19 March 2004

The Legacy of the 2-28 Incident in Taiwan

Ian Buruma's chapter on Taiwan describes his trip to the 2-28 Museum.
As told in the museum, the story of Taiwan, including the 2-28 Incident [see below], is as formulaic in its way as the old KMT [Kuomintang] myth of Nationalist martyrdom. A short historical overview explains how the Taiwanese--that is to say the Chinese who arrived in Taiwan three centuries ago--were always oppressed by foreign conquerors: first the Dutch, then the Portuguese, the Japanese, and finally the KMT mainlanders. This, one is told, fostered a unique love of freedom and a rebellious spirit. But the story had a typically Taiwanese post-colonial twist. Hindsight has given Taiwanese a rosier view of Japanese rule, which, though harsh, also brought many benefits, such as universities, science, railways, and electrification. The KMT, on the other hand, brought only violence, poverty, and corruption. The loathing of aliens that once bound Han Chinese together against the Manchu invaders is replicated in the Taiwanese hatred of mainland Chinese.

The story of 2-28 itself, as described in books, comics, videotapes, photographs, prints, posters, and textbooks, invariably goes like this: On February 27 agents of the Monopoly Bureau, who were little more than mobsters on the government payroll, assaulted an old lady who was peddling cigarettes in Taipei. One of the agents beat her over the head with his pistol. Crowds gathered to protest. The agents, panicking perhaps, began to shoot and killed one of the demonstrators. More people were gunned down the next day, with internationally outlawed dumdum bullets, which rip the body open. The rebellion spread all over the island. Radio stations and government offices were taken over. People suspected of being mainlanders, in or out of uniform, were attacked and sometimes clubbed to death with sticks.

In 1947, Taiwan was a province of China, which was still ruled by the KMT. A meeting was convened between Chen Yi, the KMT provincial governor, a brute with Shanghai gangster connections, and members of the Taiwanese elite. Civil liberties were promised in exchange for a return to law and order. But as soon as more KMT troops arrived from China, the "white terror" began: Martial law was declared and mass arrests, torture, rapes, disappearances, and executions followed. Within about two months, much of the native Taiwanese intelligentsia was wiped out. Many people were so badly tortured that they had to be carried to the execution grounds. Eventually, after he had lost the civil war in China and retreated to Taiwan, Chiang Kai-shek made a gesture to appease outraged Taiwanese feelings: In 1950, after a splendid fireworks display, Chiang's old friend Chen Yi was executed for being a "traitor."
SOURCE: Bad Elements: Chinese Rebels from Los Angeles to Beijing, by Ian Buruma (Vintage, 2001), pp. 178-179

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