Trauma and Memory – 228 in Taiwan Today

This past Thursday, Taiwan commemorated the 61st anniversary of the February 28 Incident (hereafter referred to as 228), an uprising against KMT authoritarian rule initially sparked by the beating of a female vendor in Taipei for selling untaxed cigarettes. During the ensuing military crackdown, tens of thousands of Taiwan's elite were arrested, tortured, and murdered, with the violence lasting into the spring of 1947 and helping usher in the era known as the White Terror (白色恐怖).

The untold suffering of 228 has led to decades of division in Taiwan society, because while the conflict's victims included both Taiwanese and Mainlanders, the KMT brought the full brunt of state violence to persecute innocent men and women. 228 remained taboo for decades under Chiang Kai-shek's dictatorial rule (discussed in my previous blogpost), with the first scholars to lecture on this subject writing their wills before heading off to class. It took until 1995 for then KMT President Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) to offer the first official apology, with the Legislative Yuan making 228 an official holiday in 1998.

Regrettably, the commemoration of 228 is increasingly turning into a formality. This year's anniversary in particular has been highly politicized, as it comes amid a tightly-fought presidential race featuring Frank Hsieh (謝長廷) of the ruling DPP and Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) of the KMT. Thousands of DPP supporters marched through the streets of Taipei starting at 2:28 p.m. before proceeding to an evening rally, in part in hopes of rekindling the spirit of the of the Hand in-Hand Safeguard Taiwan Rally (手牽手護台灣活動), which attracted over two million participants back in 2004. Ma, who is leading Hsieh by at least 10 points in opinion polls, attended a 228 concert in tribute to the victims. In a concerted drive to appeal to the 70% non-Mainlander element of Taiwan's 23 million people, Ma often prefers to use Taiwanese instead of his native Mandarin when offering apologies for the past. His years of effort have moved some family members of the victims to take part in KMT-sponsored events, and if he does win the election such support may be a key factor.

However, for many people the KMT art of apology still seems to be little more than mere lip service. One reason why some people might feel skeptical is that the KMT has co-opted a significant number of Taiwanese local factions, including some with close ties to the victims. For example, pan-blue local officials in the Kinmen (Jinmen 金門) County Government and Taya (Daya 大雅) Township Office in Taichung (Taizhong 台中) County chose to ignore government regulations that the flag be flown at half mast nationwide, with Taya's mayor publicly expressing his dissatisfaction with the DPP government's decision to deemphasize holidays such as Retrocession Day while choosing to focus on 228 instead.

Apologies aside, much remains to be done before the trauma of 228 can be fully healed. Taiwanese scholars like Hsu Hsueh-chi and Lai Tse-han have done path-breaking research, while Stephen E. Phillips has published an important book-length study. In addition, institutions like the 228 Memorial Foundation and Taipei 228 Memorial Museum are working to shed new light on the past. Another interesting development is that some Chinese historians (including a sizeable number of Mainlanders) who had never previously shown any interest in Taiwan history are now starting to publish their own interpretations of 228. However, many critical files housed in government and KMT party archives still lie beyond the reach of critical scholarly research.

During a visit to a 228 victim's family, Hsieh urged that both he and Ma promise to fully open all relevant files collected by the National Security Bureau (國家安全局), the Taiwan Garrison Command (台灣警備總司令部; now under the Ministry of Defense), and the Investigation Bureau (調查局; now under the Ministry of Justice). One hopeful sign was that Ma pledged to build a national 228 Memorial Hall and continue promoting research on the tragedy, and that he placed the blame squarely on his own party. However, in response to complaints over the KMT's continued blocking of the budget for the Statute for the Handling of and Compensation for the 228 Incident (二二八事件處理及補償條例) in the Legislative Yuan, Ma chose to criticize the Cabinet for listing the budget under the Ministry of Education instead of the Ministry of the Interior. Inasmuch as the KMT now holds a commanding majority (discussed in my first blogpost), it remains to be seen how much progress will actually take place.

In the midst of all this politicking, perhaps the greatest tragedy is that many victims' families (Taiwanese and Mainlander alike) still have no idea of why their loved ones perished or where their remains lie. Many people believe in the need to establish an independent and impartial "truth and reconciliation commission" with the authority to investigate unjust martial law verdicts and unsolved state political crimes, in order to achieve the long-term goal of transitional justice and genuine reconciliation. However, others fear that a truth commission seems hopeless now, as one side of Taiwan's polarized political spectrum might automatically reject any rulings considered favorable to the other. And, even if a truth commission proved viable, the fact remains that virtually no material in local school curriculums performs the vital function of educating Taiwan's youth about 228.

All of this casts a shadow over the way in which 228 will be remembered in the future. At a memorial service held at the Taipei 228 Memorial Peace Park, President Chen Shui-bian 陳水扁 said, "If we cannot face the past, we cannot construct the future." Or, as Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel so eloquently stated during his 1986 Peace Prize acceptance speech, "...if we forget, we are guilty, we are accomplices." It seems particularly noteworthy that the 228 Memorial Foundation set the theme of this year's official commemorations as "Taiwan Stands Up", urging people to overcome the tensions wrought by 228 and five decades of authoritarian rule by rallying to the defense of Taiwan's hard-won democracy. However, Taiwan's democratic triumphs will surely lose their luster if politicians continue to use the past in the service of the present, and the next generation proves apathetic about this dark side of their nations history.

(Note: My thoughts on 228 benefitted from reading editorials in the Taipei Times and Taiwan News Online. Thanks also to Kevin Chang (Chang Ku-ming 張谷銘) for his advice and inspiration.)


Michael Fahey said...

A thoughtful comment on an important subject. One minor caveat is that I have seen Ma speak many times including to 228 victims on several occasions. Ma generally stumbles through a few sentences of Taiwanese during the 'apology' section of his speech, but it would be stretching to suggest that he can make a full speech in Taiwanese or even the entire apology.

Ma's poor Taiwanese is excused by Taiwanese who like him as a sign of good faith and is the subject of much scorn from those who do not. Be that as it may, Ma has unquestionably reached out to 228 victims more than any other mainlander KMT politician.

Michael Turton said...

I see my buddy Feiren got here first, so I can only echo his comments.

I think it is wrong to say that commemoration is a 'formality.' Rather, for many Taiwanese, it is a deeply felt symbol of everything they hated about the old regime. The huge rallies and pro-Taiwan activities enable them to give voice and meaning to these feelings. I have seen people crying their hearts out at these rallies. The DPP may use the 2-28 commemorations to launch its political campaigns, but that does not mean that 2-28 is empty of meaning -- it is precisely because its meanings are so rich and powerful that it is so effective for the DPP.

One missing element is the mainlanders. Although the White Terror killings probably resulted in more mainlander deaths than Taiwanese during the early phases, the tragedy is that the mainlander community is absolutely silent on this. Unlike the Taiwanese who had commercial and social independence from the regime, the mainlanders were entirely dependent on the KMT state for food rations, housing, salary, and other necessities of existence. Thus, they maintained silence though thousands were hauled off and/or killed.

Great post. And when you see 2-28, think about China will be like after democratization. It will be beyond question the greatest problem of transitional justice in human history.


Dennie Hoopingarner said...

The frank and open discussion of this event by the government, which is a black eye on the history of KMT rule in Taiwan, is all the more inspiring given the taboo on the subject for many decades. The freedom of discourse in Taiwan is admirable. I wonder how long it will be until a similar level of discourse is allowed in China on the subject of 6-4.

Anonymous said...

Turton could not be anymore wrong. The reason the mainlanders are silent is because the Hokklo chauvinists have completly hijacked and distorted the history of events surrounding 228 and peddled it to the usual group of useful idiots.

Instead of a suppression by the KMT (aka mainlanders) against the oh-so oppressed and innocent Hokklo majority as portrayed by them, 228 was a full blown insurrection by treasonous elements. It was begun with armed violence by the Taiwanese directed against the mainland community and it was ended with military action by the KMT.

There was no other way things could have ended unless you regard surrendering to myriad groups of provincialist traitors as a good idea.