On this date, about two thousand people gathered in front of the Bureau of Monopoly in Taipei, Taiwan to protest an incident on the previous evening. The Chinese Governor, Chen Yi, responded with machine guns, killing several people on the spot, which soon led to the massive slaughter of thousands of Taiwanese at the hands of Chinese troops sent from China by Chiang Kai-Shek.
After the end of World War II, the Allied Forces had left the occupation of Taiwan to Chiang, who was still holding on to large parts of China with his Nationalist forces. The Taiwanese, who had been under Japanese rule from 1895 through 1945, initially welcomed the Chinese Nationalist forces. But their joy soon changed into sorrow and anger, when the new authorities turned out to be repressive and corrupt.
The arrest of a woman selling cigarettes without a license on the previous evening (February 27) was the spark which led to large-scale public protests against repression and corruption. For some ten days, Chiang, still on the mainland, and his governor Chen Yi kept up the pretense of negotiations with leaders of the protest movement, but at the same time they sent troops from the mainland.
As soon as the troops arrived, they started rounding up and executing people, in particular scholars, lawyers, doctors, students, and local leaders of the protest movement. A film that aptly recreates the ethos of the times is A City of Sadness(1989). In total between 18,000 and 28,000 people were murdered. Thousands of others were arrested and imprisoned in the “White Terror” campaign which took place in the following decade. Many of these remained imprisoned until the early 1980s.
The 2-28 Incident was the beginning of 40 years of repressive martial law on the island, during which Chiang’s Kuomintang mainlanders ruled the Taiwanese with an iron fist. The book A Borrowed Voice (eds. Linda Arrigo, Lynn Miles) has many first-hand accounts of this dark period in history; notably the cloak-and-dagger type underground activity that expats undertook to smuggle out of Taiwan the names of political prisoners to Amnesty International and the outside world. This period ended only in 1987, when martial law was lifted and Taiwan started to move towards democratization. This is the longest period of martial law in world history.
In 1987, the newly-formed Taiwanese democratic opposition and the Presbyterian Church started to push the Kuomintang authorities to stop covering up the facts and to come to a full airing of the matter. It wasn’t until 1990 that the Kuomintang finally decided, albeit reluctantly, to open the records.
A “2-28 Monument” was unveiled in Taipei in February 1995, which was designed by Mr. Cheng Tze-tsai, a former political prisoner. The following is a translation of text inscribed on the monument:
Governor Chen Yi asked for the dispatch of troops from Nanking. The chairman of the Nationalist government Chiang Kai-shek, without conducting a thorough investigation, responded by sending troops to Taiwan to crack down on [the protesters].
On March 8, the 21st Division of the army under the command of general Liu Yu-ching landed [in Keelung] and as the troops moved down to southern part of Taiwan, they began to shoot indiscriminately. On March 10, martial law was declared. The chief of staff of the Garrison Command, general Ke Yuan-fen, the commander of the fort of Keelung, general Shih Hung-hsi, the commander of the fort of Kaohsiung, general Peng Meng-chi, and the chief of the commander of the military police Chang Mu-tao were responsible for the death of many innocent people during the subsequent crackdown and purges.
Within a few months, the number of deaths, injured and missing persons amounted to tens of thousands. Keelung, Taipei, Chiayi and Kaohsiung suffered the highest number of casualties. It was called the February 28 Incident.
Few people know about the 2-28 Massacre outside of Taiwan, and many Taiwanese today seem to rather not talk about it. It’s a very sensitive issue still, probably because it affected so many people; they couldn’t talk about it then, or now, in their state of denial, preferring to forget the painful past.
For the international community, it is important to understand that the Taiwanese dislike and mistrust of the Chinese and their intentions is not only based on ideological or political differences with China’s present – and undemocratic – regime in Beijing, but deeply rooted in the anguish of a large-scale massacre followed by some 40 years of repressive rule by the Chinese Nationalists.
- George H. Kerr. Formosa Betrayed. (Upland, CA: Taiwan Publishing Co., 1965)
- Linda Gail Arrigo and Lynn Miles, eds. A Borrowed Voice: Taiwan Human Rights through International Networks, 1960–1980. (Taipei, Taiwan: Hanyao Color Printing Co., 2008)