HONG KONG — The Kuomintang’s chickens have come home to roost. The KMT, which was swept off the China mainland in 1949 by Communist forces, ruled Taiwan from then until two years ago, when it was defeated in the presidential elections by Chen Shui-bian of the Democratic Progressive Party.

Considered by many to be the world’s richest political party, the KMT is now the target of legislation being introduced by the Chen administration. If passed by the legislature, the KMT (and other political parties) will be banned from operating or investing in profit-making enterprises. It will also have to dispose of assets that had been improperly acquired.

While the KMT maintains that not all of its assets were improperly acquired, it accepts that a substantial amount were and party officials are now talking of returning property to local governments or giving some assets to charity. Certainly, the party’s financial advantage over its rivals will be much reduced in the future.

For almost four decades, the KMT, first under President Chiang Kai-shek and, later under his son, President Chiang Ching-kuo, did not differentiate between government and party assets. Many people didn’t know, for example, whether the official news agency was that of the party or the government, and it really made no difference — there was, after all, no opposition party, the press was controlled and there were no free elections.

Taiwan was ruled under martial law until the younger Chiang lifted it in late 1986.

Martial law enabled the KMT, or rather, the Chiangs, especially Chiang Kai-shek, to rule in dictatorial fashion. Details of what occurred in those years are now being publicized under the Chen administration.

The KMT’s rule in Taiwan got off to a bad start. For one thing, after Japan’s defeat in World War II, KMT troops sent from the mainland behaved like a conquering army. As a result, there was an uprising in 1947 — now known as the February 28 Movement — which was put down with the slaughter of 30,000 people. The Chen administration has declared Feb. 28 a national holiday.

Chiang was, by all accounts, a vindictive person. One of his victims was Chang Hsueh-liang, known as the Young Marshal, who together with the Communists kidnapped Chiang in Xian in 1936. He demanded that Chiang stop fighting the Communists and join hands with them in resisting the Japanese. When Chiang agreed to consider this idea, the Young Marshal released Chiang and accompanied him back to Nanjing. There, Chiang put him under house arrest and kept him there for the next 50 years. The Young Marshal was released by Chiang Ching-kuo after his father’s death. He moved to Hawaii in 1990 and died there last October at the age of 100.

Another victim was Gen. Sun Li-jen, whom the Americans considered the most accomplished military man in the KMT. Chiang, fearful that Sun might lead a coup, put him under house arrest in 1955. Sun was released 33 years later by President Lee Teng-hui after the death of both Chiangs. Upon his release, Sun asked that his guards remain. He had become attached to them. He died two years later.

Yet another victim was Lei Chen, a former high-ranking KMT official who was an adviser to Chiang Kai-shek. Lei, a staunch anticommunist, published a magazine called Free China. He urged the KMT to conduct democratic reforms so the world could see how Taiwan was different from the Communist-ruled mainland. He was imprisoned on treason charges in 1960 after announcing plans to establish a China Democratic Party to challenge the KMT’s one-party rule.

Chen Shui-bian had shown an interest in Lei’s case when he was a legislator. He requested government agencies to investigate the incident, but got nowhere. After coming to power, Chen met with Lei’s family and then ordered an investigation.

On Sept. 4, Chen attended a ceremony marking the publication of several volumes of documents relating to the case, including Lei’s diaries and letters written while in prison. The newly declassified documents showed that Chiang Kai-shek had personally ordered that Lei be given a prison term of no less than 10 years, which must not be changed by an appellate court. The judiciary acted accordingly. Lei was given a 10-year term. Freed in 1970, he died in 1979.

During the ceremony, Chen hailed Lei, in the presence of Lei’s family, as a champion of democracy and said: “During a dictatorial era, a president can trump up charges and dictate a verdict prior to the trial. During a democratic era, a president can shed light on history.”

The foreign press tends to focus on Chen — and his party — because of their proindependence sympathies. However, Chen and the DPP deserve credit for their long years of struggle for freedom and democracy in Taiwan, and for shining a light into the dark corners of KMT rule. Now, history is returning to haunt the KMT.

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