Tag Archives: Taiwan

August 18, 1991 (a Sunday)

Yeltsin stands on a military tank to defy the August Coup in 1991.

On this date, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev was placed under house arrest during an attempted coup d’état (known as the August Putsch or August Coup) by high-ranking members of his own government, military and police forces.

Since becoming secretary of the Communist Party in 1985 and president of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in 1988, Gorbachev had pursued comprehensive reforms of the Soviet system, greatly improving Soviet relations with Western democracies, particularly the United States. However, within the USSR, Gorbachev faced powerful critics. Conservative, hard-line politicians and military officials thought he was driving the Soviet Union toward its downfall and making it a second-rate power, while more radical reformers – particularly Boris Yeltsin, president of the most powerful socialist republic, Russia – complained that Gorbachev was just not working fast enough.

The August 1991 coup was carried out by the hard-line elements within Gorbachev’s own administration, as well as the heads of the Soviet army and the KGB, or secret police. Detained at his vacation villa in the Crimea, he was placed under house arrest and pressured to give his resignation, which he refused to do. Claiming Gorbachev was ill, the coup leaders, headed by former vice president Gennady Yanayev, declared a state of emergency and attempted to take control of the government.

Yeltsin and his backers from the Russian parliament then stepped in, calling on the Russian people to strike and protest the coup. When soldiers tried to arrest Yeltsin, they found the way to the parliamentary building blocked by armed and unarmed civilians. Yeltsin himself climbed aboard a tank and spoke through a megaphone, urging the troops not to turn against the people and condemning the coup as a “new reign of terror.” The soldiers backed off, some of them choosing to join the resistance. After thousands took the streets to demonstrate, the coup collapsed after only three days.

Gorbachev was released and flown to Moscow, but his regime had been dealt a deadly blow. Over the next few months, he dissolved the Communist Party, granted independence to the Baltic states, and proposed a looser, more economics-based federation among the remaining republics. In December 1991, Gorbachev resigned. Yeltsin capitalized on his defeat of the coup, emerging from the rubble of the former Soviet Union as the most powerful figure in Moscow and the leader of the newly formed Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).

Surprisingly, no one predicted the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Chas Freeman, a former diplomat who served as Richard Nixon​’s interpreter during his visit to mainland China in 1972, once recalled conversations he had had when living in Taiwan in the 1970s, before Chiang Kai-Shek’s Kuomintang party had moved from quasi-military rule to open elections:

People would say they are corrupt, they have no vision, they have a ridiculous ideology we have to kowtow to, but that no one believes in practice.

And I would say, ‘If they’re so bad, why don’t you get rid of them?’ That would be greeted with absolute incredulity.

Taiwanese of that era would tell him that, corrupt or not, the party was steadily bringing prosperity. Or that there was no point in complaining, since the party would eliminate anyone who challenged its rule. A generation later, Taiwan had become democratized.

People predicted the fall of the Chinese Communist Party in 1989, but it didn’t happen. The point of this post is, as the Danish physicist Neils Bohr (1885 – 1962) once said, “Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.”

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February 28, 1947 (a Friday)

An angry mob storms the Yidingmu police station in Taipei on February 28, 1947

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.

2-28 Incident in woodcut; the artist was executed.

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.

2-28 Massacre Monument

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.

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