Magazine article History Today

Taiwan Confronts Its Past

Magazine article History Today

Taiwan Confronts Its Past

Article excerpt

* When the Cairo Conference in November 1943 endorsed the return of Taiwan to China on the eventual defeat of the Japanese, none of the participants, perhaps least of all the Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek, seem to have foreseen the tragedy that the return of the |beautiful island' to mainland government would create. Yet, within two years of the 1945 surrender many thousands of islanders were to be slaughtered by their fellow Chinese in a bloodbath that ranks high in the list of massacres which punctuate Asian history.

The long aftermath of the |228' events, as the Taiwan rebellion of February 28th, 1947, has become known, and their virtual excision from official history is a complicated story. Taiwan had not been a conquest of the Pacific War; for the half-century before 194 5 it was a Japanese colony, ceded by the failing Ching dynasty, with little reluctance, following the defeat of 1895 and the treaty of Shimonoseki. As a consequence, the island population, though related in language and customs to the coastal province of Fukien, from which their forefathers had emigrated over the centuries, differed considerably from their mainland counterparts. Relatively well-educated and literate by Chinese standards, they had experienced two generations of Japanese indoctrination under a severe, but efficient colonial administration. Some served willingly in the Imperial Army in the South Pacific.

None of this prevented an emotional welcome when, following the Japanese capitulation, Chinese military units arrived and Admiral Ando Rikichi formally handed over power to the new Chinese military governor, Ch'en I on October 25th, 1945. Ch'en I's previous record as a brutally authoritarian governor of Fukien province might have given pause to the welcoming crowds, but patriotism prevailed in what seemed the beginning of a new era, an end to second-class citizenship and as hope of post-war prosperity that their able, Japanese-educated elite seemed well-placed to usher in.

Yet retrocession of Taiwan to the Nanking regime was to prove a disaster. Expectations of a new freedom were to turn sour within months as waves of mainlanders, speaking an incomprehensible mandarin, took charge of official and commercial positions, banned the use of Japanese and the local minnan-hua dialect, and forced through a system of government monopoly in a host of everyday commodities. Worse still was the arrival, in the wake of Chiang Kai-shek's army, of a horde of black-marketeers, credit-merchants and Shanghai mafiosi, who, in league with a thoroughly corrupt administration, proceeded to plunder the considerable pickings of abandoned Japanese goods and property.

Over this unseemly process presided the Kuomintang, Sun Yat-sen's one-time revolutionary party, long since recast in the military image of Chiang Kai-shek, yet retaining, as it still does, its original Leninist heritage of political commissars and apparatchiks. By early 1947 reserves of patriotic goodwill were all but exhausted and tension between carpet-baggers from the mainland and the virtually-disenfranchised majority began to reach danger level. A perceptive Shanghai journalist was already writing that perhaps Taiwan would become |China's Ireland'.

The spark that ignited events on February 27th, 1947, is well-documented, though the subsequent descent into brutality remains a confused story. In Taipei City, in the early evening of that day, a middle-aged widow Lin Chiang-mai was beaten by two tobacco-monopoly agents confiscating illegal cigarettes. A crowd collected; one of the agents drew his gun and fired, killing a bystander. Before the evening was out, an angry mob erupted and by the next morning had virtually taken over the city, burning the Monopoly Bureau, occupying the Radio Station, beginning to beat and humiliate any of the easily-recognisable mainlanders found on the streets. Similar unrest was stirring in the provinces.

Governor Ch'en 1, slow to realise the scale of the protests, broadcast in conciliatory tones, but offered only compensation for the victims of the original incident. …

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