KMT values dictatorship above democracy

taiwan-democracy-hall-name-plaque

Plaque bearing the Chinese characters for Taiwan Democracy Memorial Hall (photo taken 19 January 2009)

The Taipei Times today reports that the military honor guard has been restored to the hall in central Taipei which contains a large statue honoring former dictator Chiang Kai-shek. The guards were earlier removed by the DPP government when it changed the name of the hall to Taiwan Democracy Memorial Hall.

This follows the Legislative Yuan recently passing a resolution to remove the name plaque with the Chinese characters for Taiwan Democracy Memorial Hall (臺灣民主紀念館) and replace them with the plaque reading Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall (中正紀念堂). I earlier posted about the KMT government officially reverting the name of Taiwan Democracy Memorial Hall to Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall in August 2008. The government says it has no plan to remove the four characters for Freedom Square (自由廣場) from the main gate of the Hall.

The DPP was criticised for its handling of the name change in 2007. However, the KMT has shown a complete disregard for public opinion and avoided any public consultation over the issue. This article in the Taipei Times on Thursday quoted Vice Minister of Education Lu Mu-lin (呂木琳) as saying this was because the majority of experts invited to a separate forum on educational issues felt that a forum gauging public opinion on the plaque change could increase tensions between supporters of different political parties. In other words because the name change would be vigourously opposed they would just avoid holding any discussions on the issue.

The Taipei Times had an excellent editorial on Friday condemning the government for its actions.

With the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) so singularly unwilling to conduct even the slightest iota of reflection on its continued unwavering worship of dictator Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) — a man considered by most of the rest of the world as a corrupt, megalomaniac butcher — it seems Taiwanese will never experience transitional justice of any form.

The biggest hurdle to this is that there are still far too many people in high office — including President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) — who owe everything to the cronyism and patronage networks that were constructed under the Chiang dynasty. Until such people fall from grace — something that does not look likely to happen anytime soon — Taiwan and those whose families suffered at the hands of the Chiangs during the 228 Incident and the ensuing White Terror will continue to be denied a chance for truth and reconciliation.

Instead, they will have to endure the prospect of daily encounters with the countless statues, memorials and places dedicated to the dead dictator that dot the nation.

Although the current KMT government was democratically elected its actions clearly show it values dictatorship more than democracy. The KMT is showing a blatant disregard for the very people that elected it to government by continuing to honor a man who unleashed decades of terror on Taiwan. Its actions must be condemned by all who value Taiwan’s democracy.

11 thoughts on “KMT values dictatorship above democracy

  1. David, you wrote:
    – – –
    In other words because the name change would be vigourously opposed they would just avoid holding any discussions on the issue.
    – – –

    You hit the nail on the head. That practically defines authoritarianism.

    Tim Maddog

  2. Around the time of the election I read a poll in the Apple Daily, the closest thing to a politically neutral paper we have, on this issue. The majority were in favor of restoring the original name. It wasn’t a slim majority either, it was similar to the landslide that Ma won by.

    The DDP didn’t consult anyone before changing the name against the wishes of the majority in 2007, and now the KMT isn’t consulting anyone before changing back to what the majority of the pollsters preferred.

    In any case, there are definitely more pressing matters for the government to be worrying about than this.

  3. Mark,

    CKS deprived the people of Taiwan of their democratic rights for 40 years. The fact that some still seek to honour him despite two decades of democratisation is an indicator that Taiwan still has a long way to go to free itself of CKS’s legacy. Many of Taiwan’s political problems are rooted in the failure to achieve transitional justice and the burden of having the ROC government framework imposed on the Taiwanese people. The presence of his statue in the centre of the capital is deeply offensive to those people who suffered directly under CKS. Furthermore, it is offensive to anyone who truly values principles of justice, freedom and democracy.

    Whatever mistakes the DPP made in handling the name change will not be solved by simply reverting the name back to CKS Memorial Hall without any discussion or debate. The way forward is to create a society that is inclusive and respectful of all its citizens. The KMT’s continuing worship of CKS is only sowing further seeds of hatred and division in society.

  4. David,

    I agree that CKS allowed terrible things to happen under his rule. The same is true of Hirohito among others, despite extensive attempts to whitewash history. However, it isn’t up to westerners to educate the locals about who to elect or what to name their buildings.

    Claims of “dictatorship” when the locals don’t vote the way we might want them aren’t a service to anyone. The truth is Taiwan is a very free place and that people have chosen their leaders democratically. Maybe in a few years they won’t choose a 3/4 KMT legislature. Maybe they’ll vote a DPP president in. Maybe not. It’s their vote. That’s how democracy works.

  5. Mark,

    This blog is a place where I am free to express my opinion. Others can choose whether they read it and also whether they agree or disagree with it. I am certainly not trying to educate locals about how to vote.

    I don’t make the “claim” of dictatorship based on the way local people voted. It is a statement of historical fact referring to CKS’s rule over Taiwan. It seems to me that the current KMT government, which was democratically elected, views this period of dictatorship in a way that doesn’t accord with reality and values some of things from that time more highly than the democracy that exist now.

    With regard to the naming of the Hall, it is obviously not something that you care about. That’s fine, but please respect the fact that for some people it is important and has a great deal of meaning.

  6. David, I believe Mark is making a valid point. There are endless little details about the current Taiwan that are offensive to some of the population. Even more issues have to do with the identity of Taiwan. To those who suffered under CKS – The use of “Republic of China”, the KMT flag, the KMT national anthem, and ofcourse – having Chiang Kai Shek and other Republic of China leaders everywhere (statues, street names, memorial halls). To those who came with the KMT it might very well be the opposite. Since Taiwan is a democracy – it’s up to the people to decide what government and leadership they want that would handle those issues, and whether we like it or not (seems most foreigners don’t) the Taiwanese have shown outstanding support for the KMT in both presidential and yuan elections.

    One can oppose the name change and the way police secured the visitor from China without saying that the current elected leadership of Taiwan supports dictatorship. I believe that foreigners should be especially sensitive in making such statements.

  7. That is an irrelevant comparison made by Mark between CKS and Hirohito, and shows a misunderstanding of the prewar Japanese imperial system of government .

    As Herbert Bix illustrates in “Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan”, the emperor did play an influential role in the decision-making process that led to Japan’s disaster in the Second World War. However, for the most part, he was a constitutional figurehead that presided over governments that acted in his name. Is Mark suggesting that CKS was in a similar position?

  8. Fili,

    I must again disagree. It is a shame this issue has been used as a political football. It goes beyond being an election issue or even an issue of national identity. It is about justice and reconciliation which is essential for Taiwan to move forward as a society.

    I understand the word dictatorship is very strong. However, I have chosen the words I have used here carefully and stand by them.

    I would also like to draw all reader’s attention to Paul Katz’s article about this issue at The China Beat.

  9. I understand this is a sensitive discussion but I will say one more thing.

    Most societies haven’t done much to address some of the injustices made against some of their citizens. The Australians have the Aboriginals and “Australia day”, the US have the native-Americans and the African-Americans, the British/French/Germans have their own share, and so does – naturally, Israel. This doesn’t go to say that choosing “Australia Day” over “Aboriginal Day of Mourning” means the Australian government supports dictatorship.

    I know it’s not a 100% valid comparison, but I think you get my point. In anycase, it for the societies themselves to deal with those issues. Assumption of universal values and sense of truth (right/wrong) should be done with extreme care.

  10. Fili,

    I also thought of the Australian situation in relation this. Although it is not directly analogous you can draw comparisons in how societies react to and deal with these issues. In the Australian case the issue is not dictatorship but racism. I wouldn’t hesitate to use the word racism in discussing the issue there.

    I strongly believe that the values of human rights are universal. They can be found in the teachings of all the major wisdom traditions. And the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights won support from almost all the countries of the world when it was adopted in the years immediately following WW2. Here in Taiwan rights are also defined and expressed in Chapter 2 of the Constitution. I also believe that to be silent in the face of injustice or oppression is to condone that injustice.

    Justice and reconciliation are essential for healing the past sufferings of the society. They are not values that belong to a particular culture, although different cultures will use different methods to achieve these things. South Africa and East Timor are two examples of societies that have gone through the process of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. These countries still face many problems, but they are better off as a result of having gone through the process.

    Regarding the use of the word dictatorship I say this because the KMT actively seeks to glorify the reputation of CKS despite the fact that he was a dictator who exercised a rule of terror over Taiwan. There is also a clear and ongoing pattern of anti-democratic behaviour by the current KMT government. The use of the word is certainly strong but I think it is well justified.

    Finally, the Taipei Times published my letter on the Memorial Hall name change today. I plan to write more about the issue of transitional justice as well.

  11. This is a very interesting question: Just how long should dictators and other authoritarian leaders be allowed to be tolerated and even officially revered after the transition to democracy, using public funds and in prominent public places like schools, statues at major intersections, and in major public places like Chiang Kai-Shek’s Democracy Memorial Hall?

    I’m not from Taiwan, and I suppose if I was Taiwanese and had been eductaed in the Taiwanese school system, I would also likely feel twinges of nostalgia for the old days and the benevolent leaders I was taught to respect. So, of course there is a culture gap.

    But it strikes me as somewhat of a ‘chicken-or-the-egg’ conundrum. Is the fact that these symbols of the old authoritarian regime are so tolerated simply the glaring evidence that any sort of transitional justice has yet to be undertaken, and evidence that the average citizen has not been educated sufficiently on the true nature of the old regime?

    Or could it also be that these symbols and associated rituals are THEMSELVES part of the problem? That’s my opinion, and why I can’t see it as just a “non-issue”.

    People also have to realize that the mere fact that the president and his whole party continue the protect (and are even replacing) the symbols, and continue to participate in the rituals meant to show reverence to the old authoritarian leaders, is ITSELF an impediment to a necessary re-evaluation of recent history. The symbols and the rituals serve to lend legitimacy to the old regime and authoritarianism.

    What if the governor of Georgia (USA) decided that the old confederate flag ought to be flown again at the statehouse and other public places, and that it would be good PR to bring flowers to Robert E. Lee’s grave each year? They’re just symbols, after all, and we can’t just forget our past. You could take polls in certain neighborhoods and find a majority of people who would approve, or at least not actively oppose it. And people who protest are just looking for another opportunity to stirr up ethnic tensions.

    Wouldn’t you agree that allowing those symbols to be used would be a serious hindrance to an unbiased understanding of history and justice? Children would see that the old ways could not have been SO bad, because the public is still proud of the old regime, and still publically shows respect to the leaders of the old regime.

    The most relevant question for me, is how well can you expect young people in Taiwan to learn the vital lessons of their recent history (as well as the critical importance of the process of fostering the growth of democracy and civil society in Taiwan) as long as it is considered entirely proper to show reverence and respect to a dictator, and thus also to the one-party authoritarian regime, and the injustices that occurred under that regime?

    Is that such an unreasonable question to ask?

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