Growing disillusionment with President Tsai Ing-wen over her failure to remove Chiang Kai-shek statues from public spaces is now a legislative issue in the exiled Republic of China government. Previously the dispute was carried on within the Democratic Progressive Party quietly or by minor parties like the Free Taiwan Party which urges removal of the Kuomintang icons.
However, Freddy Lim’s New Power Party, with five seats in the Legislative Yuan, is calling for a campaign against the statues. Legislator Hsu Yung-ming is leading the call by urging action from the Transitional Justice Commission. Slowly some of the past crimes committed by the exiled Republic of China regime against native Taiwanese since World War II are being revealed and an effort at restorative justice is underway.
After the United States installed ROC leader Chiang Kai-shek on Formosa, as Taiwan was then called, after World War II, the dictator quickly plastered his image on postage stamps, money, posters, and statues all over the island. With time the iconography on currency and postage has faded from conspicuous public view. However, Chiang’s statues still disgrace Taiwan public spaces and bring daily pain, especially to the elderly who remember the evil that Chiang represents.
Few issues force Taiwan’s unresolved international status into the open as does the continued display of the hero-worship statues, many of them life-sized. ROC President Tsai Ing-wen is a champion of the status quo, presumably meaning the uneasy stand-off between the People’s Republic of China and Tsai’s Republic of China in-exile. While it is easy enough to understand why Tsai does not want to offend the giant neighbor to the East, Chiang Kai-shek was a bitter foe of Mao Tse-tung. So why does the status quo have to include Chiang statues? Maybe Tsai doesn’t want to offend the Kuomintang, the opposition party she replaced in power.
When the DPP was the opposition party and the KMT was in control, it was easy to believe that the DPP would lead Taiwan to nationhood. But with the DPP in charge, and the KMT reduced to being the opposition, the Republic of China suddenly has taken on a new lustre for DPP politicians. Truth be told, the two parties are much like the two parties in the United States, they are dance partners not opponents. The purpose of the loyal opposition is to keep true opposition from developing into a serious threat to the established order. The post-martial law era that saw the birth of the DPP is now the seemingly forgotten past as Tsai Ing-wen has failed to move Taiwan toward nationhood. No more glaring example of the DPP failure can be found than the ever-present Chiang statues glorifying a brutal Chinese despot who ordered the deaths or imprisonment of countless thousands of Taiwanese who had committed no crime save that of denouncing tyranny.
Tsai Ing-wen, who now has her own picture on postage stamps, may not think the Chiang icons are that that big a deal. Mere symbols of a musty history scattered here and there. However, Chiang’s victims, those who lived, have a different view of things. Victims’ descendants are also quick to complain that Chiang is being rubbed in their face by the statues. Chiang Kai-shek was not born in Taiwan. Chiang Kai-shek was a Chinese imperialist, helped by the Americans, whose brutal reign of terror in Formosa is a historical stain. The pain of Chiang’s crimes will not go away while his statues continue to enjoy the support of the ruling government.
Activists in the Taiwan independence movement understand the power of the statues and have been vocal in the call for their removal. Aquia Tsai’s new group, the Free Taiwan Party, was way out front on this issue. Freddy Lim understands the power of the statues. Lim, before his career in the Legislative Yuan, made thematic music videos critical of authoritarianism. Now Lim’s New Power Party is on task with the statue issue.
Hsu Yung-ming’s call for clean-up cites a study done by the Transitional Justice Commission. There are 1,064 statues of Chiang Ka-shek and 1,010 other symbols of authoritarianism, as well as 577 places named after Chiang Kai-shek or his son Chiang Ching-kuo.
Some 227 statues of Chiang Kai-shek have been relocated to Chiang’s mausoleum in Taoyuan. It seems that even in removal the statues need an audience. Why not melt down the metal ones and bust up the stone statues? Activist Richard Kuo has tried his hand with beheading a Chiang statue. Kuo received a jail term for his efforts.
Taipei leads with 129 statues of Chiang, followed by 111 in Taoyuan, 98 in Taichung, 82 in Kaohsiung, 45 in Hsinchu County, 40 in Pingtung County, 37 in Taitung County, 35 in Changhua County, 34 in New Taipei City, 30 in Hualien County, 29 in Yunlin County, 28 in Tainan, 25 in Chiayi County, 19 in Keelung, 16 each in Kinmen and Lienchiang County, 14 each in Hsinchu and Yilan counties, 13 in Miaoli County, 10 in Nantou County, nine in Penghu County and three in Chiayi City.
One statue was found at the former Hsinchu Detention Center For Mainland Chinese. Chinese interns at the center were required to salute the statue according to a report by the Commission. Among other symbols from the Chiang dynasty inventoried in the report are 104 paintings of Chiang Kai-shek and thirty-one paintings of Chiang Ching-kuo.
Why has not the Democratic Progressive Party made a priority of cleaning up public spaces? The answer is lockstep loyalty to the status quo, an amorphous vagueness that replaces public policy with an unknowing adherence to errors of the past. The status quo is the bitter fruit and logical outcome of Taiwan’s longstanding strategic ambiguity. The Chiang statues remain because Tsai Ing-wen has not supported their removal.