Several years ago, I was at a Taipei coffee shop with a friend who identifies as Hakka, one of Taiwan’s ethnic minorities. I looked him in the eye from across the table and implored:
“The KMT (Chinese Nationalist Party) treats you abysmally. So why do you vote for them? I genuinely want to know.”
He met my gaze and replied, “Because it’s true that they treat us badly, but the Hoklo [the dominant ethnic group in Taiwan] have treated us badly even longer, and the DPP (Democratic Progressive Party) is their party.”
A few years after that, I sat in a van climbing into the hills of Hsinchu discussing politics with a couple of Atayal origin, one of Taiwan’s Austronesian indigenous groups. They owned the homestay we had booked for the weekend and were giving us a ride to the nearby biennial Saisiyat festival.
“The KMT doesn’t care about indigenous,” the wife told me in Mandarin, “but the other Chinese haven’t cared about us for longer. The KMT only cares about Mainlanders, but the DPP only cares about Hoklo. They all came from China – some just came earlier.”
I had these two conversations in mind as I read about the passage of the Act Promoting Transitional Justice (促進轉型正義條例) being passed by the Legislative Yuan in early December. The law itself is an important step—but the conversations shed light on just how complicated Taiwan’s historical injustices can be.
Taiwan’s various ethnic-linguistic peoples, all migrants other than the indigenous peoples, have in the past inflicted grave horrors one after another, and all have suffered under Japanese colonial rule before living through authoritarian terror perpetrated by the KMT.
The need for transitional justice
The newly passed transitional justice act specifically covers the KMT authoritarian era, from the Japanese surrender following their World War II defeat in August 1945 to November 1992. Although this slightly extends the time period covered from the official Martial Law era on Taiwan, the date that authoritarian rule in Taiwan actually ended is up for debate. Political dissidents remained imprisoned for some time, and the first presidential election took place in 1996.
The act aims to remove symbols of the authoritarian era, including the removal of statues and possible renaming of schools, roads and other national infrastructure that had been named in honor of dictators. Certain criminal cases thought to have resulted in unjust convictions will be granted retrial, and ill-gotten party assets not covered by previous acts will be handled. Data and records from the era will be collected, organized and archived for research and learning purposes.
Taiwan certainly needs to fully reckon with its past, and these are all important issues to address. Statues of late dictator Chiang Kai-shek dot the country, despite many of them having been retired to Cihu, in the highlands above the town of Daxi. Roads and universities are still named after Chiang. The scars of the bloody violence he perpetrated may seem to have healed on the surface, but they become visible once you talk to many Taiwanese about their country’s, family’s or even personal history.
It brings to mind another conversation, this time with a taxi driver. As we drove around the Jingfu Gate roundabout and approached Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, the driver, an older man, rolled town the window, stuck out his head and spat vigorously in the direction of the monument.
“That,” he said to me in surprisingly fluent English, “is a statue for Dictator Chiang Kai Shit!”
He paid the Generalissimo another viscous tribute as we sped away. “He killed my family.”
“I’m very sorry to hear that.”
“I had to run away and live in the US. For twenty years. That’s why I can speak English. He took everything, and he gets a statue. I drive a taxi.”
Hearing stories like this reminds one of the necessity and urgency of transitional justice. Stolen assets must be accounted for, and people deserve justice for their fallen ancestors. Many deserve simply to know what happened to them, as the fates of scores of political dissidents remain unknown.
The perpetrator says “I’m the victim!”
Not surprisingly, the KMT remains opposed to the transitional justice bill. Unlike in states where a revolution toppled the old ruling clique, the KMT has survived Taiwan’s democratization and still holds on to tangible and intangible assets, as well as old secrets from its martial law past.
The KMT offers two opposing, and arguably irreconcilable, defenses for itself. On one hand, they claim that that the law goes too far in creating a commission “with administrative, judicial and investigative powers” and that transitional justice will “wipe out history”. On the other hand, they claim that the law does not go far enough, as it covers only the KMT authoritarian era, but not the Japanese colonial era.
Neither of these claims holds water. History is not being erased, merely contextualized and accounted for. The establishment of transitional justice “truth commissions” is quite common: a number of countries have done so, including Argentina and South Africa. In terms of extending transitional justice to previous eras, it would then cover the actions of a foreign regimes no longer in power, whose symbols the KMT itself had already destroyed, including demolishing a number of cultural heritage sites. While victims of this era, including Japanese-era comfort women, deserve justice, such a process would be an international one, requiring different procedures than the domestic issues at hand.
The KMT, understandably, is doing all it can to avoid being held accountable for its actions. That it still has a platform and some political power to disseminate these views proves that it is necessary to carry out transitional justice focusing on the dictatorship they propagated.
Don’t worry KMT, the system is in your favor
The law does provide for first steps towards holding the KMT accountable, but it will not on its own solve the fundamental issue of the KMT’s continued existence as one of two parties in a democracy that favors two major parties.
Taiwanese democracy, despite a plethora of smaller parties vying for a seat at the table, is still essentially a two-party system. Within this political landscape, the KMT, one of these two major parties, remains not only against transitional justice, but in fact acts as though it would rather pretend the Martial Law era either never happened, or was far less brutal and authoritarian than it actually was. By doing so, this same party wishes to keep symbols of that same era firmly in place, as if these memorials represent something admirable rather than the bloody truth of that period of history.
Despite predictions of the KMT’s demise, the KMT and the DPP are likely to hold power in turns, threatening the undoing of the gains of one side by the other roughly every decade. This threat will not be neutralized until the party that perpetrated the brutality being accounted for either recognizes its own history and makes proper amends, or ceases to be a viable entity for holding power again.
Such a system is also bad for Taiwan’s democracy because the KMT cannot play the role of a principled alternative to the DPP. At times Taiwanese voters do want to send a message to the DPP that they are not immune to being punished at the voting booth, and yet, how can the electorate hold them to account if the only only alternative opposes something as fundamental as dealing with the well-documented mistakes of the past?
Justice for some
There are other ways in which this bill does not necessarily represent full transitional justice.
Notably, it does not cover historical wrongs against the Austronesian indigenous peoples, including the unjust seizure of indigenous lands during the authoritarian era. These are included in a separate political process which will likely be more protracted and contested.
Certainly there are good reasons for this: the processes by which land is accounted for and returned are necessarily different from those which investigate political party assets and seek to remove authoritarian symbols. Furthermore, indigenous land seizures run deeper than KMT dictatorship; the Japanese colonial regime seized indigenous land, not to mention even earlier colonial rulers and settlers from the Chinese mainland.
That said, I can’t help but question whether there was another ulterior intent to exclude indigenous claims from this particular law, which only focuses on those executed or imprisoned as political dissidents. Doing so allows the DPP to focus on non-indigenous transitional justice issues while knowingly relegating indigenous ones to a longer process. That the DPP has already asked indigenous communities to accept a “compromise” in which less than half of the land they claim is returned highlights the suspicious nature of this bifurcation of the issue.
The DPP was organized as opposition to the KMT’s authoritarian rule, and its leaders have predominantly been Taiwanese-speaking Hoklo people who, despite being the majority ethnic group, has had their identity suppressed by the KMT. Therefore, the DPP has been seen as advocating for Hoklo interests at the cost of other ethnic groups. Similarly, the transitional justice law has been criticized as reflecting a “one-sided historical perspective.” Indeed, despite DPP legislators saying the recently-passed bill is borne of “bottom-up consensus forming”, there seems to be little consensus among those not in the DPP’s traditional base that the bill represents true transitional justice.
While I believe the DPP leadership means well, they may not have even considered the legislation to be leaving out other ethnic groups. It is not only problematic, then, but also potentially hypocritical, for the DPP to fast-track their preferred forms of transitional justice while plodding along more slowly and asking for more compromise when dealing with transitional justice issues affecting indigenous people, especially as DPP leaders have at times pointed to Taiwan’s indigenous roots as an argument supporting their traditional platform of Taiwanese independence.
Splicing transitional justice into “faster for us, but indigenous must wait” dual processes will likely cause these divisions to fester. If indigenous land rights were being dealt with fairly and expediently, the separate procedures wouldn’t have be an issue. Unfortunately, this is clearly not the case. If the DPP is not just “the Hoklo party” but indeed a party for all Taiwanese, shouldn’t the treatment of all Taiwanese be considered fairly?
Transitional Justice in the Republic of Taiwan
But at the end of the day, justice against a regime that was unfairly placed upon the Taiwanese people without their explicit consent means replacing it.
The legitimacy of the Republic of China (ROC) on Taiwan is itself a matter of debate. The constellation of treaties and agreements that led to the establishment of the ROC government in Taiwan following Japan’s ceding of the island after its defeat in World War II are often misunderstood to have made the ROC’s control of Taiwan “official.” In fact, they did no such thing.
It has been argued that the progress of Taiwan is one of “evolution” rather than “revolution”, and therefore that it is possible to build a better Taiwan through a slow process that does not upend its current government. Following this strategy – as many Taiwan independence activists have done in their push to “Taiwanize” the ROC – does lend the current government a veneer of credibility, as does the fact that in every election, Taiwanese voters cast their ballots under the ROC framework.
However, this ultimately avoids the question of the basic identity of the nation, and sentences the Taiwanese people to a perpetual state of limbo.
One can argue that implementing transitional justice under the ROC framework further legitimizes the ROC regime instead of coming to terms with it. If this transitional justice law is the end of this issue, the ROC regime will have washed its hands, cleansing itself of its associations with dictatorship. Its past actions properly contextualized, we will be left with a more credible ROC, making its continued existence easier to defend.
This leads back to the original sin of the Republic of China on Taiwan: that transitional justice will be a step forward in fixing bugs in the system, but does not question the legitimacy of the system itself. If the KMT is a deeply-embedded virus in Taiwanese democracy, the ROC represents a far more intractable problem. It’s not a virus; it’s the host. The problem is the system.
So what would a rebooted, ideal Republic of Taiwan look like, as opposed to the current Republic of China? A fair and democratic Republic of Taiwan ought to be a country where all people – Hoklo, Hakka, indigenous, descendants of the 1940s Chinese diaspora, and foreign residents – have access to justice.
It is one that considers current power politics: who holds power now, who may hold it again in the future and who has historically wronged whom. It is one in which Taiwan fully comes to terms with being a settler state – not only by the KMT, but by earlier generations of immigrants as well – and what that means in terms of making full and proper amends.
In contrast, the current ROC is a country in which the clique of beneficiaries and perpetrators of past horrors are still able to exist as a major political institution while denying their full role in such events. It is one in which current ruling party passed a bill to address past wrongs but relegated justice to other segments of society to a slower process, if they are properly addressed at all.
If we stop at this bill and call transitional justice complete, we tell the world we are satisfied with a nation in which the only divide that is seen to matter is party affiliation, rather than acknowledging the full complexity of connection and division in Taiwanese society. It is one in which each segment of society works towards its own self-interest rather than the interests of the nation as a whole, and which has still not fully grappled with the consequences of its history of immigration, plunder, and massacre.
Certainly, the bill is a necessary step forward, and we cannot refuse to wrangle with the demons of Taiwan’s past because the mechanism offered does not fit our purer ideological impulses. However, it is essential that we not lose sight of the bigger and more abstract picture of what transitional justice truly represents.
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