Political Archeology

Airing of old scandals seen as healthy sign of openess





Skeletons in the closet? The anticommunist Kuomintang (KMT), which fled to Taiwan after its defeat by the Red Army four decades ago, has more than most. Throughout the long rule of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek and his late son, President Chiang Ching-kuo, more than half a century’s worth of family scandal and skullduggery was routinely suppressed, thanks to a muzzled press and the regime’s tendency to jail its detractors.

No longer. Chiang Ching-kuo’s death last January accelerated an unprecedented political liberalization that he himself has initiated. Ever since, the media and legislators have reveled in what one magazine called “political archeology”--dragging historical skeletons out of the closet one by one and airing them publicly. Some of the disclosures have shattered longstanding political taboos about the Chinese communists. Others have revived painful memories, such as a 1947 massacre of local residents by KMT soldiers. After decades of authoritarian rule, Taiwan is gripped in a national catharsis. Exorcising ancient ghosts is healthy as Taipei opens up to livelier political debate--but it could ignite old controversies:

The Young Marshal: Chang Hsueh-liang, 89, the so-called Young Marshal, isn’t so young anymore. For the past 52 years he’s been under house arrest--or has he? In what has become known as the Xi’an Incident, the former Manchurian warlord kidnapped Chiang Kai-shek and forced him to ally with the communists to resist Japanese invaders. When KMT troops fled to Taiwan years later, they took Chang--as a prisoner. But wait: in a statement last week, the Young Marshal insisted he was not restricted, just living a “quiet life.” The moral: now that the Chiangs are gone, even near-treason can be forgiven.

Of Suns and sons: Another once famous general, now 88, has also resurfaced. Gen. Sun Li-jen, accused of plotting a 1955 coup against Chiang Kai-shek, has been under a shadowy form of house arrest for the past 33 years. But now press reports hint that the charges against him were trumped up, apparently by Chiang who felt threatened by the U.S.-educated officer’s popularity with the American military. Such revelations are startling because the late generalissimo’s machinations have always been touted as high-minded patriotism rather than petty backstabbing.

Even the late Chiang Ching-kuo has secrets. One of his sons has been implicated in a business scandal, and another in the California killing of an outspoken Chinese-American writer four years ago. Meanwhile, a well-respected Foreign Ministry official recently admitted that he and his twin brother were Chiang Ching-kuo’s illegitimate sons. The message: nobody’s perfect, not even the late Chiangs, and now the press is free to say so.

The massacre: While many of the revelations amount to little more than Chinese history trivia, one continues to sear Taiwan’s collective psyche. The recollection of the so-called Feb. 28 Incident of 1947, when government soldiers slaughtered as many as 20,000 native Taiwanese after anti-KMT riots, still colors relations between mainland-born Chinese “newcomers” and native Taiwanese whose ancestors immigrated to the island centuries ago. Hushed up for decades, the controversy reignited almost immediately after Chiang’s death. Newspaper editorials first howled in protest after his successor Lee Teng-hui, a Taiwanese, commented in his maiden press conference: “Why should we be so obsessed with this incident?” Then more than 3,000 demonstrators marched on the anniversary. Rattled, Lee’s government released a 41-year-old watered-down official report on the bloodshed. But oppositionists continued to demand a fuller accounting--and getting it may prove vital to completing Taiwan’s post-Chiang catharsis.


© 2013 Paul J. Mooney