04/23/2015 04:45 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Lingering Shadows: A Retrospective on 228 and the White Terror

Gideon Welles investigates how the 228 Incident and the White Terror, two dark chapters of Taiwanese history, are looked upon today.

"Each man was trussed up and the lot were bound together, neck-to-neck, by heavy cords. They were headed toward the river on the outskirts of town and there could be no doubt that they would be tortured or dead within the hour."

The passage above, from U.S. diplomat George Kerr's Formosa Betrayed, ranks among the least harrowing vignettes of the 228 Incident, when thousands of mostly native Taiwanese civilians were killed during a crackdown by Nationalist (Kuomintang) forces in 1947. Even after the incident, subjugation of the local population only intensified after Chiang Kai-shek's arrival in 1949. In fact, the establishment of Taipei as the Kuomintang's (KMT) new capital marked the beginning of martial law on the island, a period also known as the "White Terror." From 1949 to 1987, Chiang Kai-shek and his son, Chiang Ching-kuo, suppressed any inkling of political dissent as their regime incarcerated about 140,000 Taiwanese and executed more than 3,000 perceived opponents to the KMT.

To this day, the 228 Incident and the White Terror serve as sociopolitical symbols and painful milestones in Taiwanese history, underpinning the schism between the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and the mainland China-friendly KMT. "228 will always be an important part of the myth of Taiwan...and part of the narrative of the nation," says Craig A. Smith, History professor at the University of British Columbia and a former Fellow of the Academia Sinica, Taiwan's national academy. This narrative poses renewed relevance, given last year's Sunflower Movement, when student-led civic groups protested against a proposed free-trade pact with mainland China, and the KMT's abysmal showing in November's 9-in-1 elections. Both events captured the zeitgeist of discontent surrounding President Ma Ying-jeou's administration of the KMT, a factor that may well determine the outcome of next year's Presidential election. But for many, the seeds of enmity can be traced back to the Nationalists' arrival in 1945.

Notable 'Green' presence at this year's 228 Memorial.

A Breaking Point

On October 24, 1945, Governor Chen Yi accepted the Japanese surrender of Taiwan, proclaiming the Retrocession Day and marking the return of Taiwan to Chinese control after fifty years of Japanese rule. When immigrants began to arrive from mainland China between 1945 and 1949, the consequences of fifty years of Japanese stewardship soon became apparent. Cultural differences and linguistic tensions brewed between the "backwards" Mainlanders (waishengren, or 'foreign-born people'), and native-born Taiwanese (benshengren), who were "viewed as Japanese dogs," says Paul Tseng, assistant researcher at the Taipei 228 Memorial Museum.

The most striking discrepancy was in education, a difference that hindered Taiwanese intellectuals from playing an active role in reform. "Taiwanese were not schooled in classical Chinese, and their qualifications were in Japanese, so they could not be politicians in the KMT's eyes," adds Tseng. As even the Governor of Taiwan Chen Yi believed that the Taiwanese were too "politically retarded" for self-determination, officials from the Mainland were appointed to high-level positions instead. On top of having their political dreams dashed, locals were increasingly marginalized economically as Governor Chen maintained state monopolies established by the Japanese.

The breaking point arrived on February 27, 1947, when agents from the governmental Tobacco Monopoly Bureau confiscated contraband cigarettes from a 40-year-old vendor. Her resistance was met with a blow to the head. The surrounding crowd protested, and in the ensuing melee, the agents shot and killed a bystander. Public anger spread quickly via radio and erupted into an island-wide rebellion against the KMT mandate. From February 28 to March 7, waishengren who had immigrated to Taiwan at the end of the Chinese Civil War were targeted at random. Hundreds were killed. In spite of its intensity, the Taiwanese insurrection was short-lived.

Once Chiang Kai-shek approved the order to restore control, the 21st Army Division landed in Keelung on March 7, 1947. Their crackdown lasted until May 12. A 1992 Executive Yuan report estimated a death toll of 18,000 to 28,000, but overtime, this figure has become politically contentious. Given that Taiwan's population totaled approximately four million at the time, Tseng says that such a large loss would have been catastrophic for Taiwanese society and he personally prefers to settle on a more "realistic" 4,000. At the extreme end of the spectrum, Xi Xiande, Associate Professor of Journalism at Fujen University, argues that such figures are grossly inflated, "only nine hundred people have been verified as having been killed by [Governor Chen's] army; anything else is speculation and politically motivated."

While the death toll has been vigorously contested, the brutality of the KMT's response certainly remains clear. When the KMT army landed, they engaged in no less than a killing spree. Victims were lined up against the river, their hands and feet pierced and tied with barbed wire before being shot in the back.

Tseng attributes this brutal response to the Mainlander's loss of face to the Taiwanese and Japanese: "when the Nationalist soldiers first arrived in Taiwan, they lacked confidence." Their disheveled and ragged appearances did not match the expectations of postwar liberators as posited by Taiwanese, or the better drilled and orderly Japanese. Thus, 228 was an "overcompensated effort by the KMT to assert control over Taiwan, a new colony that they did not understand," he adds. Violence was spurred on by the KMT agents' "informational asymmetry." Tseng reveals, "soldiers were in an awkward position. Without war to advance themselves, they fed exaggerated information to their superiors."

This mindset of informational asymmetry persisted in the witch-hunt for Communist bandit spies after the Nationalists retreated to Taiwan in 1949. Initially precarious, Chiang's regime was ensconced once the Korean War forced President Truman to neutralize the Taiwan Strait with the Seventh Fleet, thereby preventing any PRC invasion. Nevertheless, several years of anti-communist propaganda culminated with the beginning of the thirty-eight-year White Terror, during which many individuals were imprisoned, tortured and marginalized as the Chiang regime purged Taiwanese intellectuals and whoever was perceived as connected to the Mainland. Purges in Taiwan continued throughout the 1960s, with slogans such as "capturing one hundred innocent people is better than letting one guilty person get away" that embodied stringent KMT doctrine.

Yao Chia-Wen, former second chairperson of the DPP.

From Victims to Challengers

The scale of last year's Sunflower Movement evoked memories of the civic unrest of the early 1970s in Taiwan, when a new generation of activists began to challenge martial law. After the United Nations switched its recognition of China from the Republic of China (ROC) to the People's Republic of China (PRC) in 1971, Taiwan's international status was called into question with little leeway to resist the transfer of the East China Sea islands (diaoyutai) to Japan the same year. Nationalist sentiment rose among young, left-wing intellectualists, who were dismayed by the government's passiveness. "After the diaoyutai, they were afraid of Taiwan being returned to Japan," says Wang Xiaobo, philosophy professor at the National Taiwan University (NTU), "How could they justify martial law, if they couldn't oppose the US or Japan?"

With the Taiwan miracle yet to spur Taiwan's sluggish economy, discontent students saw studying abroad as the only outlet. "Young people were eager to leave, they often said 'come, come, come to NTU, go, go, go to the USA!'," Wang recalls. Wang was one of the several faculty dismissed and imprisoned as a result of the NTU Department of Philosophy incident, when the regime targeted educators sympathetic to student activists from 1972 to 1975. By then, the nature of activism had evolved, but the government's response had not. Government critics were still labelled "communist sympathizers."

Around then, the first wave of students, brimming with foreign exposure to democracy and liberal thought, returned to Taiwan. One of these was Yao-Chia-wen, a lawyer who had studied at the University of California, Berkeley, who soon began to challenge martial law by giving legal aid and demanding social welfare. "It was not possible to form political organizations then, [but] we were very successful in challenging the regime until we were grabbed," Yao remembers.

As one of the Kaohsiung Eight, Yao was one of the eight activist leaders arrested after the 1979 Formosa Incident, when pro-democracy demonstrations in Kaohsiung were quelled. By demanding congressional and constitutional reforms, Yao and his peers had gone too far in government's eyes. Initially sentenced thirteen years, Yao was released in seven years, thereupon becoming the chairperson of the DPP. While public discussion of 228 remained taboo until after martial law was lifted in 1987, it increasingly gained symbolic importance to the then-nascent Taiwanese independence movement. "In 228, Taiwanese people were sufferers of oppression," says Yao, "but during the Formosa Incident - we became challengers."

Under President Lee Teng-hui , the government apologized for 228, established February 28 as a memorial day, and began to compensate victims. However, some argue this is not enough.

"Government compensation was not an admission of fault, but of sympathy to victims," argues Xi. Families who suffered a death originally asked for NT$10 million ($320,000), but the government responded with NT$6 million ($192,400). Despite the government's financial compensation, "from the victims point of view, [any] money is never enough," says Wang, whose mother was executed during the White Terror. Wang believes the public is too focused on the 228 victims and too little on the victims of the White Terror. He asks, "proportionally, the majority of White Terror victims were waishengren. When do we remember them?"

Since 1989, the government has awarded NT$26 billion ($850 million) to the victims of both 228 and the White Terror. However, Yao and those aligned with the DPP claim 228 victims are underrepresented due to the high burden of proof required by the government, for many records were either destroyed or simply never existed. "If a soldier comes and kills people in a street [at random], how can you prove it happened?," Yao asks. This longstanding struggle for disclosure should have advanced when the government made White Terror prisoners' dossiers public in November. However, when requested access to files at the Jingmei Human Rights Memorial, they only said that owing to Taiwan's strict privacy protection laws, the files had not actually been released.

While Wang upholds victims' right to personal privacy, he also suggests political motives at work. "If those records were made public, we might find out that certain people were bought out," hinting that it was in the interests of the KMT and certain DPP members to maintain such secrecy. In 2006, a newly commissioned government report placed Chiang Kai-shek at fault for 228, but as with previous assessments, placing blame has not elevated 228 from a political issue. "Rather than blaming individuals, you have to look at the systematic response," Smith says. "Otherwise, it's a politically motivated attack." Smith cites efforts made by the new Taipei mayor Ko Wen-je, whose grandfather was a White Terror victim, to transcend partisan politics, and recent literature that views 228 from a sociological perspective. "Discussions about 228 and the White Terror have been useful when [directed at] gender inequality, aboriginals, and peoples on all margins of society," Smith adds.

Pro-independence demonstrators at this year's 228 memorial holding banners saying "Taiwan people are not Chinese people".

The Road Ahead

But there are still lingering shadows. On February 28 this year, activists pelted Chiang Kai-shek's memorial with eggs, shouting "murderer."

For Yao, 228 remains a lesson that Taiwan must strive towards independence. "We believe that if [we] have a new government of Mainland China, we may have another 228," he cautions.

How the myth of 228 will be deployed ahead of next year's election depends on the strength of the DPP. "228 is only used when the DPP [is] feeling weak or victimized," says Daniel Lynch, an associate professor of International Relations at University of Southern California, "but I don't see them reaching into the negative past. They should be more confident now."

Nevertheless, the legacy of the Sunflower movement and KMT's resounding defeat in the 9-in-1 elections signals a shift in the political climate. With next year's presidential election on the horizon, pro-independence rhetoric is making a comeback in Taiwan. Indeed, a recent poll by Taiwan Thinktank reveals that seventy percent of Taiwanese believe that the DPP will win next year's election. A new chapter in Taiwanese politics lays ahead, but the memory of 228 and the White Terror remains ever-present.

Gideon Welles is a graduate of the University of Southern California who is currently studying Chinese at National Taiwan University. You can contact him at

This article also appears in China Hands.