From Formosa to Taiwan

An Examination of the 2-28 Incident and Its Impact on Nationalist Chinese Governance in Taiwan During the White Terror (1947-1987)

Andrew Quon

In the realm of modern geopolitics, Taiwan’s position on the global stage is a contentious topic of discussion. To much of the West, Taiwan is an example of a successful modern Asian democracy. Behind the modern, progressive society seen today, however, lays a dark history that, while relatively unbeknownst to most in the West, plays a significant role in the island’s divisive partisan politics (Smith 145).

The end of the First Sino-Japanese War in 1895 saw China’s Qing dynasty surrender the island of Taiwan, at the time known by the colonial name Formosa, to Japan (Shackleton 1). For the following five decades, Formosa remained a Japanese protectorate. The surrender of the Japanese in 1945 at the end of the Second World War saw the island returned to China. By this point, however, the Qing dynasty had collapsed, and China was in the midst of a civil war between the Republic of China, ruled by the Nationalist Kuomintang (KMT), and the Communists. The KMT, which was widely considered the legitimate government of China at the time, assumed control of Taiwan in late 1945. In the years following, tensions grew between the KMT government and Taiwanese populace and on February 28, 1947, a confrontation between KMT officials and a Taiwanese cigarette vendor ignited two weeks of violent rioting across the island. The KMT responded by declaring martial law and suppressed the riots using overwhelming military force (United States Office of Public Affairs 926-927). While the exact death toll of the February 28, 1947 massacre, more commonly known as the 2-28 Incident, is a subject of debate, some Taiwanese government inquiries into the event estimated between 18,000 and 28,000 deaths. Some independent studies, however, have estimated the death toll to be closer to 100,000 (Minns & Tierney 105). The 2-28 Incident ushered in a five-decade long period of political repression and military rule over Taiwan known as the White Terror. The White Terror, named after the KMT’s fanatical anti-communist views and totalitarian style of governance, saw the incarceration of over 140,000 Taiwanese and the execution of over 4,000 alleged political dissidents (Jacobs 35). 

Until recently, the 2-28 incident had been a forbidden topic of discussion in Taiwan. The relatively unexplored nature of the events surrounding the 2-28 Incident and subsequent White Terror have left many questions unanswered: What factors were responsible for the February 28, 1947 uprisings in Taiwan? To what extent was the KMT government justified in its actions against alleged communist subversion in Taiwan during the White Terror? How did the 2-28 Incident and its ensuing crackdown shape KMT governance of Taiwan during the White Terror from 1947 to 1987? While modern historians such as Craig A. Smith and Bruce Jacobs concur that the Nationalist police state pervasive through much of the 20th century was instrumental in forming the foundations of modern democratic Taiwan, the relationship between the 2-28 Incident and the development of the KMT state during the White Terror is rarely explored in depth. This paper will attempt to connect the two events by exploring how the politics and ethnic divide in post-war Taiwan that led to the outbreak of the 2-28 Incident helped lay the foundation for the following four decades of authoritarian rule during the White Terror.

The end of the Second World War marked a new beginning for Taiwan. After centuries of colonialism under the administration of both China’s Qing dynasty and Imperial Japan, the Taiwanese people sought the opportunity to be united with China as an equal to their mainland counterparts. The Nationalists and their “Three Principles” (nationalism, democracy and socialism) were immensely popular among the Taiwanese population and the KMT governors were warmly welcomed during the initial takeover in late 1945 (Stuart para 2). These initial feelings were short-lived, however, as widespread corruption, mistrust in the Taiwanese for their role in the Second World War and incompetent KMT leadership in the immediate post-war era divided Taiwanese society along ethnic lines.

In the five decades of Japanese colonial rule, Taiwan saw a period of significant economic and industrial development. Unlike other imperial powers of the time, Japan often encouraged the industrialization of its colonial assets. By 1945, Taiwan had a fully functioning, industrialized capitalist economy that was far more advanced than any seen in mainland China. This made the reintegration of Taiwan of significant importance to the KMT as the island’s economic and industrial capabilities could be used in the war against the Communists on the mainland. According to modern sociologists, the KMT under Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek operated as a Leninist state (Ho 163-164). As is the case in most Leninist economic systems, the KMT relied heavily on state-centric economic planning and strict government control of the distribution of resources. Whilst the island’s economy was already to an extent centralized due to Japanese militarization during the Second World War, the system implemented by the KMT was far more authoritarian in nature with major political and economic repercussions (Ho 163-164).

Despite initial Taiwanese hopes that reintegration with China meant being treated as equals with their mainland counterparts, the KMT had very different views towards the indigenous population. During the Second World War, Taiwan’s industrial base was used to supply the Japanese military with munitions and weapons to wage war in China. Taiwan’s role in aiding Japanese military expansion seeded a high degree of mistrust in the mainland Chinese towards the Taiwanese. To the KMT, the reintegration of Taiwan was not a reunification with fellow countrymen but rather an occupation of enemy territories. Within the first few months of the takeover, much of Taiwan’s economic resources were seized by the KMT government under the pretext of confiscating “the enemy’s properties”. By 1946, over 1,259 units of economic assets in the financial, transportation, basic utilities and manufacturing sectors were seized by the KMT. As many prominent members of the Taiwanese political and economic elite earned their position through collaboration with the prior Japanese government, they became the primary targets of KMT nationalization programs (Ho 166). 

The KMT’s distrust of the Taiwanese was further reflected in the workforce of KMT centralized enterprises. The KMT filled managerial positions across the island with KMT loyalists from mainland China on the basis of their “revolutionary patriotism” (Ho 163). Taiwanese workers in KMT state-managed enterprises were often laid off in favor of employing mainland Chinese immigrants. Such racially motivated discrimination caused unemployment amongst the indigenous Taiwanese to swell. According to estimates from the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA), the number of employed Taiwanese in Taiwan’s industrial sector plummeted from over 50,000 in 1945 to just 5,000 in 1947 (Stuart para 4). The return of the 170,000 Taiwanese soldiers serving in the Japanese military after demobilization only served to further exacerbate unemployment on the island (Phillips 279-280). To make matters worse, mainland Chinese workers were paid up to 60% more than their Taiwanese counterparts when performing the same jobs (Ho 167). These discriminatory hiring practices created significant discontent amongst the Taiwanese populace in the years leading up to the 2-28 Incident and remained a prominent point of contention in Taiwan until democratization in the late 1980s. 

The highly centralized nature of the KMT regime and its clear animosity towards the indigenous Taiwanese set a dangerous precedent. In years prior to the 2-28 Incident, there were many documented instances of corruption and abuse of power from KMT government officials against the local Taiwanese. Chinese government officials often used their positions in government or connections to seize control of property belonging to local Taiwanese. As one Taiwanese observed, this was often accomplished by capitalizing on the anti-Japanese fervor of the post-war era: “When a Chinese with some influence wanted a particular property, he had only to accuse a Formosan of being a collaborationist during the past fifty years of Japanese sovereignty.” (Phillips 283). The KMT military and law enforcement in Taiwan were equally corrupt. According to a former UNRRA officer stationed in Taiwan during the initial KMT takeover, some Nationalist military police would arrest and ransom the family members of wealthy Taiwanese under the pretext of Japanese collaboration (Shackleton 5-6). The chloroforming and gang-rape of Taiwanese women by KMT soldiers was also common (Shackleton 5); acting as a form of vengeance for Japanese atrocities committed in mainland China during the Second World War such as the Rape of Nanking.

With rampant corruption and racial discrimination, the government became increasingly dysfunctional. The centralized monopoly control of the movement of goods caused shortages of essential goods. Internal squabbles between government officials saw the rapid spread of nepotism and the continued neglect of the wellbeing of the populace (Ho 166). To many Taiwanese, the KMT government, rather than giving them the proper decolonization and reintegration with the mainland they sought, was simply a continuation of colonial rule albeit one that was by far more disorganized, chaotic and incompetent (Phillips 276-277). Displeased with KMT rule, Taiwanese nationalist sentiments soared in popularity in the immediate post-war era and ultimately materialized into violent revolts in February 1947.

In the immediate aftermath of the 2-28 Incident, the KMT government motioned to consolidate its power on the island. Chiang, in a public announcement shortly after the 2-28 Incident, blamed the violence and chaos of the 2-28 incident on Communists and “Japanized renegades” (Kerr 435). This accusation, however, did not seem to corroborate with available evidence at the time. In a memorandum from the American Ambassador to China, John Leighton Stuart, to the Generalissimo dated shortly after the 2-28 Incident, Stuart noted that the Japanese “rigorously excluded all communist influence and activity” and had “filled the [Taiwanese] people with fear and distrust of communist doctrines.” (Stuart para 2) Stuart highlighted that the Taiwanese were, in fact, very supportive of the Generalissimo for his strong anti-communist stance during the initial takeover in 1945 (Stuart para 2). The absence of any major communist infiltration is further supported by US Foreign Service Staff Officer and Vice-Consul in Taiwan, George H. Kerr, who dismissed the threat of an organized communist movement on the island noting that there were less than fifty known Communists in Taiwan at the time (Kerr 435). 

The claim that “Japanized renegades” were responsible for the 2-28 Incident could also be criticized as most Taiwanese harbored resentment towards the previous Japanese government who treated them as second-class citizens (Shih & Chen 90). It should be noted, however, that much of the educated upper-class of the time used Japanese as their main language of communication and were educated in Japanese universities. The large number of former soldiers in the Taiwanese population who served in the Japanese military during the Second World War may have also been a cause for suspicion. Many of these servicemen were, however, drafted into service out of necessity towards the end of the Second World War rather than volunteering out of loyalty to the Japanese (Phillips 279-280).

Chiang’s accusations against communist and Japanese sympathizers, while they may have been unfounded, did serve a purpose. One of the major reasons the initial riots of the 2-28 Incident were able to become as widespread as they were was partly due to the leadership of educated Taiwanese nationalists. Taiwanese nationalism was not a new concept at the time. During the 1930s, prominent members of Taiwanese society campaigned for greater autonomy from Japan until the outbreak of the Second World War saw the suppression of political discourse in Taiwan. Many of these same activists resurfaced after 1945 as relations between the KMT and the indigenous Taiwanese deteriorated (Phillips 279). Utilizing the false claims of Japanese and communist subversion, the KMT created a pretext to arrest thousands of Taiwanese nationalists in the educated upper-classes. According to Kerr, in the aftermath of the 2-28 Incident, anyone critical of the government was labelled as a “Communist” and was “sentenced to long prison terms or disposed of with a bullet.” (Kerr 435). This method of control allowed the KMT to eliminate its political opponents and seize additional economic assets to feed Taiwan’s state-centric economy. This practice gained traction throughout the early years of the White Terror where the loss of mainland China to the Communists and subsequent KMT exile to Taiwan spurred paranoid fears of an imminent communist takeover.

In 1949, the KMT was forced to retreat to Taiwan as the Nationalist war effort collapsed and the Communists under Mao Zedong became triumphant on the mainland. With the loss of mainland China to Communism, the KTM leadership feared Taiwanese nationalists would take advantage of the government’s weakened state to ignite a popular uprising similar to the 2-28 Incident. Fears of imminent revolution prompted the KMT to take drastic measures to strengthen their authority in Taiwan. This shift in mentality marked the beginning of the White Terror.

The loss of mainland China to communist forces and subsequent exile to Taiwan prompted the KMT regime to find means by which it could consolidate its power on the island (Chen 192). When protests began in late February 1947, the KMT initially permitted the public demonstrations and sought to negotiate a political compromise with the Taiwanese elite in order to appease the populace. Unfortunately, it was the KMT’s initial leniency towards the protesters that allowed the riots to become as widespread as they were during the 2-28 Incident with military intervention acting as a desperate last resort (Hou 49-50). With the rapidly deteriorating situation on the Chinese mainland, the KMT could not afford to repeat such a cataclysmic error. Despite warnings from American advisors that maintaining the martial law declared during the 2-28 Incident may deepen the divide between state and people, the KMT ignored the suggestion (Stuart para 126). By maintaining the imposed martial law, the KMT was successfully able to limit the ability of the Taiwanese to express their displeasure with the regime and allow the KMT military to better suppress organized dissident movements. This efficient means of control became especially crucial as KMT military capabilities became increasingly limited in manpower and resources following their defeat on the Chinese mainland in 1949. 

To further consolidate their hold on the Taiwanese populace, the KMT made effective use of terror tactics. The KMT often paraded arrested dissidents through city streets before conducting mass public executions along major river banks across the island. The public executions assumed a theatrical character; utilizing the sounds of coordinated gun fire and imagery of blood-soaked rivers filled with bodies to strike fear into potential critics of the regime. Furthermore, the KMT took special care to arrest political dissidents in the middle of the night or in the countryside away from potential observers. The mysterious disappearances of friends and family in the night helped reinforce the omnipotent power of the central government and instilled fear among the Taiwanese population (Chen 192). The widespread use of terror tactics during the White Terror contributed immensely to the effective suppression of Taiwanese nationalist movements throughout the latter half of the 20th century. 

While the coordinated use of terror tactics and martial law did act as effective tools in controlling the population in the early years of the White Terror, the KMT recognized that it required a more long-term solution to effectively subdue an increasingly antagonistic Taiwanese populace. Prior to the mass immigration of mainland Chinese in the late 1940s, Taiwan’s population was primarily made up of two ethnic groups: the Hakkas and the Hoklos. While both groups were descended from early colonists from mainland China, over time they developed their own unique languages and customs. Taiwan’s colonial history would ultimately help shape a unique, collective Taiwanese cultural identity that separated them from their mainland counterparts. By the onset of the White Terror, many Taiwanese rejected their Chinese ancestral origins entirely (Shih & Chen 93-95). This cultural identity served as a crucial unifying factor for Taiwanese nationalist movements.

Recognizing the threat posed by Taiwanese nationalism, the KMT sought to erase the Taiwanese cultural identity and remold Taiwanese society to resemble that of Nationalist China. For much of the 20th century, the KMT state promoted the idea of one day launching a counterattack against the Communists to reestablish Nationalist rule in mainland China. While this plan ultimately never came to fruition, the KMT groomed Taiwanese society to remain in a perpetual state of readiness for much of the 20th century. In 1953, the KMT made Mandarin Chinese the primary language taught in schools and the use of indigenous Taiwanese dialects was considered a disciplinary offence (Minns & Tierney 108). The KMT justified the suppression of local dialects and promotion of Mandarin in academic settings as an essential tool to prepare Taiwan’s youth to one day govern a reconquered China. To promote the use of Mandarin on a wider scale, the KMT associated the use of Mandarin as a means of demonstrating loyalty to the state and declared the use of Taiwanese dialects as unpatriotic (Sandel 529). By 1964, the use of Taiwanese languages in legal settings was outlawed; claiming that Mandarin Chinese was a far more “graceful” language than the “vulgar” Taiwanese dialects. In the 1970s, when the popular consumption of television became commonplace, the KMT instituted language requirements that required all television programming to be in Mandarin (Minns & Tierney 108). Linguistic laws that suppressed indigenous dialects remained commonplace in Taiwan throughout the duration of the White Terror and were not repealed until the democratization of Taiwan in the late 1980s and early 1990s (Sandel 530).

KMT assimilation programs were not limited to the suppression of language. Throughout the White Terror, the KMT glorified Chinese culture and history to forge a Chinese identity among the Taiwanese. The KMT claimed the role as the legitimate government of China whose duty it was to preserve “the precious heritage of a five-thousand-year-old civilization” from the “unChinese” Communists who were dedicated to the eradication of Chinese culture (Minns & Tierney 108-109). By glorifying the rich cultural history of China, the KMT attempted to highlight the alleged “cultural superiority” of the mainland Chinese and attack the “backwardness” of Taiwanese culture (Minns & Tierney 108-109). The Taiwanese education system was also altered to reflect Chinese “cultural superiority”. For instance, the teaching of Chinese history was emphasized in schools whilst the teaching of Taiwanese colonial history was suppressed. Street names in major Taiwanese cities were changed to be named after locations in mainland China and the practice of Confucianism, an ideology rooted in China’s imperial past, was widely encouraged by the state (Minns & Tierney 108-109). These methods of cultural assimilation during the White Terror proved effective in remolding the cultural identity of the Taiwanese people and prevented further popular uprisings for the remainder of the 20th century. 

The rise of Taiwanese nationalism stemming from popular discontent with KMT governance in the immediate post-war era was the primary driving force behind outbreak of violence in February 1947. While there was little evidence to support their position, the KMT accused “Communists” and “Japanized radicals” as being responsible for the 2-28 Incident to justify the suppression of their political rivals. The defeat of the KMT at the hands of communist forces in mainland China in 1949 combined with the rise of Taiwanese nationalism prompted the KMT to assume a totalitarian style of governance during the White Terror. A systematic program of cultural genocide was conducted throughout the White Terror to remold the Taiwanese identity and foster loyalty to the KMT state. The significance of the 2-28 Incident and White Terror cannot be underestimated. In the divisive world of Taiwanese politics, the 2-28 Incident is often used as by modern Taiwanese nationalists as a symbol of mainland Chinese oppression against the Taiwanese people (Smith 145). The repercussions of the 2-28 Incident and White Terror are also significant from a global perspective. Given the authoritarian nature of the KMT state during the White Terror, the continued support of Nationalist China through much of the 20th century from Western democracies raises an interesting moral dilemma. To the American political theorist Robert A. Scalapino, this dilemma raised an interesting question: “[How can democracies such as the United States] fulfill the awesome responsibilities of being a global power, entrusted with the defense of many societies, and at the same time, remain faithful to the principles that constitute our own political-ethical creed?” (Kerr xiii) Can the support for a despotic government in an effort to defend the ideals of liberty, freedom and democracy ever be justified? Even though modern Taiwan has shaped itself into a progressive democracy, the island’s authoritarian past has had tremendous socio-political implications that permeate beyond its borders and holds many important lessons for future generations.

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