by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: 陳錦全/WikiCommons/CC BY-SA 3.0

THE CENTENNIAL OF the storied Whampoa Military Academy has become disputed between Taiwan and China in a struggle over historical memory. Yet this proves particularly unusual with regards to that this takes place under the DPP administration.

The Whampoa Military Academy was founded in 1924 in Guangzhou, with Chiang Kai-shek serving as the first superintendent of the school. Many officers of the National Revolutionary Army in the Sino-Japanese War were trained at Whampoa.

As with many ROC institutions, the Whampoa Military Academy was moved to Kaohsiung after the KMT retreated to Taiwan in the wake of the Chinese Civil War. A museum currently exists in the original site of the Whampoa Military Academy.

In particular, however, the Chinese government also plans to hold centennial commemorations of the history of the Whampoa Military Academy. The Chinese government claimed that it expects over 3,000 Whampoa graduates to attend events commemorating Whampoa, which began earlier this month.

In the meantime, Taiwan also intends to commemorate the centennial of the Whampoa Military Academy. Ahead of the ceremony, Taiwan expected more than 10,000 to attend, while Taiwan’s Veterans Affairs Council stated that it only expected less than one hundred Whampoa graduates to attend China’s Whampoa commemoration.

Likewise, Whampoa graduates traveling to China were warned to avoid political statements or participate in media interviews in a manner that potentially could prove harmful to Taiwan’s national security. Sources speaking to the media also stated that Whampoa graduates traveling to China would be made to apply for residency documents and the like and provided with Chinese phones with pre-loaded apps for banking and other applications, as a means of conducting espionage on them.

The historical legacy of Whampoa can be viewed as one contested between the ROC and CCP, then, as with much of the history of the Republican period. Yet to this extent, one notes how the CCP has sought to use the history of the ROC as a way to link Taiwan and China, as observed in how Sun Yat-sen has been used in official historiography, museums, and historical institutions in China.

Founding ceremony of the Whampoa Academy in 1924. Sun Yat-sen is seated at the table, while Chiang Kai-shek is standing on stage. Photo credit: Public Domain

What proves further unusual, however, is that commemorations of the centennial of the Whampoa Military Academy take place under a DPP presidential administration. The DPP, of course, was historically the party of Taiwanese independence, viewing the ROC and its institutions as colonial impositions by the KMT. But with the DPP now adhering to a pro-status quo position to avoid provoking China or alienating support from the US, this has come to mean inhabiting ROC institutions. In light of the rising threat from China, the Tsai administration also sought to rehabilitate the image of the military, even if the DPP historically framed the military as the enforcer of the KMT’s authoritarian rule.

This, too, has been the case with the Lai administration. At the centennial, Lai claimed that the Whampoa spirit traveled with the ROC, and argued against the claim that Taiwan stood no chance in any conflict with China as a form of defeatism, specifically with regard to the claim often echoed by the contemporary KMT that Taiwan’s first battle with China would be its last. Likewise, Lai stated that the duty of Whampoa graduates or other members of the military should be to protect Taiwan and maintain cross-straits peace.

Seeing as such claims were historically anathema to the DPP, this proves a strong rejoinder to the view that Lai is intent on carrying out some diehard pro-independence agenda, as was apparently the view from some international observers after Lai’s inaugural address. This perhaps points to how the DPP now aims to win over veterans and other groups that historically backed the KMT by taking advantage of the KMT’s current rapprochement with China, in this way, appropriating ROC institutions to claim defense of Taiwan’s contemporary sovereignty as succeeding the spirit of ROC institutions in a way that the KMT has betrayed.

One observes this, too, with the attempt to reframe the ROC military as progressive and in line with the values of contemporary young people in the course of Lai’s inauguration. This shifting dynamic proves an odd reversal at a time when the KMT has now made rapprochement with its historical enemy, the CCP, and come to increasingly demonize its historical ally, the US. By contrast, in a similar reversal, the DPP has now increasingly come to embrace the institutions of the ROC.

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