Reflections of an American Diplomat: The Legacy for Taiwan of February 28, 1947

Reflections of an American Diplomat: The Legacy for Taiwan of February 28, 1947

Reflections of an American Diplomat: The Legacy for Taiwan of February 28, 1947

It has been 75 years since the tragic events of February, 28, 1947. I want to offer some personal reflections on this incident, and how it has influenced the history of Taiwan since then. As it played out at the time, the harassment of a local Taipei woman selling illegal cigarettes triggered widespread clashes between local people and the small KMT occupying force that had come to Taiwan following the Japanese surrender in 1945.   

I was working as a young diplomat in the relatively new unofficial US embassy in Taipei (AIT – the American Institute in Taiwan) in 1981 when an unusual applicant appeared at my visa interview window. He was seeking to follow family members as an immigrant to the United States. My staff did their usual background check, and discovered that he had been arrested in 1947. He was subsequently sentenced by a military tribunal to life imprisonment as a result of his alleged involvement in a plot against the government. As I drew out the story from this elderly man, he described a terrible miscarriage of justice that was all too common back in those days. Allow me to set the scene here.

World War II had recently ended, bringing a halt to an extremely turbulent time in East Asia and the entire world. China had been particularly devastated by the Japanese occupation, following Imperial Japan’s invasion of the mainland in the 1930s. The peace of 1945 restored China to home rule, but this was soon followed by civil war and another round of death and destruction. Chiang Kai-shek’s regime was granted control of Taiwan (then often referred to by its Portuguese name, Formosa). Chiang dispatched Kuomintang (KMT) troops to take control of the island as the Japanese withdrew.

My immediate task involving this visa applicant, whose life sentence had been commuted in the post-Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) era, was to research his criminal record and determine if he could still qualify for an immigrant visa. I asked the applicant to come back with the court record of his case, so that I could properly adjudicate his visa application.

Though I had lived in Taiwan as a boy in the early sixties, I was then not aware of 2-28, as the events of 1947 were termed. An older colleague of mine working at AIT offered to help. He provided me with a book called “Formosa Betrayed,” written by George Kerr. Kerr was a young American diplomat working in the Taiwan office in 1947. The book offered an eye-witness account of the events of 2-28. Needless to say, the book had long been banned in Chiang Kai-shek’s authoritarian Taiwan. It was only in the 1990s, as Taiwan emerged from the authoritarian rule, that it was finally published there.

Once the man had returned with the documents relating to his trial and imprisonment, I pored over them. According to the trial proceedings, the defendants had met at a local pub and plotted to launch a violent assault on the government. The trial record stated that they had formed a counter-revolutionary group, stashing weapons in Yangmingshan Mountain with the aim of overthrowing the KMT regime. The man and several friends were arrested and charged with plotting to violently overthrow the government. He was sentenced to life imprisonment, while several of his friends were executed by the KMT government.  

But as I queried this modest elderly man, a farmer with limited literary skills, a starkly different story emerged. According to him, he and his friends used to frequent a local bar, where they would drink beer and exchange stories. When I asked about the charges he had faced, he professed total bafflement, denying that there had ever been any conspiracy; no guns, no plot. It seemed this was just a total fabrication by the paranoid KMT government, seized by fantasies of conspiracies and plots to seize power in Taipei.

Following extended consultation with my superiors in Taipei and the State Department in Washington, it gave me great pleasure to issue a visa for this elderly man, allowing him to join his family members in California. I hope he enjoyed his remaining years surrounded by family and friends. I am certain they all made outstanding citizens in the United States. After all, America was founded and sustained over our long history by a steady flow of immigrants and refugees bold enough to risk leaving their homelands for a new life in the United States.

My personal experience with this victim of 2-28-1947 helped me to understand the human cost of Taiwan’s struggle to gain control of its own destiny. This sad chapter is now embedded in Taiwan history. The subsequent democratization of the island state and the rejection of rule by the mainland are part of the larger story. Today’s democratically elected leaders owe a debt of thanks to those who came before them, who struggled to overcome the threats by mainland China and an authoritarian regime in Taiwan to dictate their way of life.  

Later in my career, I was able to witness the opening up of the Taiwan political system, which culminated in the end of one-party rule by the KMT and the emergence of one of the most successful democratic societies in East Asia. Chiang Ching-Kuo (蔣經國), son of Chiang Kai-shek, was one of the heroes of this process. His decision to select Taiwan-born Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) as his successor in the 1980s culminated in the election of a Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) President in 2000. Tainan-born Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) was elected president in close balloting, with the vote split three ways. Notably, there are now memorials to the victims of KMT oppression in Taipei and other sites around the island. The Chiang Kai-shek memorial (國立中正紀念堂) in Taipei, originally dedicated to Taiwan’s first KMT ruler in 1980, was transformed into the renamed Liberty Square (自由廣場) in 2007, during Chen’s presidency.

Friends of Taiwan have been heartened by the emergence of this thriving democracy since its early days in the 1990s. President Lee Teng-hui played a pivotal role in the process, supporting the formation of a multi-party system that has continued to grow and strengthen over the years. Theorists of democracy like to highlight the importance of a peaceful and orderly transition from one leader to another, and perhaps just as important, from one party to another. Taiwan has now been witness to this process over the past 40 years. People from all over Asia and beyond journey there to study both the challenges and successes of Taiwan’s democratic system.  

Unfortunately, things have evolved differently across the Taiwan Strait. Despite some courageous challenges over the years from idealistic citizens envisioning a more open political system, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has remained a one-party authoritarian state, which pays only lip service to the role of the people in its governance. As I write this in early 2022, Xi Jinping (習近平), the self-appointed leader of China, seems set on extending his rule into an unprecedented third term later this year, on his way to becoming president-for-life.  

Beijing’s turbulent relationship with Taiwan over the years has certainly been exacerbated by the stark difference in the two regimes’ political systems. China continues to insist that Taiwan is an unalienable part of its system, despite the rather total rejection of this idea by the nearly 24 million citizens of the island state. Despite a few attempts to push for a more open political system, particularly during the short-lived spring of democracy that ended up in tragedy on and around Tiananmen Square (天安門廣場) on June 4, 1989, things remain bleak in the “People’s” Republic of China. Economic growth there has decidedly not been accompanied by any real signs of political liberalization. 

Sadly, Beijing under Xi has also reneged on solemn pledges to treat the former British colony of Hong Kong as an autonomous and self-ruled entity. All attempts to open the political system to greater popular participation have been viewed as a threat to the authoritarian state Mao Zedong founded in 1949 following a protracted civil war. On the contrary, in recent months, it appears Mr. Xi is determined to crush even the vestiges of open society and free and open elections.

Meanwhile, Taiwan continues to thrive and prosper, both economically and politically. President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) is in her second term as Taiwan’s democratically elected leader. She will step down at the end of her second four-year term, and another leader will emerge through this vibrant multi-party system. Tourism from the mainland, though down from its earlier highs, still brings millions of visitors to Taiwan each year. These tourists visit the sights, shop, and enjoy some of the best cuisine in greater Asia. At night, when they turn on their televisions, they witness the workings of a thriving young democracy on the multiple competing television news programs. This presents quite a contrast to the monolithic control of all news on the other side of the Taiwan Strait.

A word here on Hong Kong, where I served as US Consul General from 2010-13. I first saw Hong Kong in 1982, when it was still a British colony. A thriving business and banking center, Hong Kong was due to return to PRC sovereignty in 1997, when a 99-year lease would expire. Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平) negotiated the particulars of the turnover with the formidable British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Deng coined the term “one country, two systems” (一國兩制) as his solution to anxieties both in Hong Kong over this transition. Under that term, Deng pledged to accord Hong Kong, and by inference Taiwan should it ever be reunited with the mainland, “a great deal of autonomy” following reunification with the mainland.

Needless to say, the autocratic Xi Jinping, now conspiring to make himself leader in perpetuity, has so watered down this concept in practice as to largely eradicate any difference between Hong Kong and China proper. The result has been a series of desperate attempts by Hong Kong residents to emigrate abroad, either to the UK, the United States or any other safe harbor from Mr. Xi’s authoritarian state. So much for Deng’s promises to the British. The people of Taiwan, who were always skeptical of Beijing’s blandishments, have shown in repeated polling to have little or no interest in “one country, two systems.” They are counting on American defense to counter any threat to their hard-earned freedoms. With the thuggish Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s latest outrage, the assault on Ukraine that is ongoing as I write, people in Taiwan have additional reason to turn aside all attempts by Mr. Xi to entice them into any closer union.

Some of this skepticism is rooted in the tragedy of February 28, 1947 and its aftermath. Taiwan tourists visiting China and Hong Kong have seen up close the vapidness of Beijing’s promises of a more liberal regime in either of those places. The concept of “one country, two systems” seems ludicrous under these conditions. Whatever Mr. Xi’s blandishments might promise is more than offset by his autocratic actions. The real question to me is how long it will take before the 1.4 billion people suffering under communism in mainland China will rise up and demand a voice in their own affairs. When they do, they can take heart from those long-gone martyrs of the events of February 28, 1947, who laid down an early claim to self-rule and democracy. 

The main point: As Taiwan and its friends around the world reflect on the 75th anniversary of February 28, 1947, it is striking to observe how far the island-nation has come. From an authoritarian one-party state, it has emerged as one of the most vibrant democracies in East Asia. Taiwan stands as a living rebuke to the mainland, mired as it is in an archaic political structure that denies the inherent dignity of the individual.