Skeletons Come Out of Taiwan's Closet

Airing of old scandals seen as healthy sign of openess





It has been said that those who forget history are condemned to repeat it. Kuomintang (KMT), or Nationalist Party, officials in Taiwan have been finding that history is often not all that easily forgotten.

During the 25 years that the late President Chiang Kai-shek ruled the island, only a few dared to discuss sensitive topics, thanks to a muzzled press and the regime's tendency to jail its detractors.

While the situation greatly improved under the more lenient rule of the Chiang Kai-shek's late son, Chiang Ching-kuo, only a handful of opposition magazines attempted to challenge the government.

No more.

Ever since Chiang Ching-kuo's death in January, the media and outspoken legislators have revelled in what one magazine called "political archaeology" - dragging historical skeletons out of the closet one by one and airing them publicly.

While some stories may be nothing more than trivia from the pages of modern Chinese history, others have revived painful memories.

After decades of authoritarian rule, Taiwan is gripped by a national catharsis. Exorcising ancient ghosts is healthy as Taipei opens up to political debate - but it could ignite old controversies.

The 'Young Marshall'

Take for example the story of Chang Hsueh-liang, known as the "Young Marshall," who is 89 years old. Chang was the warlord of Manchuria who helped to engineer the kidnaping of Chiang Kai-shek in 1936, later releasing him after he agreed to join a united front effort with the Communists against the Japanese.

The Young Marshall then surrendered and after a trial was placed under house arrest. When the Nationalists fled the mainland after losing to the Communists in 1949, the Young Marshall came along to Taiwan where he remains a recluse, 52 years after the famous Xian Incident.

Chang's status remains a mystery, however. For weeks local reporters and legislators have tried to see him, only to be turned away by guards at Chang's door. The government claims that Chang is free, although he has seldom been seen in public.

Chang released a letter to the press on March 26 saying that reports concerning his continued house arrest were not true: "The daily activities of my wife and I are free and we have not been restricted in any way," the letter stated. "Furthermore, we do not wish to change the quiet life we are now leading."

Then, as if for emphasis, the Central News Agency released a photo of Chang meeting with President Lee Teng-hui on March 28.

Another general recently in the limelight is the U.S.-educated Sun Li-jen. He is held in high esteem among U.S. military officers who served with him in the China-Burma-India Theater during and after World War II.

Sun, a graduate of Purdue University and the Virginia Military Institute, has been under house arrest for 33 years. He was relieved of his command as chief of staff after an alleged coup attempt in 1955 when young officers presented Chiang Kai-shek with a petition calling for military reforms.

Some analysts believe that the popular Sun was considered a threat to Chiang's power.

Sun is now living in a house in central Taiwan, and officials say he is a free man. However, guards, who still politely refer to Sun as "Chief-of Staff," prevent visitors from entering the house, and Sun's family insists that the general is still restricted.

"I don't care about freedom," the ailing 88-year-old Sun was quoted recently in local newspapers. "I just want my name cleared."

Nation's Watchdog

Bowing to public pressure on March 30 the Control Yuan, the nation's highest watchdog body, released its decades-old secret report on the incident. The report found no evidence that Sun was involved in plotting a coup, or that his subordinates intended to carry out a coup. Sun was only found guilty of failing to properly supervise his subordinates.

"In the past two years there have been more reforms than in the last 40 years," says Lin Chun-tzu, an opposition member of the Control Yuan, who has called for an investigation of several of the above cases. "The democratic trend has arrived at a new point and the period of the strongman is over."

The strongman era ended on January 13 with the death of Chiang Ching-kuo, making it possible for local reporters, who have been restricted for decades, to freely cover such stories.

"When President Chiang was alive," says an editor of the China Times, "no one would have dared to write about these things."

Recent changes in the press law also have played a role, forcing even conservative news editors to reassess their standards. On January 1, the government lifted a ban on new newspapers and permitted newspapers to double the number of daily pages to 24.

Since then a number of new morning and afternoon papers have been published, resulting in an unprecedented newspaper war for readers.

The constant digging for political "relics" has encouraged a host of others who feel wronged to seek justice as well in recent weeks. More skeletons will certainly be brought to light. "Things have changed,' says Cheng Ching-jen, a professor of history at National Taiwan University, "and people are saying that they do not want the mistakes of the past repeated."

Chinese are not the only ones apparently under house arrest in Taiwan. In early March, local newspapers reported the case of Russian seamen, who "defected" to Taiwan in 1954 when their ship was intercepted by Taiwan's navy in local waters.

Six of the men (one reportedly hung himself several years ago) have married local women, but newspaper reports say they are not permitted to meet with visitors, move about freely or return home to the Soviet Union. Their ship is still being used by the navy, but the whereabouts of the sailors remain a mystery.

The taboo about reporting about the Chiang family also has been broken recently in the press. Local newspapers printed stories in March from the United States implicating Chiang Hsiao-wu, Chiang Ching-kuo's son, in the killing of Henry Liu, a Chinese-American political writer, in Daly City in 1984.

The press also has reported that another of Chiang's sons was involved in a business scandal. Meanwhile, a well-respected foreign ministry official recently admitted in an interview with a Chinese-language monthly that he and his twin brother were Chiang Ching-kuo's illegitimate sons.

The most serious issue form the past, however, is the debate over the February 28 incident of 1947, in which KMT troops from the Chinese mainland massacred Taiwanese citizens after widespread rioting.

© 2013 Paul J. Mooney