When coming to Taiwan in September 2021 for my year abroad, I never expected to be taken back to the debate raging in Oxford over the legacy of the Cecil John Rhodes statue at Oriel College. As someone who participated in a demonstration earlier that summer, chanting “Rhodes must fall” outside of Oriel, I did not anticipate that Taiwan and its public spaces would be facing the same issues that we face back in the UK. Yet, on my first visit to the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall 中正紀念堂in central Taipei, I quickly realised that the fierce debate around statues also exists in Taiwan.
To many in the West, it may come as a surprise that Chiang Kai-shek 蔣介石 is seen as a controversial figure in Taiwan. As a fervent anti-communist, who fought against Mao Zedong 毛澤東 and the Communist party – eventually losing and fleeing to the island of Taiwan – he is praised in the West for his stand against communism as well as his earlier fight against the Japanese during World War II. It may also come as a surprise that this debate around his legacy stands outside of the divide between those who seek a reunification with mainland China, led by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and those who want an independent democratic Taiwan. In reality, the percentage of Taiwanese who seek to be ruled by the CCP is so low that it could hardly shape this debate.
Instead, this is a debate over the legacy of Chiang’s government as well as that of his son Chiang Ching-Kuo 蔣經國. Chiang is controversial for the implementation of oppressive martial law, as well as for violent activities such as those of the 228 Incident in 1947. The 228 Incident took place at a point of high tensions between the government and civilians. Government officials were seen as corrupt and ineffective. Improper regulation of the economy led to an economic slump. Taiwanese veterans that served under the Japanese were unable to find employment, forming the undercurrent of resentment towards the Taiwanese government.
The strict language policy also raised tensions; at the time of the reunification with mainland China, 75% of Taiwanese people spoke Japanese, yet, within a year, Japanese language newspapers were banned. The main form of information was therefore made less accessible to Taiwanese people. Taiwanese people were also faced with the stigma of being labelled traitors given their level of assimilation with the Japanese. The incident itself started when agents of the State Monopoly Bureau arrested a woman selling cigarettes illegally. When she demanded the return of her cigarettes, she was struck by one of the officers. The surrounding crowd was outraged, and they confronted the agents. As the civilians fled, one of the agents shot a civilian, who later died of his wounds. This started a national movement of protests. The crackdown on the movement led to the deaths of up to 18,000 Taiwanese and ended with the implementation of martial law.
While Taiwan has been hailed recently as the most democratic nation in East Asia, this was not always the case. When Chiang’s government relocated to Taiwan, he implemented martial law and ran an authoritarian government – which, like many others, murdered and disappeared their own citizens. Martial law was active in Taiwan from May 1949 all the way until July 1987. During this period of oppressive rule, there was no freedom of assembly, the press was restricted, and the government had the right to arrest anyone who voiced any opposition to the government. In addition, no political parties were allowed to be formed outside of the Kuomintang (KMT – the republican party) 國民黨, the Chinese Youth Party, and the China Democratic Socialist Party. The latter two were closely linked ideologically with the KMT. The period of martial law coincides with the period known as the White Terror. During this period, the government made use of their secret police – the Taiwan Garrison Command – to crack down on civilians and in some cases executed them extrajudicially. Up to 4,000 people were killed and there were 29,000 cases of political persecution. There are now musuems dedicated to the White Terror and the 228 incident across the island, including the 228 Memorial Park in the heart of Taipei.
It was in this context that Chiang’s statues were erected. Chiang sought to enhance the legitimacy of the KMT’s rule of the island during his presidency, in the face of it being viewed as colonial rule by some.With the takeover of government by the KMT from the Japanese, the Taiwanese people began to be ruled by ‘their own people’ rather than a foreign people. Yet, the KMT viewed the Taiwanese as different to mainland Chinese, creating a divide between those who came from mainland China – waishengren 外省人 – and the Taiwanese who lived in Taiwan before 1945 – benshengren 本省人. This difference in treatment between the two peoples has meant that the KMT rule has sometimes been seen as colonial, as the KMT did not see the benshengren as compatriots. In order to legitimise KMT rule, he enacted a series of “de-Japanification” 去日本化 and “re-Sinification” 再中國化 policies. Re-Sinification lasted from the 1950s for nearly four decades until the 1990s.
As part of the re-Sinification, the government started to erect statues of Chiang across Taiwan in order to portray him as a strong leader. This occurred throughout his own presidency and that of his son Chiang-Ching-Kuo. During Chiang-Ching-Kuo’s presidency, the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall was built, and a massive bronze statue of Chiang was installed. Jeremy E. Taylor, Associate Professor in Modern Asian History at the University of Nottingham, argued in 2006 that the aim of this as well as the naming of main roads and districts in cities was ultimately to connect Chiang with the history of Taiwan as well as engrain him into the society. By constructing these statues and promoting a traditional Chinese style of architecture, which can also be seen in the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, Chiang aimed to reconnect the national history and collective memories of the “old Republic of China” established in the mainland with the “new Republic of China” established in Taiwan. This is why the debate around the Chiang Kai-shek statues remains so important. The question is: should someone with such a controversial legacy be engrained into Taiwan and its society?
Like the statues debate in the West, the divide between the two sides of the argument falls along political lines. However, rather than adhering to the typical political divide of left and right, the debate centres on the pan-Blue 泛藍 and pan-Green 泛綠 divides. The pan-Blue 泛藍 grouping mainly takes the form of the KMT; they largely oppose the removal of Chiang statues, as they hold a more positive attitude towards him. Some politicians in the pan-Blue coalition even believe that, without Chiang, Taiwan and some parts of the mainland might still be colonised by Japan. Therefore, they consider Chiang a hero for all from a Chinese ethnic group 民族的救星. The pan-Green 泛綠 is the other political force. They mainly come in the form of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) 民進黨. They tend to view Chiang as a murderer and unworthy of people’s respect, and support the removal or dismantling of Chiang’s statues.
Chiang’s reputation began to change significantly under the first DPP pan-Green administration from 2000 to 2008. This was the first government not run by the KMT after the transition to democracy allowed people to vote directly for the president in 1996. Under the rule of President Chen Shui-bian 陳水扁, the DPP government sought to change completely the image of Chiang and the political narratives surrounding him. This led to them reconstructing him as a terrible, authoritarian leader and in some cases straightforwardly as a murderer. Since they viewed the remnants of Chiang’s rule, such as schools, roads, and infrastructure under his name, as reminders of the authoritarian, oppressive rule the people of Taiwan suffered under, they tried to eliminate or remove Chiang’s link to them. As a result, Chen and his government enacted a set of policies which Charles Musgrove, Professor of History at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, labels as qujianghua 去蔣化 or “de-Chiang-Kai-shek-ification”, allowing for the renaming of many roads and removal of his statues. The most clear example of this was seen in 2007 when Chen’s government changed the name of theChiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall in Taipei, which includes the largest statue of Chiang in Taiwan, to the National Taiwan Democracy Memorial Hall 國立台灣民主紀念館, and the name of the surrounding square to Liberty Square 自由廣場. However, the effectiveness of this is questionable, as the nearby Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) station is still called Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall Station or 中正紀念堂站.
Chen’s policy of qujianghua encouraged many of his fellow DPP party members to join the campaign arguing for the removal of Chiang’s statues as well as any heritage symbolising him from schools, public spaces, and cityscapes. Like in the West, university students were one of the main groups who enthusiastically participated in the political movement to remove Chiang Kai-shek statues. From 2000 onwards, it is estimated that Taiwanese university students organised dozens of student-run movements calling for Chiang’s statues to be destroyed or removed from their campuses. Nevertheless, given the vastly differing views on Chiang Kai-shek and his legacy, each university experiences different amounts of conflict.
After the DPP won the 2016 election, Tsai Ing-wen, the current president of Taiwan, set the aim of “achieving transitional justice” 落實轉型正義 as one of her top five goals. Following her election, Tsai set up the “Transitional Justice Commission” 促進轉型正義委員會 in 2018. One of the main tasks of the commission was to address the issue of statues of Chiang Kai-shek. According to the Transnational Justice Commission, in 2018 there were still 1, 083 Chiang Kai-shek statues in Taiwan. Many of them were located on school and university campuses.
‘Fallism’ – campaigns for something or someone, often a statue of an ethically questionable figure, to fall – remains a contentious issue in Taiwan today. Many people, like in the West, view the removal of important statues as an erasure of history. Tsai Ing-wen and her DPP government face the challenge of enacting their aim of achieving transitional justice whilst accounting for differing views on fallism so as to not alienate any potential voters. Yet, young people largely hold negative views of Chiang Kai-shek, so even if Chiang Kai-shek statues and his legacy in general manage to survive Tsai’s administration, it is hard to see a future in Taiwan where they remain so prominent as the debate continues to rage.
Photo by CEphoto, Uwe Aranas