Wednesday, February 27, 2008


Not that many in the United States would notice, but February 28 (2-28) is a national holiday in Taiwan. On this day in 1947 an incident occurred in Taipei, which led to the massive slaughter of thousands of Taiwanese at the hands of Chiang Kai-shek's Chinese Nationalist troops.

In 1947 people here were weary and healing from the wounds of World War II. What attention could be mustered on the international scene was focused on the Iron Curtain falling in Europe and the civil war between the Chinese Communists and Chinese Nationalists on the Mainland. Although there were chilling reports by nationally known journalists, Tillman and Peggy Durdin in the New York Times and in The Nation, there was hardly a blip on the radar screen of public awareness outside Taiwan.

Except for the 1950s, 60s and 70s, when Taiwan under Chiang Kai-shek was the darling of America as “Free China,” there haven’t been many other blips on the screen. Since Taiwan became a democracy in the 1990s, the silence has been deafening.

Taiwan is the poster child for rampant double standards toward human rights violations and territorial expansion in Europe and Asia. While the West supported the independence of Latvia, Estonia, and Lithunia, and recently the US made Kosovo independent despite the strong protests of Russia, nothing comparable has done for Taiwan. As Jim Mann observed in The China Fantasy: How Our Leaders Explain Away Chinese Repression (2007), while Soviet dissidents were cool, Chinese [and Taiwanese] democracy activists seem to lack appeal for westerners.

Maybe on this February 28, we might pause for a few minutes from our focus on the presidential primaries and consider one of the most important and least recognized issues that the next administration will face. Our beginning point is the words of
Vorkosigan in one of his excellent diaries on DailyKos:
"it is wrong to understand Taiwan as part of China that has become unhinged somehow. Taiwan was never part of China."
Second-guessing geo-political decisions made over sixty years ago is tricky business, but there is no denying that decisions made in ending World War II did not result in liberation for everyone. In fact, those decisions resulted in the enslavement of millions of others. In his address in Latvia on his visit in 2005 President Bush criticized the 1945 treaty signed at Yalta by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Soviet leader Josef Stalin and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill that defined postwar zones of control, saying that the decisions followed in the “unjust tradition” of an earlier deal between Stalin and the Nazis. Yalta opened the door to the Soviet occupation of eastern and central Europe, as the President said, “Once again, when powerful governments negotiated, the freedom of small nations was somehow expendable.”

President Bush might have been speaking of Taiwan, an island slightly larger than Maryland and Delaware combined, just slightly smaller than Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia and about about 95 miles off the China coast. Although smaller geographically than the Baltic States, Taiwan’s economy is 17th largest in the world.

The people of Taiwan were also adversely affected by the Yalta agreement. After being a colony of Japan for fifty years, having been ceded by China to Japan at the end of the Sino-Japanese War in 1895, Taiwan was returned to control by Chiang Kai-shek and the Nationalist Government of China (ROC) at the end of World War II. The matter had been settled at the Cairo Conference in 1943 when President Roosevelt was trying to keep Chiang in the war against the Japanese. Part of the price was Chiang’s being able to occupy Taiwan. The Cairo Declaration called for all territories taken from China by the Japanese to be returned. In the formal San Francisco Peace Treaty of 1951 the Japanese gave up all right and title to the island but no beneficiary was named. To this day, the status of Taiwan, as far as international law is concerned, remains undetermined, with our policy being that the two sides of the Strait must agree mutually and peacefully on Taiwan's status, and the people of Taiwan must consent to any such arrangement.

No government on Mainland China made any serious attempt to control and develop Taiwan until the late 19th century. The island was officially declared a province in 1887, a scant eight years before it was ceded to Japan as a result of the Sino-Japanese War. Historically, the most significant characteristic of Taiwan’s relationship with China has been its tenuous contact with the mainland. Although not a government document, Edgar Snow in his book, Red Star Over China, recorded the following statement by Mao Tse-tung in a 1936 interview:

“It is the immediate task of China to regain all our lost territories, not merely to defend our sovereignty below the Great Wall. This means that Manchuria must be regained. We do not, however, include Korea, formerly a Chinese colony, but when we have reestablished the independence of the lost territories of China, and if the Koreans wish to break away from the chains of Japanese imperialism, we will extend them our enthusiastic help in their struggle for independence. The same things applies for Formosa [Taiwan].”[1]
Alas, when Japan was defeated, like the Baltic States, the Yalta Conference set Taiwan’s future. And it wasn’t pretty. When I was in Taiwan, over and over, I heard the old saying, “The Japanese were like dogs and sometimes they bit, but the Chinese came and were like pigs; they just wallowed.” The corrupt and brutal Nationalist Government that lost the war on the mainland with the Chinese Communists were no less corrupt and brutal in their occupation of Taiwan. Few Taiwanese didn’t have a relative or know personally someone who was murdered in the aftermath of the incident on February 28.

During the cold War and the hostility between Communist and non-Communist governments, Taiwan was considered “Free China” because it wasn’t communist. Of course, if you listened to the Taiwanese people, they were quick to tell you that Taiwan was neither “free” nor “China,” and that they had as little inclination to be ruled by Chinese communists as they did the military dictator, Chiang Kai-shek. When I was there, there were still many political prisoners whose only offense had been to disagree with government propaganda. Thousands of other Taiwanese had simply disappeared over the years, never to be heard from again.

While the people of China endured “Red Terror” under the Chinese Communists, the people of Taiwan endured a period of “White Terror”. The period of “White Terror” extended from 1947 to 1987 when martial law was finally repealed. In 1999 the Nationalist Party came under increasing domestic and international pressure to explain what had happened in this period. An investigative report by their own Historical Research Commission estimated that 5,000 people were executed during this time and that 10,000 were imprisoned. Independent sources have estimated that the figure is more likely 90,000 and an undetermined number executed -- that in a country then of only 15 million people.

Against overwhelming odds, Taiwan has become a democracy. A recent article in
The Economist subtitled, “In Praise of Taiwan’s Democracy,” marveled at the improbability of it:
In 1987, Chiang Ching-kuo, who was then Taiwan’s president, lifted martial law. The KMT appeared impregnable. Its structure still followed the Leninist principles Soviet advisors had inculcated on the Chinese mainland in the 1920s, though it had become perhaps the world’s richest political party. A mass organisation of some 2.5m members, or nearly 15% of the population, it benefited from a rigged electoral system that ensured a permanent parliamentary majority, and, under martial law, a ban on opposition parties…

Yet of all the people-power revolutions that sprouted and were sometimes savagely uprooted in Asia in the late 1980s and early 1990s—the Philippines in 1986, South Korea in 1987, Burma in 1988, China in 1989 and Thailand in 1992—Taiwan’s, in 1990, was the most low-key and arguably the most successful. The KMT yielded—not without a fight, but without a shot being fired in anger.
While Taiwan may now be the most democratic nation in Asia, freedom and democracy are precious but fragile commodities, which can be lost far easier than attained. The main threat to Taiwan is from across the China Straits in the government of the People’s Republic of China. Like the freedom of the Baltic States, the rest of the free nations of the world have an important stake in the continuing freedom of the people of Taiwan. America’s resolve in this matter may be sorely tested.

Russian President Vladimir Putin considers the dissolution of the Soviet Empire a great catastrophe, but even he has acknowledged, “In effect, these Baltic countries were treated as pawns in world politics. And that is a tragedy for these nations. This must be stated plainly.” Having fought for their freedom from the KMT's authoritarian rule, the people of Taiwan should not be subjected, for geopolitical reasons like the Latvians, Lithuanians, and Estonians were to the Soviets, to the not so tender embrace of the PRC's Chinese Communist Party.

Although you are not likely to find these issues addressed in the presidential primary debates, the Taiwan-China issue is one of the most critical foreign policy issues the new administration will face. And if human rights matter at all, it will require wisdom and courage that hasn’t been seen in previous administrations, Democrat or Republican.
- Milo

[1] Interview with Mao Tse-tung, recorded by Edgar Snow, Red Star Over China (New York: Random House, Inc. 1938

[2] “We Deserve Fair Treatment,” Taipei Times, September 10, 1999.

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