228 Incident, Chiang Kai-shek and the past, the present, and the future of Taiwan

As Taiwan marks the 70th anniversary of the 228 Incident and changes to Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall are coming how important (and maybe also divisive?) is for the country to discuss the legacy of Chiang Kai-shek? Read few comments.

Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall in Taipei. Credit: Andrej Matisak

Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall in Taipei. Credit: Andrej Matisak

Chia-Shin Lin, Assistant Professor, Department of Communication, Fo Guang University

With the 70th anniversary of the 228 Incident, Tsai government has revealed a significant number of official documents which were categorized as confidential by KMT government. These documents indicate that Chiang Kai-shek ought to be responsible for the incident because he actively sent troops to suppress Taiwanese. Based on this report, Tsai government attempts to achieve transitional justice and considers renaming the Chiang Kai-shek memorial hall. Also, the Minister without Portfolio Chang Ching-sen further advocates demolishing the hall and utilising the space to build a new Legislative Yuan park. Since to execute transitional justice was one of the Tsai’s promises before elected, the action does not surprise people too much.

As expected, KMT politicians react strongly in this change because the role of Chiang Kai-shek is more likely symbolic. KMT and its supporters idolise Chiang and the symbol is always utilised in election campaigns. Intriguingly, Chiang Kai-shek’s great grandson Demos Yu-bou Chiang expressed his opinion over this issue in a media interview saying “it was wrong for KMT to build Chiang Kai-shek memorial hall.” Demos Yu-bou Chiang has provided a new viewpoint to this argument.

Actually, redefinition of the role of Chiang Kai-shek can only be viewed as a small part of transitional justice and the argument almost exclusively exists among older generations. Traditional blue vs. green confrontation has gradually dissipated since the 2016 presidential election and younger generations do not perceive the significance of this issue. In other words, the overall success of transitional justice is more important than merely tackling the role of Chiang Kai-shek.

In conclusion, the argument will remain among politicians, especially KMT politicians, yet the impact would be minor. Given that KMT politicians often failed to adequately challenge the DPP government, any political action posed by KMT seems not promising. Pile on the fact that younger generations do not pay attention to this issue, the impact of this issue would be less.

Clayton Dube, Director of the USC U.S.-China Institute, University of Southern California

Taiwan’s history is more complex than many places. The control over the land itself was contested for a couple of centuries and sovereignty remains disputed. Part of what makes Taiwan so fascinating is this past and the remarkable way the people of Taiwan have refused to be imprisoned by it. President Tsai came into office calling for a look at the past and a frank accounting of injustices. The 228 repression and the police state that emerged out of it are certainly among the uncomfortable realities that need to be confronted, not for the purpose of vengeance, settling scores, but for the purpose of clarity as Taiwan moves forward. The contributions made by Chiang and his government, need to be understood along with the unjust policies and practices that also occurred over the long period when so called “free China” was a police state. Taiwan’s remarkable economic rise and its eventual democratization are among the most stunning developments in Asia in the late 20th and early 21st century. They need to be celebrated and Taiwan needs to be focused mainly on the future, but it also needs to be clear-eyed about its past.

I’d also say this about the importance of this past to cross-strait relations:

It’s a temptation to want to deal with people as you wish they were. But successful outreach efforts mean that you understand where people are in their thinking about the past, the present, and the future. For the mainland government to communicate effectively with the government and people of Taiwan, it needs to understand how Taiwan’s own past and Taiwan people’s perceptions of the mainland’s past and present affect attitudes towards closer ties. As long as the mainland government’s main preoccupation is talking about Taiwan in a way that fits its message to the mainland public (Taiwan people have always yearned to throw off oppressors and be unified with the mainland), it will have limited success in winning over the Taiwanese public. China’s leaders probably understand this, but believe maintaining that line fits its “core interests” stance, and have decided that is more important to maintaining their authority on the mainland.

Nathan K. H. LiuAssociate Professor, Ming Chuan University

I do not think there is much so-called Chiang Kai-shek legacy left after “de-Ciangization” during 2000-2008 when Chen Sui-bien was the president. During that period, Chiang’s historical status has been changed from the supreme leader to dictator. In addition, since Chiang died 42 years ago in 1975, most people never experienced his authoritarian rule and KMT is now a very weak opposition party, it is pretty obvious that there is really not much “legacy” left.

Having said that, there are still over 55% citizens that disagree with the changes to the Hall and 18% don’t care about the change. In other words, those who agree are actually minority.

Why so?

First, ever since Taiwan was open to Chinese tourists, Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall has become a must-see tourist spot and Chiang’s action figures are popular collectibles for these tourists. To put it simply, Chang’s image has become the center of a lucrative business.

Second, some believe that the changes are aimed to ingratiate “pro-independence camp” since they are not satisfied with Tsai administration’s policy.

Third, some believe that the changes are aimed to distract people’s attention from the bad economicic performance and seriously opposed “5-day work week” and “pension” reforms in the past year.

To sum up, this is not an important event, not to mention “divisive.” A few days discussion over the media maybe, then forgot by both government and people when the heat cools down.

Daniel Lynch, Associate Professor, School of International Relations, USC US-China Institute, University of Southern California

I think that, more than anything else, the 2/28 anniversary and changes to CKS Memorial Hall — plus the general public discussion of CKS — are a reflection of the fact that last year’s presidential and legislative elections effectively removed the KMT from history, or at least the KMT as we have known it. Of far more importance in this regard would be the DPP’s moves to strip the KMT of the assets it ripped off from Taiwanese society in the late 1940s and then used to maintain its monopolistic control over politics. To be sure, the KMT may succeed in remaking itself as a legitimate opposition party with Taiwan now, finally, having a level political playing field. I hope it does remake itself thus because Taiwan, as every democratic society, needs to have a vigorous opposition. One step in the process of healthy adaptation would be for the KMT to accept the majority verdict on 2/28 and CKS without making too much of a fuss. We will have to watch and see how the whole drama plays out.

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