KMT police arresting dissidents on 2/28
February 28, 1947, the Republic of China (ROC), headed by the Chinese Nationalist Kuomintang Party (KMT) cracked down on protesters and political dissidents in Taiwan. It has become one of the darkest days in the history of Taiwan. 228 sparked the events leading up to the beginning of thirty-eight years of martial law known as the White Terror. Today February 28 is a national holiday, named Peace Memorial Day, where all flags are flown at half-mast in honor of those killed and imprisoned 73 years ago.
Following the Chinese civil war, the ROC refugees fleeing the Chinese mainland came to Taiwan to establish their government in exile. While the legitimacy of this government is currently a point of contention in global politics, that is not the point of this article. What is important, especially on this day, is that we have to constantly stay vigilant and fight for our democratic principles.
When the ROC took power in Taiwan, they seized the formerly Japanese owned monopolies. Tobacco, sugar,
camphor, tea, paper, chemicals, petroleum refining, mining and cement. The mismanagement of these industries under Governor-General Chen Yi led to runaway inflation and food shortages. The government justified the cheap purchasing of goods by selling the goods at a high price in the mainland to replenish their resources after the Civil War. The tensions grew high as a black market emerged for goods, and prices of staple foods such as rice grew exponentially. The eventual breaking point would come on February 27, 1943.
An enforcement team from the Tobacco Monopoly Bureau in the capital city of Taipei confiscated contraband tobacco products from a middle-aged widow named Lin Jian-mai. When she demanded that they return the goods one of the agents struck Jian-mai in the head with his rifle. A crowd quickly grew, yelling and taunting the agents. As the crowd was disbursing, one of the agents fired into the crowd, killing one of the protesters. When the protesters brought the incident up to the police, their cries were ignored. The following day, the Formosans gathered in front of Governor Chen-Yi's office. Three were killed when the security forces dispersed the gathering. The outrage sparked a revolt, with protesters seizing the military bases and a radio station in the capital on the 4th of March, which they used to call for an island wide revolt. Chiang Kai-Shek quickly implemented martial law, enforcing a curfew where those in violation were to be arrested or shot on sight.
Local activists organized, and delivered the 32 Demands to the government. Among the demands were a request for United Nations trusteeship or independence as Taiwan, rather than as the Republic of China, as well as democratic reforms such as free elections. The provincial administration waited for reinforcements, and on March 8th, ROC troops cracked down on the protesters, raping, killing, and looting for days. By the end of March some 4,000 people had been killed, and thousands more imprisoned or otherwise assaulted. While some of the killing was indiscriminate, the Taiwanese political elites and intellectuals, professors and students, were systematically rounded up, arrested, or killed.
Over the following 38 years thousands more people, both from the mainland or Taiwanese, were imprisoned or executed. Disappearances were common, almost everyone from the generations that lived through the White Terror have lost friends of family, taken in the night from their homes or places of work. For years afterwards, criticism of the 228 massacre was outlawed. The KMT government executed Governor General Yi in 1950, but the disappearances continued.
Since martial law was lifted in 1987, memorials were erected all over the island, and a publicly funded civilian reparations fund was set up. The country went through a period of democratic reforms, a legislative unicameral called the Yuan was established, and multiple political parties were allowed at last. Since then, the legislature and presidency has been held by multiple parties, seats have been set aside for the indigenous tribes of the island, a woman has held the office of President, and Taiwan has become the first country in Asia to legalize same sex marriage.
While the events of 228 were horrible, the people never relented. My mother participated in democratization protests herself. Democracy is precious and must be protected. Now, 73 years later, I am asking that we remember why we resist, and why we stand up for the rights of all. In 2020, we have to remember that tyranny looms in times of crisis. It is up to the watchfulness of the citizens to protect the rights of us all. When dreams live on through the will of the people, even tyranny cannot stop us. Progress is possible, even after the darkest of times, and it is up to us all to keep the flame alive.