Taiwan commemorated the 70th anniversary last week of the “228 Incident,” the Feb. 28, 1947, mass uprising by native Taiwanese that was brutally crushed by the Kuomintang (KMT) government of the Republic of China, which took control of the island following the end of colonial rule by Japan two years earlier. Today’s government in Beijing should be reminded that people of Taiwan cherish their freedom and democracy, and its high-handed approach toward the island — which it considers a renegade providence that must be brought back into the fold — is only raising tensions in cross-strait relations and causing feelings of revulsion among Taiwanese.
Behind the uprising 70 years ago was the people’s loathing of corruption and mismanagement by Chiang Kai-shek’s KMT regime, which ruled the island from its base in Nanjing before it was driven out of mainland China by Mao Zedong’s communist forces. The native Taiwanese, having lived under Japanese rule for 50 years, initially welcomed the new regime, but it soon became clear that things did not turn out as they had wanted.
The Taiwanese are said to have jeered the change of rule with the phrase, “After dogs are gone, pigs have arrived” — meaning that the dogs (Japan), were noisy but useful as watchdogs, but the pigs (the KMT rulers) were busy feeding themselves and did no work.
On Feb. 27, 1947, an officer of the Office of Monopoly struck a woman who was illegally selling cigarettes in Taipei, an action that drew throngs of protesters to the governor’s office the following day. The KMT regime’s troops opened fire, killing several demonstrators and wounding many others. The revolt spread to all major cities on the island, with protesters attacking government and police buildings — until they were violently suppressed by the military. It is estimated that between 18,000 and 28,000 people were killed. Among the victims were at least 114 people who had studied in Japan during its colonial rule, and 30 or so people from Okinawa.
The KMT put the island under martial law for four decades after the incident, and discussing it became taboo. It wasn’t until martial law was lifted in 1987 that people started openly talking about the uprising and massacre. The incident not only deepened the schism between Chinese who came to Taiwan after Japanese rule ended and Taiwanese born on the island during the colonial period or those whose ancestral roots in Taiwan predated the KMT’s arrival. It also helped establish the Taiwanese identity as distinct from Chinese and sowed the seeds of Taiwan’s independence movement.
The end of marital law helped promote Taiwan’s democratization and its exploration of the 228 Incident. In 1995, then-President Lee Teng-hui of the KMT government — who was born in Taiwan in 1923, studied in Japan and became the first president of Taiwan chosen in a popular election — formally apologized for the incident.
During the memorial event held Tuesday in Taipei on the 70th anniversary of the uprising, Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen said her government will take steps to identify where the responsibility for the incident lies.
Since her election last year, Tsai, from the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party, has been more proactive than the administration of her predecessor, Ma Ying-jeou of the KMT, in probing the 228 Incident, collecting related materials and clarifying facts about those responsible for the atrocities. Her administration plans to issue a government report within three years on the revolts and revise guidelines for references to the incident in school textbooks in accordance with the new findings.
In meeting prior to the anniversary with relatives of victims, Tsai said she would like to take a lesson from the incident and build a democratic and equitable country with a united people. Her statement is believed to have been targeted at the past KMT dictatorship and the current Communist Party rule in Beijing.
Cross-strait relations have been strained since Tsai was elected last year, defeating a KMT rival who advocated a conciliatory approach toward Beijing. China demanded that Tsai accept the “1992 Consensus” between China and Taiwan, which upholds the “one-China” principle but leaves it open to separate interpretation by China and Taiwan. She turned down the Chinese demand. China then closed its channel of dialogue with the island and began to apply pressure through such moves as getting countries that retain diplomatic ties with Taiwan to switch recognition to Beijing and reducing the number of visitors from the mainland to Taiwan. China’s past signals indicate that it would not hesitate to use force against Taiwan if it were to declare independence.
China needs to realize that it cannot impose its intentions on the people of Taiwan, where the majority doesn’t favor unification with China. A poll last year found that 59 percent of the respondents favored the status quo, 23 percent preferred independence and a mere 10 percent supported unification.
China has tried to depict the 228 Incident not as a confrontation between the KMT regime, which originated on the mainland, and the people of Taiwan, but as a collision between a despotic ruler and the public — in an attempt to soften the Taiwanese people’s revulsion toward the government in Beijing. Few Taiwanese want to be ruled by China, where the communist regime led by President Xi Jinping has stepped up political regimentation while demonstrating a hegemonic foreign policy posture. Beijing should respect what was embodied in the 2016 election of Tsai — the people’s desire to prevent Taiwan from being swallowed up by a rising China.
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