Financial Times

Taiwan to break with its Kuomintang past

By Kathrin Hille in Taipei
Published: 26 February 2007


Taiwan is to free itself from the personality cult surrounding the Chinese Nationalist generalissimo, Chiang Kai-shek, downgrading a prominent Taipei memorial for the dictator and his mausoleum, the Democratic Progressive Party government said on Monday.

The announcement came as Taiwan started commemorating the “228 incident” – a 1947 crackdown on local Taiwanese protesters by Chiang’s military – indicating that campaigning in the run-up to parliamentary elections in December and presidential polls early next year is likely to focus on Taiwanese nationalism.

Although Taiwan em­braced democracy more than a decade ago, open criticism of Chiang is largely taboo, reflecting a sharp division of opinion about the strongman’s 30 years in control after his forces fled mainland China to avoid annihilation by the victorious communists.

Many statues of the generalissimo remain in schools and parks, and some supporters of the Kuomintang, the former ruling party, still credit him and his son with protecting the island from communism and with creating its economic miracle.

The most visible token of this continuing influence is the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, a huge building in central Taipei housing a larger-than-life copper statue of the dictator and a museum housing his personal items, including gowns, slippers and two of his limousines.

This is a piece of history most of the island’s residents now ignore, but it is a source of indignation for those whose families suffered from the regime’s atrocities.

The 228 incident epitomises their concerns. The name refers to February 28 1947, when spontaneous protests occurred against a government crackdown on cigarette smugglers. The KMT military reacted with violence against protesters, followed by a campaign against the local intelligentsia that left up to 30,000 dead.

Chen Shui-bian, Taiwan’s independence-minded president, on Monday called the incident “the suppression of freedom and democracy by a foreign dictatorship”, and said the remaining memorials for Chiang needed to be dismantled.

“The government will deal with products of feudalism which don’t fit into the democratic era at all, such as the [Chiang mausoleum] and the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, which symbolises the party state, step by step with a view on insisting on democracy and human rights,” Mr Chen said.

His comments follow government moves to rename Taiwan’s Chiang Kai-shek international airport “Taoyuan” – the name of the county where it is located – and to replace references to China in the names of state-owned enterprises with references to Taiwan.

The president’s decision to label the KMT an alien political force sparked criticism that he was abusing the anniversary for campaign purposes. “He risks creating ethnic tension for the sake of attracting votes for the ruling party,” said Chang Hsien-yao, a lawmaker of the People First party, a KMT ally.

Observers agree that historical wounds are increasingly being abused in political campaigns,but also point out that the island’s gentle transition to democracy has so far served it well.

“The reason we are not seeing figures from the old regime being tried or even jailed is that democracy came with the consent, if not the assistance, of the former ruling party,” said Georg Gesk, a law professor at Hsuan Chuang University.

Some disagree. Christian Schafferer, an Austrian political scientist at the Overseas Chinese Institute of Technology argues that Taiwan should deal with the KMT dictatorship with legal instruments similar to those used in the de-Nazification of Austria after the second world war.

That is unlikely to happen, in spite of the sharper rhetoric being used by Mr Chen and his DPP colleagues. Ma Ying-jeou, one of Taiwan’s most popular politicians and the KMT favourite for the presidential race, is a product of the Chiang regime, having started his political career as the English-language secretary of Chiang Ching-kuo, the generalissimo’s son and successor.

The government’s plan to get rid of the Chiang personality cult also looks like a compromise. Rather than tearing the memorial hall down, say officials, it could become a “memorial park for Taiwan’s democracy” housing items left behind by all the island’s presidents.