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“228” remembered

Overview of press reports and commentaries

60th Commemoration of February 28, 1947

Sixty years ago, the “228 Incident” took place in Taiwan. It refers to the date February 28th 1947, when the arrest of a cigarette vendor in Taipei led to large-scale protests by the native Taiwanese against the corruption and repression of Chiang Kai-shek's Chinese Nationalists, who came over from China and occupied Taiwan "on behalf of the Allied Forces" after Japan's defeat in 1945.

In the following days Chiang's government secretly sent troops from China to the island. The Chinese soldiers started to round up and execute a whole generation of leading figures, students, lawyers, doctors. It is estimated that up to 28,000 people lost their lives in the turmoil. During the following four decades, the Chinese Nationalists ruled Taiwan with iron fist under a martial law, which lasted until 1987.

Thousands of others were arrested and imprisoned in the “White Terror” campaign which took place in the following decades. Many of these remained imprisoned until the early 1980s. Until the beginning of the 1990s, the events of 1947 were a taboo subject on the island. The Kuomintang did not want to be reminded of their dark past, and the Taiwanese did not dare to speak out for fear of retribution by the KMT’s secret police.

The massacre is still a defining factor in the political divide in Taiwan: native Taiwanese see it as the horrific beginning of the Kuomintang’s repressive minority rule, and dominance of the political system at the expense of the Taiwanese population, which ended only with the transition to democracy under former President Lee Teng-hui in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

In Taiwan, the event will be remembered through a series of commemorative gatherings, while in Washington DC a symposium at the Brookings Institution , which will call attention to the importance of 228 in understanding present-day Taiwan.

For the international community it is important to understand that the Taiwanese dislike and mistrust of the Chinese and their intentions is not only based on ideological or political difference with China’s present – rather undemocratic – regime in Beijing, but deeply rooted in the anguish of a large-scale massacre followed by some 40 years of repressive rule by the Chinese Nationalists.

Here is a link to the 50th Commemoration in 1997

George Kerr and Allan Shackleton

Two foreigners, who made an important contribution to the understanding of what happened during those dark days of 1947, are George Kerr – an American – and Allan Shackleton – a New Zealander.

Mr. Kerr was a Consular officer at the American Consulate in Taipei when the events unfolded. After he left the Foreign Service, he lectured in Japanese history at the University of Washington, Stanford University and at UC Berkeley. In 1965 he published his monumental work, “Formosa Betrayed”, which is still the most important reference work on the events of 1947 and subsequent years.

Allan Shackleton – a citizen of New Zealand – served as an officer in the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA), providing technical and engineering assistance in the rebuilding of Taiwan after World War II. He was a first-hand observer of the atrocities which happened, and after his return to New Zealand at the end of 1947, wrote a manuscript with his eyewitness account, titled “Formosa Calling.”

However, for many decades the manuscript lay unpublished among his family’s memorabilia – until 1998, when his son Colin made it available to Taiwan Communiqué , which published it in cooperation with the Taiwan Publishing Company in Upland, CA.

Towards reconciliation?

In the early 1990s, former President Lee set in motion a process of reconciliation: on behalf of the – Kuomintang-led – government, he extended his apologies to those who lost relatives in the massacre and initiated a system of compensation payment to families who lost members.

He also set up an Academia Sinica study commission to uncover what really happened during the 1947 events. This Commission issued a report in 1993, which concluded that up to 28,000 people lost their lives at the hand of the Chinese Nationalist soldiers. However, the Commission had not been able to examine the archives of the military and secret police agencies, which continue to be closed to researchers.

However, in 2000 – when DPP President Chen was elected — the entrenched old guard of the Kuomintang started to move backwards again: led by stalwarts such as Messrs. Lien Chan and Kuan Chung, the KMT hardliners have continued to deny the gravity of the event, and downplay the number of people killed in the massacre. They have been unwilling to face up to history and to atone — let alone apologize — for what happened.

The Kuomintang has also reneged on promises to return assets that were obtained illegally during its 40 year rule under martial law, and instead has been selling the assets to fill the coffers of the party. In the meantime, it has used its position of power, influence, and money to make life unpleasant for democratically-elected President Chen, and to thwart efforts by the DPP government to initiate reforms by blocking such initiatives in the Legislative Yuan where the KMT and its ally, James Soong’s Peoples First Party, still hold a majority.

Taiwan Communiqué comment: A true reconciliation on the island can only take place if the old Kuomintang acknowledges its repressive past and apologizes for the horrors perpetrated against a whole generation of Taiwanese. There is hardly a family on the island that did not lose a father, mother, brother or son in the event.

If a sincere apology would be forthcoming, the Taiwanese would be willing to forgive. However, at present, the Kuomintang under Mr. Ma Ying-jeou has only made some token gestures, while continuing to obstruct a democratically-elected DPP government in its functioning, and blocking progress on important issues like national security and revising the anachronistic "ROC" Constitution, which was written by and for a government of China in 1946.