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The 228 Incident

Published on TaipeiTimes

The 228 Incident

By Lee Shiao-Feng 李筱峰

Saturday, Feb 28, 2004,Page 9


On Aug. 6 and Aug. 9, 1945, US atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, respectively. One week later, Japan declared an unconditional surrender. The Japanese surrendered to the Allied Forces and renounced their claim to Taiwan. Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石), the chairman of the Nationalist government in Nanking, accepted the surrender of the Japanese military in China. It was against this backdrop that Chiang sent troops to take over Taiwan. Actually, it was a temporary military occupation. But at the time everyone called it "retrocession."

The "retrocession" was carried out without obtaining the agreement of the residents of Taiwan. But, at the time most Taiwanese maintained a welcoming attitude toward it. They welcomed the Nationalist government from China with the enthusiasm not seen in other areas of China.

While the people of Taiwan joyfully welcomed the retrocession and the new "mother country," their new rulers acted like conquerors.

First, the Nationalist government established the "Taiwan Provincial Executive Office" as the ruling institution -- a system different from what was in place in other Chinese provinces. This institution held executive, legislative, judicial and military powers, as if it were a replica of the Japanese governor's office and as if it were extending the colonial system. This "new governor's office" monopolized all resources -- from political to economic to social, which laid the roots for the 228 Incident to take place one year and four months later.

Following the Nationalist government takeover, people were quick to realize it was establishing a total political monopoly, where perks and privileges went to a small number of people, there was widespread corruption and where the leadership was inexperienced.

While the Nationalist government paid lip service to offering opportunities for political participation by the Taiwanese, in reality it used the excuses that "Taiwan has no political talent" and "Taiwanese compatriots do not understand the national language" (Mandarin) in order to exclude many well-educated Taiwanese from mid-level and top posts. The important jobs were mostly given to people from China. Mainlanders essentially replaced the position of "the ruler" held by Japanese during the colonial era, which left Taiwanese intellectuals feeling disappointed.

Most unbearable to the Taiwanese was the corruption. At the time, in the private sector, people referred to the "takeover" (of Taiwan) as a robbery. The "post-robbery" politics and corruption gave the people of Taiwan the experience of their lives for the next 50 years.

On the economic front, the same kind of monopoly took place. The two reigning economic institutions at the time were the Trade Bureau and the Monopoly Bureau. The Provincial Executive Office continued the government-monopoly system of the Japanese, giving the Monopoly Bureau full control over the sale of goods such as matches, cigarettes, liquor and camphor, as well as weights and measures. The Trade Bureau monopolized the procurement, sale and export of industrial and agricultural products. The lives of the Taiwanese became even more difficult and impoverished.

As a result of an economic downturn and a shortage of daily necessities, theft became prevalent. Even more painful to the people was the fact that the troops stationed in Taiwan were undisciplined and often bullied people. These soldiers were the troops from the "mother country" who had been enthusiastically welcomed by the public only a year ago. In the second year after the Nationalist government took over Taiwan, the crime rate became a serious problem, climbing 28-fold. In 1946, confrontations between the general public and the military and the police became more frequent. These incidents all had the potential of escalating into massive riots.

History takes a different route
Taiwanese had thought that China -- due to a common written language and race -- was the mother country they could rely on. It wasn't until after China descended on Taiwan that they discovered their idea of the "mother country" couldn't be further from the real China. They simply couldn't adjust to the change.

Taiwan and China had developed very differently. The history of Taiwan is filled with characteristics of an oceanic culture, with a vibrant island commerce. In particular, after Liu Ming-Chuan (劉銘傳) succeeded in pushing for new governance in Taiwan, and having gone through 50 years of Japanese rule, Taiwan had far surpassed China in terms of the level of development. The gap between the two societies was very significant, not to mention the differences in values and ways of life. The forcible "unifying" of two such fundamentally different societies made it easy for frictions and conflicts to occur.

Incident ignited by cigarettes
Late in the afternoon of Feb. 27, 1947, six agents of the Monopoly Bureau's Taipei branch, including Fu Hsueh-tung (傅學通), were investigating the sale of smuggled cigarettes on Tai-ping-tung, which is today's Yenping North Road.

They caught middle-aged widow Lin Chiang-mai (林江邁) illegally selling cigarettes in front of the Tien-ma Tea House (located near the intersection of today's Yenping North Road and Nanking West Road). The agents tried to confiscate Lin's cigarettes and money, but she refused and begged for mercy. The agents hit Lin on the head with their gun barrels, making her head bleed, and she passed out.

Bystanders became enraged and protested to the agents. The agents ran away, firing upon the crowd as they did so. A spectator, Chen Wen-hsi (陳文溪), was hit (and died the next day from a gunshot wound). The public became even more irate, beseiging both the police and the military police headquarters, demanding that the culprits be turned over for prosecution, but their demand was not met.

Taiwan stood up for itself
On the morning of Feb. 28, people went to the Monopoly Bureau to protest and then charged into the bureau's Taipei branch office. They tossed documents, files and other items out into the street and burned them. Three of the office's clerks were beaten (some say one of them died). In the afternoon, a crowd gathered in the square in front of the Provincial Executive Office to protest and petition the government.

Military police on the balcony of the office opened fire on the crowd with machine guns, killing or injuring several dozen people. By then, things had gotten out of control. The entire city was restless -- shops closed, plants shut down and the students walked out of their classrooms to protest. The Garrison Command Headquarters declared a state of emergency.

After some young people went to a radio station (situated at the present site of the 228 Memorial Museum) on March 1 to broadcast to all of Taiwan about what had happened and urge people to rise and respond, things began to escalate across Taiwan. Riots occurred in all the major cities and towns. Angry mobs attacked police stations and government offices, attacking mainlanders, to relieve the anger built up over the past year.

General Chen Yi (陳儀), the governor of Taiwan, also declared a state of emergency, and the police and soldiers fired upon the people to put down the unrest. Both sides suffered injuries and deaths. Young men, students and retired soldiers organized themselves in an attempt to take control of the weapons and arsenals of the military and police. But they were mostly inexperienced groups of people who were acting on the spur of the moment.

The "27 Brigade" (in honor of Lin's Feb. 27 beating) -- active in the Taichung vicinity -- was better organized. Ferocious conflicts took place at Shuishang Airport between soldiers stationed at the airport and militias comprised of Aboriginals from the Tzou tribe and Han people. Near the train station in Kaohsiung, some students and soldiers also clashed.

On March 1, officials and provincial council members organized a committee to investigate the bloodshed and deaths. They sent a delegate to meet with Chen Yi and suggest the establishment of a "228 Incident Committee." Chen gave his word and, in a radio broadcast at 7pm that day, he declared that: one, the emergency decree would be lifted immediately; two, those arrested would be released; three, soldiers and police were now prohibited from opening fire and four, the government and the private sector would jointly organize a committee to investigate what had happened.

On the afternoon of March 5, the 228 Incident committee approved its organizational guidelines, which included the goal of "reforming the administration of Taiwan Province." The legislative councils of cities and counties throughout Taiwan became branches of the committee, demanding political reforms.

Chen paid lip service to the committee's demands for political reforms, declaring that any member of the public could express his or her views through the committee and he would try his best to improve the situation. However, he also sent a telegram to Nanking asking for military backup.

Chiang took the words of military and political intelligence personnel in Taiwan and completely ignored the petitions and suggestions of the representatives of the private sector. He decided to dispatch more troops. Upon receiving Chiang's order, the 21st Division of the Nationalist Army led by Liu Yu-ching (劉雨卿) departed for Taiwan.

The arrival of the military
Late in the afternoon of March 8, the troops landed in Keelung. Laborers who were working on the dock at the time were shot down by the soldiers. On March 9, the 21st Division entered Taipei and then headed south. There were crackdowns and massacres everywhere. The 228 Incident Committee was declared an illegal organization and ordered to disband. Many of the social elite who had attended committee meeting became targets of the military crackdown.

During this time, individuals who had participated in the riots and rebellions were arrested and killed, as were many of the social elite who had never taken part. Privately-owned newspapers and magazines were shut down on Chen's orders .

On March 20, the authorities began the so-called "Ching-hsiang" (清鄉, "to clean up hometowns") campaign. They asked people to hand over weapons and turn in "crooks" or face prosecution themselves. During this campaign, many people were arrested and executed, most without public trials. There is no accurate count of the total number of people killed or injured during the 228 Incident, however, the most frequently mentioned number is between 10,000 and 20,000.

Wounded orphans of Asia
What the 228 Incident brought for Taiwan was much more than just the tragic break-up of families and a huge death toll. It has had an everlasting impact on politics and society in general. On the one hand, the character of Taiwanese people became seriously twisted. Taiwanese who had always been under an alien colonial rule for decades now became even more humbled and self-demeaning. They took on a slavish character in order to ensure their personal safety, never daring to resist their rulers.

On the other hand, the people both feared and were disillusioned by politics. Such paranoia and indifference toward politics suited the one-party totalitarianism of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) but was bad for the development of a democracy.

The elimination of the Taiwanese social elite also facilitated the KMT's governance. Many of the elite who managed to survive the ordeal no long wanted to have anything to do with politics. The nature of local politics drastically changed as gang members, corrupt local politicians and unscrupulous members of the local gentry and business communities assumed a dominant role.

Two years after the 228 Incident, the KMT's Republic of China went into exile in Taiwan after being defeated by the Chinese Communist Party. Although the "Republic of China on Taiwan" imposed 38-year long state of emergency, securing its rule through a "White Terror" campaign, Taiwan managed to escape plundering by China and to remain independent of the Beijing regime. It began to develop its own economy, trade, industries and businesses, becoming one of the so-called "four little dragons" of Asia.

Through industrial and business development, social changes and cultural integration, the ethnic rivalry seen during the 228 Incident no longer exists. With Taiwan's situation in the international community becoming increasingly difficult, and given China's unrelenting efforts at coercion, a stronger sense of identity and cohesion should be forged among the various ethnic groups in Taiwan.

Will history repeat itself?
Today, the White Terror is a thing of the past. Politics have become relatively democratized. It would be virtually impossible for conflicts similar to those of the 228 Incident to take place again. However, facing China's unification campaign, the history of the 228 Incident still holds a valuable lesson for all of us. In the so-called "retrocession" of Taiwan in 1945 was a "unification" of China and Taiwan. The 228 Incident was a side effect of this unification, caused by the enormous gaps between the Taiwanese and Chinese societies of the time, which made the two ill-suited to one another. Such poor adjustments are part of the pattern of resistance and suppression that results when those from a more backward culture try to impose their rule on those with a higher cultural development.

China is worlds apart from Taiwan in terms of its political system, social structure, economic accomplishments, legal structure, culture, life values and human rights protection. If Taiwan is "unified," one cannot help but fear a repeat of the 228 Incident.

Lee Shiao-feng (李筱峰) is a professor at Shih Hsin University.

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