Taiwan - A Country Overview

Information on Taiwan; its place geographically, history, government, climate, security, tourism and foreigners living in Taiwan...


Taiwan consists of one main island and an archipelago of smaller islands which are separated from China by the Taiwan Strait. Its maritime borders are the East China Sea, the South China Sea and the Philippine Sea. Taipei, in the north of the country, is the capital city.

The main island has two very contrasting terrains: rugged forest-covered mountains which cover about two-thirds of the island, with gentle rolling plains in the west. The mountains are the second highest range in Asia after the Himalayas, with 258 peaks over 3,000m. The highest mountain on the island is the 3,952m Yushan, also known as Mount Jade, which is part of a mountain range of the same name on the western side of the island. The Central Mountain Range extends north to south over the whole island and provides a clear split between rivers on the east and west of the country.

The country experiences both typhoons and earthquakes. Earthquakes tend to be most severe on the east side of the country. It is also home to one historically active volcano, Kueishantao Island to the east of the main island, which has not erupted for several centuries.

The majority of Taiwanese people live on the flatter land on the west side of the island, an area dominated by broad fertile plains and where most industry and agriculture takes place.


Taiwan's small aboriginal population arrived more than 3,000 years ago, and are thought to have come from other Pacific islands. Chinese settlement of the island, which began in the twelfth century, intensified in the seventeenth century. Many Chinese settlers came from Fujian Province and their dialect became known as Taiwanese. The Portuguese were the first Europeans to discover Taiwan, although they made no attempt to colonise it. The Dutch and Spanish subsequently fought for its control until 1641 when the Spanish were driven out. In 1662 the Dutch were expelled by the Ming Dynasty loyalist, Cheng Cheng-kung.

Taiwan was a prefecture of Fujian Province until it was given provincial status at the end of the nineteenth century amidst fears of Japanese encroachment. Defeat in the Sino-Japanese War brought Taiwan under Japanese rule, which continued until 1945 and the end of the Second World War. The country moved from a traditional to a modern society under Japanese rule, but there was no attempt to fully assimilate Taiwan culturally.

When the Communist Party took control of China in 1949, two million nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek fled to Taiwan and formed their own government, following the constitution drawn up for China two years previously. Chiang Kai-shek ruled as President until he died in 1975, and the politics of his rule brought little change. His son took over following his death and the government incorporated more of the local population in to its structure and became increasingly democratic. Martial law, which had been in effect since 1948, was finally lifted in 1987. During these years the island prospered, developing into one of East Asia's economic powerhouses. In 1989 parliamentary elections became legal; the first direct presidential elections were held in 1996. The first peaceful change in leadership came in 2000 when the Democratic Progressive Party took over from the Nationalists.

Politics and Government

Taiwan has a multi-party democratic system of government. The president is the chief of state who is elected on a joint basis with the vice-president to a four year term of office. They are elected by popular vote and are eligible for a second term in office. The head of government, the premier, is appointed by the president. The president and premier together appoint a vice-premier. Cabinet ministers are appointed by the president on the premier's recommendation. Neither the president nor the premier has veto power.

The legislative branch of government is known as the Legislative Yuan. It comprises 113 seats: 73 are filled by district members elected by popular vote; 34 are filled by the proportion of island-wide votes received by each political party to have won at least five percent of the vote; and six are elected by a popular vote within the aboriginal population. Members serve four-year terms.

The highest judiciary in the country is the Judicial Yuan. The justices are chosen by the president with agreement from the Legislative Yuan. The Judicial Yuan interprets the country's constitution and laws, disciplines public functionaries, and judges administrative suits. Administratively, Taiwan is divided into 18 counties, three municipalities and four special municipalities.

The country's major political problems are its relationship with China as well as political and economic reform.


Taiwan has a dynamic economy and there is a strong commitment to structural reform in the country. The primary driver of economic growth has been the export of petrochemicals, electronics and machinery. This dependence on exports makes the economy vulnerable to changes in demand. The majority of exports go to China, Hong Kong and the United States. Other important industries include textiles, cement, consumer products and iron and steel. The economy is held back by the country's diplomatic isolation. It has been excluded from the many free-trade agreements brokered in East Asia in recent years; the exception is the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) it signed with China in 2010.

Taiwan experienced a significant downturn in production in 2008. The economy has since recovered well from the global financial crisis thanks to closer economic ties with China and stabilising external demand from both emerging markets and developed economies.

In the long term, the Taiwanese economy is challenged by its low birth rate, ageing population and diplomatic isolation.


Taiwan is a humid country with a tropical and subtropical marine climate. It is cloudy for much of the year and receives a lot of rainfall. Summers are hot, while January until March is the coldest time of year. Summer is characterised by heat, humidity and tropical cyclones. The summer monsoons (southwest) and winter monsoons (northeast) bring rain to the country. Rainfall is higher in the mountains than on the plains and is also higher in the east of the country.

The Central Weather Bureau provides forecasts and warnings of typhoons, storms and other extreme weather events.


The violent crime rate in Taiwan is low; petty crime does exist but is not a big problem. Large political gatherings are best avoided. The country's public transport is considered safe, although women are advised to be careful travelling alone in taxis at night.

Foreigners Living in the Country

There is not a huge population of foreigners resident in Taiwan. The majority of foreigners come from Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam. Many foreigners live in Taipei, although there are also sizeable expatriate populations in Hsinchu, Taichung and Gaoxiong. The majority of foreigners living in Taiwan are employed as labourers or are married to Taiwanese, but have not themselves gained citizenship. Most foreigners are migrant workers in the manufacturing sector.


Taiwan has a lot to offer tourists. Its countryside of dramatic mountains, forests and coasts are very popular. The many natural parks and scenic areas in the country are popular with tourists. Other attractions include: the National Palace Museum in Taipei City, which is home to the world's largest collection of Chinese art, the world's tallest building and the many temples in Taipei; Lion's Head Mountain in Miaoli County, and Tainan City, the country's ancient capital. Tourists also enjoy the country's cuisine which includes specialities from all over China, reflecting Taiwan's history.

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Further Information