The historical significance of 228

By Lin Yung-mei 林詠梅  / 

Wed, Feb 29, 2012 - Page 8

In 1895, the government of the Qing Dynasty in China signed the Treaty of Shiminoseki, officially ceding Taiwan to Japan. For the next 50 years, Taiwan and China developed along different paths.

As a result of the Meiji Restoration, Japan had adopted Western knowledge and new ideas, such as the rule of law, medicine, industry and education, seeing dramatic changes in Japanese society and culture and transforming the nation into a great power in Asia. When Taiwan became a Japanese colony, it too had this Western culture transposed upon it.

Among the many changes Japan made to Taiwan were the construction of roads, telecommunications, schools and hospitals practising modern medicine and hygiene, as well as major improvements to agriculture. Taiwan saw improvements in all aspects of life and soon it was one of the most industrialized nations in Asia, second only to its colonial master, Japan. The Taiwanese, too, were becoming educated, taking on Western concepts and the latest ideas from around the world. In the short space of only 20 years, the Taiwanese public was starting to become politically engaged.

Taiwanese were now demanding political equality, rallying around the idea of the self-determination of peoples currently popular in European countries, and seeking new rights in the spirit of liberty, equality and fraternity. With the subsequent militarization of Japan, such ideas of freedom were being suppressed both in Japan itself and in Taiwan, making the Taiwanese all the more convinced of the need for democracy, freedom and human rights.

Compare this with the contemporaneous situation in China. By this time, the Qing Dynasty was in serious decline, strangled by its dictatorial system and corruption. For thousands of years, the cycle of dynastic change in China had seen different regimes come and go, but the country was never able to escape from authoritarian rule.

Even when Republic of China (ROC) founding father Sun Yat-sen (孫中山) overthrew the Qing in 1911, establishing the ROC, China continued to be under the control of a dictatorial regime. Nothing changed, despite a succession of presidents following the establishment of the republic.

The country soon descended into infighting between local warlords, subsequently becoming embroiled in the Second Sino-Japanese War and then the civil war between the nationalists, under the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), and the communists, led by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

The land was devoid of the rule of law and of discipline, awash with corruption and greed. The people had absolutely no assurances over their possessions or their personal safety and were entirely at the mercy of fate.

Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) and the KMT held the reins of power amid all this chaos. Chiang was the classic totalitarian dictator.

The experiences of the two countries could not have been more different. Suddenly, without warning, the lives of the Taiwanese were again transformed as the KMT forces occupied their island. One can imagine how difficult it was for the Taiwanese having to come to terms with the clash of these two cultures. The Manchurian warlord and KMT supporter Zhang Xueliang (張學良) commented on the situation in Taiwan at about the time of the 228 Incident, saying: “They [the KMT] are trampling on the Taiwanese.”

Two years later, in 1949, defeated by the communist forces, Chiang fled to Taiwan with the KMT army, instigating the White Terror and establishing martial law in Taiwan. During these long years, the Taiwanese continued to struggle for democratic freedoms. At the same time, a small number of intellectuals in China were engaged in a similar struggle.

After 1988, former presidents Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) and Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) oversaw the transition to democracy in Taiwan and the development of freedoms for the people living here. Freedom of speech has enabled the protection of human rights, the environment and society, and today, Taiwanese enjoy the same freedoms as other citizens of the modern world, bringing the same assurances of order, peace and reason. Taiwanese have already become accustomed to living under democratic freedoms. This is the new cultural environment in Taiwan.

However, this new culture is the antithesis of how the KMT and CCP would choose to govern. No dictator would countenance democratic freedoms.

Therefore, when President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) took office in 2008, he started kowtowing to the CCP in China, bulldozing much of what has been built by the Taiwanese democratization process using Chinese investment and the pro-China media and villifying the personal and political achievements of those who have promoted the process here. As Ma moves closer to bringing his dream of eventual unification to fruition, Taiwanese are getting closer to the day when they will once more suffer occupation by Chinese forces and suppression or massacre at their hands.

From the above, it is evident that, having followed different historical paths, Taiwan has developed a culture with entirely different values than those held in China. Taiwanese must ensure that we are never again subjected to life under a dictatorship, that we will never allow another 228 to happen.

Lin Yung-mei is the daughter of Taiwanese intellectual and 228 victim Lin Mo-sei (林茂生).

Translated by Paul Cooper