America, Taiwan, and the KMT from 228 to the Present
by Brian Hioe
This is the first of a two-part series concerning the relation of Taiwan, America, and Taiwanese independence in the realm of international relations. The second part can be read here.
From 228 to the Present
WHAT HAS CHANGED since 1947 to the present? There are generally two arguments that follow. The first, of course, raises questions about the visible process of democratization which has occurred in Taiwan since the end of the Martial Law period and the opening up of general elections. The second points out that, while democratization has in fact occurred, parts of Taiwan remain decidedly unfree: for one, that KMT power persists, but also Taiwan lacks “independence,” the product of internal absence of democracy and lack of national recognition by the world despite de facto independence.
Certainly, Taiwan’s internal problems of democracy lack of “independence” are related issues. Where Taiwan finds itself fending off incursions from China, the outside factor of China becomes interlinked with internal issues of democracy in that the KMT seeks to bring Taiwan closer to China in the present. But where sometimes it can be an issue that Taiwan’s domestic issues of democracy become compressed together without distinction when these are two separate, but related issues, another significant issue is usually ignored altogether—the relation of Taiwan to America. We might, then, take up the issue of “Formosa Betrayed.”
The 228 Massacre, George Kerr, and Formosa Betrayed
IN THE PRESENT, February 28th—the date known as “228”—has become an annual occasion for the remembrance of a tragedy. This was the anti-colonial uprising in 1947 that occurred in reaction against KMT oppression of native Taiwanese after the KMT came to Taiwan from China which was set off by the shooting of a woman selling tobacco by KMT law enforcement. The uprising led to a brief period in which Taiwanese were able to seize back territories controlled by the KMT, but this was later put down by brutal force after KMT forces assembled in Fujian landed on the shores of Taiwan and began the massacre which would later be held to be the beginning of Taiwan’s White Terror. Though participants in the 228 uprising had varied aims, ranging from negotiating with KMT officials for better treatment of Taiwanese to early, incipient Taiwanese independence, 228 thus also marks the beginning of Taiwanese independence insofar as the tradition of Taiwan independence became that of resistance to the KMT and the demand for democratic rule of Taiwan by Taiwanese. Yet the historical trauma of 228 lay in its all-encompassing scale, the massacre of between 20,000 to 30,000 that occurred during it, and the systematic elimination of a generation of intellectuals and members of the political Left by the KMT in order to quell future resistance to its rule.
For many years, during the Martial Law period, 228 was a taboo topic. The effects of KMT censorship of discussion around 228 persist, to the extent that many Taiwanese today still are not fully aware of 228. Certainly, one would think that many of the supporters of the KMT today would be less willing to accept the historical narrative of the KMT if they were aware of the full extent of the 228 Massacre. While the KMT admits to the reality of 228 today, the scale of 228 is downplayed, and it is still often maintained that 228 was an unfortunate, but necessary measure that the government had to undertake in order to maintain public order.
Accordingly, with the restrictions placed upon discussing 228 in Taiwan during the martial law period, many early Taiwanese independence activists, in fact, learned of 228 while studying abroad and through foreign historical materials. A seminal text was, of course, George Kerr’s Formosa Betrayed. Kerr, an American diplomat in the American Foreign Service, was a witness to the 228 Massacre and wrote Formosa Betrayed in order to point towards what he saw as the moral failings of America in failing to act on behalf of Taiwanese. Sympathetic to the cause of Taiwanese independence as a result of his experiences, the significance of Kerr’s work partly lie in Kerr’s support of Taiwanese independence and opposition to KMT rule at a time when this made him a dissident from conventional American political mores shaped by the Cold War ethos of anticommunism. At that point in time, America, of course, upheld Chiang Kai-Shek as the rightful leader of China and papered over Chiang’s crimes in the public eye.
Beyond Kerr himself, the greater significance of Formosa Betrayed lay in the valuable eyewitness account of the 228 Massacre from an outsider perspective that could provide Taiwanese recognition of the full extent of the crimes which KMT regime’s rule was built upon. That Kerr’s work still bears significance in the historical memory of the struggle for Taiwanese independence is evidenced, for example, in a incident in September of last year in which a student, in a rather inspired act of protest, hurled a copy of Formosa Betrayed at President Ma Ying-Jeou while he was giving a speech in Neihu, Taipei. But, arguably, where Kerr’s work was predicated upon calling America to task for its failure to aid Taiwan, Kerr’s work is symptomatic of Taiwanese independence where Taiwan’s relation to America was concerned; in addition to setting the parameters for the next half-century where Taiwan’s precarious position between China and America was concerned.
Where Kerr himself was a member of the American Foreign Service and later on in his career found himself at odds with colleagues dismissive of his concerns about Taiwan, more concerned as they were with China, Kerr’s career himself parallels that of the “China Hands” during the Cold War. “China Hands” is an informal term used to refer to individuals in American diplomacy and statecraft during the Cold War who were regional experts in China. Despite their position within the American government, the China Hands found themselves sympathetic to the plight of the Chinese people during the Chinese Civil War, unsympathetic to Chiang Kai-Shek because of his authoritarian measures taken against the Chinese people, and saw American aid as the best method of helping the Chinese people, while this would also serve to simultaneously advance American interests.
At times, the China Hands would find themselves in sympathy with Mao, so far as Mao seemed to represent a more positive alternative for China than Chiang Kai-Shek, and the China Hands were knowledgeable enough about the internal dynamics of the Chinese Revolution as to not map Chinese Communism automatically onto Soviet Communism. It was such that the China Hands largely saw the Sino-Soviet split ahead of time where Cold Warriors unable to distinguish between differing Communist camps were unable to do so. Where they saw Mao as a nationalist who sought to strengthen China along nationalist lines, some China hands even did not see Mao as necessarily an enemy of the United States. However, to the extent that this differed from the broader priorities of the American government, which sought to prop up Chiang Kai-Shek against the rising star of Communist China, the China Hands found themselves accused of disloyalty, being sympathetic to Communism, and were driven out of the American government during the era of McCarthyism.
Like the China Hands, even as Kerr’s domain of expertise was Taiwan rather than China and Kerr was hardly an admirer of Mao, Kerr offered a seemingly more progressive view of Taiwan-American relations. Where Kerr’s career is parallel to that of the China Hands in eventually being driven out of the American government, we can point to how Kerr fit a specific role within the American government which was later became inconvenient because of his sympathy for Taiwanese and lack of sympathy for Chiang Kai-Shek, which, indeed, led to his being driven out of his position as a diplomat.
As detailed in Formosa Betrayed, Kerr of course had no illusions as to what extent America was involved in abetting Chiang Kai-Shek. As a result, Kerr was unsparing in his criticism of America for having thrown Taiwan—Formosa—to the wolves. In fact, Kerr was among the first to refer to Taiwan as Formosa, a name which he felt better embodied the independent aspirations of Taiwanese to self-determination apart from a cultural identity as a former colony of Japan or a province of China—a practice, which of course continues to this day in Taiwan.
In truth, however admirable, it is likely that like his China Hand colleagues, Kerr’s view in the end was simply that America should come to the rescue of Taiwan, something which would not only benefit Taiwan but also America. Yet was not Kerr also demanding that America take responsibility for the 228 Massacre in some respects?
Who Betrayed Formosa?
AS WITH ALL things Taiwan, 228 is of course little known worldwide. Contemporary academic inquiries into the processes of historical memory of 228 in the present are right to place the event alongside other anniversary events which are occurrences for remembering past national trauma in post-authoritarian countries. For example, the remembrance of the Kwangju Massacre in Korea, or that of Pinochet’s Chile are parallel. But in general, 228 is not well remembered globally as a site of national, historical trauma alongside similar such anniversaries worldwide.
In America, efforts in recent years to raise broader awareness of 228 have included a rather strange attempt to adapt Kerr’s Formosa Betrayed into a political thriller of all things, though this concerned the 1984 murder of Taiwanese journalist Henry Liu rather than the 1947 Massacre itself, and seems a earnest if odd attempt to represent 228 for Americans. Recent years have also seen a number of novels concerning the historical trauma of 228 but, rather than delve into the specificities of the 228 Massacre itself, these are more generally attempt to fit into the market niche of novels concerning Chinese families enduring generational suffering through the Chinese Civil War and diaspora that have in recent years become bestsellers, as in the works of Lisa See and more generally the whole genre of literary production that roughly follows the conventions originally set by Nien Cheng’s 1986 Life and Death in Shanghai.
Indeed, it speaks to the poverty of Taiwan’s lack of cultural representation abroad that this is the international representation of 228, when as an annual event of historical remembrance in Taiwan, 228 has given rise to no shortage of rich artistic representation in a variety of mediums ranging from painting to film to music. To be sure, even then, as the commemoration of 228 is a relatively recent historical development, the representation of 228 in art is also fairly recent, for example, the breakthrough of the representation of 228 in film coming through Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s 1989 City of Sadness being the first film to break the taboo on filmic representations of 228. However, the general thread running through the commemoration of 228 is that it is an occasion for 228 to be remembered within Taiwanese society, in order to counter the historical narratives endorsed by the KMT in public discourse and in the public teaching of history, which seeks to downplay 228.
But what, then, is and was the role of 228 for non-Taiwanese, particularly Americans? Where we might point towards whether Kerr’s worldview was predicated purely on America coming to the rescue of Taiwan, was it not the point of Kerr writing Formosa Betrayed in order to point towards America’s failures towards Taiwan? After all, even if 228 has become a anniversary of significance within Taiwan such that one could accuse Ma Ying-Jeou of having betrayed Taiwan in regards to it’s relation to China and Taiwan’s internal problems of democracy by hurling a copy of the Formosa Betrayed at him, was it not America that betrayed Taiwan in Kerr’s accusation?
Formosa Twice Betrayed
IT IS INTERESTING to note that there is occasionally the attempt to make Americans aware of 228 as if it were merely the historical trauma of another country which they should be aware of, in order that they might have better knowledge of the unacknowledged plight of Taiwanese. What is not demanded is that Americans should know or even that America is in part responsible, because of the culpability of America itself in 228.
From left to right: Chiang Kai-Shek, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Madame Chiang (Soong May-Ling) at the 1943 Cairo Conference during World War II. Photo credit Truman Library
America, of course, sought to cover up Chiang Kai-Shek’s authoritarianism and brutal oppression during the Martial Law era in order to prop him up against Communist China. So it was that America ignored the 228 Massacre. America even sought to construct a popular image for Chiang in the public eye in the 1950s, as a paragon of Christian benevolence against godless Communism, drawing on the fact that Chiang was a Christian and playing upon his wife—popularly known Madame Chiang—Soong May-Ling’s longstanding ties to America. Yet the American security apparatus also had an interest in hiding the true Chiang. When American congressmen taken in by this image of Chiang expressed interest in reading the translated writings of Chiang in his China’s Destiny to better acquaint themselves with the thought of the man, they were refused access to the material. This is understandable where maintaining Chiang’s good image was concerned; China’s Destiny is a text whose content is often used to buttress the argument that Chiang’s thought was fascistic. And even after the breaking of American diplomatic ties with Taiwan, America continued to prop up Chiang against China as a useful means of threatening China—to the extent that Taiwan continues to be a client state of the United States, this continues to be the case.
Yet where does responsibility for 228 lie? If Taiwan suffered betrayal, it was first by the KMT who sought to subsume Taiwan under its claimed rule of China during a period immediately in which it was in a process of losing rule of China. Betrayal of Taiwan by the KMT occurred when it treated Taiwanese not as fellow Chinese, but as colonial subjects, as epitomized by 228 Massacre and the KMT’s arrogation of the right to subject Taiwanese to wanton violence as colonial subjects. But Taiwan was doubly betrayed when the United States which was backing the KMT therefore sought to paper over the 228 Massacre—taking America’s dominance as a world power as a given, it is therefore not surprising that the 228 Massacre would generally not become better known internationally. And, unfortunately, it has become that this first betrayal has erased the second, never mind that the original point of Kerr’s speaking of the betrayal of Taiwan was to point to how America’s betrayal of Taiwan was behind the KMT betrayal of Taiwan.
It may be of interest to note that where Taiwanese independence is concerned, Taiwan’s relation to China is sometimes more thought out than Taiwan’s relation to America. America teems with a plethora of Taiwanese or Taiwanese-American lobbying organizations which seek to push for American acknowledgement of Taiwan, UN membership of Taiwan, or arms sales of America to Taiwan. Though another discussion entirely, among such groups there seems to be little critical reflection upon the fact that America, having betrayed Taiwan once, might do so again to suit its convenience. Along these lines, we might also discuss the longstanding relationship between Taiwan and America vis-a-vis the cause of Taiwanese independence subsequently.