What you need to know
'For those who believe that this debate was laid to rest, recall that if there was severance with the past, there would be no need for a truth and reconciliation commission,' argues Matthew Geason.
In recent weeks, Taiwan has seen two statues beheaded as a result of decades-old ideological differences. After the beheading of a statue of Japanese engineer Yoichi Hatta, individuals outraged by this action reportedly responded with the decapitation of a statue of former president Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石).
This was followed by the introduction of a bill in Taiwan’s parliament, the Legislative Yuan, proposing repurposing the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall and removing all statues of the former president from around the country.
As the memorial and statues of Chiang Kai-shek serve as the last remaining symbol of the Kuomintang (KMT) authoritarian regime, this bill, if passed, would aid in putting an end to ideological arguments, soothe societal divides, and remove some of the remaining symbols of Taiwan’s authoritarian past.
Lately, Taiwan has frequently appeared in recent news headlines as a potential flashpoint for world powers; however, most outside the country have a hard time understanding the nation’s complex past. While in university, I had the opportunity to visit Taiwan during its 2016 presidential election and conduct research. When I returned to the island, this time to study Mandarin, my interactions with residents over the next six months began to show me how, at the roots, Taiwan’s authoritarian past still afflicts its society.
The brutality and atrocities committed by the KMT during the White Terror, starting with the 228 Incident, also known as the 228 Massacre, where thousands of Taiwanese were executed, imprisoned, or simply vanished, are ill sentiments that are not easily alleviated.
Reconciliation must be built on truth, said President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) this past February, and yet there are those in Taiwan who rather disregard the verity of KMT’s brutality. Ultimately, conflict lies in the perceptions that they hold of each other’s historical background and ethnic identity.
In 1949, when the KMT fled their homes on the mainland, they were fleeing to an island that had been a Japanese colony for fifty years; therefore, there are those on the island who did not consider themselves Chinese. The expectation that Taiwanese would conform to the nationalist ideology was misguided, demonstrating how the subsequent violent crackdown that followed has created the negative perception each had of the other. Over the course of decades, generations were educated in a curriculum that justified the martial law as a valid response against the threat of communism when, in reality, it was an instrument to deny freedom of speech and make any degree of criticism of the government a crime punishable by imprisonment or execution. However, the attempt to represent history, cloaked as a necessary evil, does not promote mutual cooperation nor does it reconcile with the past. In fact, it further divides society and prevents Taiwanese from facing the past.
This year, the new government announced the creation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which will run an extensive review of historical documents related to 228 and the White Terror. For those who believe that this debate was laid to rest, recall that if there was severance with the past, there would be no need for a commission.
It is widely accepted that Chiang Kai-shek, who some in the KMT hold in the highest regard, had an instrumental role in these purges. This friction felt by Taiwanese towards the KMT over their actions during that era has not subsided, and therefore, the recent beheading of his statue demonstrates the sensitivity and the uneasy existence Chiang Kai-shek has in Taiwanese history. The symbolism Chiang Kai-shek exhibits is of Taiwan’s dark past, and in order for a democratic society to mend its divisions, removing the symbolism of its authoritarian past is essential.
If Taiwan intends to rise and meet the challenges that sit on its doorstep, coming to grips with its past is the first step toward effectively approaching the challenges of today. Taiwan finds itself at an uneasy crossroads in history. With tensions risen between the United States and the People’s Republic of China, Taiwan's opportunity for self-determination may be diminishing. To bridge these societal differences, it is important for Taiwanese, no matter their identity or political ideology, to face the past together. It is without a doubt that Chiang Kai-shek continues to remain a symbol linking Taiwan to its brutal authoritarian past, and the passage of this bill would signify a break with that past.
Editor: Edward White