Tienchi Martin-Liao: The 228 Incident is the Legacy of the Taiwanese People

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The February 28 Incident, or “228,” was an anti-government uprising in Taiwan against the Kuomintang (KMT) that resulted in a number of deaths, estimated anywhere from 10,000-50,000. Taiwan’s process of historical reflection and apology for the 1947 incident highlights tension between the ways in which both China and Taiwan deal with their individual and shared histories.

The 228 Incident was a tragic episode in Taiwan’s history. Under Chiang Kai-shek, the people were muzzled for four decades; the “white terror” sealed all the information about the uprising and massacre that happened on February 28, 1947. It was Chiang Ching-ko (1910-1988), the son and political successor of Chiang Kai-shek, who lifted the martial law and the ban on press as well as on political parties a year before his death. Once the taboo was broken, people in Taiwan were allowed to speak about the topic and the victims’ families dared to stand up and ask for justice.

When the Kuomintang troop came over from the mainland to Taiwan after World War II ended, they liberated the Taiwanese from Japanese colonialism, which lasted half a century. China conceded the Formosa island to Japan in the Shimonoseki Treaty when it was defeated by its neighbor country in 1895. The Taiwanese embraced their countrymen and liberators from the Chinese mainland in 1945, but soon found that the Chinese troops were undisciplined—the soldiers looked like more beggars and stealers than heroic liberators. The government and its officers were corrupt and incompetent; the victory brought inflation and food shortage to the island’s inhabitants. A large scale demonstration was triggered by an incident in which one soldier killed a cigarette peddler. The crowd began uprising; the frustration with the newcomers of government was high. The confrontation escalated into a direct fight between the army and common people. Suppression and arrest followed. The main target was the intellectual circle: thousands went missing or were thrown in jail. It was the darkest chapter in Taiwan’s modern history.

Taiwan’s democratization began after Chiang Ching-ko’s death. The free election and freedom of press has since changed the political and social landscape of the island. The KMT President, Lee Teng-hui, born Taiwanese and educated in Japan, made the official apology to the Taiwanese people in 1995 for the crimes committed by his KMT predecessors. It began a whole process of historical reflection from which the truth about the 228 tragedy has been excavated. The victims have received compensation and the people have access to the documents and literature about the incident. Every year on the anniversary there is an official commemoration with high officials participating in the ceremony. This year President Tsai Ing-wen participated in the commemoration and appealed that “the perpetrators apologize, the victims forgive,” so that the justice during the transition could be sustained. She also promised that her Democratic Progressive Party will move forward with an investigation to discover the whole truth behind the guilty party in the incident. The important task is to deal with the crime and severe mistakes made not by foreign country or intruders, but by its own individual or political forces.

As part of a rather disturbing phenomenon in recent years, Beijing tried to appropriate the legacy of the Taiwanese people and reinterpreted this historical conflict between the KMT and Taiwanese inhabitants as a part of “the liberation history of the Chinese people.” Xi Jinping’s intention to swallow up Taiwan is obvious. His chauvinistic thinking is deeply rooted in Chinese culture. No part of the territory should be separated from the motherland. Should this happen under any statesman, he will be condemned by history as a sinner and traitor of the nation.

It strikes a raw nerve with Beijing to hear the word “independence.” The cross-strait relationship between Beijing and Taiwan has been strained since Tsai won the election last January. Beijing believes that the Taiwanese president Mrs. Tsai desires independence because she rejected the “1992 Consensus,” which China and Taiwan loosely negotiated 25 years ago. According to the Consensus, both sides will respect a “one China” motto, however each can make its own interpretation of the document. As a born Taiwanese, Tsai knows that a very low percentage of Taiwan’s population wishes to be “recolonized” by China. After all, 23 million Taiwanese enjoy the democratic and prosperous life on the island. Taiwanese medical care is not only one of the best in Asia, but ranks among the highest in the world. They do not need any “liberation” from the totalitarian Chinese regime.

It is no wonder that China wants to manipulate the history of 228 in order to contest the legitimacy of the sovereignty over Taiwan, yet such a primitive abomination does not work. In fact, China could learn from Taiwan to confront its gloomy history with honestly. It is time to face the truth of the Communist Party as a perpetrator that committed many crimes in the Mao-era and killed millions of innocent citizens; it’s time to apologize to the people.