On Monday, the 64th anniversary of the 228 Incident, the National 228 Memorial Museum on Nanhai Road in Taipei was officially opened to the public. It matters not whether the 228 Incident is called a rebellion or an uprising, and whether this indelible event in post-war Taiwan is seen as a scar, burn or birthmark it was a tragic beginning that changed the course of Taiwanese history.
Feb. 28 has been designated a national holiday — Peace Memorial Day — and the Presidential Office, the symbol of the highest power in the land, always flies the national flag at half-mast on that date as a sign of mourning.
It has taken 30 years of tireless effort by many people to reach this point, to win consolation and compensation for the victims, to clear their names and to reassess the historical significance of the incident.
In recent years there have been two waves of effort to investigate and research the truth about the 228 Incident. The first wave came in the early 1990s, when the Cabinet set up a 228 Incident investigative team to search historical records. This investigation produced a preliminary report, but it did not seek to assign responsibility — criminal or otherwise — for the repression. The second wave came in the early 2000s, when the preparatory office of the National Archives Administration directed a wider and deeper search for documents and other historical materials, which were then published by Academia Historica — but still without offering a formal, rigorous report on who was responsible for the events.
Just as this second wave of research into the truth about the 228 Incident was under way, the first government dominated by ethnic Taiwanese came into office. The new government saw this research as a core project in the process of transitional justice. A number of historians and writers who were hangers-on of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) were rather unhappy about the project. They claimed that there was no such thing as an ethnic Taiwanese government, that the idea of transitional justice was plain rubbish, and so on. After eight years in opposition, the KMT managed to get voted back into office, and since then, the party and its hangers-on have been doing their best to reassert their own historical interpretation.
There is an older Taipei 228 Memorial Museum, which is located in the 228 Peace Memorial Park, formerly known as Taipei New Park, and is fully under the control of the KMT-run Taipei City Government. On this year’s 228 anniversary, the museum presented a “renovated exhibition.” But what the “renovations” are really about is reversing the process of transitional justice and the reassessment of the 228 Incident. Basically, two kinds of manipulation have been going on in the museum. The first is to obscure the sequence of historical events, and the second is to magnify a positive image of those who were in power at the time of the incident. The clearest example is that a blown-up image of a telegram sent by Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) to then-Taiwan Provincial governor Chen Yi (陳儀) on March 13, 1947 — three days after troops sent to Taiwan started killing people on a large scale — has been placed at a central, focal point in the exhibition hall.
The text of the cable reads: “Please make it your responsibility to strictly forbid acts of revenge by military and government personnel.” The intention behind placing this telegram in such a prominent spot is clearly to dilute, or even to gloss over, the fact that is was Chiang who gave the direct order to send troops to stamp out the unrest.
This clumsy attempt to distort the real train of historical events can easily be foiled by using Chiang’s own words against him. Among the “Dasi archives,” which were made public in 1991, can be found an order penned by Chiang and sent directly to Chen on Feb. 20, 1947, a week before the 228 Incident broke out. The smudged telegram reveals that Chiang delivered two secret orders authorizing military and government personnel in Taiwan to liquidate and suppress any opposition. First, Chiang wrote: “It is reported that [Chinese] Communist Party elements have already infiltrated Taiwan and are starting to play a role. This must be strictly prevented and stopped, so as to prevent another cell from stirring up trouble in future.” Then he wrote: “Conditions in Taiwan Province are different from the interior, so military and government leaders there may handle matters as they find expedient.”
Consequently, as the political situation developed, all forces under Chen, including the military and party intelligence bureaus, military officers who landed in Taiwan and commanders who were already stationed there, eagerly carried out these two orders. Among the lists they drew up of so-called “culprits” are a jumble of supposed “communists” and “traitors” (probably meaning pro-Japanese elements).
Without waiting for further orders, these forces went ahead with the clampdown. Their attitude was, “It’s better to kill a hundred people in error than to let one guilty person escape.”
These forces’ idea of “handling matters expediently” was, without warning, to subject civilians who had no means of defending themselves to widespread and indiscriminate repression, murder and purges that went on for months. What is that, if not a massacre? And the train of events points clearly to the man who started it all — Chiang Kai-shek himself.
Woody Cheng is a professor of history at National Cheng Kung University.
TRANSLATED BY JULIAN CLEGG
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