In a perfectly apt scene involving barbed wire barricades and hundreds of police officers, National Taiwan Democracy Memorial Hall was restored yesterday to its original name, the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall.
It was no small irony that the reversal occurred almost 22 years to the day since the lifting of martial law, declared in 1949 by dictator Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) himself. What followed were decades of the White Terror, during which thousands of Taiwanese and Chinese who opposed Chiang’s rule were murdered — both at home and abroad — or disappeared.
Some — ostensibly those who favor the renaming of the hall back to the name of a despot — argue that Chiang defended Taiwan and prevented the island being taken by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) while slowly developing its economy.
If defending Taiwan and developing its economy were the prerequisites for naming the hall, then surely it should be called the United States Memorial Hall instead, given that it was US assistance in the form of the Mutual Defense Treaty, security guarantees and arms sales that gave Taiwan the space to grow.
In fact, Chiang’s adventurism and disconnect from reality — from his vow to retake the mainland by force to fanciful plans for entry into regional conflicts — created unnecessary danger for Taiwan and brought Asia closer to nuclear war.
The CKS Memorial, therefore, is not a means to honor a man who stood up for Taiwan, but rather a symbol of “one China.” Aside from an instrument to score political points domestically, the renaming of the monument by former president Chen Shui-bian’s (陳水扁) administration was an attempt to distance Taiwan from China by removing symbols of their supposed common destiny. In the process, Chen was also following a trend in co-opting memorials to antidemocratic leaders.
Back in China, the reviled Nationalist leader’s image has gradually been rehabilitated, so much so that in recent years there has been growing interest among domestic tourists in his refurbished former residence in Chongqing. Chinese tourists are also eager to visit his mausoleum in Taiwan. But Chiang’s rehabilitation in China is not the result of a decision by the CCP to “forgive” its old nemesis. It is, rather, part of Beijing’s strategy to narrow the divide between Taiwan and China and so bolster the image of a big happy Chinese family divided by Western and Japanese colonialism and the “unequal treaties.”
With the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) back in power, it is now the KMT’s turn to cater to its domestic constituency by renaming the hall. The party will also claim that the move is part of its policy of mending fences with Beijing — as if the CCP leadership cared what a block of granite in downtown Taipei is called.
More to the point, in renaming the hall, the KMT once again reaffirms its ideology as a party that sees Taiwan not as a sovereign entity, but rather as a part of China.
And so, the murderous little tyrant rears his ugly head once again, laughing at a people who suffered so much under his guard.
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Taking advantage of my Taipei Times editors’ forbearance, I thought I would go with a change of pace by offering a few observations on an interesting nature topic, the many varieties of snakes in Taiwan. I will be drawing on my experiences living in Taiwan five times, from my teenage years in Kaohsiung back in the early sixties, to my last assignment as American Institute in Taiwan Director in 2006-9. Taiwan, with its semitropical climate, is a perfect setting for serpents. Indeed, one might say serpents are an integral part of the island’s ecosystem. Taiwan is warm, humid, with lots of
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