Outside historical circles, the name Li Da-an (李大安) will be familiar to few Taiwanese. However, there was a time where this lowly soldier was feted as a national hero in Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) propaganda.
As one of 155,000 inmates in the UN’s POW camp on South Korea’s Geoje island, Li was responsible for barbaric murders, mutilations and beatings between May 1951 and April 1952. Yet with the publication of The History of the Anti-communist Fighters’ Struggles by the KMT government in 1955, Li and his brutish henchmen were hailed as loyal patriots.
While this hagiography did not completely hide the gory details, it portrayed the violence as a necessary evil. The extent of the horror did not emerge until much later. Although previous works have detailed the excesses of the Chinese POW camps, none offer such a meticulous and politically neutral account as that found in this magnificent book.
In Compound 72, where Li’s prison guards held sway, it was not just pro-communist elements who received the thick end of the cudgel. Inmates of all stripes were routinely terrorized and forcibly tattooed with Nationalist slogans. Some of these men are still alive in Taiwan.
Red-leaning internees who escaped Li’s clutches when relocated to other compounds sliced the Nationalist branding from their bodies with rusty razors, causing festering infections that left grotesque scars. Those who resisted the body modifications — often simply from fear of repatriation to China where the tattoos guaranteed reprisals — or refused to recant their ideals were tortured or worse.
On April 8, the eve of a screening procedure at which Mandarin-speaking UN Command personnel would determine the destination of released POWS, an orgy of violence erupted. The prison guards were adamant that everyone would make the “right” decision on the morrow and choose Taiwan as their preferred destination.
But some would not be swayed. One of Li’s first victims was a recalcitrant named Lin Xuebo (林學逋), a former interpreter and English instructor with the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army (CPV) who had interrogated American POWS in May 1951 before his capture.
Resisting the demand to renounce his creed, Lin bellowed his fealty to Chairman Mao Zedong (毛澤東) and the Chinese Communist Party.
“Before Lin could shout more slogans, Li stabbed him in the chest,” Chang writes. “Li cut out Lin’s heart and displayed it to the horrified crowd, a witness in the crowd recalled.”
It was not the only time Li performed such butchery.
Such were the POWs whose refusal to return to China “hijacked” the Korean War. But behind the violence of the camps is a subtext of scarcely credible ineptitude and willful ignorance on the part of then-US President Harry Truman’s administration. Chang exposes this debacle with aplomb.
The war lasted just over three years and claimed between 3.5 million and five million lives. Remarkably, armistice talks took up more than two thirds of that period, costing the lives of a further 140,000 North Korean civilians (by conservative estimates), 90,000 CPV personnel and 12,300 American soldiers.
Of the more than 21,000 Chinese POWS, 14,220 “chose” to go to Taiwan. Based on these figures, Chang argues “in an imprecise fashion,” that US efforts to guarantee one POW’s “right” to refuse repatriation to China came at a cost of almost one American soldier’s life.
“On the other side,” writes Chang, “to deny such a ‘right’ to one individual Chinese prisoner, more than six Chinese soldiers, 10 North Korean civilians, and an unspecified number of North Korean troops were killed.”
The circumstances that created these “unsettling equations” have remained buried. Chang offers compelling explanations for the reticence of both sides to unearth them. For the Chinese, it was straightforward: The admission that most POWS had refused repatriation was a huge loss of face and dent to the image of a proud and passionate volunteer force.
The CPV was a volunteer army in name only. By Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai’s (周恩來) own reckoning, former KMT troops represented 70 to 80 percent of the People’s Liberation Army forces as a whole by 1950.
The exact figure for the CPV is unknown, but among those who demanded repatriation, almost 67 percent had previously been KMT soldiers. While there may have been some truth to the KMT claim that these men had been sent to North Korea as cannon fodder, most had undergone rigid re-education and were considered loyal communists.
Chang emphasizes that choices over repatriation cut across political ideology and depended more on an individual’s background and personal experiences. Those who had suffered under land reform were likelier to desert the CPV once over the border and, later, join the likes of Li and his sworn Nationalist blood brothers in the camps on Geoje. Class appears to have been a factor.
On the American side, the absence of historical attention to the POW issue is also easily explained on one level: The revelation that 45 percent of American casualties had occurred while Chinese and American representatives wrangled over the fate of Chinese POWs would not sit well with the public.
A more complex factor was an unwillingness to expose the catastrophic interplay of Truman’s naive personal morality, a bungled psy-ops re-indoctrination program, and an apparent obliviousness to the fact that Taiwan was the only realistic destination for most of the Nationalist POWs.
As Chang reveals, Taiwanese interpreters and personnel served as a conduit between the camps and Taipei, helping to stoke the violence in the camp. The only winner was Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石), who milked the propaganda of the anti-communist stalwarts for all it was worth.
Among the “returning” heroes, Li Da-an was notable by his absence. Circumstances — perhaps engineered by his victims — had dictated that his fate lay elsewhere.
In laying bare the history that saw such men canonized in KMT folklore, Chang has produced a magisterial work that astounds at turns through the visceral power of its set pieces and the perspicacity of its analysis.
The last couple of weeks I have been traveling across the island of Panay in the Philippines, visiting my wife’s family. Inevitably, I have spent a lot of time on the trip comparing the Philippines to Taiwan and contemplating the rich, ancient connections between them. I could wax eloquent on politics or history, but today I’m going to talk about that most lowly of food items, the humble green. That’s what I miss the most whenever I leave Taiwan, and of all the nations around Taiwan, the Philippines presents the sharpest contrast on this topic. Our benighted, myopic tourism bureau may
The cool, clean river water quickly evaporates as I warm myself in the tropical sun, still strong at midday even in November. Below me is a bend in the river, and a deep emerald pool has formed here alongside the concrete platform I am sitting on, which once served as a check dam, but today serves as the perfect place to launch myself into the water. On shore, children splash in the water as parents sit nearby under awnings. Above me, a hawk traces out lazy circles against the bright blue sky. In the distance, a train emerges from a
Feb. 6 to Feb. 12 The plan was to break out of jail, seize the facility’s ammunition, release the inmates and broadcast their “declaration of Taiwanese independence” to the world at the nearby Broadcasting Corporation of China station. Chiang Ping-hsing (江炳興) and his fellow political prisoners at Taiyuan Prison (泰源監獄) hoped that this action would attract international attention and spark a nationwide rebellion that would overthrow Chiang Kai-shek’s (蔣介石) authoritarian regime. It was originally planned for Feb. 1, 1970, but due to various setbacks they weren’t able to strike until the noontime guard change at the prison on Feb. 8. They attacked the
Milf Manor is the house that Freud built. Eight women aged between 40 and 60 arrived at this beachside villa in Mexico to film a dating show, somehow missing the twist: the lineup of young men they’d be in the villa with would include… their sons. The show premiered in the US last week, and I have screamed hoarsely through every video I can find, shouting, “I HATE IT I HATE IT OK ONE MORE CLIP I HATE IT!” into my arm. You know how Big Brother and its fellow reality shows used to claim they were sociological experiments in order