Randall Schriver on Taiwan: The 228 Incident and American perceptions

By Randall Schriver  / 

Wed, Feb 28, 2007 - Page 8

I was recently honored with an invitation to speak at a symposium commemorating the 60th anniversary of the 228 Incident. Specifically, I was asked to address the impact of those events on current US policymaking.

I contacted the symposium organizers to question the utility of including such a topic on the agenda, noting that I doubted the events of 228 had any impact on US policy whatsoever. The reason I cited was that very few senior officials in the US national security policymaking community had any familiarity with 228.

The more I reflected on the topic, the more I came to realize that this is precisely the point that needs to be made -- senior US officials are largely unaware and ignorant of what transpired in Taiwan after Feb. 27, 1947, including the White Terror era.

This leads directly to challenges in the contemporary policy world. The impact is best understood by considering the context in which policy decisions are made and received in Taipei and Washington.

By failing to appreciate the tremendous significance of 228 for Taiwanese to this day, US officials operate in a policy environment characterized by a huge disconnect between those in Taiwan (for whom 228 continues to loom large) and those in Washington (for whom 228 means very little).

This disconnect can be consequential in the management of US-Taiwan bilateral relations, and in shaping respective views on the cross-strait situation.

Consider the counter-factual: a scenario where senior US policymakers in the departments of state and defense, the National Security Council and its staff and the offices of the vice president and president are steeped in the history of 228. In such a case, there would be wide recognition among US officials that as many as 30,000 innocent people lost their lives in the crackdown by Chiang Kai-shek's (蔣介石) regime simply because of their ethnicity or political views.

Further, senior US officials would know that Taiwanese lived the next 40 years after 228 not being allowed to speak their own language, study their own history and honor those who were sacrificed as a result of 228. In such a counter-factual world, would senior US officials have a different view of the Taiwanese desire to replace a Constitution that had been promulgated by the regime responsible for 228 and the oppression that followed?

Would there be a different view of the desire to rename streets and remove statues that honor a regime responsible for such suffering?

We do know that many in the US government today lack an understanding of the passion behind such proposals in Taiwan, and thus tend to take a cynical view of such initiatives. What's worse, they often tend to learn about policy developments of this nature from China's demarches and complaints, rather than from an informed reading of contemporary Taiwanese politics.

This is not a lengthy wind-up in preparation for an apology for US ignorance. Rather, it's meant as a cautionary note to friends in Taiwan who are endeavoring to deepen and strengthen Taiwan's democracy, and who feel that historical rectification should be a part of that agenda.

I could be equally critical of US policymakers for ignorance of the struggles of the Aboriginal communities in Australia for political rights, or the Maori in New Zealand. Even our record at home suggests a very weak appreciation of the need to rectify mistreatment of ethnic groups.

Have we adequately redressed the imprisonment of Japanese Americans during World War II in camps such as Manzanar as a result of Executive Order 9066? Do Native Americans feel proper respect has been paid to the many that suffered in campaigns such as "The Trail of Tears" (the forcible removal of Cherokees from their land which resulted in thousands of deaths)?

To this day there is debate in the US as to whether more should be done to compensate descendants of American slaves.

Americans tend to be ahistoric in orientation where current policy matters are concerned. We stand apart from most of the globe in this respect. US policymakers are much more focused on the future than on the past. This partly explains the priority the US places on democracy abroad. There is a security rationale to be sure (democracies tend not to go to war with one another). But US officials also believe democracies are best positioned to ensure protection of human rights and political freedoms of those that have experienced significant repression in the past. In essence, this is saying: "While we can't change the terrible things that have happened in the past, we can help secure brighter days in the future."

Where does this leave us? Clearly Americans should care about the tragic events of 228. And US policymakers certainly should care.

I applaud the efforts of Taiwanese and Taiwanese Americans who are determined to see that we remember the past, and that we are informed by those events as we endeavor to produce wise policies for today's challenges.

However, Taiwanese leaders must also understand that their own policy choices will be evaluated by not the Americans they wish they had but by the Americans they have.

The very necessary work of healing old wounds in Taiwan must proceed. But Taiwan's leaders should advance their agenda of historical rectification with a realpolitik appreciation for international spillover.

Randall Schriver is former US deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs and a founding partner of Armitage International.

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