During an emotional speech commemorating the victims of the 228 Incident, the current mayor of Taipei, Ke Wenzhe (Ko Wen-je), could not hold back his tears as he recounted the suffering that his own family had to bear during the brutal and indiscriminate repression of real or presumed dissent on the part of Guomindang one-party state. Following the revolt of February 28, 1947, Ke’s grandfather, Ke Shiyuan, was arrested, not because he had been personally involved in the uprising, but solely because he was an intellectual. After he was severely beaten by the Guomindang police he became ill and died a few years later.
Thousands of people were killed, imprisoned or tortured during the White Terror that followed the 228 Incident. To a certain extent, February 28 1947 was for Taiwan what June 4 1989 was for the PRC. The state revealed its savage and cruel nature, reasserted its authority by force, and ushered in an era of silence, fear and suspicion, during which the memory and the truth about the historical events were suppressed.
On the eve of the 228 commemoration day, students and activists vandalised several bronze statues of Chiang Kai-shek, the former leader of the Guomindang and of the Republic of China. It was Chiang who ordered troops from the mainland to be transferred to Taiwan and suppress the popular uprising. Days after the massacre of innocent civilians, he still defended his decision.
To many people in Taiwan, Chiang is the symbol of the White Terror and of the restriction of basic freedoms and human rights that lasted until 1987.
In the morning of February 27, members of ‘Taiwan Nation’ (台灣國) and other groups that advocate Taiwanese nationalism, vandalised the bronze statue of Chiang Kai-shek located inside Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, one of Taipei’s most popular landmarks.
They took advantage of the changing of the guards to throw eggs at the giant statue and sprinkle it with ink. “Chiang Kai-shek, you evil murderer!”, “When there is no truth there can be no forgiveness!” they shouted. The founder of Taiwan Nation, Wang Xianji (王獻極), and its chairman, Chen Junhan (陳峻涵) and other four individuals were soon blocked by the security guards and were later arrested. They were charged with disrupting public order and face a fine of up to 6,000 TWD. Chen was unrepentant. He stated that what happened in history can be forgiven but cannot be forgotten, and that he wants Taiwan’s society to learn the moral lesson from the past.
The 25-ton heavy sculpture of Chiang is not the only one that was damaged this year on the eve of the 228 anniversary. Other statues were vandalised on the campuses of Zhengzhi University (政治大學), Yangming University (陽明大學), Dongwu University (東吳大學) and Furen University (輔仁大學), as well as in Xinglong Park (興隆公園).
Students of Furen University spray-painted on the statue the sentence: “Guomindang, acknowledge your mistakes so that the dead soul may regret them.” On the campus of Dongwu University, students spray-painted the words “Murderer!” “Don’t forget 228!”
Similar acts of vandalism were committed throughout Taiwan. A statue of Chiang located in a park in Keelung, the city where the troops from the mainland arrived in 1947 to put down the uprising, was beheaded. Other statues were vandalised in Taoyuan’s Zhongzheng Park, Taipei First Girls’ High School, Taipei Municipal Da’an Vocational High School, National Zhudong Senior High School, Donghai University and National Taipei University of Technology. Some students turned Chiang’s statues into “artworks”, spray-painting and decorating them.
What should we make of these acts of vandalism? Are they justified? Is it acceptable for a democratic country to honour a dictator like Chiang Kai-shek? Should all statues and portraits of the autocrat be removed, as it happened with Hitler’s or Mussolini’s after their regimes were overthrown?
In the eyes of many people the fact that the Guomindang still worships Chiang Kai-shek means that the party is still in its core dictatorial. As an editorial published on the Taipei Times in 2009 explained:
With the Chinese Nationalist Party [Guomindang] so singularly unwilling to conduct even the slightest iota of reflection on its continued unwavering worship of dictator Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) — a man considered by most of the rest of the world as a corrupt, megalomaniac butcher — it seems Taiwanese will never experience transitional justice of any form.
According to this view, as long as Chiang Kai-shek is not treated like Hitler is treated in Germany, Taiwan will never overcome its dictatorial past.
However, I believe that Ke Wenzhe gave a much better interpretation of Chiang’s legacy and suggested a more pragmatic approach. Ke said:
Keeping Chiang statues in place does not mean spiritual surrender, but the fact that we can finally overcome history and be our own masters … Personally speaking, I would avoid provoking confrontation in Taipei, and I would keep the statues as evidence of history.
I am very glad that Ke said this. If I or anyone else had expressed the same opinion, I’m sure that many people would have said, “It’s easy for you. Your family didn’t suffer under Chiang Kai-shek’s brutal dictatorship.” Ke’s family did suffer, and still he doesn’t seem to think that going around smashing statues is a way to build a better Taiwan.
The problem with history is that it is complex and contradictory and that the way people deal with historical figures is seldom coherent. Let me illustrate my point with three examples: Winston Churchill, Ulysses Grant and George Washington.
What would we say if activists smashed and spray-painted statues of these historical figures? What if a group of Indians went to the UK and destroyed images and statues of the former British Prime Minister?
Well, there would certainly be enough reasons for them to do so, since Churchill was a staunch supporter of British imperialism.
In a speech delivered in 1931, Churchill said:
I am against this surrender to Gandhi. I am against these conversations and agreements between Lord Irwin and Mr. Gandhi. Gandhi stands for the expulsion of Britain from India. Gandhi stands for the permanent exclusion of British trade from India. Gandhi stands for the substitution of Brahmin domination for British rule in India. You will never be able to come to terms with Gandhi …
In India far more than in any other community in the world moral, political and economic considerations are outweighed by the importance of technical and administrative apparatus. Here you have nearly three hundred and fifty millions of people, lifted to a civilisation and to a level of peace, order, sanitation and progress far above anything they could possibly have achieved themselves or could maintain. This wonderful fact is due to the guidance and authority of a few thousands of British officials responsible to Parliament who have for generations presided over the development of India.
If that authority is injured or destroyed, the whole efficiency of the services, defensive, administrative, medical, hygienic, judicial; railway, irrigation, public works and famine prevention, upon which the Indian masses depend for their culture and progress, will perish with it. India will fall back quite rapidly through the centuries into the barbarism and privations of the Middle Ages … To let the Indian people fall, as they would, to the level of China, would be a desertion of duty on the part of Great Britain.
Isn’t it bizarre that Churchill, the man who is honoured in Britain and in the Western world as a great politician, was also an imperialist? Does that mean that if I do not hate Mr Churchill I am an imperialist, too? Do the statues of Mr Churchill in Britain signify that the country is actually still imperialist?
I will come to this later.
What about, then, George Washington, the first President of the United States? Throughout his life Washington owned slaves. It is true that in his will he freed his slaves, but he always refused to condemn slavery, outlaw it, or liberate his slaves as long as he lived. He was, as Fritz Hirschfeld writes in his book George Washington and Slavery, at best a ‘lukewarm abolitionist’. In a recent article the New York Times called Washington a ‘slave catcher’. In 1793, Washington signed the notorious Fugitive Slave Act, which stipulated that “persons escaping from the service of their masters” had to be seized and returned to their owners.
Does every statue or image of George Washington, or the very name of the capital of the United States, mean that people still endorse slavery? Does this mean that they belittle slavery and that the United States will never shake off the legacy of racism and slavery? Are black people allowed to vandalise all statues and images of George Washington, and to demand that the name of the capital be changed?
And what about Ulysses S. Grant, the 18th President of the United States? Grant had a ‘benevolent’ attitude towards the black population, yet he believed, like most people of European stock at the time, that the intermingling of races was dangerous and unnatural. In his memoirs, he wrote:
It is possible that the question of a conflict between races may come up in the future, as did that between freedom and slavery before. The condition of the colored man within our borders may become a source of anxiety, to say the least. But he was brought to our shores by compulsion, and he now should be considered as having as good a right to remain here as any other class of our citizens. It was looking to a settlement of this question that led me to urge the annexation of Santo Domingo during the time I was President of the United States.
Santo Domingo was freely offered to us, not only by the administration, but by all the people, almost without price. The island is upon our shores, is very fertile, and is capable of supporting fifteen millions of people. The products of the soil are so valuable that labor in her fields would be so compensated as to enable those who wished to go there to quickly repay the cost of their passage. I took it that the colored people would go there in great numbers, so as to have independent states governed by their own race. They would still be States of the Union, and under the protection of the General Government; but the citizens would be almost wholly colored.
Later I will also write about two other controversial figure, Christopher Columbus and Martin Luther. To a certain extent, the entire system of European expansionism was rotten to the core, and the majority of the settlers who moved to Western colonies were nothing more than murderers and thieves, who simply took land and resources that did not belong to them (similarly, Han settlers in Taiwan took land that did not belong to them and marginalised the native populations). Do we have to burn all statues, images, photographs of our ancestors in order to show that we have overcome the past?
The point of my post is not to belittle what Chiang Kai-shek did, but to point out that we must draw a clear line between understanding the past and using the past as a political tool to justify extreme actions. Ke Wenzhe’s attitude towards Chiang’s statues makes it very clear that smashing and vandalising public property won’t lead Taiwan forward. It is right to talk about the past openly and know what really happened. But the actual purpose of this process should be to avoid the mistakes of the past, not to eliminate the physical traces of the past. Chiang’s statues are a part of Taiwan’s history, just like Churchill’s portraits are part of Britain’s history. It is, as I have shown, indeed possible to separate the good from the bad; we do it every day, otherwise we’d have to curse most of our history. Everyone should know who Chiang Kai-shek was and what he did. It is also possible to discuss whether the statues should be removed. But vandalising public property is neither going to change history nor it is going to give a positive contribution to the future.
When the activists threw eggs at Chiang’s statue inside the Memorial Hall, there were mainland Chinese tourists watching the scene in disbelief. “How can this happen?” asked a woman. “You don’t understand the word ‘democracy'”, answered a man. This is exactly the kind of message that’s going to make democracy appear less desirable. Mainland Chinese who see such things won’t think democracy is a good thing, but they will believe the Communist Party’s claim that democracy leads to chaos and anarchy.
It would be much more useful, for example, to include inside Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall exhibitions about the 228 Incident, so that Chiang would not be glorified or honoured, but simply dissected and analysed for what he was. This would be a more civilised and educational way to deal with an uncomfortable past.