Late last month, Minister of Culture Lung Ying-tai (龍應台) delivered a report at the Legislative Yuan on the progress of preparations for the National Human Rights Museum. During the session, she was asked questions such as who were the protagonists of the White Terror era and how the museum would present the record of former president Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石). Lung went from first placing the responsibility on “groups” and “organizations” to saying that it was inappropriate for her, as a minister, to impose her own values on the museum and that this was for society at large to debate.
We find this somewhat perplexing. Even President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), as early as 2007, conceded that Chiang shared some of the responsibility for the 228 Incident and the White Terror. That being the case, it is difficult to understand Lung’s reluctance to talk about it.
Evaluating Chiang’s legacy, for good or bad, in terms of governing Taiwan, is a complex matter: There are no clear-cut answers. Things are made much simpler when the debate is narrowed down to his role in the White Terror and how the museum hopes to depict this role, although Chiang is certainly not the sole person implicated. Equally important is the nature of the edifice behind the White Terror: For example, how high-level military and political leaders manipulated the government and the judiciary — through martial law — to suppress society, and how martial law was maintained for decades after the situation in the Taiwan Strait had become considerably more stable after late 1954, robbing the public of their basic freedoms.
We need to study and exhibit how the intelligence services controlled and permeated society, and what role they played in individual cases of political crimes.
Studying the system does not mean neglecting the individual. There has been a succession of studies on the part played by former president Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國) as head of the intelligence agencies from the 1950s on, responsible for investigating political crimes. As academic Su Jui-chiang (蘇瑞鏘) discovered when looking through archives from the 1950s, decisions at military tribunals were reviewed by officials at the former Taiwan Provincial Security Command, the defense minister and the chief of the general staff at the Ministry of National Defense and the secretary-general and presidential chief of staff at the Presidential Office. These documents, with notes and comments added, were then submitted to the president.
Many of the punishments initially decided by the tribunal were actually increased in severity over the course of this process. It is common knowledge that Chiang Kai-shek himself often demanded that custodial sentences were made longer or changed to the death penalty, but the archives reveal that other individuals, including Kui Yung-ching (桂永清), Chou Chih-jou (周至柔) and Liu Shih-yih (劉士毅), made similar amendments to the initial punishment.
The question is, how are we to evaluate the behavior of these senior officials and of the part they played? Were their decisions proportionate and reasonable or were they arbitrary? Furthermore, how are we to understand the lower-level tribunal judges, especially those who were upbraided by their superiors for their “excessively lenient” initial rulings?
Such complex issues require an analysis that reflects the complexity of the entire power structure and identifies the individual operators and facilitators and the positions they occupy within the wider spectrum. We have to move beyond universally applying the simplistic, stereotypical label of “perpetrator.”