Obscuring the Past with Ethnicity

Original article from BaconPress, an independent Taiwanese media outlet

Translated from its original form by Lincoln Davidson ’15

On the evening of February 27, 1947, Taipei-based agents of the Monopoly Bureau of the Republic of China, which had taken control of Taiwan following the 1945 surrender of Japan, confiscated untaxed cigarettes from a 40-year old Taiwanese woman. When she demanded their return, one of the agents hit her over the head with his gun, prompting an angry response from a crowd that had gathered to see what was going on. As the Monopoly Bureau agents fled, one of them fired into the crowd, killing a bystander. Already angered by two years of corruption, repressive policies and an economy being dragged down in support of the Kuomintang’s (KMT) failing war effort against the Communist Party, the crowd began to protest. Anti-government protests soon sprung up all over Taiwan; in response, the KMT party-state declared martial law, called in thousands of troops from the Chinese mainland and initiated a bloody crackdown, rounding up leading members of Taiwanese society and executing them. Within a month, more than ten thousand Taiwanese had been massacred.

The incident, which came to be known as the “228 Incident” for the day it started (2/28), was a taboo topic in Taiwan for decades (until the 1990s). While the massacre has since been memorialized in a national holiday, a museum and public monuments and is now included in history textbooks published on the island, it remains an incredibly sensitive topic and is generally considered to be a key foundational moment for Taiwanese identity and history.

The following is a translation of an essay published on Facebook earlier this week by the independent Taipei media company BaconPress. It critiques authorities in Taiwan today for using the history of the 228 Incident to create ethnic divisions between native Taiwanese and recent immigrants from Mainland China. While the island democratized in the ’90s, the current ruling party (the KMT) is the same that conducted the 228 massacre. The author calls for restorative justice to recognize that the 228 incident was about the division between those with power and those without power, and that this division still exists today.

Every day as I walk to work from Taipei Main Station, there are two routes I can choose from. One route passes through 228 Peace Memorial Park, while the other passes the former Taipei office of the Monopoly Bureau (now the Changhua Bank on Chongqing South Road). Day after day I review this black history that, to this day, remains obscured by dark clouds.

Above the unavoidable entrance to the park hangs a perpetually changing series of garish red banners: “Celebrate the National Day of the Republic of China,” “Celebrate the Anniversary of Taiwan’s Liberation from Japan,” “Celebrate a New Year for the Republic of China.” I’m never sure who they’re trying to mock. The statues of Koxinga, Liu Mingchuan, Qiu Fengjia and Lian Heng that still stand within the park vow that Taiwan’s ex-ex-colonizers and ex-colonizers are united in Confucian orthodoxy to this day, and we must still look up at them.

To be honest, I’m not resigned to this; we use the 228 Peace Memorial Day, or Museum, or Park to recall those bloodstained days. The people who once strived suffered for it, they didn’t have peace and their effort to this day is not yet complete; how can we memorialize that? Remembering the past in this neutral, decontextualized, whitewashed “Peace Memorial,” we show lenience to the perpetrators and cruelty to the victims.

And why is it that, when it’s clearly “228,” we all just remember what happened on 2/27?

Without exception, the information we’re told and that we’re permitted to know is what’s downplayed by history textbooks and newspapers, that “improper handling of a confiscation of untaxed cigarettes triggered a conflict between citizens and government officials,” all occurred on 2/27. They hardly even mention the military occupation and commandeering that came before 2/27, nor do they mention what started on 2/28: the weeks that followed in which thousands died in systematic, town-clearing executions, the bloody suppression by a large-scale military reinforcement from China.

Why should we continue to examine 228? When the writing and dissemination of history still cannot be carried out gracefully in a loud voice, this incident has not truly ended, and 228 still drags its long tobacco rhyme in winding circles around this country.

Today, can we not tell stories, but first talk about the age we’re in?

During the disturbance, massive numbers of young people, intellectuals, lawyers, doctors and journalists from all over Taiwan were executed by the government, beaten for confessions, paraded through the streets, sentenced, their corpses left out in the sun. The definition in the regulations for compensation because of 228 is, “People who, because of this incident, suffered encroachment by public officials or public authority upon their life, person, freedom or property.” These people, although referred to obscurely, are the people suffering from all the baseless greed and sin, visible or hidden, of public agencies.

Looking at it from the compensation regulations, this is a case of government agencies going way over the top because of officials’ conflicts, leading to an open massacre incident.

New Chinese immigrants are not a monolith; the retinue of enforcers burrowing in the Grand Hotel are one group of people, while those who come to Taiwan, whether voluntarily or because they were forced or tricked, destitute and with no one to rely on are another group of people. One kind is just like those officials, while another kind is the same as we the people. Oh, of course there’s also another group of Taiwanese who go the way the wind is blowing, acting as backers, patrons or other kinds of party-state compradors (for example, the Lien family), who’ve joined this apparatus of accomplices to share in the profits from on high, for whom birth, blood and fate have no absolute meaning.

Today, when we speak of restorative justice, we mean settling accounts with the party-state over high-level management of the repression, but they always take all the adversity encountered by common immigrants from China and paste it to their own faces, manufacturing a misconception that although they are the victimizers they’re actually the victimized. They say, “We Mainlanders were murdered too!” but aren’t they a different group of people? And then they explain it all away as ethnic conflict, and the impression left by the entirely unrestricted violence of the tremendous state machinery is watered down, bit by bit.

The grassroots immigrants don’t fall within the protective umbrella drawn by the big important elites. Instead, Taiwanese people today believe they’re part of the same enemy camp as the oppressors. Today, no one differentiates between you and I, while the people on top continue to dig into this dividing line, incorporating the life and death of the currently suffering Chinese immigrants into the same country as them on the basis of their ancestral home, using immigrants’ misfortune as their own fig leaf, lifting up contradictions between ethnic groups to misdirect attention from today’s oppression and tyranny.

All of the casualties are the result of repression by public agencies. The perpetrators who wielded power to direct the tragedy of 1947 and the government that grasps administrative investigation to offer compensation today are both you, and yet you exploit this situation to set both suffering parties in opposition to each other, and go on to appeal to ethnicity.

The object that restorative justice has consistently denounced is the state, the system, not where a person is from. It is you who has unceasingly and stubbornly grouped yourself in with the suffering “masses” as “Mainlanders.” This call to “not incite ethnic conflict” – please tell us, are you just calling upon yourself?

No one says that restorative justice aims to settle ethnic accounts or wants to carry off the Mainlanders and throw them into the sea. It aims to make you – this excessively immense public authority of yours – acknowledge to the people your past mistakes. It aims to make the state – this Kuomintang Republic of China of yours – confront and recognize this period of mistakes, closely examine the issue of responsibility, and then carve these scars deep into the textbooks and teach our children our real history. It’s not about paying out a few compensations, the president just bowing and making a speech, the textbooks just teaching 2/27 and then everything adds up.

In a free society, public authority is wielded at the authorization of the people. It is strictly constrained and regulated. When public authority adopts the absurd stance of abandoning the people and commits crimes of a magnitude that cannot be ignored, we must adopt a brazen, uncompromising stance to defend the value of liberty and buy back the dignity it has lost. If we do not implement restorative justice and truly study responsibility, admit mistakes and pass on the truth to the next generation, we have no way of preventing a repeat performance of the tragedy and our future has no way of treading on a firm foundation to proceed steadily forward.

We examine the issue of responsibility not to take revenge, but to display what couldn’t be public in the past without allowing anyone to conceal or distort the facts so that today we can make a resolute declaration of our carefully safeguarded freedom.

It is not about hating the past, but facing the future with beating hearts full of hope and love.

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