Statues of former president Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) dotting school campuses and public spaces nationwide are the subject of fierce debate at this time of year — the anniversary of the 228 Incident — and increasingly so in the past five years.
On Wednesday, National Sun Yat-sen University announced it was establishing a committee to determine the fate of a Chiang statue on its campus. The university is using the opportunity to get students, faculty and alumni talking about the issue.
On Tuesday, the Tainan City Government removed a statue of Chiang from a roundabout, the third such removal in the city this month.
Last month, National Chengchi University passed a motion calling for its statues of Chiang to be removed as part of efforts to promote human rights and transitional justice.
These are not isolated incidents. Two years ago, the Tainan City Government removed statues from 14 elementary and junior-high schools as part of a concerted effort to rid the city of symbols of dictatorship.
The Cihu Memorial Sculpture Garden, adjacent to Chiang’s mausoleum in Taoyuan’s Dasi District (大溪), where many of the statues and busts of the former president removed from schools, parks and other places have been discarded since 2000, is getting pretty crowded. There are already more than 200 orphaned statues there.
There is plenty of debate surrounding whether these statues should be removed. Does it constitute historical vandalism, a whitewashing of Taiwan’s past? What purpose do these statues serve? They are memorials to a late dictator.
All memorials are political spectacles. It is one thing to have these statues at Chiang’s mausoleum or premises specifically to commemorate him. However, placed in schools, the statues legitimize Chiang and condone his actions. In parks and other public spaces, it enforces a sense of shared narrative.
Over the past few years, more young people have rallied against this narrative, in many cases when marking the 228 Incident anniversary.
Last year the dictator’s statues were defaced in numerous locations, including Yilan, where someone wrote “Taiwan’s Hitler.”
When a nation’s schools and public spaces are dominated by images of mostly one person, specifically a national leader, it starts to look suspiciously like the trappings of a personality cult, a symbol intentionally employed to legitimize a regime. When that leader came from outside and headed a foreign regime, it looks like a symbol of colonialism.
When the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) first came to Taiwan, having statues and busts of its leader erected at schools and in public spaces served a definitive purpose. This same need led Chiang to order the 228 Massacre. That is why it is unconscionable that the KMT opposes efforts to have those same statues removed.
The government is attempting to bring about transitional justice. It is seeking the truth, holding those responsible for wrongdoing to account and introducing a more desirable social reality, allowing people to move on.
This is an opportunity. Local governments can remove the statues of a dictator, symbolic of a cruel and unjust past under a foreign regime, and replace them with meaningful celebrations of individuals or events that have made real, positive contributions to Taiwan. Better still, recast these symbols from the melted-down bronze or steel of the dictator’s statues. What more fitting symbol of transitional justice could there be?