What you need to know
Southeast Asian students were victims of White Terror in Taiwan, too. A narrow Taiwan-centric history can unfortunately neglect their stories.
To students looking for Chinese-language education, Taiwan is an obvious choice. Taiwan not only offers quality education, but also a society characterized by progressive social values, driven by the ongoing transition from authoritarianism to democracy. All this is underscored by a Taiwanese identity that grows stronger every day.
What may be less known is that some foreign students also became victims of the White Terror. The continued development of Taiwanese identity risks erasing histories and experiences that may seem difficult to reconcile with too narrow of a Taiwan-centric history. Among some of the forgotten White Terror victims were students of Chinese descent from Southeast Asia.
The Kuomintang (KMT), after fleeing to Taiwan in 1949, strove to maintain its claim to represent China. To achieve this, the KMT tried to create a “Chinese orthodoxy,” an official vision of what Chinese culture is. One important part of this strategy was to draw people of Chinese descent living abroad — the so-called “overseas Chinese” (華僑) — to “Free China,” as Taiwan was once called during the Cold War.
With financial support from the United States, the KMT awarded scholarships to “overseas Chinese students” (僑生), offering them opportunities for higher education unavailable in their home country or out of reach in China as it went through the Cultural Revolution. The institution responsible for overseeing these students was the Overseas Chinese Affairs Council (OCAC).
A recent book by Malaysian-born writer and The News Lens editor Toh Jin Xuan, The Original Sin of Descent (血統的原罪), brings to light the stories of these victims of the KMT’s authoritarian regime.
The book describes the experiences of these overseas Chinese students vividly. Once they arrived in Taiwan, the KMT used draconian nationality laws to claim these students were citizens of the Republic of China (ROC), even if they had a different nationality. Students raising the suspicion of the authorities — by showing interest in leftist ideas, or even just singing Chinese folk songs — risked arrest on trumped up charges and conviction according to ROC law. Some victims also had ROC nationality forced on them and their original nationality erased, making them unable to return to their home country even after being released from prison.
When we talk about victims of the White Terror in Taiwan, victims are often assumed to be “Taiwanese.” Toh’s engaging account offers a valuable lesson about the dangers of making this assumption.
The Cold War context
The history of Southeast Asian political victims is a reminder that KMT authoritarianism took place in a greater international context of Cold War anti-communism. Through U.S. aid, the OCAC brought Southeast Asian students to Taiwan. Since the OCAC’s budget depended on the number of the students they could attract, there was a cash incentive in addition to a political one behind attracting more Southeast Asian students. This history may be forgotten by a Taiwan-centric view.
A Taiwan-centric view of history is important to the country’s nation-building efforts. But besides ignoring the international scene Taiwan was enmeshed in, it risks sidelining the stories of people who may not share the same views of Taiwan’s history and identity, but are still part of the island’s history.
This neglecting of non-Taiwanese White Terror victims can be illustrated by how the February 28 Incident is occasionally referred to as the start of the White Terror. Since, according to some, the February 28 Incident was an ethnic conflict between Taiwanese benshengren (本省人, Han people who had arrived in Taiwan prior to 1945) and Chinese waishengren (外省人, Han who arrived after 1945), this event is often taken to stand for the White Terror as a whole.
Although the benshengren-waishengren conflict was part of the February 28 Incident, the White Terror was nominally an anti-communist suppression that served to consolidate the Chiang regime’s power by purging the opposition, regardless of whether they were benshengren or waishengren. In the 1950s, most victims of the White Terror were actually Chinese who had fled to Taiwan with the KMT. These victims, like those from Southeast Asia, are easily ignored when the focus is exclusively on Taiwanese victims.
An obstacle to transitional justice
The continued existence of OCAC, despite having been renamed Overseas Community Affairs Council in English, is an anachronism standing in the way of transitional justice and the realization of a Taiwanese identity. It continues to force an “orthodox Chinese” identity on foreign nationals with their own histories and identities.
Toh, a Malaysian of Chinese descent, calls for “transitional justice of the overseas Chinese student identity” in his book:
This isn’t just to solve the aversion that many Southeast Asian students of Chinese descent have for the words “overseas Chinese” and “overseas Chinese student,” but even more for the OCAC as the broker for the “homeland” to bear part of the responsibility for the past injustices of White Terror.
Today’s Taiwanese identity is undeniable. One of the foundations of this is a Taiwan-centric history that sometimes unfortunately sees Taiwanese as the only victims of the White Terror. But the lesson that can be drawn from the story of these Southeast Asian victims is that identity and history should not be imposed from the top down to serve the political interests of specific groups, glossing over people’s differences and unique historical experiences.
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TNL Editor: Daphne K. Lee, Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)
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