Chiang Kai-shek statues become targets as Taiwan confronts history

A person touching a bust of Taiwan's former ruler Chiang Kai-shek i Taoyuan on July 5.
A person touching a bust of Taiwan's former ruler Chiang Kai-shek i Taoyuan on July 5.PHOTO: REUTERS

TAIPEI (AFP) - One has been beheaded, others defaced. Some are dressed in costumes by pranksters. Statues of Taiwan's former ruler Chiang Kai-shek have been increasingly targeted as the island confronts its authoritarian past.

Though still seen as a hero by some in Taiwan for waging war against communist China under the banner of the nationalist Kuomintang (KMT), Chiang has long been a divisive figure.

His role in Taiwan's "White Terror" - a purge of political opponents - and his imposition of martial law have led many to brand him a dictator synonymous with the authoritarianism that wary Taiwanese now equate with mainland rule.

Despite splitting after a civil war, China considers the island as a part of its territory awaiting reunification, by force if necessary. Fears over increased Chinese influence have grown since 2008 under President Ma Ying-jeou's KMT government, which has forged a rapprochement with Beijing.

Chiang's authoritarianism has outweighed his Nationalist credentials and his image is wrapped up in that concern, with young people in particular feeling strongly that his memory should not be celebrated.

"Chiang was a dictator. For a long time, freedom of speech in Taiwan was suppressed," said Peter Chu, 23, a graduate student at National Taiwan University of Science and Technology.

"Why should his statues be allowed to remain on any campus? There have been calls for removing the statue (at my school), but the school authorities have done nothing about it," says student activist Chu Chen, 18, who attends the prestigious Taipei Municipal Jianguo High School.

"Every year, graduates decorate the statue mocking it." Students most recently decked it out the figure in an E.T. costume, with a helmet and wings.

The animosity is not all about avenging the past.

Chu is part of a campaign against what protesters call "China-centric" changes to the school curriculum by the ruling Beijing-friendly KMT government.

He says youngsters' anti-Chiang sentiment stems from the same drive: to take control of their own destinies.

"Chiang Kai-shek was a symbol of Taiwan's past authoritarian rule. So is the new curriculum, which has forced us into obeying something we think is not right. The objection shares the same reason," he told AFP.

Students last week stormed the education ministry compound after a young activist committed suicide.

Some remain camped out there, demanding the retraction of the curriculum changes and the resignation of the education minister.

- Authoritarian icon -

As leader of the KMT, Chiang fought a civil war on the mainland with the Chinese communists before being defeated and fleeing to Taiwan in 1949, where he imposed martial law.

The island had previously been under Japanese rule until 1945, when it was given to China. Chiang remained its leader until his death in 1975.

Political opposition was banned and newspapers barred until martial law was eventually lifted in 1987.

But it was an incident 50 years previously that first sparked Taiwanese resentment.

The massacre on February 28, 1947 - known as the 2/28 Incident - saw troops brutally quell an anti-government uprising triggered when an inspector beat a woman selling untaxed cigarettes in Taipei.

Thousands of people were tortured and killed during the subsequent "White Terror" crackdown.

Though Chiang was not on the island for the 2/28 incident he has been held responsible for ordering the army to step in, and it has become an easy symbol for the animosity against him, which becomes particularly pronounced on the anniversary.

There were a record 30 attacks on statues of Chiang on February 28 this year, with one beheaded and others smeared with red paint.

"Many of the attacks (on statues) were done by students, who believe Chiang is the icon not only of the Kuomintang's authoritarian rule of Taiwan but also of a regime from China," said Shih Cheng-feng of National Dong Hwa University in the eastern Hualien county.

"As Chiang's statues are on every corner, they have easily become the targets of growing anti-China sentiment," he said.

- Statue graveyard -

Chiang's public profile was steadily eroded under the rule of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) from 2000-2008, with statues removed and street names changed.

Traditionally Beijing-sceptic and pro-independence, the DPP changed the name of the island's main airport from Chiang Kai-shek to Taoyuan, dropped his memorial day as an official holiday, and scrapped his image from bank notes.

Schools were asked to stop singing songs portraying him as a "national saviour" and "great world leader".

But some iconography survived.

In March this year, the DPP mayor of the southern city of Tainan, William Lai, ordered the removal of Chiang statues from 16 schools.

"Chiang's statues have political implications and are very controversial. They should be removed," Lai said.

They were sent to a museum in the northern city of Taoyuan which also houses Chiang's mausoleum.

In recent years it has become a graveyard of unwanted Chiang icons, with 218 statues currently on display. Officials there expect numbers to rise as more are discarded.

Three presidents, including current leader Ma, have apologised to the families of the 1947 massacre victims. They were given compensation after a government investigation said that Chiang "should bear the biggest responsibility" for the incident.

Yet bitterness remains.

"The transition of justice has not been completed," Taipei-based rights lawyer Lai Chung-chiang told AFP.

"Despite a democracy, the remnants of the authoritarian ruling, like Chiang's statues, still stand."