Sunday, January 23, 2005

After the 228 Massacre, there was no serious ethnic violence on Taiwan before 1987.

At the outset of KMT rule in Taiwan, a heavy-handed attempt to enforce the Party’s Tobacco monopoly set off a chain of events that resulted in violence that has come to be called 228 or 二二八. Historians now seem to agree that while there were some specific political differences to explain the passions that led to the violence, the primary motivator for the violence was the ethnic difference between those perpetrating the violence, and those receiving the violence. However, once this spasm of ethnic violence abated, Taiwan did not see another widespread outbreak of inter-ethnic violence during the entire period of martial law. To be sure, ethnic tensions remained and are with us today, often expressed in passionate politics, nonetheless, Taiwan managed to avoid ethnic violence.

This paper will briefly examine the major outbreak of ethnic violence in 1947 and define who was attacking whom for ethnic reasons. Later, the paper will enumerate four major reasons Taiwan has avoided the scourge of ethnic violence since then. These reasons include: 1) A well designed Leninist state apparatus that effectively identified potential revolutionaries and uprisings, including those of the ethnic variety, and quickly moved to silence them. 2) A genuine dread on the part of all the inhabitants of Taiwan, fearing a takeover by Communists from the Mainland. This pervasive dread lead to a tacit, perhaps unconscious agreement among the politically active that political disputes would not escalate towards violence less thereby be an opening for the Communists to exploit. 3) In all modern societies, there is strong inertia for placidity and Taiwan is no different. If it is at all possible for people to get along without resorting to violence, then people everywhere tend to opt for peace. For the 40 years of KMT rule after 228 and before the lifting of martial law, Taiwan proved this observation to be true. 4) Even in the midst of relative calm, the KMT showed great foresight or else great luck in slowly, over the entire period of their rule, venting the political pressure that martial law imposed. Through various measures and reforms, KMT slowly gave more and more rights to the people of Taiwan at a speed that was perfect to prevent the outbreak of ethnic violence. 5) And lastly, although the ethnic differences between the “Mainlanders” and the “Taiwanese” seemed stark in the immediate aftermath of World War II, during subsequent years, these differences have lessened because of a number of factors. Universal Mandarin education, the ubiquity of mass, popular culture and intermarriage have smoothed out the difference between and among ethnic groups making the job of those who WOULD foment ethnic violence much harder. And as we shall see, such leaders failed in their attempts.

After the defeat of Japan, the United States acquiesced to the Republic of China asserting sovereignty over Taiwan. At first, the people of Taiwan welcomed the idea that they were to be ruled by Chinese to whom the Taiwanese felt an ethnic affinity, but this honeymoon soon ended. The soldiers that the KMT sent over to administer Taiwan were ill-disciplined compared to the Japanese soldiers who had previously garrisoned the island, and the KMT bureaucrats were more corrupt and of lower quality that those Japanese who had administered the island. Additionally, the Mainlanders who arrived in Taiwan, both soldiers and bureaucrats, looked upon most of the Taiwanese with suspicion as collaborators. Both sides looked down on the other. Grievances and petty slights on both sides led to a level of tension that only needed a seminal incident as an excuse to set off a major clash. The scuffle between the Tobacco Monopoly agents and the woman selling cigarettes on the street provided just such an incident. Such petty hassles happened all the time, but this one was different in that those with an agenda, on both sides of the ethnic divide, we eager for a fight. The fact that the KMT’s agents killed a man in the course of the scuffle provided those Taiwanese looking for an excuse to foment a rebellion in an attempt to push their agenda on the relatively undermanned Chen Yi. The KMT probably overreacted with too much violence to put down the rebellion and during the future “White Terror.” However, the net effect of the brutal crushing the early 1947 uprising was to give the KMT enough breathing space to begin reforms, make the anti-Communist case and begin to let off the pressure which as we will see were the reasons that 228’s ethnic violence was not repeated.

228 was the first manifestation in Taiwan of the Leninist State Bureaucracy that characterized the KMT. 中正 may not have been a great philosopher but he had spectacular instincts for the way to organize his political party and to stay in power. He realized that he could not have a rebellion of any size on his flanks while he was still in contact with the Communist enemy. The Generalissimo quickly moved to fix the enemy in place by ordering Chen Yi to stall with negotiations while the KMT raised a force to ruthlessly crush the dissidents. Once the necessary force was on island to accomplish the mission of putting down the uprising, Chiang Kai Shek moved to institutionalize the KMT into all levels of society. Once the KMT was forced to retreat to Taiwan, this process accelerated. The party built on the Japanese political organization to force local elders to report on those in their neighborhoods, and there were KMT cadres in every organization on the island. This pervasive and apparent state apparatus gave the KMT real-time intelligence about possible threats to it’s rule, but also ironically, the apparatus gave the KMT intelligence about new ideas that they might implement to co-opt opposition stands. The KMT used this intelligence gathering organization to great effect to prevent uprisings and hence, ethnic violence. The KMT also used it for other purposes, as I will note later.

All factions on Taiwan in the immediate aftermath of 228 sensed that there was something uniquely dangerous about the Chinese Communists. Communist dictatorships are expansionistic, and willing to use any means necessary to undermine democratic opposition. The ROC also had been fighting Chinese Communists in a civil war, and were still in a state of combat even after the KMT’s retreat to Taiwan. The KMT had every reason to believe that in the literally millions of refugees that had crossed the Straits, there were Communist spies and saboteurs waiting for an opportunity to undermine the ROC in Taiwan. The Taiwanese who were already on island and watched the vast numbers of largely unloved Mainlanders come over nonetheless felt that there was something still worse on the other side of the Strait. This sense was heightened as the pathologies of the Communists became apparent during the Cultural Revolution and during other periods. The KMT’s style of governance may not have been the first choice of all the people of Taiwan, but it was certainly better than what the people saw across the Strait. Therefore, even the opposition treaded carefully so as to not go too far in inciting violence that might be exploited by the communists to undermine Taiwan.

A third reason for lack of ethnic violence is not necessarily unique to Taiwan but it is a powerful reason nonetheless. There is a strong desire in the hearts of most people for a peaceful existence. If there is chance for people to live peacefully, they will take it. The KMT, through its economic policies, good geopolitical fortunes and world-wide economic strength, facilitated a rising standard of living for the people of Taiwan. The KMT was demonstratively competent, though autocratic, in governance. During the period of KMT rule, that was enough to forestall the massive discontent that revolutionaries require to accomplish their ends. People were happy to make money and get along with their neighbors, so there was little interest in rising up in violence that would hurt business for everyone.

The fourth reason there was little ethnic violence in Taiwan after 228 was that the KMT through a combination of shrewd policy and good luck slowly and steadily released the political pressure on Taiwan. Starting with land reform that spread wealth evenly, the KMT was always willing in response to discontent sensed by their excellent intelligence gathering to make small concessions. KMT granted local voting, allowed opposition politicians to run for office, granted freedom of speech within limits and finally lifted martial law. In order to secure these concessions, it was never necessary for the political opposition to whip up ethnic hatred (a difficult proposal given the rising standards of living I noted above). Nonetheless, when pressure for change began to build, the KMT responded before violence resulted. Eventually, in the mid 80’s, the KMT had conceded all that they possibly could. In order to stay in power as a one party autocracy, the KMT would have to hold onto power by force. At that point, the KMT decided that rather than fight, which would have meant a replay of 228, the KMT would end martial law. Many in KMT believed that the majority of those in Taiwan would vote KMT out of gratitude for all the benefits KMT would bring. This prediction actually proved correct, at least for a while, and it was the final blessing conferred by the KMT on Taiwan, in preventing ethnic violence.