the young people on Formosa adopt the principle that might makes right. Chinese educators working on the island since 1945 have been too poor and powerless to modify these attitudes substantially. They also have been handicapped by the activities of secret police informers who report on students and teachers in the schools. The present educational facilities are not equipped, financed and staffed in a manner that enables them to turn out young men with the technical qualifications needed to manage the Formosan economy at its present rate of productivity. There is even less evidence that young Chinese are being trained to carry forward the fine traditions of synthesizing Chinese and Western thought and science that have been built up during the past century of our contact with the Orient. So far the great economic, military and political leverage possessed by the United States on Formosa has not been used to encourage constructive political, intellectual and scientific development of a long-term character.


The essential question for all Chinese, whose illusions of the "New Democracy" have been shattered by the harsh realities of Communist rule, is whether Formosa holds any promise for the future of their race. It is already apparent that the determining factor will be, not the international legal status of Formosa and its Chinese Nationalist Government, but the opportunity available on the island for ordinary Chinese to express and realize their hopes. The first need of the Chinese today is for an acceptable ideal that offers a demonstrable alternative to their presently inadequate experience. Formosa today does not provide this. Within the last 18 months Communist land-reform tactics on the mainland have alienated large elements among the more than 10,000,000 overseas Chinese who live in Southeast Asia. But many overseas Chinese leaders are afraid to make trips to Formosa to organize anti-Communist resistance for fear they will be imprisoned because of old personal and political differences with senior Nationalists on the island. Some of China's ablest thinkers and leaders, who have escaped from the Communists to Hong Kong, are not permitted by the Nationalists to enter Formosa. Most of the Chinese students, professors and businessmen in America are reluctant to return to the island. The businessmen see no adequate legal protection for their enterprise. Students and professors whose skills are needed on the island see little prospect of being able to do worthwhile work. The Nationalist Government, which fled from the mainland, scorned and sometimes hated by the people it had ruled, has not yet won a substantially different reputation with a significant number of Chinese, particularly on the mainland. As the Communists proceed with the liquidation of the unconverted officials, intellectuals and gentry who once were the link between the Nationalist Government and the Chinese people, this becomes even more difficult. Communist efforts also are aided by systematic reëducation of the young, rewriting of the history books and capitalizing upon the national prestige they have won as a result of the Korean war.

And yet, when viewed in a longer perspective, Formosa has many of the physical prerequisites for building one of the most attractive societies in the Far East. For example, it is estimated that at least 15 years of intensive effort, including heavy capital investment, would be required to bring the Philippines to the same level of development. The high productivity and extensive use of modern scientific farm methods as applied to Asian conditions suggest Formosa could make an almost ideal demonstration area for showing other nationals in the Far East how to improve their agriculture.

It is to some of the Chinese leaders and thinkers whose values most closely harmonize with those of the West, however, that Formosa suggests the most significant possibilities. Like most Chinese they have a keen sense of history. They are convinced that if all the significant elements of the Chinese people are fitted to the Communist mold, their race will lose many of its finest values. In order to avoid such a loss to world culture and to offer their people an alternative standard for judging life, they feel it is essential that there be maintained outside of Communist domination an area where Chinese civilization can carry forward its great traditions. If Formosa is to be used for this purpose, they are convinced that the United States must more skillfully and firmly use the power that is ours to insure healthy development. It is now apparent that if our concern for the defense of Formosa stops merely with the prevention of invasion it prejudices the democratic case throughout the Far East, and at the same time jeopardizes the military effort itself. We are forced to make certain that the total economy is sound. Active American governmental and private interest in the administration of justice under the rule of law on Formosa is necessary if we really want the Chinese people to be on our side. In order to provide non-Communist Chinese leadership for the future, efforts must be launched now to train up young men and women with the necessary qualifications. If blunders are to be avoided, it will be necessary to provide American diplomatic representation with enough support to permit courageous and sustained action in dealing with the Chinese situation. Charges of interference in the internal affairs of another country beg the essential issue; in the minds of the ordinary citizens of Formosa the United States is primarily responsible for the presence on their island of the Nationalist Government. In their minds, the decisive question is whether our interference has been in their interest.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • ALBERT RAVENHOLT, former United Press correspondent in the Far East; staff member in the Far East of the Institute of Current World Affairs, 1948-1950
  • More By Albert Ravenholt