The 228 Incident Remains Etched Into Taiwan's Present and Its Future

The 228 Incident Remains Etched Into Taiwan's Present and Its Future
Credit: Public Domain
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Here's what Taiwanese lawmakers and thinkers are saying on the 72nd anniversary of the 228 Incident.

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Today marks 72 years since Feb. 28, 1947, when protests, spurred by a clash between government officials and an illegal cigarette vendor in Taipei one day earlier, were met with gunfire. The 228 Incident led to a popular uprising met by a violent three-month crackdown which killed an estimated 18,000 to 28,000 people – although this number may be higher – and led to the 38-year, 57-day period of martial law in Taiwan known as the White Terror.

It is important to remember why Taiwan is off from work today. This piece by James X. Morris at The Diplomat is an excellent dive into the history of the 228 Incident. Here at The News Lens, be sure to take a look at this list of facts about 228 you should know. And today, as we hear politicians remember Taiwan’s period of torment and celebrate its remarkable transition into democracy, it is crucial to look at how the 228 Incident, and the subsequent period of White Terror, continue to shape Taiwan today.

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Credit: Nick Aspinwall
A wall shows victims of 228 at Taipei's National 228 Memorial Museum. Photos have not been found to match the names of many victims.
Continuing the search for the truth

On Wednesday, President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) told an overseas group of family members of victims of the 228 Incident that “we will never forget and we will not stop” seeking the truth. The government will continue to seek to identify potential unrecorded victims of the 228 Incident, she said.

An investigative report on the 1947 crackdown is set to be released in July by the Memorial Foundation of 228, according to its chairman, Hsueh Hua-yuan (薛化元). The foundation is compiling a list of about 2,000 previously unknown victims of the 228 Incident which will be made public before the end of this year, Hsueh said.

In Taiwan, the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has been seen as a louder advocate for transitional justice than the opposition Kuomintang (KMT), which ruled the island during the White Terror after its government and military fled China.

But the search for truth has hit several roadblocks. For one, the DPP sometimes comes under fire from the electorate for a perceived focus on transitional justice at the expense of issues seen as more critical and important to the present day – the economy, wages and pensions, for instance. But the process of unearthing and preserving the truth is sometimes met with public debate over its value, regardless of which party is in power. The Taiwan Gazette yesterday published a translated article by The Reporter about the Liuzhangli cemetery in Taipei, where hundreds of White Terror victims are buried, and the fight to preserve the burial ground. It’s well worth a read.

How to remember Chiang Kai-shek

In its previous investigate report in 2006, the Memorial Foundation of 228 found that the person primarily responsible for the crackdown that followed the 228 Incident was former President Chiang Kai-shek (蔣中正).

Chiang ruled the Republic of China (ROC) from 1928 until his death in 1975 and presided over decades of martial law after fleeing China for Taiwan in 1949. Taiwan continues to struggle with how to remember its former dictator – it has removed Chiang’s name from landmarks such as its largest airport and the boulevard in front of the Presidential Office, but statues of Chiang remain throughout the island. One such statue was defaced last Friday by a group critical of Chiang’s legacy of brutal, authoritarian rule.

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Credit: CNA
Taipei's Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall after protesters doused it with red paint on July 20, 2018.

The Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall in Taipei has become the nucleus of the debate over how to properly remember Taiwan’s history. On Tuesday, Premier Su Tseng-chang (蘇貞昌) said he believes the Hall should not be demolished. Minister of Culture Cheng Li-chun (鄭麗君), however, has called for the site to be repurposed. Her efforts have angered some Taiwanese (mostly loyal to the KMT) who remember Chiang as a hero, including retired singer Lisa Cheng (鄭心儀), who was arrested after she slapped the culture minister in the face at a January banquet.

Protesters have doused the Hall with red paint – an alternative to removing statues and memorials to Chiang endorsed by Taiwan-based activist Linda Arrigo, who told The Diplomat: “With removal, it is too easy to forget the legacy of White Terror – I think the remaining statues should be left in place, maybe with red paint, with large explanatory signs of the history next to them.”

Transitional justice and the identity of the KMT

In Taiwan, the KMT has transitioned from the authoritarian ruler of Taiwan under martial law to one of Taiwan’s two major democratic parties. KMT leaders presided over Taiwan’s democratic transition, a time when the DPP was allowed to form and run candidates in elections, including Taiwan’s first democratic presidential election in 1996.

However, the KMT has never entirely shed its past in the eyes of much of the public, and some argue the party at large still carries the blood of Chiang Kai-shek on its hands.

In December, KMT members disrupted a transitional justice meeting, calling the appointment of Transitional Justice Commission Acting Chairwoman Yang Tsui (楊翠) illegal and holding placards referring to the commission as Dong Chang (東廠), the name of a Ming Dynasty secret police and spy unit. KMT lawmakers interrupted DPP caucus whip Ker Chien-ming (柯建銘) as he called for calm as it was both International Human Rights Day and the 39th anniversary of the Kaohsiung Incident – a deadly crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations which occurred on Dec. 10, 1979.

Transitional justice efforts in Taiwan will always be subject to the native ills of politics – from relatively reasoned disputes over funding to the hijacking of historical trauma by politicians on all sides to bolster political campaigns. The KMT, however, will always struggle to rebrand itself if it fails to take the lead in uncovering the truth of its own history and the history of Taiwan. Senior leaders in the present KMT remain only a few degrees removed from the party’s past – and a refusal to commit itself to seeking, rather than disrupting, transitional justice will keep the KMT from vaulting itself into the future.

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Credit: Nick Aspinwall
Victims of 228 are pictured at Taipei's National 228 Memorial Museum.
Do not forget Taiwan’s indigenous

On Feb. 28, 2017 – the 70th anniversary of the 228 Incident – Sunflower Movement student leader Lin Fei-fan (林飛帆) reminded Taiwan to remember the atrocities faced by its indigenous population. At the time, an indigenous occupation on Ketagalan Boulevard, in protest of what leaders call a failure by the government to grant indigenous peoples their full ancestral land rights, was less than one week old.

Two years later, that very same occupation has now gone on for over 700 days. Activists such as Panai Kusui and Mayaw Biho have relocated their encampment several times, but they are currently stationed in Taipei’s 228 Peace Park – a constant reminder that Taiwan’s indigenous also suffered during the White Terror, and their struggles continue to this day.

Taiwan’s indigenous have been oppressed and exploited by each group of colonizers to reach the island – the Europeans of the early 1600s, the first wave of Han Chinese benshengren decades later, the Japanese occupation beginning in 1895 and the waishengren who fled China with the KMT. While Tsai Ing-wen made history by becoming the first Taiwanese leader to apologize to Taiwan’s indigenous in 2016, the occupiers at 228 Peace Park say she has broken her promises to seek true transitional justice for the island’s native population.

Indigenous leaders on Taiwan’s indigenous reconciliation committee authored a letter to Xi Jinping in January, criticizing Chinese claims of sovereignty over Taiwan. However, the letter was far from a full-throated defense of Tsai and Taiwan’s democracy – and the release of the letter, which coalesced with a rise in popular support of Tsai due to her assertive cross-Strait stance, was pointedly criticized by Panai.

Take a moment today to understand and remember Taiwan’s indigenous today. As indigenous leaders will tell you, their contributions to Taiwan’s democratic transition have been invaluable, and any vision of Taiwanese identity broadcast to the world will ring hollow if the rights of the island’s native population are not truly protected.

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Credit: Sabrina Lim / Facebook
The indigenous occupation at Taipei's 228 Peace Park is disassembled on Jan. 22, 2019.
Taiwan moves forward on the international stage

On Apr. 10, 1979, the U.S. and Taiwan will recognize the 40th anniversary of the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), which governs the unofficial yet robust relations between the governments of Taiwan and the United States.

The act was passed three months after Washington severed its diplomatic ties with Taipei on Jan. 1, 1979 and recognized the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) as the government of China. The U.S., however, remains perhaps Taiwan’s most important international friend. American politicians regularly cite Taiwan’s commitment to democracy as a model for the Asia-Pacific region, especially in contrast to Beijing’s authoritarian rule.

Earlier this month, five U.S. Republican senators pitched the idea of inviting Tsai Ing-wen to address a joint session of Congress. Commentators such as former Dutch diplomat Gerrit van der Wees in The Diplomat noted that Taiwan has changed since 1979 – when it was still under martial law – and now may be the time to redefine the U.S.-Taiwan relationship.

Taiwan now enjoys a democratic system it can, and should, take pride in. Of course, part of a vibrant democratic society is the ability to self-criticize and remember the darkest corners of its history, as Taiwan is doing today.

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Credit: Public Domain

It has been 24 years since former President Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) became the first Taiwanese leader to apologize for the 228 Incident. (Discussion of the incident had been strictly taboo in Taiwan until the late 1980s.) At the time, he said his apology marked the beginning of a long process. His promises – compensation for victims, public reports, a memorial day to mark the incident – have begun to come true. But today is also a day to remember this process is far from over. It continues in the halls of the Legislative Yuan, it continues in conversations around Taiwanese dinner tables, and it continues for the people of Taiwan who have yet to feel they have truly received justice.

Read Next: Statue of Chiang Kai-shek Defaced at Taipei's National Chengchi University

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