April 11, 2008
Taiwan's president-elect Ma Ying-jeou spent last weekend honouring his political ancestors: Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek and his son, the late president Chiang Ching-kuo. It's the latest move by Ma and his Kuomintang (Chinese Nationalist Party) to polish the tarnished image of the Chiang dynasty and reinstall its name to public places and monuments. And it's meant to influence Taiwan's future by determining how people see its past.
By Stephen A. Nelson
TAIPEI - A new wind is blowing across Taiwan. And what many had hoped would be a breath of fresh air from president-elect Ma Ying-jeou may turn out to be a monsoon that brings the perfect storm of change.
To find out what direction the wind is blowing, one needs to look no further than Ma himself. Although he is praised as a pragmatist with a flexible attitude, critics have called Ma "a chameleon on a weather vane." And that weather vane now indicates that the "new wind" is a really blast from the past - a past when the Chinese Nationalist Party (Kuomintang or KMT) enjoyed one-party rule.
That's why Taiwan's current battle over the naming and renaming of public places and monuments dedicated to Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek is really a battle to determine Taiwan's future by determining how people see its past.
Together the Chiangs ruled Taiwan for four decades - most of the time under brutal martial law. Chiang the elder ruled after the KMT's Republic of China got control of Taiwan's islands at the end of World War II. In 1949, after the KMT lost to Mao Zedong's communists in a civil war on the mainland, Chiang fled to Taiwan and held it as the last bastion of his regime.
Chiang the younger has been presented in recent years as a "reformer" who benefited Taiwan by setting the groundwork for Taiwan's "economic miracle" and putting Taiwan on the road to democracy.
So although those in the KMT have viewed his regime with great nostalgia, critics say that Chiang Ching-kuo was actually a more efficient and more brutal leader, having learned government at the knee of Joseph Stalin.
President-elect Ma Ying-jeou, not coincidentally, began his political career as Chiang Ching-kuo's English translator and secretary. He was promoted by Chiang Ching-kuo to become the youngest cabinet member in the history of Taiwan.
The memorial hall is set like a glistening jewel in a palatial public plaza that is Taiwan's version of Red Square in Moscow or Tiananmen Square in Beijing.
Critics in the the KMT decried such changes as blatant political ploys by the DPP to drum up election support among its core voters by stirring up hatred of Chiang Kai-shek and the KMT.
But according to the pro-Taiwan Taipei Times (Taiwan's largest English-language newspaper), the anti-Chiang campaign was about something much deeper than an election victory.
The paper went on to say that "Election concerns were of course one component in the government's decision to change the name Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall to National Taiwan Democracy Memorial Hall ... but these actions are also a part of the re-evaluation of Chiang's contributions and faults. These actions are an essential step in the process of lessening psychological trauma in this society."
The changes at the memorial hall have especially angered the KMT's old guard and their supporters, many of whom are "49ers" who arrived in Taiwan with Chiang Kai-shek's troops in 1949. Led by Chiang Kai-shek's grandson, John Chiang, they have publicly protested the changes to the Chiang landmarks.
They have complained that Chen - a democracy-rights lawyer who fought against martial law - is a dictator. And they say that Chiang Kai-shek - a dictator who imposed martial law - is a hero who laid the groundwork for Taiwan's democracy.
Ma hasn't said which "people" he means to ask.
But by visiting the tombs of the Chiangs, Ma has certainly indicated which way he is leaning. And as usual with Ma, it's an indication of which way Taiwan's political winds are blowing.
Some historians have put Chiang Kai-shek in the same category as Adolf Hitler, Stalin and Mao; noting that Chiang admired and imitated Hitler, learned and borrowed from Stalin, and differed little from Mao.
Certainly this is the view of the outgoing Chen and his DPP - a politician and a party born from the democracy movement that opposed the KMT's one-party rule in the 1970s and 1980s.
"Their merits and faults can be discussed by historians but they left behind many important historical and cultural heritages which should be preserved," Ma said.
Ma may think that this is a matter for future historians to decide, but John Chiang and the KMT's ancien regime have been emboldened by the party's one-two victories in the legislative and presidential elections. They are flexing their muscles by pressing for changes now.
Taking their cue from John Chiang, pro-KMT news media - which means nearly all of them in Taiwan - are polishing the tarnished image of Chiang Kai-shek and seeking to restore the damaged legacy of the Chiang dynasty. They continue to deify Chiang Kai-shek and portray him as a national hero, one who preserved Taiwan's freedom and laid the groundwork for economic miracle.
An old proverb says, "Journalism is the first draft of history." If that's true, then the revised history of Taiwan is being written now. And it's a version of history we've seen before, when the KMT was writing the history books.
"A lot depends on who you ask," said Taiwan expert Dean Karalekas, a Canadian journalist who lived and worked in Taiwan. "Was Chiang a strongman? Yes. But he was our strongman and it is important that we avoid the temptation to apply 21st century moral judgements to his actions," added Karalekas.
"The world was a different place then, and it operated under different rules," he said. "I'm not apologizing for him, but he has passed into history; and as a former student of history, I am hesitant to start judging its principal actors, of which Chiang certainly was one."
Another old Taiwan hand was less hesitant to judge: "[Chiang] was a dictator. If he delivered anything, it was a reign of terror to Taiwan," said Jeff Limburger, a Canadian who worked in Taiwan's news media for more than a decade and now works in Singapore. "Though to be fair, some of the people who were persecuted in the White Terror were also delivered by Chiang."
"Chiang Kai-shek did not save Taiwan," said Jerome Keating, author of several books including Island in the Stream: A Quick Case Study of Taiwan's Complex History .
"Taiwan, on the other hand, actually saved Chiang Kai-shek and the KMT. On the run from Mao Zedong's forces, they had no place to hide but Taiwan."
What saved Taiwan from Mao, Keating said, was that - in the beginning - Mao lacked the naval forces to cross the Taiwan Strait. The arrival of the U.S. Seventh Fleet, coinciding with America's involvement in the Korean War, sealed this fate: Mao and the communists on one side of the strait, Chiang and the KMT on the other side.
"Chiang Kai-shek and the KMT were lucky," said Keating. "Taiwan was not."
"Martial law probably helped the government maintain control in what would have been pretty tense and troubling times," said Limburger. "I can see how an alien power would have felt it was necessary to impose martial law in order to reduce the likelihood of domestic chaos as it contemplated how to retake its homeland."
"I guess from that point of view, you would call martial law a necessary evil," continued Limburger. "The White Terror, however - that was just evil."
Keating believes that the whole idea that "Chiang Kai-shek rebuilt Taiwan" is a fabrication, a myth.
"Chiang Kai-shek did not rebuild Taiwan;" he said. "In reality, he is the one who brought it to its lowest degradation."
The KMT and its historians have said that the "rape of Taiwan" took place during the Japanese colonial period, especially in the dying days of World War II.
But according to Keating, the real denuding, pillaging and destruction of Taiwan was at the hands of the KMT in the final phases of China's civil war.
"Taiwan suffered tremendous destruction physically and morally. Taiwan was stripped of machinery, factory parts, materials, metals, foods, rice ... anything and everything that could be used to bolster Chiang's losing effort in China," Keating said.
And when the KMT retreated to Taiwan in 1949 and began rebuilding what they had destroyed?
"It was not because they loved Taiwan," he said, "but because they had no place left to go" and decided to "make a heaven of their hell" that they had created.
Were these just election ploys by the governing DPP?
"I don't think they were renamed in order to consolidate pro-independence support," said Limburger. "Deep green [pro-Taiwan, pro-independence] voters would have voted for the DPP candidate whether they got Chiang's head on a plate or not. I think it was actually a matter of principle. And the DPP were probably hoping that reversing the changes wouldn't be high on Ma Ying-jeou's priority list once he was elected."
But now, the pressure is on to restore the old name of Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall and Chiang Kai-Shek International Airport. Since Ma has promised to revisit the issue, will he wait until he is president and then change the name? Or push now for changes the old guard wants?
"I would be very disappointed to hear the hall and airport were renamed," said Limburger.
"Firstly, I don't think Chiang Kai-shek and his family deserve a public legacy. Secondly, I'd be disappointed in Ma. I really want to believe that he's actually a man of substance who will choose the sensible course over the politically expedient one every once in a while. If he caves on this one, it doesn't bode well for his presidency as a multitude of supporters and cronies push him to rush into China with open arms."
During the martial-law era, Arrigo was intimately involved in Taiwan's forbidden democracy movement and took part in the demonstrations that led to one of the country's most infamous military crackdowns: the 1979 Kaohsiung Incident, also known outside Taiwan as the Formosa Incident.
Arrigo's husband, future DPP chairman Shih Ming-de, was singled out as one of the ringleaders and sent to prison. For her part in challenging the KMT, Arrigo avoided prison but was deported to the United States.
At the time, Chiang Ching-kou was president.
For people like Arrigo, the sight of Ma Ying-jeou kowtowing to the Chiangs is an ill omen. "Even if the names [of the memorial and the airport] aren't changed back, a chill 'Blue' wind is blowing, just because Taiwanese automatically buckle down to please the new authorities," said Arrigo.
In Taiwan's colour-coded politics, blue is the colour of the KMT and its old-guard, pro-unification allies. Arrigo clearly thinks that the whole country is bending with the KMT wind - and that will mean a setback for those who have fought so hard for democracy in Taiwan.
"I think it is quite possible that there will be actual backpedaling on police issues and freedom of speech, but it will probably be subtle," Arrigo said.
And what about Ma Ying-jeou himself?
"Let's see how Ma faces the frying pan," Arrigo said. "But I expect the matter now is not really Ma as an individual, but the old evil style of the KMT."
Stephen A Nelson is a Canadian freelance journalist now based in Toronto but with one foot still in Taiwan. For eight years he worked as a journalist in Taiwan, including two years at the Taipei Times newspaper. He was also a broadcaster at Radio Taiwan International, where he produced Strait Talk – a weekly program about Taiwan and its place in the world.
Taiwan's political troubles are comparable with those of Ukraine and Estonia, which have to deal with a big "race" problem. While in Taiwan last March during the presidential election, I encountered a China-born "Taiwanese" citizen who proclaimed, "China has so many people, what's wrong [with] killing some Tibetans?"
Canada (Apr 14, '08)