The Ching-kuo Chi-hai Cultural Park and Chiang Ching-kuo Presidential Library officially opened on Jan. 22. In her opening remarks at the event, President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) praised former president Chiang Ching-kuo’s (蔣經國) firm anti-communist stance and his determination to safeguard Taiwan, a position shared by Taiwanese in the face of the threat posed by China.
Attended by opposition and government figures, the ceremony to commemorate someone representative of the authoritarian period has not failed to cause uproar, even though Chiang passed away 34 years ago.
However, Tsai’s speech refrained from passing judgement on Chiang’s character.
“It’s up to the public to judge former presidents,” Tsai said, a comment that received mixed reactions.
Some considered her words to be a display of magnanimity to further harmony and solidarity, while others considered it a deflection of Chiang’s authoritarianism and oppression of human rights.
For some, Tsai’s remark was akin to endorsing an autocrat, while others thought her support of Chiang’s stance was a ploy to provoke conflict within the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT).
It is doubtless that Chiang was against communism and loyal to Taiwan. After losing in the Chinese Civil War, he refused to concede to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and acceded to the new political regime — the KMT — on Taiwan. In his final years, Chiang proclaimed himself to be Taiwanese.
Facing external and internal pressure, Chiang sided with Taiwanese and declared that his family would renounce hereditary succession. To build an independent regime in opposition to the CCP, Chiang tried to “Taiwanize” the Republic of China (ROC) government by launching democratic reform.
A declassified document shows that Chiang in June 1973 told then-US ambassador to the ROC Walter Patrick McConaughy Jr: “The ROC will not negotiate, engage in talks or contact the CCP now or ever, for this is a definite, absolute and final decision. The ROC government will not threaten the CCP under any circumstances.”
Then-Singaporean prime minister Lee Kuan Yew (李光耀) visited Taiwan one month earlier.
Chiang, who was then premier, told Lee firmly that any talk with the CCP would be the overture for annexation, leading to internal turmoil and the collapse of the government.
When the US established full diplomatic relations with China in 1979, Chiang’s resolve did not waver.
As president and chairman of the KMT, he insisted on the principle of “three noes” — no negotiating, no compromising and no contact with the CCP — a principle adhered to by the state and the party.
In contrast to Chiang’s steadfast attitude, the naivety and self-interest of some KMT members at the presidential library opening is truly ludicrous and despicable. While some are colluding with the CCP in oppressing Taiwan, others are naive enough to think that engaging in talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) could bring peaceful unification.
These members and their pro-China stance is proving to be the KMT’s most significant problem. The party’s actions are usually a far cry from Chiang’s principles, and, more often than not, insult the intelligence of Taiwanese.
While China has been oppressing Taiwan in different ways for the past few years, there are KMT members who labor under the delusion of joining China. By stirring up pro-China and anti-US sentiment, these politicians are going against the public will and the core belief of their party hero by pushing Taiwan toward unification.
On the other hand, Chiang played a part in a few dark chapters in history.
Chiang’s people-loving image and his well-acknowledged accomplishments — such as the Ten Major Construction Projects, political moves in response to fluctuating international relations, political reformation, localization, lifting martial law, and ending bans on new newspapers and political parties — were not done without good reason.
It could be said that Chiang’s idiosyncratic style to rule with “enlightened absolutism” was the result of internal and external pressure.
Externally, Taiwan has had its fair share of diplomatic impediments since the 1970s.
The ROC lost its UN seat in 1971. Then-US president Richard Nixon paid a historic visit to China in 1972 — a geopolitical game changer — and, that same year, countries such as Japan and Australia followed the US’ lead and broke diplomatic ties with the ROC.
Internally, political appeals for democratization by non-KMT members began to flourish, and the legitimacy of the Chiang family’s state-party rule was called into question.
Chiang escaped assassination during his visit to New York in 1970, became premier in 1972 and assumed the presidency in 1978.
It was not until the late 1980s that he began promoting localization and democratization. In the meantime, various political events, such as the 228 Incident, the Jhongli Incident, the Formosa Incident, the Lin family murders, the suspicious death of Chen Wen-chen (陳文成) and Henry Liu’s (劉宜良) murder have demonstrated that Chiang’s iron-fisted rule was intended to keep himself in power.
Therefore, the democratization and localization that Chiang had been pushing for in his final years were forced upon him in response to non-KMT citizens’ appeals and pressure from the US.
The autocratic KMT regime — run by a few members in the Chiang family — was forced to concede to the majority of the non-KMT public through localization.
Under the banner of “Free China,” the ROC government retained legitimacy by democratization. The efforts of non-KMT party members, especially those expatriates who had been tirelessly lobbying the US Congress to pressure the ROC government, could not have been more significant.
There is no denying that Chiang made fair contributions to Taiwan when he set Taiwan on the path of democratization and localization.
However, the White Terror era in the 1950s and 1960s when Chiang was one of the main culprits and Director-general of the Political Warfare Bureau should not be ignored.
Premier Su Tseng-chang (蘇貞昌), at the time a defense attorney following the Formosa Incident, could not have put it better.
“Just because the autocrat decided to turn over a new leaf in his final years does not mean the citizens can forget the brutal and bloody oppression that took place in his time,” Su said.
The foreign political regime introduced by the Chiang family has not yet fallen. There is still a long way to go before transitional justice is fully realized, notwithstanding occasional backsliding.
Closure needs to be rooted in the disclosure of the truth, and in admittance of past mistakes and wrongdoings.
Anyone who wishes to judge should have such an awareness.
Translated by Rita Wang
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