The 2-28 Incident
1.3 The 2-28 Incident and the White Terror
In 1945, the Japanese unconditionally renounced any claim to Taiwan, but they did not say who would take possession of the island. This point is critical to Taiwan nationalists, who say that when the Japanese renounced their claim, sovereignty should have devolved to the inhabitants. The ROC, they claim, had no legal claim to Taiwan. Chinese nationalists see it differently. They argue that the Japanese claim was never legitimate anyway, since it was based on an unequal treaty. With the Japanese renunciation, the island reverted to its previous and rightful owner, China. Of course, the legitimate government of China was now the ROC.
The ROC took possession of Taiwan on Oct 25, 1945. Remember, at this point most people did not expect the communists to win the civil war. The ROC officials who came to Taiwan came looking to plunder its wealth, not to set up a base from which to reconquer China. The KMT officials systematically destroyed the economy while lining their own pockets. In less than a year and a half, conditions had become intolerable. On February 28, 1947, police tried to confiscate a peddler’s matches because she had not paid the “tax.” A mob surrounded the police and eventually forced them back to the barracks. Over the next week, the police and KMT officials were besieged by angry Taiwanese, who demanded more power. The KMT was conciliatory for a week, until troops from the mainland arrived. With reinforcements, they launched a massive crackdown. Martial Law was declared. Thousands were killed. More important than the raw numbers, many of the people who were arrested and/or killed were elites. The 228 Incident effectively decapitated Taiwanese society so that it could not resist KMT power.
The 228 Incident is the most important event in modern Taiwanese political history. This is the source of ethnic tension between mainlanders and native Taiwanese, it ensured that the KMT’s power would not be challenged, and it marked the beginning of the period of White Terror. Martial Law would not be lifted until 1987. Native Taiwanese probably have fonder memories of the Japanese era as a result of the 228 Incident, and Taiwanese fondness for the Japanese still irks mainlanders and PRC Chinese even today. The KMT did not allow people to discuss the 228 Incident; it simply was not acknowledge as part of history. However, it left an enduring scar.
In the early 1950s, the KMT refounded itself. Many of the most corrupt KMT leaders did not come to Taiwan. Generals whose loyalty to CKS was in doubt were also not allowed to come. CKS then purged the party rolls of all remaining disloyal members so that by 1952, the KMT was under his control. CKS never really had full control in China, but in Taiwan he established nearly complete control over the party, the state, the military, and the security apparatus.
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, CKS’s regime ruthlessly crushed all dissent; there simply was no space for any political opening. The regime began to relax with the transition of power from CKS to his son, Chiang Ching-kuo 蔣經國. CKS didn’t die until 1975, but the power transition started much earlier. CCK was probably in full control by 1972 when he became Premier. In addition to the change in leadership, the ROC’s legitimacy was severely threatened by Nixon’s visit to China and the threat that the USA would withdraw recognition of the ROC. As premier, CCK instituted a policy of Taiwanization. For the first time, native Taiwanese were allowed into positions of real power. One of these was an agricultural expert named Lee Teng-hui 李登輝, who was named Minister Without Portfolio. Through the 1970s and 1980s, the proportion of Taiwanese in important positions slowly increased, but mainlanders still held the balance of power.