Taiwan’s ‘White Terror’ dictatorship still divides society

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As Taiwan heads to the polls for a presidential election on January 13, we look back at a dark chapter in the island’s past. Almost 80 years ago, on February 28, 1947, tens of thousands of Taiwanese who had risen up against the government were murdered. It was the start of the “White Terror” period. For 40 years, the Taiwanese were deprived of their freedoms, wrongly imprisoned or even executed. In 1987, with the lifting of martial law, Taiwan began its march towards democracy, and three decades later a Transitional Justice Commission was set up to work towards reconciliation. Our correspondent Lucie Barbazanges reports on a past that continues to haunt the Taiwanese people.


At the end of World War II, the island of Taiwan, which had been occupied for 50 years by Japan, was handed over to China, ruled at the time by Chiang Kai-shek’s Chinese Nationalist Party, the Kuomintang. But in 1947, the Chinese troops who landed on the island were met with rioting from the local population, whose living conditions were deteriorating. The ensuing crackdown turned into a massacre. So began the “White Terror”, which lasted for 40 years.

Things got even worse from 1949, when the Kuomintang was driven out of China by the Communists and Chiang Kai-shek retreated to Taiwan, where he established the Republic of China, becoming president for life and declaring martial law. Under his dictatorship, the political rights of the Taiwanese people were suppressed and several thousand of them, accused of being political opponents, were executed. Tens of thousands more were imprisoned. 

It was only in 1987 that martial law was lifted and Taiwan began its march towards democracy. As the island slowly woke up from a painful nightmare, it grappled with the atrocities committed over the years. How could those responsible for the “White Terror” be brought to justice? How could victims be rehabilitated?

In 2000, the first peaceful transfer of power to the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) sped up debate. But it’s above all the incumbent Taiwanese President, Tsai Ing-wen of the DPP – who has stood up to Beijing during her two terms at the helm – who has tackled the subject head-on.

Read moreBeijing’s narrative pushes Taiwan to rethink its own history

Battle for collective memory

In 2018, a Transitional Justice Commission was created. For four years, it worked to reconcile Taiwanese society: the vast majority of symbols of authoritarianism were removed; thousands of political archives were collected, declassified and analysed; teams worked to find former political prisoners in order to rehabilitate and compensate them; and therapeutic centres were opened for victims and their loved ones.

But implementing transitional justice is complex. The Kuomintang continued to rule Taiwan for 13 years after martial law was lifted and is still one of the island’s main political parties..

Meanwhile, many archives have disappeared, notably with the dissolution of the secret police. The dictatorship remains a taboo topic in many Taiwanese families. Even today, the subject of the “White Terror” remains a battle for collective memory that divides Taiwanese society.

Source: Thanks france24