2. February 28, 2023
Truth and reconciliation with the past can create lasting peace within and between nations. Yet only Taiwan, not the US and not China has managed it.
Several years into the often challenging process of making my documentary (that she is in and consulted on), my friend, Taiwanese American author, Shawna Yang Ryan, comforted me with her humor by sharing that the fourteen years she spent writing a four hundred page novel about Taiwan seemed easier. Hardly! Shawna’s meticulously researched work of historical fiction, “Green Island,” about three generations of the Tsais, a Taiwanese family, who survive the “February 28th, Incident” of 1947 and subsequent martial law rule of Chiang Kai-shek’s Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) dictatorship on Taiwan is a masterpiece. In a New York Times interview with Didi Kirsten Tatlow, Shawna explains:
“A. “Green Island” works on a number of levels — it’s the prison where one of the characters is held, a prison emblematic of the period of the “White Terror” during which the book takes place. I think of Taiwan as a “green island” as well — verdant and beautiful — but during martial law, it had become a kind of prison itself.”
There’s a lot I will write about prisons during martial law in Taiwan and the unjustly accused and wrongfully imprisoned who survived them and shared their experiences with me. For more on the February 28th Incident, or “228 massacre, or simply 228 (二二八 èr èr bā), an event so horrific and shameful that public discussion of it was verboten until four decades later,” as Chris Horton writes in The China Project, it’s worth reading his new piece, “When Taiwan Overthrew China.”
Even if it took four decades before public discussion of 228 was allowed in Taiwan, the fact is that it happened along with a nascent movement of transitional justice. Today I finished reading Linda Jaivin’s book “The Shortest History of China, From the Ancient Dynasties to a Modern Superpower — A Retelling for our Times,” and it would be astounding if it were not so consistent how much and how regularly the Chinese Communist Party rewrites history to erase their “historical errors” (massacres, famine, corruption), anything that makes them look bad, forbids universities from teaching “Western values” like civil society, universal rights and exaggerates their successes to keep themselves in power.
Yesterday I touched on how Chairman Mao had considered Taiwanese a distinct nationality and advocated for Taiwan’s existence as an independent nation separate from China between 1928 and 1943 before changing his mind and wanting to take Taiwan upon learning that Chiang Kai-shek had decided he wanted it for his Republic of China at the Cairo conference. More detail on that history can be found in this article by former Dutch diplomat, Gerrit van der Wees.
When I was rereading the Shanghai Communiqué, I was thinking how good it would be to remind leaders in Beijing of Mao’s words from the opening and ask them to consider them in the context of Taiwan today:
“The Chinese side stated: … All nations, big or small, should be equal: big nations should not bully the small and strong nations should not bully the weak. China will never be a superpower and it opposes hegemony and power politics of any kind. The Chinese side stated that it firmly supports the struggles of all the oppressed people and nations for freedom and liberation and that the people of all countries have the right to choose their social systems according their own wishes and the right to safeguard the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of their own countries and oppose foreign aggression, interference, control and subversion.”
Unfortunately, the Chinese Communist Party was thinking of themselves with those words. Today, Chinese leaders are claiming Chiang Kai-shek as one of their own, a fellow Chinese, so that they can say they have been a part of the founding of the United Nations and the international order after WW2. For more on how China’s goal of regional leadership and global primacy has required a rewriting of its past, Rana Mitter’s book “China’s Good War: How World War 2 is Shaping a New Nationalism” is worth reading.
Speaking of authoritarian leaders who try to rewrite history to justify their existence, after Republican Donald Trump barely squeaked his way into the White House and created confusion by accepting a phone call from popularly elected president Tsai Ing-wen in 2016, Shawna Yang Ryan wrote this brilliant piece in LitHub that I will write about much more. For now, I’ll choose the parts that speak to what I’ve written about in these first two posts:
On Taiwan and Refusing to Stay Silent
By Shawna Yang Ryan January 24, 2017
“After Trump’s call with the president of Taiwan last month, I feel a frustration that keeps me up at night tweeting (and then deleting) sarcastic and outraged comments about the mainstream media accounts that persist in misrepresenting Taiwan’s history. Though I am glad for some attention on Taiwan, I worry that Trump had stumbled onto territory that would put the country in danger. I worry that Taiwan, where half my family lives, would be treated as nothing more than a pawn in America’s dance with China. And I am exasperated by the language the western media uses to talk about Taiwan—language so clearly vested in China’s version of Taiwan’s history.”
“When Trump calls Taiwan and I watch a flood of misinformation about the country wash over the newspapers, I’m angry for the woman I met in Taipei who told me how her whole career had been driven by the search for the truth behind her grandfather’s death years ago, and how the documents the government finally released to her had his killers’ names redacted to “protect their privacy.” I’m angry for the retired professor who silently hands me a slim volume he has written about the murder of his father during Taiwan’s White Terror. For the daughter who receives an unsent letter from her imprisoned father 60 years after his execution. For the high school student who asks how he and his generation can know the hidden history of their country if it isn’t taught to them.
For the erasures of life and history by all-knowing white men who claim to be authorities on an island they haven’t even bothered to find out the history of.”
“I am fascinated by Taiwan’s invisibility, about the willful silence from nearly every government (save 21) in the world, averting their eyes, pursing their lips like some patrician lady who has detected a foul smell and is too polite to comment.
Does Taiwan exist? Is it a country? What makes a country? As if 23 million people with their own land, history, passport, and constitution can be erased by saying so—or by silence.
As if enough people consenting to a fiction can make it truth.”
“Yet it wasn’t enough for the West, locked into its own Cold War, to distinguish between the ROC (Republic of China) and the PRC (People’s Republic of China)—China had been one monolithic place for 5,000 continuous years, as the story went, so how could it suddenly be two?—and ROC and PRC were clarified into Free China and Red China and any red-blooded American knew immediately which China to love, even though the closest thing to a panda that Taiwan could boast was a moon bear.
Humans are fickle. As the 20th century went on, the West came to love Red China as much as Red China loved the red bottles of cola sent by their new admirers, renminbi twinkling in their eyes, and Red China received the privilege of being just China. Since there could be only one China, the little sweet-potato-shaped island was left an orphan, nose pressed to the bakery shop window.”
Me: Yes. And we created a pretty good animation of this that didn’t make the cut. I have so much supplemental material to this film!
“After Trump’s call, in an opinion piece for a major newspaper, I make the simple and completely reasonable argument that Taiwan is a country with its own history, that it’s more than just some invention created to keep things interesting between America and China. The piece is reposted here and there. In comments across the internet, I am called ignorant, a privileged American, white-washed. I am even called a whore.
I wonder when it became no longer the morally correct stance to defend a country’s right to self-determination against a larger authoritarian power.”
Me: Thank you, Shawna! To be continued…
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