07 March 2005

The Aftermath of Taiwan's Uprising on 2-28

The [Nationalist] state responded to the challenge presented by the [Taiwanese] uprising [on February 28] and demands for reform with overwhelming force. On the morning of March 8, the first Nationalist military reinforcements arrived in the northern port city of Jilong [= Keelung]. As these forces moved southward toward Taibei, fighting broke out with Taiwanese. Over the next two days, thousands of soldiers landed in Jilong and on the south coast at Gaoxiong [= Kaohsiung]. They reasserted the government's control by indiscriminately shooting anyone on the streets. Martial law was declared throughout the island on March 9. On March 10, [Taiwan administrator] Chen Yi announced that the resolution committees had become part of the revolt and were now illegal. He also ordered all workers to return to their posts and shopkeepers to open for business, implemented price controls, and outlawed meetings or the collection of money for any purpose. Since Taiwanese were poorly armed and lacked a unified command, resistance collapsed quickly. Furthermore, most prominent islanders never sought a pitched battle with mainland forces....

Estimates of the number killed range from unbelievably low (500) to absurdly high (100,000). Those with close ties to the Nationalist government claim lower figures for the dead and injured, while supporters of Taiwan independence and critics of Jiang's regime insist on higher numbers. The rough consensus among scholars is 10,000 killed and 30,000 wounded. Although discovering whether 5,000, 10,000, or more died is an important way of understanding the scope of the massacre, knowing who was killed helps make clear the incident's effect on later political activity. As soldiers spread terror through the island, they crushed the Taiwanese as a political force able to advocate change outside the Nationalist state or Guomindang party structure. The elite's struggle to position themselves between the Nationalists and the bulk of the island's population failed. Instead, the government saw as one the elite, urbanites who took up arms, and even Taiwanese who stayed home throughout the crisis. All were part of a rebellion against the state.

The [2-28] incident and its aftermath had a greater impact on the island's elite than did retrocession [to Chinese rule]. Many of the most vocal critics of the state and promoters of expanded self-government, usually prominent figures from the Japanese era, died, fled, or were frightened into silence. For example, two members of the Provincial Consultative Assembly were killed and five others arrested, while four members of the Taibei City Council died and nine were jailed. Others killed included lawyers, professors, teachers, landlords, merchants, and journalists. Because of their political activity under both Japanese and Chinese rule, these were among the best educated and most prominent islanders....

The February 28 Incident was a watershed in Taiwan's modern political history. Decolonization essentially came to a close in early March 1947. At that point, many of the Taiwanese most likely to use the Japanese-era experience as a basis for evaluating the Nationalists and promoting expanded self-government were killed or cowed into silence. Now, the state dominated debate over the colonial legacy and thus prevented Taiwanese reference to it as justification for political reform. After the incident, the Nationalists combined limited reforms with increasing repression to solidify their rule. Subsequent changes in the political and economic spheres came from and through the state, not as a result of initiatives from the Taiwanese themselves. The events of early 1947 also marked the conclusion of debates over provincial-central relations in Republican China. The centralizers, represented by the Nationalists, had won. And in their victory, any hope for islandwide self-government, for which the Taiwanese had yearned throughout the colonial occupation, was dashed.

The incident is fascinating on two levels. First are the facts, what actually happened on Taiwan in February and March of 1947. Second is the way the incident illustrates the impact of history upon politics and vice versa. Paul Cohen, in his research of the Boxer Movement in China, examines how political context influences the memory of important events. "Certainly, mythologizers start out with an understanding of the past," Cohen writes, "which in many (though not all) cases they may sincerely believe to be 'correct.' Their purpose, however, is not to enlarge upon or deepen this understanding. Rather, it is to draw on it to serve the political, ideological, rhetorical, and/or psychological needs of the present."
SOURCE: Between Assimilation and Independence: The Taiwanese Encounter Nationalist China, 1945-1950, by Steven E. Phillips (Stanford U. Press, 2003), pp. 81, 83, 87-88

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