Grasping the antagonism over 228

By Chen Tsui-lien 陳翠蓮  / 

Fri, Mar 09, 2007 - Page 8

Each year, the anniversary of the 228 Incident throws Taiwanese society into an uproar. While some people demand that we clarify the truth and seek out the prime culprits behind the incident, others -- including most media outlets -- characterize this behavior as provoking ethnic conflict and damaging social harmony. Strange logic indeed.

It is essential that we comb through the historical facts of 228 and seek out the source of this debate and the process by which it was formed.

Following the 228 Incident, the KMT government began to keep people connected with the incident under close surveillance.

The party also made great efforts to silence any discussion of the incident. Statistics show that the media issued only four pieces of news related to the 228 Incident between 1948 and 1983, while the number had risen to just 15 by 1987. Evidently, the KMT was determined to prevent this major historical event from being discussed in the public sphere.

But the KMT could not prevent overseas Taiwanese from expressing their differing opinions of the incident. Consequently -- and ironically -- the long-suppressed 228 Incident actually became the seed that grew into the Taiwanese independence movement. In 1983 and 1984, overseas Taiwanese independence activists began to exert pressure on the KMT, prompting the party to adopt certain measures in response.

In 1985, the National Security Bureau initiated the "Fu Chen Project" to collect all the 228 Incident-related files withheld by various intelligence agencies and transfer them to the "Discourse Unit" of the KMT. In 1986, it published a book entitled Brushing off the Dust on the Bright Mirror of History, stressing that it had already adopted an open-minded attitude toward the 228 Incident and that the measures had not been in response to a pro-independence movement.

The book was also the first instance of the argument that "discussing the 228 Incident would be an attempt to damage the nation's unity and harmony" and that those who intended to bring the KMT to account were provoking ethnic conflict.

In 1987, a series of peaceful movements intended to uncover the truth behind the 228 Incident were held. When answering a lawmaker's question about the cause of the 228 Incident in the legislature, then premier Yu Kuo-hua (俞國華) followed the lead of his predecessors, accusing the movement of reopening a historical wound and driving a wedge between fellow countrymen.

In 1985, facing questions during a legislative question-and-answer session by then lawmaker Chiang Peng-chien (江鵬堅), who later became the first chairman of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), Yu even said that the 228 Incident was a result of communist subversion in the government.

Afterwards, although DDP legislators became even more critical of the KMT's handling of the 228 Incident, high-ranking government officials chose to shun responsibility and deflect focus from the issue in order to maintain what they claimed to be ethnic harmony. As a result, Mainlanders became even more closely tied to the KMT and had to share this historical burden with the party.

What's worse, the KMT-controlled media repeatedly instilled their version of the incident into the public and argued that anyone attempting to mention the 228 Incident would be creating ethnic conflict. This eventually became the standard tone of the debate, and so the Mainlanders' "original sin" was formed.

Former president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) played a contradictory role during the nations democratization. On one level, as the president, he fully understood why they wanted to pursue the truth behind the 228 Incident. But on another level he was the successor of an authoritarian system. That is, if he had come clean about his dictatorial KMT predecessors, he would have negated the legitimacy of his power. Therefore, Lee decided to apologize, offer financial compensation to the victims and erect monuments for them, but did not seek to trace responsibility back to its ultimate source.

What Lee did as president is commendable, for he set the course for democratization. Nonetheless, to help the KMT hold on to its power, Lee did not seek to address issues relating to its party-state ideology, state-controlled media, stolen assets or authoritarian system. In doing so he missed the best opportunity to implement transitional justice.

Even though Taiwan is already a democracy, the descendants of Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石)and former chief of the general staff Peng Meng-chi (彭孟緝) still attempt to defend the wrongdoings of their forefathers. Ma's discourse on the matter even distorts the history of the incident.

Without the truth and responsibility behind the incident fully clarified, offering superficial financial compensation to the family members of the victims only makes them angrier. Having been made scapegoats, Mainlanders reflexively become very defensive when the 228 Incident is brought up.

What's worse, the media, still bound by the KMT's party-state ideology, tends to recite the same old line that the incident was the result of ethnic conflict. As a result, the incident still causes a stir. By attempting to understand the process by which discussion of the 228 Incident came to be associated with stirring up ethnic tensions, we can perhaps resolve those tensions.

Chen Tsui-lien is an associate professor in the Graduate Institute of Taiwan History at National Chengchi University.

Translated by Daniel Cheng