Discussing the significance of the 228 Incident is a vexed enterprise. It remains a polarizing issue, a fact that is reflected in the name itself.
The basic details of the fatal clash in Taipei that triggered islandwide violence in February 1947 are generally well known. Government officials apprehended a woman selling contraband, and her rough treatment sparked anger among passers-by, who came to her defense. One of the passers-by was shot and the agents fled, leaving behind a crowd of people seething over not only the killing but also more than a year of gross misrule by the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT). They were determined to see justice served.
From there the situation quickly degenerated into a general collapse of law and order. After reinforcements arrived from China, a more calculated massacre took place. In particular, elite Taiwanese figures who had attempted to restore order and negotiate reform of government policies and procedures were massacred.
What is not so well known is that the triggering incident took place on Feb. 27, not Feb. 28. At the time, the “incident” was named “228” by the government and the media to reflect the dramatic increase in bloodshed the following day — and apportion responsibility for the havoc to various groups of demonstrators and rioters, not government agents and policies.
Later in Taichung, a rebel militia expressed its anger on this very issue by naming itself the “27 Unit.” The militia eventually dispersed, but not before claiming many Nationalist casualties in battles near Puli Township (埔里) in present-day Nantou County.
Even today, 228 is a complex issue with few easy answers, but the biggest problem — reflected in the misnaming of the entire affair — is that there remains no accountability.
Family members of victims have received a degree of cash compensation for their sufferings, but no perpetrator has ever been brought to justice, except perhaps for executive administrator Chen Yi (陳儀), whose misrule fed hatred of the KMT.
Ironically, Chen was executed on the orders of Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) for negotiating with the Communists after he returned to China; fortuitously for the refugee KMT government, his public execution in Taipei in 1950 allowed the authorities to disingenuously place the bulk of responsibility for misrule in Taiwan on his shoulders.
For most victims and their families, rage and sorrow were suppressed over the subsequent decades of martial law. This, together with the passage of time and the lack of unified sentiment, has meant that 228 remains an opportunity for exploitation by people of all political stripes, but particularly hardline KMT elements, who to this day express no remorse or regret for what was seen to be a necessary restoration of order at a time of communist insurrection.
Thankfully, such people are in the minority, but they remain part of a minority that is privileged and expects privilege.
In the absence of a truth and reconciliation commission, at which aging perpetrators might freely admit to their crimes in exchange for an amnesty, the best that Taiwanese can do is be vigilant and ensure that the rationalization of murder, praise for autocratic rule and callous indifference to the suffering of so many people never go unopposed.