The decapitation of a statue of Yoichi Hatta, the Japanese engineer who is honored as the “father of the Chianan Irrigation System,” appears to have pleased the pro-unification camp in the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), and even Chinese academics have reacted with schadenfreude.
The decapitation was a counter-reaction to the excessive use of force by the government, associate dean Wu Yongping (巫永平) of Tsinghua University’s of School of Public Policy and Management in Beijing said.
Another theory is that the KMT chairperson election has been heating up and because one candidate, former vice president Wu Den-yih (吳敦義), has been consistent in his praise of Hatta, his opponents decapitated the statue as a way of attacking him.
Perhaps this kind of ideological showdown is related to the government’s removal of references to Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石).
However, regardless of the reason, the statue’s vandalism shows that Taiwanese do not understand their history well.
Whether this should be viewed in the light of the KMT chairmanship election or the removal of references to Chiang is up for debate. One thing to consider is whether Hatta and Chiang could be measured by the same yardstick.
From a party perspective, Hatta was praised by both former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) and then-president Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九).
The Yoichi Hatta museum at the Wushantou Reservoir Scenic Area in Tainan was completed during Ma’s presidential term, and at the time Ma praised Hatta’s contributions to Taiwan’s agricultural irrigation on Facebook.
Sarcastic remarks by Wu — a Beijing lackey — after the Hatta statue was decapitated have precisely nothing to do with Taiwan.
Perhaps it is not right to unreservedly praise Hatta, but the Chianan Irrigation System that he set up was not beneficial to Japan’s rule alone: It was also of great help to Taiwanese farmers after the war.
History is not an either/or affair and historical verdict on this Japanese engineer must be reached with an open mind.
When Hatta set up this important irrigation system, he was furthering the policies of the Japanese governor in Taiwan — objectively speaking, he was not only considering the best interests of Taiwanese farmers.
If we praised him unreservedly it would not be possible to evaluate the forebears of Taiwan’s agricultural movement, such as Chien Chi (簡吉) and Yang Kui (楊逵). These leaders of the agricultural movement clearly understood how the Japanese colonial government exploited Taiwanese farmers.
To a certain extent, Hatta was serving the colonial government, but from a post-colonial perspective, the facilities he built had a substantive positive effect on post-war agriculture in the Chianan area.
We should not reject all construction that took place during the colonial era outright. Instead, assessments should be relative.
For example, the north-south railway line was originally built to allow the colonial government to exploit Taiwan’s natural resources and speed up transport of Taiwanese products back to mainland Japan. However, modern construction that was left in Taiwan after Japan’s defeat in the war gave Taiwan an advantage.
From this perspective, it is clearly a very strange exercise to compare Hatta’s construction with Chiang’s rule. No one in the history of Taiwan can compare to Chiang when we consider the White Terror era and the murders committed during that time, the suppression of free speech and other human rights and the denigration of intellectuals committed by his government between the 1950s and the 1970s.
The removal of references to Chiang that is being discussed is the result of historical reflection. Not discussing and scrutinizing the person who created and led the authoritarian government, while bronze statues of him remain scattered throughout the nation and roads and streets in every Taiwanese city bear his name, is the ultimate insult to Taiwan’s democracy movement.
Russian Communist Party founder Vladimir Lenin clearly occupies a more important historical position than Chiang. Still, following the collapse of the Soviet empire, Lenin statues have vanished from Russia.
Today, when everyone is talking about transitional justice, we still tolerate the presence of statues of Chiang, a dictator. This insults our democratic values and leads to a confused assessment of history.
When people compare Hatta to Chiang, they either have a problem thinking logically or are ignorant and lack an understanding of history.
Hatta never killed a single Taiwanese, nor did he insult Taiwanese society. The Chianan Irrigation System continues to benefit farmers. How could Chiang compete with that?
Our understanding of, and reflection on, history should progress with advances in our democracy. We cannot remain in a state of ideological confrontation, nor should we allow opposition between the blue and green camps to blur our understanding.
The decapitation of the Hatta statue only speaks of the savagery of the perpetrators and anyone who speaks in defense of the action is a greater savage still.
Chen Fang-ming is a professor in the Graduate Institute of Taiwanese Literature at National Chengchi University.
Translated by Perry Svensson
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