The Chinese Nationalist Party’s (KMT) Party History Center made a big to-do about the release of thousands of Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石)-era documents online earlier this week, but it should not have been a cause for celebration.
The center’s director said his staff had spent several years digitizing the documents — government papers that Chiang approved from 1950 to 1975 — which had not been published before. In addition to providing crucial information about the KMT, the materials were major historical documents for the nation, he said.
Rather than hailing the “availability” of these documents and a newfound willingness by the center — as of August — to loan such records, historians, political scientists and the general public should be asking questions and pressing for answers.
Foremost is why the KMT’s history center is still acting as gatekeeper for “major” government papers, even if they are from the height of the single-party state authoritarian era?
Why is it that more than a decade after the enactment of the National Archives Act (國家檔案法), which was passed in 1999, the National Archives Administration (NAA) must rely on “donations” to build its collection, and why are its officials still denied access to many files related to national security and investigations from the White Terror era and other key episodes in the nation’s history?
Why is this government policy category still one of the smallest among the 25 categories established by the National Archives Collection?
The collection is dominated by materials on transportation and public works, economics and trade, fiscal concerns, and national defense and veterans’ affairs.
Unfortunately, one answer is that the NAA does not have the power to force the KMT to turn over the government documents held by its history center. Cynics may find it hard to believe this omission was not deliberately created in the drafting of legislation that created the NAA and its organizational structure, given the KMT’s domination of the Legislative Yuan.
It is difficult not to be cynical when comparing the autocratic complacency with which the KMT regards its right to retain papers and documents from decades ago, and conceal “state secrets,” with the fuss made by the Presidential Office in 2011 when it claimed that more than 90 percent of the official documents from former president Chen Shui-bian’s (陳水扁) office had gone missing before the transfer of power to President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九).
The Presidential Office claimed that 17 former Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) officials had violated the National Archives Act and two other laws by failing to return about 36,000 documents.
The DPP and the former officials, who, along with many outside observers, linked the timing of the allegations with preparations for last year’s presidential elections, vigorously denied the allegations.
Each country must decide how to handle its government archives and meet the relatively recent demand for greater openness and access. For example, the US established its National Archives in 1934, but it was not until 1978 that a law was passed making the official records of the president and vice president public property, and turning over the ownership, custody and responsibility for those records to the national archivist.
A national archive should strive for political neutrality to ensure the public can access public records, learn from history and analyze the actions of their government. In Taiwan that means ensuring that the NAA is color-blind, but this will not happen until it is given access to and authority over all government and presidential records and documents since the founding of the nation.