The View from Taichung: 2-28 and the real question of responsibility

Historians are asking the wrong question

The Taitung 19, Japanese-era road on east coast, now a bike route. (Photo by Michael A. Turton)

Progress on the 2-28 massacre and related issues took many forms this week. In her first speech at the annual commemoration, President Tsai announced that she would address the issue of responsibility for the event, via opening up of archival materials, and last May, through her promise of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

The Culture Ministry has also sent around a draft plan for a national human rights museum act, which could become reality as early as December of this year. Chen Shui-bian promised some of this in his 2004 campaign, but was hamstrung by the KMT's control of the legislature. A decade was lost.

Other signals of progress seemed more equivocal on the surface. At the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, protesters and pro-unification groups clashed. That may seem regressive, yet it shows that protests are becoming larger and more effective, and making the anti-Taiwan side more nervous.

They know that what is merely the subject of protests now will become the object of legislation later, and they can see the future in the spontaneous removal of Chiang Kai-shek statues from public spaces over the last couple of the decades. At some point the local governments will get around to renaming the streets as well, and Chiang will disappear from public life.

Good riddance to Chiang, yet the issue of justice has not disappeared. No one has ever served a day in jail for the 2-28 killings, the White Terror, and five decades of martial law. Much of the oppression has simply been lost to history: few really know how the mainlanders who supported the regime were terrorized by it, because they do not speak of it to outsiders.

By the time the Tsai Administration gets around to generating a report and making information available, more years will lost. And we all know what justice delayed is. Because of this, one scholar has termed Taiwan's democratic evolution a "transition without justice."

This week KMT Chairman Hung Hsiu-chu, whose own father was a victim of the terror, ironically put her finger on recent changes in the way transitional justice is viewed. Arguing that the plan is to "demonize Chiang as Nazi leader Adolf Hitler," she trundled out the usual KMT complaints: "The acts of 'removing Chiang's symbols' are the core of the 'de-ROC-ization' or we should say 'desinicization project,'" she said.

The comparison to Germany, as astute Taiwan observer Aaron Wytze remarked on Twitter this week, is one that has become increasingly common. Transitional justice in Taiwan has elements of both decolonization and de-Nazification, since unlike most post-colonial regimes, the colonizers are still in country and in many ways, in charge.

Hung has invoked Nazism before, with her party as the victim and the DPP and "populism" as the Nazis, exploiting a bit of pleasing sound association in Chinese: The word for Nazi is 納粹 while the word for populism is 民粹. The second character, cui4, is the same in both. 

For years pro-Taiwan commentators have been pointing out that "de-Sinicization" is KMT code verbiage for "removing markers of ROC colonial power in Taiwan." And dang if Hung didn't just go and make the equation for us: de-ROC and de-Sinicization are the same thing in her eyes. Just as we've all been saying.

Another little bit of progress was the discovery of new telegram dated March 2, 1947, from Chen Yi, governor of Formosa, to Chiang Kai-shek, asking for troops of "superior quality" to "eradicate" the "bandits" in Formosa. This put the final nail in the coffin of arguments that Chiang could not be blamed because no documentary evidence linked him to the massacre, or because Chen Yi had misled him, or because he did not have full control of the troops, or any of the other million reasons that Chiang's followers have struggled to invent in order to keep the mud off him.

Much of this what did Chiang know and when did he know it? speculation is driven by the assumption, always left unspoken, that if Chiang had known how Taiwan was being abused or how Chen Yi was misleading him, he would have acted to right affairs and removed Chen Yi. Yet, as many scholars have pointed out, far from punishing the perpetrators of the 2-28 massacre, Chiang promoted them. Chen Yi was only executed after he had attempted to go over to the Communists.

When does one promote a subordinate? When the subordinate does well, or carries out an assigned task. Or both.

The KMT had abundant information on Japanese Taiwan, including lists of prominent leaders and their political positions, the Home Rule movement, and extensive information on the island's political and industrial infrastructure. In Formosa Betrayed George Kerr avers that "In addition to these reports on subversion potential, and on specific communications and industrial objectives, we also received from Chungking a long report on Formosan-Chinese leaders, and on Formosans who were exiles in China."

Moreover, Taiwanese in KMT China were closely watched by the KMT, especially after the war began in 1937. Arbitrary arrest and detention of Taiwanese in China was common, and many, even those working for the KMT, concealed their Taiwanese origins. In Fujian the local government set up internment camps for Taiwanese and hundreds were arrested, interned, and had their property confiscated.

Many Taiwanese were eager to help fight the Japanese and sought Chinese citizenship. But at the highest levels the KMT secretly handed down orders to the provincial governments that Taiwanese were to be treated like Korean and Okinawan nationals. Thus, as scholar Mike Shi-chi Lan observed in his discussion of Taiwanese in KMT China in the early 1940s, there is a certain irony in the KMT claiming that the Taiwanese were Chinese when they occupied the island in 1945, after spending years defining them as non-Chinese.

Given the comprehensive intelligence the KMT had through its surveillance of Taiwanese in China and its close knowledge of Taiwan and its political development and major Taiwanese leaders, the Chiang government must have known exactly what would happen when its carpetbaggers and occupation troops arrived in 1945 and began to loot an island which had a well established Home Rule movement and a robust industrial and social infrastructure. Of course there would be organized protests and eventually a revolt – which would give Chiang the perfect excuse to send in the troops and kill the leaders, so that the Home Rule movement would not trouble him the way it had troubled the Japanese.

Chen Yi, the governor, had actually helped suppress the remnants of just such a revolt in Fujian in the 1930s, when the 19th Army had declared Fujian an independent state and had to be retaken by the KMT in a major military campaign. He was thus the perfect man to run Taiwan, if that is what Chiang wanted done.

The question of Chiang's culpability is a red herring. Historians should not be asking whether he was responsible, but whether he had planned for the killings to occur in the first place.