By Li Wei

This is an edited version of an excerpt of an article written for "An evening for Li Ming Che: How to face political massacres and scars: China’s June 4 and Taiwan’s 228" jointly held by the Youth Synergy Taiwan Foundation, Lee Ming-che (李明哲) rescue team, Fri.Philo, and the New school for Democracy on April 19.

The evening started with a comparison between the Tiananmen Square Massacre and Taiwan's White Terror incidents, and developed into an in-depth discussion covering national violence and transitional justice.

For those in need of background on either event, a handy primer on the 228 Incident is available here and a podcast interview with Wu’er Kaixi, one of the main student leaders during the Tiananmen Square protests and later one of China’s most wanted men, can be heard here.



Credit: Wikipedia

Chinese pro-democracy activist Wu Renhua.

Wu Renhua (吳仁華)

A participant and witness of the pro-democracy movement in 1989, and a scholar of historical literature, Wu was exiled from China after June 4 but has regularly participated in overseas democracy movements related to China.

He was editor-in-chief of Press Freedom Herald and the secretary general of the Chinese Constitutional Reform Association. In 1989, as a teacher at the China University of Political Science and Law, he participated in the Tiananmen Pro-Democracy Movement and was an organizer of the initial protest.

He served as the head of the Xinhua Gate hunger strike area, which blocked the entrance to the center of Chinese government in Zhongnanhai, and personally experienced the military clearance of Tiananmen Square. In February 1990, he escaped into Hong Kong through Macau from Zhuhai and made his way to the United States, where he was granted asylum. His books such as "The Bloody Clearing of Tiananmen Square" and "The Martial Law Troops of June Fourth" were printed by Taiwan's Asian Culture Publishing House.

Urda Yen (嚴婉玲)


Credit: Tainan Sprout

Urda Yen speaking at Tainan Sprout.

Urda Yen is a participant in both the Wild Strawberry Movement and the Sunflower Movement student protests, and a doctoral candidate of the Institute of Taiwan History at the National Chengchi University whose main research area is the political and cultural history of Taiwan during the Japanese occupation and after WWII.

Yen is also actively engaged with civic and social issues. She was a founding member of the Social Democratic Party and once served as its secretary-general. Currently, she is based in her hometown of Tainan helping to establish "Tainan Sprout" with a group of young locals, which aims to create space for public discussion and action.

A new phase

Taiwan’s struggle with transitional justice is entering a new phase. After taking office on a platform promising action on the issue, President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) last year passed the “Act on Promoting Transitional Justice,” which led to the establishment of the “Transitional Justice Commission” in May this year.

The legislation sparked heated debates on an issue that still threatens to undermine the fabric of contemporary Taiwan.

In the last six months alone, Chiang Kai-shek’s (蔣介石) mausoleum and memorial hall bronze statue were bombarded with red paint, ostensibly to symbolize the blood of the victims in the martial law era, leading to outrage amongst some sections of the public. Also, the Kuomintang’s mayoral candidate for New Taipei City, Hou You-yi (侯友宜), was exposed as the police officer that led attempts to break Cheng Nan-jung (鄭南榕)’s vigil in the Freedom Era Weekly offices before the editor committed suicide by self-immolation as an act of protest in 1989, leading to accusations that Hou’s stated defense that he was merely following orders is not a sufficient excuse.

These and other related events have helped reinvigorate public discussion of transitional justice. At its heart, the debate swirls between those who believe the issue has become too politicized and that society should seek to move forward, and critics convinced that transitional justice is far from complete, and that the legacy of authoritarianism is still deeply rooted in Taiwan’s daily life.


Credit: Huang Rongcan @ public domain

'Terrifying Inspection,' a painting depicting the 228 Incident.

Recounting his visit to the 228 Memorial Hall, Wu said he was "very dissatisfied," stating that the victims of the 228 Incident were not well represented, and that there was a lack information on the perpetrators:

So many people were killed and injured during the 228 Incident, but do you think it was the former Governor General of Taiwan, Chen Yi (陳儀), who killed them all? Or maybe you think it was the chief of police, who killed them? The same is true of the Tiananmen Square massacre; thousands of Beijing students and citizens died, with tens of thousands more, seriously injured. Was that all Deng Xiaoping’s doing? For such large-scale human rights violations, there will never be only one person solely responsible.

Yen, who has carried out research on the 228 Redress Movement, pointed out that the common logic in Taiwan is that "only those in power need to be held accountable while those under their command [for example, Hou You-yi] do not need to be pursued."

She also said that, in her work compiling a database of those involved for the 228 Memorial Foundation, the military resisted appeals to disclose the names of the military judges who presided over miscarriages of justice in the martial law era.

This kind of official obstructionism has sapped the public’s zeal and this, coupled with the sheer length of time that has elapsed since 1947, has led Taiwan’s transitional justice efforts to flounder. Currently, it is all but impossible to disclose the identities of perpetrators to the public, because accurate information simply is not available.

Contrasts and parallels

The passing of time and government-imposed restrictions has ensured that finding the names and details of both the perpetrators and victims of the 228 Incident has been an uphill struggle.

As for the events of June 4, the impediment is not time but the Chinese government’s control of the historical narrative and efforts to stymie the dissemination of accurate information.

Wu remembers the horror of the scene even now:

That was the most terrifying event I have ever experienced in my life. The sky was strewn with bullet trails, and armored tanks lined the streets on both flanks, along with soldiers clad in military gear.

After the massacre, Wu fled China and ended up settling in the United States. He explained how June 4 was a watershed moment in his life, and continues to be so given the absence of any official attempt to pursue the truth of the incident.

Wu has consequently devoted himself to researching and unveiling the facts about the post-massacre repression and clean-up; meticulously scouring the internet and piecing together fragmented stories and clues to discover establish a comprehensive list of perpetrators and victims. He is therefore considered the foremost authority on the June 4 Tiananmen Square massacre.


Credit: Reuters / TPG

A man stands in front of a convoy of tanks in the Avenue of Eternal Peace in Tiananmen Square in Beijing in this June 5, 1989 file photo.

Leveraging his experience as a journalist and understanding of textual and bibliographical research, Wu set out to find the needles in China’s haystack by trawling the internet, trying every keyword he could think of to find information to supplement the books the Chinese government used to propagate against the protests and checking each piece of information in order to identify the names and regiment numbers of military personnel. Wu describes it as being "like a children's puzzle, piecing together the truth."

He then turned his attention to retired veterans and career soldiers active on the internet. Though these people have an obligation to keep details about their jobs confidential, they would sometimes, during casual conversations, accidentally reveal their regiment numbers. "I even snuck into chat rooms for specific units and chatted with them on a daily basis," Wu says, smiling.

In the end, he finally managed to unearth a list of the troops who led the bloody purge at Tiananmen Square. He even found the answer to the question he had agonized over most: which military personnel were in the tank that chased down and caused the death of 11 students?

In pursuit of truth

In contrast to the June 4 massacre, which is still a "forbidden" topic in China, the 228 Incident and the period of the White Terror can be discussed openly in Taiwan. However, a similar dilemma exists as regards the "lack of information on the perpetrators," according to Yen:

Unfortunately, finding the information, and it being published for others to see, are two different matters. We may be able to see the names of [secret police chief of staff] Ko Yuan-fen (柯遠芬), [General] Peng Meng-chi (彭孟緝), and Chen Yi, but besides those there are no others. However, after checking the monographs of 228-related research, we did find the names of some other officers, but their names will never be placed in the 228 Memorial Hall.

The obfuscation problem is a consequence of many factors. There is no single straw that breaks the camel’s back; for starters, the investigations into the 228 Incident have come far too late, and decades of censorship delayed the necessary investigation of the truth, especially as the atmosphere surrounding the White Terror stifled discussion. Yen gave an example from the 1950s, when her father’s high school classmate participated in a poster competition and drew a sprinter at the sports event and, purely by coincidence, gave the sprinter the number “228.” Two days later, that classmate was ‘invited’ to have a talk.

By the time the country started openly talking about the 228 Incident, it was already 1987 and Taiwan was commemorating its 40th anniversary. At that time, Cheng Nan-jung (鄭南榕) had already set in motion the 228 Redress Movement, which sparked a chain of autonomous civil demonstrations in various cities around the country, all of which led to the 228 Incident being brought into the light.

In response to the relaxing of martial law, the 228 justice and peace movement began to gain traction nationwide as academic researchers joined the mission to reveal the truth. However, now that a further 30 years has elapsed, many of the victims of the 228 Incident have already passed away, while those that lived through the terror are reluctant to revisit their memories. From the outset, according to Yen, collecting witness accounts and literary material was problematic.


Credit: AP / TPG

A group of 1,246 Taiwanese people gather to form 'Don't forgot 228' in front of the Chiang Kai-shek memorial to mark the 228 Incident on Feb. 28, 2009.

Truth, accountability, reconciliation

As the calls for the truth multiply, an increasingly comprehensive reports of the 228 Incident are being released. In 1989, the first 228 Monument was established in Chiayi City, which was followed in 1996 by former President Lee Teng-hui (李登輝)’s official public apology. At first glance, it seemed that Taiwan’s rehabilitation from the 228 Incident was picking up speed, and that the truth would also gradually surface. But in reality, Taiwan’s pursuit transitional justice has been flawed from the outset.

Wu explained that transitional justice requires three steps: the first is to reveal the truth, and the second is to determine responsibility. Wu believes that all perpetrators must be recorded, and that even if they were only obeying orders, they should not be exempt, just as when East German soldiers who shot and killed people climbing over the Berlin Wall were also tried as part of the Nuremburg trials.

"Only after the first two steps are completed, will the third and final step of social reconciliation be possible,” Wu said. "If Taiwan does not complete the second step, then there is no rehabilitation of the 228 Incident; because establishing memorials, the memorial hall, and monetary reparation to those affected alone does not amount to transitional justice."


Credit: AP / TPG

An opposition protester shouts slogans against the government as President Ma Ying-jeou delivers a speech during a memorial service marking the 1947, 228 Incident on Feb. 28, 2009, in Kaohsiung, Taiwan.

In answer to the question of “how this can realistically be implemented?” Yen cited the different methods that have been used in other countries. In 2007, Spain passed the "Historical Memory Law" 30 years after the "Pact of Forgetting" was agreed upon to move the country forward from Francisco Franco’s dictatorship, whose body this year will be removed from the “Valley of the Fallen.” South Africa's "Truth and Reconciliation Commission" was committed to revealing the truth behind apartheid, but did not make investigations or punish perpetrators. South Korea’s Special Law, passed in relation to the Gwangju uprising of 1980, punished those in command while compensating and re-honoring the families of the victims. Rehabilitation practices in each country are different, and Yen admits that transitional justice is not completely neutral, because political power will always accompany its dispensing – and Taiwan is no exception.

Taiwan did not experience a violent and historical struggle that sparked a dramatic switch to democracy. Instead, it was a gradual and natural transition, which is why transitional justice has been stuck in such a unique predicament. Through the collective efforts of different parties, Taiwan’s current transitional justice has already made significant strides, but the progress made is maybe only 60 percent, and in comparison, the journey from 60 to 100 percent will most definitely be even more arduous. Yen believes that the most important aspect for the future of transitional justice, is not how the authorities in power think, instead it will depend on the view of the nation’s citizens.


Credit: AP / TNG

Taiwanese aborigines hold portraits of victims during the 60th anniversary of the 228 Incident on Feb. 28, 2007, in Taipei. During the ceremony, Taiwan's President Chen Shui-bian accused the opposition Nationalist Party, KMT, of ducking responsibility for four decades of human rights abuses.

More work required

The perseverance of scholars means that truths deeply buried in the past will have the opportunity to see the light of day. Even though China’s control on free speech has left Wu feeling somewhat helpless, he still insists on producing a comprehensive list of June 4 victims.

“There is a limit to my personal abilities,” said Wu, “but I have the will to carry on, no matter how difficult it becomes. For such a major large-scale human rights disaster, having a record of victim names should be the primary responsibility.”

As for the researcher-turned-activist, Yen’s view is that Taiwan now has a sufficient amount of investigations and studies, so for the next step, the most important thing is to make sure the truth will be seen by as many people as possible.

Yet even this step is fraught with difficulty in the “post-truth era,” when the public is unsure which sources of information to trust.

Yen is worried that if people confine themselves to their own comfort zones, even if the facts and truth of this historical event were revealed, it might still be difficult for this information to reach the public. Therefore, finding the best way to convey authentic information will be an important matter for discussion in the future.

In spite of the differences we have in the problems we face, the situations in Taiwan and China still have many similarities in their pursuit of the truth and transitional justice. The road ahead will no doubt be long and grueling, but the least we can do is not allow the truth to get lost in the abyss of history.

Read Next: ANALYSIS: The Broken Promise of Tsai Ing-wen

This article originally appeared on the Chinese-language Taiwan edition of The News Lens. The original can be found here.

Translator: Zeke Li

Editor David Green (@DavidPeterGreen)

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