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Books on Taiwan

Update No: 105 - (26/03/13)

The ‘White Terror’ remembered
On the 66th anniversary of the 228 incident in which tens of thousands of native Taiwanese were killed by mainland soldiers of the KMT army, President Ma Ying-jeou has apologised to the descendants of the victims and reaffirmed a commitment to human rights on Taiwan. It was an astute move and one, which for the first time, may lead to a reconciliation between the native Taiwanese and the mainlanders with whom the island of Taiwan is shared. A non-partisan approach to the past may yet be possible and Ma deserves credit for taking the first step.

This sits uneasily with the personal vengeance President Ma took last year against his Taiwanese predecessor, Chen Shui- bian, we quote from our September 2012report : “Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou really does not like his predecessor. Chen Shui-bian, the former head of the (now) opposition Democratic Progressive Party and Taiwan’s president from 2000–2008, is now incarcerated having been sentenced to a 17½-year prison term for corruption in a disgraceful trial that many observers believe was stage-managed by the KMT to secure a ‘guilty’ verdict. It certainly fell below standards of universally acknowledged rules of evidence and impartiality by the presiding judge.
Chen is confined to a cell that measures less than two square metres and has to sleep, eat and write on the floor of his cell. He is not in good health and is said to be suffering from respiratory infections and chest pains as well as depression. Chen has been medically examined a number of times in recent months by government-appointed practitioners, all of whom have pronounced his conditions to be ‘non life-threatening.’”

Taiwan today is generally seen by the world as a showcase of western democratic values embedded in a society that is fundamentally Confucian. That is an oversimplification of course, and despite what many observers see as a clawing back of a ‘western-style’ democratic ideal by the present KMT government, it is true, nevertheless, that compared to many Asian countries, the Taiwanese enjoy many fundamental freedoms not enjoyed by neighbouring countries. Let us look at three indices that are used to measure democratic values:

The most recent Index of Economic Freedom published by the US-based Heritage Foundation classifies Taiwan as ‘Mostly Free’ and ranks it in 20th spot out of 177 countries. Hong Kong and Singapore are right at the top of the list—the only other Asian ‘economies’ to make it into the Top 20.

Since 1972, Freedom House (another US-based NGO, their first ever), has published annually ‘Freedom in the World’ a publication that provides a comparative assessment of global political rights and civil liberties. This report, which now covers 195 countries and 14 disputed territories, is widely regarded as the international benchmark for measuring political rights around the world. Within the Asia Pacific Region Taiwan is one of a small number of countries ranked as ‘Free’ (the others being Australia and New Zealand, Indonesia, India, Japan, (South) Korea and Mongolia. On a scale of between 1 and 7 where 1 represents ‘most free’ and 7 represents ‘least free’ Taiwan achieves an overall score of 1.5 alongside Japan, South Korea and Mongolia. Only Australia and New Zealand do better. China by contrast has a score of 6.5. North Korea fares the worst.

Then there is the tally produced by Reporters without Borders, which focuses on press freedom and the safety of journalists. On this list, Taiwan is in 47th spot out of 179 countries. Interestingly, on this list only Papua New Guinea ranks ahead of Taiwan within the Asia and Pacific region when press freedoms are measured.

The World Audit Democracy Check on the New Nations website ( provides similar, but more comprehensive data. The key message to emerge is that by any yardstick, Taiwan has been doing well as a country that defends political and economic rights along with freedom of the press.

But it was not always so. Indeed many casual observers of the ‘greater China’ scene may not be aware that Taiwan experienced one of the world’s longest ever periods of martial law of the modern age. It began on May 19, 1949 and only ended on July 15, 1987—more than 38 years.

It would probably have happened anyway given the mindset of the time, but the trigger for the introduction of Martial Law was the so-called 228 Incident, a tragic page in Taiwan’s post-colonial history that began with an anti-government uprising in the southern city of Kaohsiung over, of all things, a cigarette vendor being challenged in a local market by a civil servant from the Office of Monopoly out to collect taxes. This was only the flashpoint. Since the surrender of the Japanese forces at the end of World War II, administration of Taiwan had passed to the Republic of China led by Chiang Kai-shek and their rule was brutal.

With the defeat of the Japanese in 1945, the civil war between the KMT forces led by Chiang and the Communist People’s Liberation Army under the command of Mao Zedong once again intensified and, faced with defeat on the Chinese mainland, Chiang moved his forces and his administration to Taiwan, where it remains to this day. To the average Taiwanese, the differences at that time between the KMT administration and the Japanese colonial government were slight indeed. One colonial oppressor was replaced with another. High-handed conduct, not to mention endemic corruption at every level led to a single incident, trivial in itself, becoming a nationwide uprising.

So began a massacre of the native Taiwanese by KMT soldiers. The massacre was short-lived but resulted in the deaths of between 10,000 and 30,000 people. The period that followed came to be known as the period of the ‘white terror’. As well as those killed in the massacre, many thousands more were subsequently imprisoned or vanished without trace. At the same time, the seeds were sown for what was to later become the Taiwan independence movement and the gulf between the mainlanders and the native population became total.

The 228 Incident happened 66 years ago but it is regarded still as one of the most important events in Taiwan’s recent history. During the entire martial law period and for many years thereafter, the white terror chapter was brushed aside, not mentioned or, if mentioned at all, ascribed to ‘communist agitators’ within the community. The first time the tragedy was mentioned sympathetically by a government official was when former President Lee Teng-hui addressed the issue on the anniversary of the incident in 1995. February 28 was later proclaimed as Peace Memorial Day throughout Taiwan although many officials, especially those within the KMT, were obviously uncomfortable in mentioning the incident and continued to pass it off as an event caused by the communists. This provided a convenient excuse to avoid any investigation of the true facts behind the incidents as all government documents from that period were deemed to be held ‘secret in perpetuity’.

But commemoration of 228 has not disappeared from the public consciousness despite the passing of the decades. Since 1995, monuments have been erected and parks dedicated to the victims of 228. The incident is now taught as part of the curriculum in high schools throughout Taiwan and each year on the anniversary of the incident a commemoration ceremony is held at the Taipei Peace Park and elsewhere throughout the Island.

Despite all of this, these commemorations are not accepted by all and it appears there remain some within the ruling KMT that would prefer to forget the anniversary. According to press reports, some KMT-controlled cities and municipalities have chosen not to hold any commemorations this year and continue to place the blame for the incident not on the KMT, but on ‘communist agitators’. But with the government now seeking to warm to Beijing, even this excuse starts to have an uncomfortable ring to it.

It was perhaps of particular significance that, this year, President Ma Ying-jeou, himself a member of the KMT and a mainlander, apologised to the victims of the white terror and their descendants. Ma promised to institutionalise the protection of human rights so as to prevent any similar incident ever happening again.

“I am here to promise again that the government will defend democracy and freedom in Taiwan. It is crucial to consolidate the core values of democracy and institutionalize the protection of human rights so that tragedies like the 228 Incident will not happen again.”

In a further gesture towards reconciliation, the Ministry of National Defense’s (MND) Military Intelligence Bureau has agreed to declassify more than 379 items related to the 228 Incident and the White Terror era, and to make them available to the public via the National Archive Administration.

Much of the difficulty lies in the fact that democracy in Taiwan is a work in progress, and such progress as has been made is largely a product of the last 20 years. Up until now, attitudes towards the events that happened decades ago have been based on partisan positions; never so far has there ever been a non-partisan approach towards issues of reconciliation.

Despite all his faults, President Ma may have, this year, taken just such a step albeit a tentative one. A public affirmation of a commitment to human rights accompanied by apologies for past wrongs are both important aspects of the reconciliation process between the native Taiwanese that make up 80 per cent of Taiwan’s population and the mainlanders with whom they now share this island.

Perhaps at long last a start has been made, but the world will not overlook the current reality of the unacceptable treatment of the former premier Chen Shui-bian.

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