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.

The DPP has also raised expectations with its initiatives on truth and reconciliation that focus on the so-called white terror unleashed in the aftermath of the Feb. 28 incident in 1947. At this time, the KMT forces were fighting a civil war against Mao Zedong’s communists and trying to consolidate their control over Taiwan. Islanders looked at them as violent usurpers and resented various economic policies that undermined public welfare, exploding on Feb. 28, 1947, in massive anti-KMT rallies. In response, the KMT ruthlessly slaughtered and imprisoned tens of thousands of dissidents and, in 1949, declared martial law, suspending civil liberties until 1987. This trauma remains high on the agenda for a nation seeking transitional justice and accountability. For many Taiwanese, there can be no reconciliation without justice, but there are no living perpetrators to hold accountable.

The Feb. 28 incident and its violent aftermath are embedded in Taiwanese identity and drive their resentments against the KMT. In 2017, the 70th anniversary commemoration will thus provide ample opportunities for the DPP to further vilify the KMT, but it will be preaching to the national choir.

According to Ian Rowen, a Taipei-based academic, the “DPP rescinded the KMT’s recent China-centric textbook revisions, which were passed by ideologues with minimal educational credentials under dubious premises in 2014-15.” Overall, the KMT is seen as the pro-China party, an unpopular position on an island where identity is layered and Beijing’s hectoring has been counterproductive, arousing a vibrant Taiwanese nationalism.

The KMT negotiated the so-called 1992 Consensus on a “One China” policy that was the compromise between Beijing and Taipei about affirming mutual commitment to a unified China. According to Taiwan, this allows each side to have a different interpretation of what this concept means; Beijing demurs. The public and DPP never bought into this consensus because very few Taiwanese want reunification, seeing it more as a threatening annexation, while a recent poll shows that only 3 percent identify as Chinese. It is an extremely sensitive issue, and the People’s Republic of China suspended diplomatic relations and denounced Tsai for not clearly expressing support for the “One China” policy. It has also discouraged mainlander tourism to Taiwan, suspending this rapprochement initiative while showing the island what is at stake. It is precisely such displays, however, that stoke the embers of Taiwanese nationalism, and reinforce brewing anxieties about the miseries that beckon under Beijing’s thumb. In the meantime, Rowen notes that some Taiwanese are waggishly plugging the advantages in a new marketing slogan: “Come to Taiwan, without Chinese.”

On Aug. 1, Tsai also apologized to the indigenous Taiwanese communities, a belated but welcome gesture similar to other nations where the indigenous peoples have suffered from ethnic cleansing, discrimination, deprivation of language and customary rights in addition to loss of ancestral lands. This savage mistreatment began with the Dutch in the 17th century, and continued under the subsequent Chinese, Japanese and KMT regimes. Demonstrations during my visit suggest a yearning for substantive policies of restitution and atonement, not just flowery apologies and promises.

In sum, Tsai has promised to hold the KMT accountable for the bloody traumas of 1947 and illegally seized Japanese assets, revise textbooks, presumably to promote a narrative more appealing to Taiwanese nationalist sentiments, refused to kowtow to Beijing on the “One China” policy and made an overdue overture to the indigenous communities. This explosion of simmering grievances into the forefront of public discourse is a risky strategy because it will prove difficult to meet inflated expectations.

The 2014 Sunflower Movement led by democracy activists, involving an extended occupation of the national legislature, has radicalized public perceptions and mainstreamed anti-China sentiments that the KMT long suppressed. Younger Taiwanese are the “naturally independent” generation who take it as given that Taiwan will never be absorbed into China because democracy and civil liberties are intrinsic to their identity and threatened by Beijing’s authoritarian inclinations and intolerance of dissent. To these Taiwanese, reunification is unthinkable, raising serious questions about cross-straits relations and attendant risks.

A young Taiwanese Ph.D. candidate told me that Beijing made a mistake by relying on the KMT to understand Taiwan. In her view, the KMT was “the wrong window,” propagating a misleading and self-affirming view that helps explain Beijing’s backfiring braggadocio that has amplified anti-Chinese nationalism among the Taiwanese. It is not clear, however, that there is any viable option to promote a Pax Sinica other than through threats and intimidation. Such is the nature of Beijing’s hegemonic ambitions, triggering an arousal of identity politics across Asia inimical to its goals.

Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.