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The Other China

A Tragic Beginning: The Taiwan Uprising of February 28, 1947

by Lai Tse-han, by Ramon H. Myers, by Wei Wou
Stanford University Press, 273 pp., $32.50

A Farewell: A Collection of Short Stories

by Bo Yang, translated by Robert Reynolds
Joint Publishing Company (Hong Kong), 139 pp., HK$42.00

The Great Transition: Political and Social Change in the Republic of China

by Hung-mao Tien
Hoover Institution Press, 324 pp., $22.95 (paper)

Governing the Market: Economic Theory and the Role of Government in East Asian Industrialization

by Robert Wade
Princeton University Press, 438 pp., $65.00; $18.95 (paper)

Taiwan: Beyond the Economic Miracle

edited by Denis Fred Simon, edited by Michael Y.M. Kau
M.E. Sharpe/An East Gate Book, 400 pp., $49.95

On the same late fall day in 1991, two stories about China appeared in the Western press. One announced that thirty-five drug dealers had just been executed in the southwestern Chinese city of Kunming, probably by a single police bullet fired into the back of each man’s neck. Before their execution, the thirty-five had been paraded and “tried” in front of 40,000 people. A blurred photograph showed the defendants, arms tied behind their backs, each held by two helmeted policemen, in front of the enormous crowd. As their sentences were announced, a metric ton of refined heroin and four metric tons of opium, allegedly seized from the thirty-five dealers, were burned to ashes in sixty enormous cauldrons. Similar rallies and trials were said to have taken place in fifteen other southwestern Chinese cities, though the number of those executed or participating was not announced. The mass trials took place in a country where the annual per capita income was approximately $350, according to the World Bank.

The same day, confirmation came from Taiwan of the government’s six-year plan to spend $300 billion on rebuilding and expanding public facilities all across the island: 779 projects, most to be put out for bids by local and foreign contractors, were designed to develop roads, rails and subways, schools, housing and medical facilities, refineries, sewage and power plants. Taiwan already had $72 billion in its official foreign exchange reserves, and anticipated no problem in raising the rest from its rapidly increasing domestic tax revenues and lively foreign trade. The reconstruction effort would substantially raise the living standards of Taiwan’s population, whose annual per capita income was currently estimated by the World Bank to stand at $8,000.1

Six months later a different set of contrasting images was once more presented to us. The first, from the People’s Republic, told of the ordeal of a young Chinese worker named Han Dongfang. Han had organized an independent Workers’ Federation during the heady month of May 1989, with its headquarters on Tiananmen Square. After the June massacre in Beijing, Han was arrested. Though not summarily executed like several other workers active in the demonstrations, he was treated with sadistic cruelty in prison, tortured with acupuncture needles when he went on a hunger strike, and confined to a ward for seriously ill tuberculosis patients, where, not surprisingly, he contracted the same disease. Reluctantly released by the authorities, so that he would not acquire a martyr’s fame by dying in prison, Han spoke to his American interviewer of his fear that his wife, now pregnant, would be forced to have an abortion as a further way to punish and intimidate him. In a response to Western protest China agreed in August to allow Han Dongfang to travel to the United States for medical treatment.2

The lead stories from Taiwan at the same time spoke of the hectic arguments and the flurries of excitement that gripped Taiwan’s newly elected National Assembly, as the delegates grappled with the problem of whether the president of Taiwan should be elected by an electoral college system or by an island-wide popular vote. These contending delegates were from a new generation in Taiwan’s politics, men and women chosen by popular vote in December 1991 in elections where the newly legitimated opposition party, the Democratic Progressive Party, ran against the incumbent Kuomintang Nationalist Party, winning around 23 percent of the vote. Central to their concerns were the possibilities of Taiwanese independence, the significance (or lack of it) of the fact that the Taiwanese president, Lee Teng-hui, was a born-again Presbyterian Christian, and the chances of Taiwan’s being granted full membership under its own name in GATT (the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade).

What is intriguing about the contrast of these images is not so much their content, though that is dramatic enough, but rather how much we have taken them for granted. Yes, of course, we expect to read about a policeman’s bullet in the back of the neck under the drifting opium clouds on the mainland and about the jeers of the faithful, or a young man deliberately infected by a near-fatal disease. Equally we are used to hearing about Taiwan’s high-tech planning on a supranational scale amid streets jammed with Mercedes and Porsches, and the volatile discussion of democratic practice and Christian belief. What a long way indeed many of us have come, from our absorption with the visionary leaps and passions of China’s Maoist version of socialism, and our disgust with Taiwan’s plodding censorship, denials of basic human rights, and omnipresent police spies. Clio of course has always been a flexible muse, but it is nevertheless surprising how swiftly the flood of books on Taiwan has grown, and how thoroughly the world of the People’s Republic is now being reassessed for inherent flaws and doleful portents.3

Ramon Myers, senior fellow and curator of the East Asian collection at the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace at Stanford University, has long been among those who have strenuously pressed Taiwan’s claims to be studied in its own right, as a counterweight to inadequately critical analysis of the People’ Republic. He has also long called for more favorable assessment of the Kuomintang, the Chinese nationalist party built up by Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek, which has controlled the government on Taiwan since the end of World War II. In the new book he has written with Lai Tse-han and Wei Wou, suitably titled A Tragic Beginning, he and his fellow scholars give us a detailed analysis of the February 28, 1947, uprising by the local Taiwanese against the newly arrived members of the Kuomintang, an uprising quelled by a blood bath that poisoned relations between the island’s troubled residents and their Kuomintang overlords for a generation, and did much to reinforce the widely held view that the nationalist rule on Taiwan was both rapacious and bloodthirsty. The summary sounds harsh but the book may show the degree to which views critical of the Kuomintang are now tolerated, especially since Lai Tse-han himself has recently served as the head of a cabinet-sponsored panel on Taiwan to reassess and reanalyze the incident.4

A Tragic Beginning reminds us how frail was the foundation on which the Taiwanese government built up the economic successes that we now take so much for granted. Though the Japanese—who controlled Taiwan as a colony between 1895 and 1945—had built an industrial infrastructure on the island, and helped to educate a highly articulate and accomplished professional elite, they had also ravaged the domestic and cultural life of Taiwan’s Chinese settlers. During World War II the Japanese insisted that all Taiwanese study Japanese language and history at the expense of their own Chinese heritage, that they declare their loyalty to the emperor of Japan, and even be ready to fight against Chinese forces on the mainland as members of the Japanese army. Japanese “order” on the island had been maintained by enormous forces of regular troops and police, whose sudden removal at the war’s end threatened widespread crime and disorder. And the United States, in the closing year of the war against Japan, had bombed much of Taiwan’s industry, harbor facilities, and transportation networks, making the prospects for effective postwar reconstruction extremely doubtful.

After Japan’s surrender in 1945, a motley contingent of disorganized and poorly disciplined Chinese troops from the mainland stepped into this troubled situation, ferried to Taiwan on American naval transports or flown in on American planes. Initially received at dockside by smartly dressed honor guards of Japanese troops, and welcomed by excited crowds of their compatriots, these mainlanders moved swiftly to gut what was left of Taiwan’s economy. The melancholy story of incompetence, insensitivity, and graft was not helped by the character and actions of the governor that Chiang, Kai-shek chose to run the island, Ch’en I. Born in the coastal province of Chekiang in 1883, Ch’en had studied in both Japan and Germany as a young man, and had grown up to be an obedient follower of the Kuomintang: inflexible, austere, and a master of factional politics. Ch’en packed the Taiwan administration with his own cronies, ignored aspirations of the Taiwanese for a say in the running of their own government and economy, and (although he knew both) refused to speak in the local coastal dialects or in Japanese, the most common languages of the Taiwan elites.

The rapid looting of Taiwan’s resources by his subordinates or by other mainlanders, and the rigor with which a maze of new taxes and monopolies were forced on the Taiwanese, led to a growing local resentment that exploded in late February 1947 with hideous violence after Nationalist monopoly inspectors beat a woman street hawker selling black-market cigarettes, and killed an innocent bystander. Following days of rioting, in which many mainland Chinese were killed or savagely beaten by Taiwanese, Chiang Kai-shek ordered a division of his best troops to the island to quell the unrest which had now begun to include calls for Taiwanese self-government.

Ironically the Kuomintang’s regular army units had recently been recalled to the mainland in a desperate last minute bid by Chiang Kai-shek to check the rapidly expanding Communist forces. The troops now ordered to Taiwan behaved with great cruelty, and the massacre of civilian insurgents and their supposed supporters—as well as Taiwanese shot at random in the streets, bayonetted to death, or drowned—continued until late March, leaving at least eight thousand Taiwanese, and possibly many more, dead. Even if, as the authors are at pains to show, the Taiwanese elite was not “wiped out,”5 the survivors were terrified and cowed, and many were held for decades in Taiwanese prisons—until 1987 in the case of one activist Taiwanese militia leader.

The authors of A Tragic Beginning suggest that, horrendous though this moment was in Taiwan history, it had in it certain positive elements. It spurred the Kuomintang leaders to think more constructively about economic reforms, and gave birth to the idea that Taiwan might be developed as a model province. Though some have also claimed that the insurgency helped to produce the Taiwan Independence Movement, the authors insist that the Independence Movement remained fragmented and rather unclear in its goals, and subject to enervating conflicts of personality among its leaders, thus further reducing the long-range importance of the massacre. Furthermore, perhaps because of the violence of the 1947 events, and the hatred of mainland Chinese that was evidenced there, once the Kuomintang had been forced to the island for good in late 1949, they did allow limited forms of elections. But it was not until 1969 that any Taiwanese voice was allowed in the elections to the central government, not until 1977 that an “opposition party” was allowed to run candidates, and not until 1989 that martial law was fully lifted.

How far Taiwan was from being any kind of economic miracle during the 1950s is powerfully conveyed in the recently published short stories from that period by Bo Yang, himself a refugee from northern China, who joined the exodus to Taiwan in 1949, and wrote a series of searing short stories on the plight of the mainlanders. The harsh realism and almost unrelieved pessimism of these tales was in part the reason for the arrest of Bo Yang by the Kuomintang in 1968 on the grounds that he “undermined the affections between the people and the government.” After serving nine years of a twelve-year sentence, Bo Yang was released, and amply had his revenge in the bitter indictment of Chinese hypocrisy and cruelty of his 1984 essay “The Ugly Chinaman,” which circulated widely in the West, and eventually in both Taiwan and the People’s Republic.

  1. 1

    Both stories were given lengthy coverage in The New York Times, October 27, 1991. Further documentation for such abuses is presented in enormous detail in Anthems of Defeat, Crackdown in Hunan Province 1989–1992: An Asia Watch Report, 1992.

  2. 2

    See “China Allowing Ailing Dissident to Leave for US,” The New York Times, August 20, 1992.

  3. 3

    For some recent and darker analyses of the rise and growth of the Chinese Communist Party, see especially Edward Friedman, Paul G. Pickowicz, Mark Selden, with Kay Ann Johnson, Chinese Village, Socialist State (Yale University Press, 1991); David Bachman, Bureaucracy, Economy, and Leadership in China: The Institutional Origins of the Great Leap Forward (Cambridge University Press, 1991); Hung Yung Lee, From Revolutionary Cadres to Party Technocrats in Socialist China (University of California Press, 1991); Tony Saich, The Origins of the First United Front in China: The Role of Sneevliet (alias Maring), two volumes (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1991).

  4. 4

    On Lai Tse-han and the review panel, see the China Post, February 11, 1992.

  5. 5

    In a fact-filled paragraph on page 160 of A Tragic Beginning, the authors state that “0.012 percent of the elite were killed.” Since they estimated those killed in the massacres at 8,000 Taiwanese and 4,000 of those victims as being members of the elite, with a total elite population being 325,000, one assumed there is a misprint in the text. If 4 out of every 325 members of the elite were killed, that would be somewhat over 1 percent.

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