The newly elected Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) government of President Tsai Ing-wen has hit the ground running in a flurry of initiatives that highlight how powerfully the past resonates in contemporary Taiwan. Only in office since late May, she has positioned Taiwan on the progressive side of history and put it in line with other liberal democracies where it is assumed that the path to the future requires addressing unresolved historical grievances. In Taiwan, the fractious politics of transitional justice implicates the Kuomintang (KMT), the dominant party throughout most of the post-World War II era that is now in opposition.

On a late July visit, I arrived the day after the government passed legislation calling for the seizure of ill-gotten assets. This law targets the KMT for its seizure of most state and some private assets following the post-WWII settlement that stripped Japan of its Asian empire. This was seven decades ago, but bygones are not bygones in contemporary Taiwan, and the new law addresses this long-standing grievance while fulfilling a populist election pledge by the DPP.

There is widespread anger at the KMT that in recent elections saw it ousted from power. This anger in part stems from resentment that KMT leaders have lined their own pockets with the ill-gotten loot of empire and bankrolled patronage networks that confer electoral advantages. The promise to seize assets is thus aimed at addressing the public's anger and reducing the KMT's political powerbase. However, unraveling the complex transactions involving these assets over several decades will prove difficult. This could play out various ways: The KMT risks an image of stonewalling that reinforces prevailing negative perceptions, or the DPP gets stuck looking incompetent for over-promising and underdelivering. Or, keeping this issue in the limelight, unresolved, could keep the KMT on its back foot and thus help the DPP.