30 Years After End of Martial Law, Scars From Taiwan’s ‘White Terror’ Remain
by Chirs Fuchs / NBCNews / February 27, 2017
Yen Lee was 39 when a bullet ended his life on March 6, 1947. He was among 50 Taiwanese journalists executed that day for criticizing the Nationalist government of China, which had taken back Taiwan from Japan at the end of World War II.
Their deaths, granddaughter Hsinning (Beca) Lee told NBC News, were part of the first wave of a government purge that claimed the lives of thousands.
On Tuesday, Taiwanese both on the self-ruled island of 23 million and abroad will mark the 70th anniversary of this crackdown, which began on Feb. 28, 1947, and is remembered as the 228 Incident.
“I think it’s quite timely with the political climate now, how fragile freedom of speech can be, and how divisive we can become against each other very quickly,” said Lee, a graphic designer who immigrated to the United States from Taiwan when she was 15.
For decades, the 228 Incident was a taboo topic that many victims’ families did not discuss. The fear of political persecution always loomed large, Lee said, a feeling also shared to some extent by her family.
Less than two years before Lee’s grandfather was killed, Japan had surrendered to end World War II and returned Taiwan, a former colony for a half-century, to China’s ruling Nationalist party.
The Taiwanese initially welcomed the Nationalists, but tensions soon flared. The flashpoint came on Feb. 27, 1947, when officials questioned a Taiwanese woman selling black-market cigarettes. An agent struck the woman in the head with the butt of his gun, angering onlookers, according to a description of the events by the U.S. Department of State. Amid the chaos, a fleeing official fired into the crowd, killing a bystander.
A bloody massacre and crackdown ensued, leaving between 18,000 and 28,000 dead, according to a 1992 report from the Executive Yuan — the executive branch of Taiwan’s government — cited by The China Post and other media. The exact number still remains a source of debate.
Lee said her grandfather’s death took an emotional and financial toll on the family.
“Obviously at that time, my grandfather was the main source of income,” she said. “It was very difficult for my grandma to raise six children on her own.”
But she did. Lee’s grandmother, who died 20 years ago, started a small business in the southern Taiwan fishing village where she lived. Lee said her grandmother would ride her bike more than 11 miles to the city to sell seafood and small goods.
Her father’s four older sisters also gave up their education to support the family, Lee said, a sacrifice that allowed her father, Yi-Hung Lee, and his younger brother to attend school.
Through it all, Lee’s family lived for decades under martial law, enacted by Nationalist party leader Chiang Kai-shek in 1949, the same year the Nationalists lost the Chinese civil war to the Communists and fled to Taiwan.
It also marked the beginning of the “White Terror” period, when those believed to be anti-government in Taiwan were rounded up and imprisoned, some executed. Martial law was eventually lifted in 1987, a first step toward Democratic rule.
Today, the 228 Incident is still wrought with political tension between the Nationalist party (KMT) and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), formed in 1986. The DPP, an opposition party, has tended to favor independence from China, which claims Taiwan — whose government calls it the Republic of China — as a breakaway province that must be reunited. Read more…