Feb. 28, 1947. A confrontation occurs between agents of the Monopoly Bureau and a woman cigarette vendor; in their view she is illegally selling cigarettes, and they try to confiscate her life savings. Onlookers intervene on her behalf and one officer opens fire as they flee, killing one of the bystanders. There is a brief summary of this by Taiwan’s Central News Agency at the time, a brief mention in The China Post. Nevertheless, the incident, now known as the 2-28 Incident, first turned into protests at the police station demanding justice against the agents, then riots that broke out all over the island.
While appearing to be open to civilian demands for reform, Governor Chen Yi secretly called in KMT military from the Mainland, outsiders, soldiers who brutally cracked down on the population. There was wholesale slaughter even in the streets of Taipei, with tanks and civilians gunned down and left for dead, or thrown into Keelung Harbor to drown after being roped up together and one shot, in an attempt to save bullets. A graphic account of this is given in the book Formosa Betrayed (1965), written by George Kerr, a U.S. diplomatic official who was stationed in Formosa at the time and witnessed events after World War II (Here is Formosa Betrayed online.). In just the month after the incident, he estimates thousands of people were disappeared – dragged out of bed in the middle of the night and never seen again, executed. If a family member being sought had fled into the mountains, one of the other family members present at home would be taken away instead, tortured and/or executed. A film that aptly recreates the ethos of the times is City of Sadness.
According to the New York Times on March 29, 1947: “An American who had just arrived in China from Taihoku said that troops from China arrived there on March 7 and indulged in three days of killing. For a time anyone seen on the streets breaking the curfew could be shot at. Homes were broken into and occupants got arrested for questioning. In more isolated sections, such as the Racing Track or Botanical Garden, execution shots were heard.”
This chaotic, tragic period lasted for decades, and is called the White Terror era. Martial Law in Taiwan began in 1949 when Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalist armies lost the Chinese Civil War and fled to Taiwan, and it wasn’t lifted until 1987, 40 years later. This is the longest period of Martial Law in history.
No systematic accounting of how many were persecuted has ever been carried out – even under the Chen Shui-bian administration, which had 8 years to do so. The first democratically elected president of the ROC Lee Teng-hui made a public apology for his party’s — the KMT’s — role in this dark episode. But a registry or accurate historical account of what really happened has never been attempted, when conservatively, an estimated 30,000 people were killed. These 30,000 victims of state brutality were Taiwanese intellectuals, dissidents and Japanese ‘sympathizers’ or ‘communists’ (although most of those came with Chiang after the war, and saying that was a way to fob off any US concern over the situation). Doctors were one of the few people spared for the most part, since they were valuable and tried to stay under the radar. But basically anyone was executed who might be considered a ‘threat’ to the KMT government because they would viably take part in a reform government.
According to Wikipedia: “By the end of March, Chen Yi had ordered the imprisonment or execution of the leading Taiwanese organizers he could identify. His troops reportedly executed (according to a Taiwanese delegation in Nanjing) between 3,000-4,000 people throughout the island. The exact number is still undetermined as only 300 Taiwanese families applied for another compensation as recently as 1990. Some of the killings were random, while others were systematic. Taiwanese elites were among those targeted, and many of the Taiwanese who had formed self governing groups during the reign of the Japanese were also victims of the 228 Incident. A disproportionate number of the victims were Taiwanese high school students. Many had recently served in the Japanese Army, having volunteered to serve to maintain order. Mainland Chinese civilians who fled often got beat up if not killed by Taiwanese.”
In this period, all hopes of Taiwan becoming a true Republic were summarily squashed. It turned into a half-century of authoritarian rule, where even discussion or publishing or talking about a representative legislature, for example, was punishable by being blacklisted, tortured, or death. Until a few decades ago, Taiwan must have been a frightening place to live. The book A Borrowed Voice (eds. Linda Arrigo, Lynn Miles) has many first-hand accounts of this dark period in history; notably the cloak-and-dagger type underground activity that expats undertook to smuggle out of Taiwan the names of political prisoners, to Amnesty International and the outside world.
Few people know about the 2-28 Massacres outside of Taiwan, and many Taiwanese today seem to rather not talk about it. It’s a very sensitive issue still, probably because it affected so many people; they couldn’t talk about it then, or now, in their state of denial, preferring to forget the painful past. Archbishop Desmond Tutu came to Taipei [originally linked to article in China Post, a now defunct media source] in April 2007, and urged Taiwan to pursue a Truth and Reconciliation Movement about Taiwan’s haunting past. He was ‘shaken’ by visits to 2-28 memorials:
“As we say in South Africa: “We need to look at the beast in the eye.” Then we’ll have opportunity and power to move on from that past. If we don’t deal with the past adequately and honestly, it will return to haunt us.”
Read 2-28 commemorative poetry, Long Live The Taiwanese People, an excerpt from The War on Sleep.
Linda Arrigo’s tour of a White Terror era graveyard in Taipei, in The China Post [China Post died, link depreciated]
Wikipedia’s account of the 2-28 Incident:
On the evening of February 27, 1947, Tobacco Monopoly Bureau enforcement team in Taipei went to a neighborhood on present-day Nanjing West Road, where they confiscated contraband cigarettes from a 40 year old widow named Lin Jiang-mai . They took her life savings of the non-taxed (illegal) cigarettes. She begged for their return, but one of the agents hit Lin’s head with a pistol, prompting the surrounding Taiwanese crowd to challenge the Tobacco Monopoly agents. As they fled one agent fired his gun into the crowd, killing one bystander. The crowd, which had already been harboring many feelings of frustration from unemployment, inflation and corruption of the Nationalist Government, reached its breaking point. The crowd protested to both the police and the gendarmes, but was mostly ignored.
Violence flared the following morning on February 28. Security forces at the Governor-General’s Office, armed with Samurai swords, tried to disperse the crowd. Some fired on the protesters who were calling for the arrest and trial of the agents involved in the previous day’s shooting, resulting in several deaths. Formosans took over the administration of the town and military bases on March 4 and forced their way into local radio station to protest. By evening, martial law had been declared and curfews were enforced by the arrest or shooting of anyone who violated curfew.
For several weeks after the February 28 Incident, the Taiwanese civilians controlled much of Taiwan. The initial riots, similar to the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, were spontaneous and somewhat violent. Within a few days the Taiwanese were generally coordinated and organized, and public order in Taiwanese-held areas was upheld by volunteer civilians organized by students, and unemployed former Japanese army soldiers. Local leaders formed a Settlement Committee, which presented the government with a list of 32 Demands for reform of the provincial administration. They demanded, among other things, greater autonomy, free elections, surrender of the ROC Army to the Settlement Committee, and an end to governmental corruption. Motivations among the various Taiwanese groups varied; some demanded greater autonomy within the ROC, while others wanted UN trusteeship or full independence. The Taiwanese also demanded representation in the forthcoming peace treaty negotiations with Japan, hoping to secure a plebiscite to determine the island’s political future.