Decapitation of statues of historical figures has gone from intermittent to incessant, fueled by a highly vindictive mindset that has plagued the pan-green camp, which looks at Japan through rose-tinted glasses, and the pan-blue camp, which continues to put dictator Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) on a pedestal.
The statue war started decades ago with an “annual ritual” involving seemingly harmless acts of vandalism against Chiang’s sculptures close to the anniversary date of the 228 Incident, such as covering the statues with red paint, or spraying them with the words “dictator” or “murderer.”
The ritual has gained particularly strong momentum in schools, with students launching a movement that seeks to turn Chiang statues on campuses into “art installations” on Feb. 28 as a way of mourning the tens of thousands of victims of the atrocities committed by Chiang’s regime during the 228 Massacre and the ensuing White Terror era.
Such vandalism has no doubt played an instrumental role in raising public awareness about state violence in the past and the importance of pursuing long-overdue transitional justice in Taiwan.
Perhaps without these acts of vandalism, the need to right past wrongs and remove remnants of authoritarianism could easily have been overshadowed by talk about economic development and abandoned in favor of “more practical goals.”
However, last month matters escalated when a group of anonymous people vowed to “chop off the heads of Chiang’s statues nationwide.”
The movement quickly attracted followers who beheaded Chiang sculptures throughout the nation.
A pro-independence group called the Taiwan Nation Founding Engineering Team became its most prominent representative when it carried out several terrorist-style beheadings of Chiang statues, and in a statement claimed responsibility and denounced the worship of political idols.
The decapitation of Chiang statues is nothing new. In 2003, a seated statue of Chiang on Taoyuan’s National Central University campus was beheaded. A Chiang sculpture in a Keelung City park met the same fate in 2015. However, whereas such beheadings were extremely rare in the past, they have now become an almost weekly occurrence.
This prompted vengeance from the pan-blue camp earlier this month, when China Unification Promotion Party member Lee Cheng-lung (李承龍) beheaded a statue of Japanese engineer Yoichi Hatta in Tainan.
Quests for vengeance seldom go unanswered, and the Taiwan Nation Founding Engineering Team quickly fought back by beheading a Chiang statue in Taipei’s Yangmingshan National Park last weekend. If nothing is done, this might set off a vicious cycle.
What should President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) do to prevent the situation from spinning out of control, further dividing an already polarized nation?
It would be unwise for Tsai to be seen as tacitly approving, or worse, encouraging vandalism against Chiang statues while being tough on people who destroy statues of Japanese historical figures. The best solution would be to adopt equal standards.
The Tsai administration should denounce vandalism against targets belonging to either camp — just as Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) Chairwoman Hung Hsiu-chu (洪秀柱) did after the Hatta incident. There should be no differential treatment for culprits.
The government should urge the public to stop destroying Chiang statues and try to expedite the passage of a draft act on transitional justice in the legislature that would provide a legal basis for the nationwide removal of the dictator’s sculptures.
After all, the nation prides itself on its rule of law and its democracy. Failure to abide by such principles would only stain the Tsai administration’s pursuit of transitional justice.
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