Russell Hsiao is the Executive Director of the Global Taiwan Institute and the Editor-in-Chief of the Global Taiwan Brief.
In an apparent sleight of political hand, the spokesman for the Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO) of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), An Fengshan (安峰山), announced on February 22 that the Taiwan Democratic Self-Government League (TDSGL, 台湾民主自治同盟) was organizing a commemorative event relating to the February 28 Incident (also known as 2-28) of 1947. This year marks the 70th anniversary of 2-28 and the 30th anniversary of the lifting of martial law in Taiwan.
A sensitive topic that still provokes strong emotional reactions from within the island, the 2-28 Incident (二二八事件) refers to the brutal suppression of civil unrest by the Nationalist (Kuomintang) government following a series of large-scale protests sparked by the beating of a contraband tobacco hawker and killing of a civilian by a Monopoly Bureau agent. The widespread protests quickly led to the imposition of martial law by the Nationalist government, which lasted for 38 years, in a period now known as “White Terror” (白色恐怖).
The TDSGL—formed on November 12, 1947 (on Sun Yat-sen’s birthday)—is one of only eight political parties officially recognized by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and participates in the CCP’s advisory body, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC). Formed in Hong Kong by Hsieh Shuehung (謝雪紅; 1901-1970), TDSGL is part of the CCP’s broader United Front system and an active proponent of the PRC’s “One Country, Two Systems” model for unification. According to the Party’s website, TDSGL has more than 3,000 members and has established chapters in 19 provinces and municipalities, which are directly under the central government.
A colorful character with a checkered history, Hsieh became a member of the CCP perhaps as early as 1925, and helped to establish the Taiwan branch of the Japanese Communist Party while studying in Shanghai. Hsieh returned to Taiwan in 1928. As president of the Taichung City Women Association, Hsieh reportedly participated in the city’s massive town hall meeting following the 2-28 Incident. After some protests turned violent and military police viciously cracked down on the protesters, Hsieh eventually fled to Hong Kong and established TDSGL in 1947. The TDSGL became a subordinate party to the CCP in 1948.
As an element of the United Front system, the TDSGL is associated with CCP political warfare. The second TDSGL chairman, Tsai Hsiao (蔡啸; 1919 – 1990), served as deputy director of what had been known as the General Political Department Liaison Department (GPD/LD), and was responsible for the training of enemy work operatives. As part of its mission, the TDSGL seeks political unification of Taiwan with the “motherland” and the “glorious rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” The current chairwoman of TDSGL is Lin Wenyi (林文漪), who concurrently serves as the Vice Chairperson of the CPPCC.
The TDSGL’s commemorative event, held on February 23, was attended by 100 people, including representatives from the CCP Central Committee’s United Front Department, State Council’s Taiwan Affairs Office, the TDSGL Central Committee and local members, the All China Taiwanese Association (中華全國台灣同胞聯誼會), as well as scholars, experts, and guests from Taiwan.
At the press conference, the TAO spokesman reportedly referred to the 2-28 Incident as, “a ‘just action’ by Taiwanese against a dictatorship and [a] fight for their basic rights.” An further asserted that, “It [2-28] is part of the Chinese people’s liberation struggle” (中國人民解放鬥爭的一個部分). While the commemorative event itself represents nothing new, as the TDSGL held a similar event during the 65th anniversary of the incident, the comments by An, a government spokesman, weighing in on the 2-28 Incident could be seen as part of a broader effort to reinterpret historical events to suit the CCP’s political narrative.
Some analysts interpret this as a signal that the CCP is willing to be critical of the KMT. Indeed, according to J. Michael Cole, “[w]ith the KMT struggling to regain its footing after its disastrous defeats in the 2014 local elections and the 2016 general elections—in which it also lost control of the legislature for the first time in Taiwan’s history—Beijing is showing itself more amenable to criticizing the KMT and is now keen to appeal directly to the Taiwanese public.” To be sure, criticizing the KMT may be motivated by a desire to appeal to the Taiwanese public, but it also represents a sophisticated usurpation of Taiwanese political symbols. A deeper analysis suggests that the act may be intended to manipulate Taiwanese sentiments about two key political events in the nation’s collective memory, both formative elements of its distinct political identity. This strategy falls within the gambit of CCP political warfare, which is also embodied in the concept of three warfares.
The main point: While criticizing the KMT may be, in part, an effort to appeal to the Taiwanese public, the TAO spokesman’s comments on 2-28 represents a sophisticated usurpation of a political symbol and is perhaps intended to manipulate Taiwanese sentiments about key political events in the nation’s collective memory and formative elements of its distinct political identity.
 For a good overview of “three warfares” and its application to Taiwan, read Elsa Kania’s series in the Global Taiwan Brief.