The modern history of Taiwan can be divided into five parts: the Dutch period (1624-1662), the kingdom of Cheng period (1662-1683), the Qing Dynasty period (1683-1895), the Japanese colonial period (1895-1945), and the postwar period (1945-present). The postwar period in Taiwan is very different from its previous periods. The most significant differences are the achievement of democratization and the independence movement.
Both democratization and the independence movement are related to or originated in the February 28 Incident (also known as 228) that happened in 1947. If we want to understand the complicated political changes and disputes or social conflicts in Taiwan, the 228 Incident offers an essential historical background. Besides, the Taiwan issue also relates to the regional security of East Asia and the national security of the United States. The 228 Incident can also provide a historical and geopolitical perspective for thinking about the Taiwan issue. To learn Taiwan’s postwar history, the 228 Incident is a necessary step.
This article attempts to introduce this historical event that happened in Taiwan and points out its affiliation with the regional security of East Asia through the history of US policy toward Taiwan.
The cause of the 228 Incident
Taiwan was a colony of the Japanese Empire from 1895 to 1945. During World War II, President Roosevelt decided that Taiwan should return to China after the war because he wanted to strengthen the US alliance with China. This decision put Taiwan into a disastrous situation after the war.
Under the rule of the Japanese government, Taiwan experienced modernization in terms of politics, economy, and even in social and cultural development. If we compare the economic and social situation of Taiwan and China at that time, Taiwan was a modernizing region, while China was an underdeveloped country. This was an extreme and dispiriting contrast. Politically, the leader of China, Chiang Kai-shek, was a famous dictator, and the ruling party, the Nationalists or the Kuomintang, was also well known for corruption and incompetence.
After the takeover of Taiwan by the Kuomintang in October 1945, every aspect of Taiwan’s life deteriorated very fast. Many factories closed, the Taiwanese lost their jobs, the cost of living skyrocketed, and public health declined rapidly. Only the government officials who came from the mainland of China lived in luxury, mainly because they controlled the economy in addition to the government. This situation was unfair and made the Taiwanese very angry. Finally, it led to a strong protest by the Taiwanese against the Kuomintang rule on February 28, 1947, after the beating of a widow who was selling cigarettes illegally.
During that protest, the authorities killed someone who protested the widow’s treatment. The demonstration evolved into a conflict between the Taiwanese and the new Chinese officials. The conflict began in Taipei, but in no time spread to every city of Taiwan. However, instead of investigating the responsibility of the incompetent government, Chiang Kai-shek sent the military to suppress the protest and massacred thousands of Taiwanese. Moreover, Chiang seized this chance to purge Taiwanese elites, executing many intellectuals and local leaders. This historical event is called the 228 Incident.
The impact of the 228 Incident
The 228 Incident impacted Taiwan in several ways. The first and more immediate impact was the Kuomintang’s high-handed rule over Taiwan after the 228 Incident. Chiang Kai-Shek’s military killed thousands of Taiwanese people during the suppression. Chiang’s regime was afraid of Taiwanese opposition or possible rebellion, so they enforced martial law that went on for 38 years. Under martial law, the Chiang regime could arrest anyone and even put them to death if the authorities suspected they had the wrong political views. The 228 Incident became a “taboo” in Taiwan, and anyone who dared to talk about it in public could be put into jail. The 38- year-long martial law period was also called the “White Terror.” It is estimated that the Chiang regime put more than ten thousand people to death during the martial law period.
The second impact was the social contradiction between Taiwanese people and mainland Chinese. The corruption and incompetence of the Chinese government was the main reason that triggered the 228 Incident. People who came from China after the war are usually called “mainland Chinese.” After the 228 Incident, the Chiang regime did little political reform but relied even more heavily on the mainland Chinese as government officials. The mainland Chinese not only became the ruling class but also enjoyed a lot of political and social privileges.
In contrast, the Taiwanese were the exploited class; they enjoyed no privilege and were even discriminated against by mainland Chinese. Only those Taiwanese who joined the clientelist system of Kuomintang could enjoy limited political and economic privileges. This situation caused the social conflict between Taiwanese and mainland Chinese. Chiang and his Kuomintang regime did nothing to resolve the social conflict; instead, they used it to their political benefit.
The third impact is on national identity. Although martial law ended in 1987, and the people of Taiwan were allowed freedom of speech, there is still conflict between the two views of national identity in Taiwan. One is that Taiwanese are not Chinese and that Taiwan should be a democratic, independent country; the other is that Taiwan is a part of China, that Taiwanese are Chinese, and that Taiwan should reunify with China in the future. These two views of national identity originated in the 228 Incident.
The 228 Incident is a pivotal point that gave rise to the opposing views. As we know, Taiwan was a colony in the first half of the 20th century. Most other colonized areas were asking for independence during World War II. However, partly because Japan modernized Taiwan, the Taiwanese did not think of themselves as an independent country and could not catch the chance to self-determination after the surrender of Japan. Therefore, they accepted the decision of takeover by China made by the Allies during the war.
Before the 228 Incident, the Taiwanese hoped for greater local autonomy under the Chinese government. However, the Chiang regime saw “autonomy” as a betrayal of China and eventually sent the military to massacre Taiwanese people and used the “White Terror” measures to rule Taiwan. These results awakened the Taiwanese to the idea that Taiwanese are not Chinese. They became passionate about pursuing nationhood for Taiwan. That is the Taiwan independence movement.
In contrast, the members of the Kuomintang and most of the mainlanders who lost their privileges after democratization still identified themselves with China even though China is a communist and totalitarian country. They use their influence on their controlled media or even on the education system to advocate that China has a prosperous economy and an enlightened government and that “one country, two systems” is fit for Taiwan. It is an extreme irony and a crisis for Taiwan, considering that Taiwan is an economically developed country and has a democracy.
The responsibility of the United States for the 228 Incident
The most important political development of the world in the 20th century is the self-determination of colonized people and the value of human rights. President Wilson had advocated self-determination for all colonized people, and the Atlantic Charter declared “the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live.” However, when the United States made the decision to return Taiwan to China, they did not respect the right of Taiwanese to choose their government.
Under international law, Taiwan was still not yet China’s territory, and Taiwanese still belonged to Japanese nationality, not Chinese nationality, at that time. When the corruption and incompetence occurred in Taiwan after the Chinese took over, and even when the 228 Massacre happened in Taiwan and the Kuomintang government purged Taiwanese elites, which violated international law, the US government generally kept silent. If the United States had said “No” or “That is against international law” to the Chiang regime affirmatively, it definitely could have saved more Taiwanese lives.
The introduction to the 228 Incident resources
The most famous book about the 228 Incident is Formosa Betrayed, published in 1965. It is a book that looks at the 228 Incident from the perspective of an American eyewitness. The author, George H. Kerr, was one of very few Americans who had been in Taiwan before the war and then served in the Military Intelligence Service (MIS) during the war. He was a vice-consul in Taipei after the war when he witnessed the 228 Incident. His views in this book include the importance of Taiwan to the US national interest, which can be interpreted today as the issue of national security. In addition, he also looked at the meaning of Taiwan and Okinawa from the geopolitical viewpoint. Finally, his book examines the abuse on human rights to the Taiwanese people and even to the Chinese people by the KMT government.
Formosa Betrayed is the first book about the 228 Incident in English, and also a very detailed book of the 228 Incident compared to the very few books in Chinese at that time. Its impact on the Taiwanese is not only in its record of the 228 Incident but also in how it served to inspire the Taiwanese for the independence movement even today. If the reader has not enough time to read through the whole book, you can read at least from chapter 1 to chapter 10, and you will find how inspiring it is.
In addition, there are books or papers that talk about the 228 Incident from the academic perspective: The Far East in the Modern World by Franz H. Michael & George E. Taylor, and Taiwan’s Movement into Political Modernity, 1945-1972 by Richard L. Walker. However, these two books dedicate only one section to the 228 Incident. Other works published after the 1990s include A Tragic Beginning: The Taiwan Uprising of February 28, 1947, published by Stanford University Press in 1991, and a paper called “The Political Implications of February 28, 1947” by Richard C. Bush from Brookings Institution, Washington, DC, published in 2007 (https://www.brookings.edu/events/taiwans-228-incident-the-political-implications-of-february-28-1947/). If possible, you may compare these academic books’ thesis with Formosa Betrayed to see how different they are.
For K-12 students, these sources may be too difficult to understand, but some English websites that introduce the 228 Incident will be more accessible. For example, the GWU website (https://nrc.elliott.gwu.edu/taiwan/) has an introduction to many aspects of Taiwan. The website of the Foreign Policy Research Institute (https://www.fpri.org/article/2017/02/taiwans-white-terror-remembering-228-incident/), The Diplomat online magazine (https://thediplomat.com/2019/02/the-228-incident-still-haunts-taiwan/), and the Greater China Journal blog (https://china-journal.org/2017/02/27/the-228-incident-the-uprising-that-changed-taiwans-history/) all have pages about the 228 Incident. These are useful references for students in understanding the 228 Incident. However, I will suggest that teachers read Formosa Betrayed first to get an overview of the 228 Incident and want to introduce it to the students.
The history of US policy toward Taiwan
Before World War II, the United States regarded Taiwan as a territory of the Japanese Empire, so there was no particular policy toward Taiwan. However, during the Pearl Harbor attack in 1941, Japan used Taiwan as a southward base to bomb the US military base in the Philippines and then to invade Southeast Asia. After the war, the United States started to think about how to deal with Taiwan after its separation from Japan
In the beginning, the three famous magazines in the United States—Life, Time, and Fortune—joined forces to publish an article named “The United States in a New World II: Pacific Relations” in August 1942. This article advocated that Taiwan should be subject to international control after the war. The specialists in the Military Information Service from “the American Interests” perspective agreed with that concept and studied its possibility. However, the Department of State thought the idea was a kind of American Imperialism. In order to strengthen the determination of Chinese to resist Japan, President Roosevelt decided that Taiwan should return to China after the war, and declared this position in the Cairo Conference in 1943.
When Japan surrendered, the Chiang regime occupied and took over Taiwan on October 25, 1945, and then the United States soon regarded occupied Taiwan as China’s territory. However, according to international law, any territory change should be implemented after a peace conference makes the decision. In fact, Taiwan still belonged to Japan, and the Taiwanese were of Japanese nationality and not Chinese nationality before the Treaty of Peace with Japan was signed in 1951.
Soon, because of the corruption of the Kuomintang officials, the 228 Incident broke out in Taiwan. Around the same time, the civil war between the Nationalist Kuomintang and the Communist party began in 1947. Kuomintang was steadily losing the field and the support of the Chinese people. When it was evident that the Kuomintang would lose in the civil war, from the late of 1948 to early of 1949, the United States once considered separating Taiwan from China and giving Taiwanese a “plebiscite” under international law. It was the first time that the US government valued Taiwan from a geopolitical and national security perspective. However, it was too late because most of Chiang’s military had retreated to Taiwan. The US military had no choice but to continue to support the Chiang regime in Taiwan secretly.
When the Korean War broke out in June 1950, President Truman sent the 7thFleet to defend the Taiwan Strait and declared that “the determination of the future status of Formosa must await the restoration of security in the Pacific, a peace settlement with Japan, or consideration by the United Nations.” Indeed, the peace treaty conference of San Francisco in 1952 did not determine the status of Taiwan. This situation was called the Undetermined Status of Taiwan.
Before the 1960s, under the containment strategy of the Cold War, the United States supported the Chiang regime in Taiwan and did not recognize Communist China. However, this kind of policy was gradually becoming distorted and unrealistic in the international political situation. For this reason, public opinion started to advocate dual recognition of the Chiang regime and Communist China from the period of President Johnson.
Indeed, the recognition of Communist China by the international community increased steadily. Finally, the United Nations expelled the Chiang regime and accepted the Communist regime as the only representative of China in 1971. The United States also gave up the Chiang regime and established diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China in 1978. Nevertheless, the United States also thought that the future of Taiwan or the reunification with China should be determined by the people of Taiwan themselves under peaceful conditions. In the meantime, the United States passed the Taiwan Relations Act in 1979 and continued to sell defensive weapons to Taiwan. It was the beginning of the one-China policy of the United States. This situation also created a balance of power of the “status quo” across the Taiwan Strait.
After 1978, China began carrying out dramatic economic development under Deng Xiaoping’s “Reform and Opening” policy. In the first decade of the 21st century, China’s national gross product even exceeded Japan to become the second-biggest economic entity in the world, and the military power of China also has significant progress at the same time. However, in contrast to the economic and military power development, the political control over the domestic population is getting tighter, and the human rights records are getting worse day by day, especially during the Xi Jinping period.
To distract Chinese people’s attention from discontent toward domestic problems, the Communist government encourages the new Chinese Nationalism. The new Chinese Nationalism not only propagates the greatness of China under the rule of the Communists but also includes the disregard of international law, the view that the South China sea is the territory of China, the advocacy of Okinawa as the territory of China, the spread of hostility toward Japan because of the history of Japanese imperialism, and the threat to invade Taiwan or to “liberate” Taiwan by blood. In 2015, Chinese leader Xi announced the “One Belt, One Road” policy, and “the China manufacture” policy as the future dream of China. However, because of the new Chinese Nationalism, Xi’s China dream shows the ambition of China to be a world power. This China Dream has become a threat and a nightmare to neighboring countries including Taiwan.
On the other hand, Taiwan’s economy had a miraculous development in the 1980s; then Taiwan became a developed country. The political system transformed from totalitarian into full democracy in the 1990s and the Kuomintang even transferred power to the Democratic Progressive Party government in the first decade of the 21st century through a peaceful democratic process. Under democracy, Taiwanese people are enjoying freedom and equality, and people’s lives also have significantly improved. Compared to the totalitarian government and poor human rights record of China, the experience of democracy makes more and more Taiwanese identify Taiwan as an independent country and firmly reject the possibility of reunification with China.
The “status quo” created by the one-China policy of the United States is changing dramatically as both sides of the Taiwan Strait are developing in very different directions. To maintain that “status quo” between both sides of the Taiwan Strait seems impossible and unrealistic. The unstable status of the Taiwan Strait affects East Asian security and the national security of the United States in the western Pacific Ocean, too. The United States needs a new and more positive long-term policy toward Taiwan for the coming decades. The postwar history of Taiwan should be the necessary reference for forming policies toward Taiwan.
Managing editor: Chiung-Yao “Carolyn” Ho 何瓊瑤