Wednesday, May 10, 2017

I'm in The News Lens, punching you with history

My response to two opinion pieces on what to do about Chiang Kai-shek statues (and his memorial hall) appeared in The News Lens International Edition today - you can read it here.

A few key points:

His legacy ought to be studied and analyzed, if only to remember the horrors and agonies of the history of this island nation, and to educate ourselves on the importance of avoiding a backslide into totalitarianism. I do not believe anyone has suggested that he be deleted from history textbooks, nor would it be wise to do so.

This gets to the heart of why I wrote the response to begin with - the first article used the word "delete" in the title but never actually suggested he be erased from history, merely that his presence in statue form does not belong does not belong anywhere in the country, except perhaps at Cihu. I have no issue with a place like that existing, in the same way that one may visit other sites around the world that cause us to reflect on the tragedies of history. However, many people who defend Chiang's likenesses remaining intact equate removing the statues with 'deleting' him entirely from history. It must be clear that this is a straw man argument: no reasonable person would say we should forget Chiang existed, any more than we should forget that any other dictator existed.

Let's remember, as a friend pointed out, that one can appropriately remember and study history without keeping statues everywhere. The nations of the former USSR are quite able to learn about and understand what led to their 20th century circumstances without statues of Lenin still hanging about everywhere.

I also took issue with Adam Hatch (the original writer's) three key reasons for why the statues and memorial hall should remain. In short, he pointed to "economic development", "defense against the People's Republic" and "land reform", saying that all of these things make Chiang's legacy more complex than many would have you believe, and he tried to point out without apologizing for Chiang's crimes that, as a result, Chiang did some good in Taiwan too.

Why would I have an issue with this? Well...even if these points were historically accurate (spoiler: they are not), they do not adequately make a case for continuing to let Chiang's horrid face pop up around the country:

In short, there is no political, military or economic argument for continuing to allow Chiang statues to dot the Taiwanese landscape. Even if the economic and anti-Communist defenses were accurate, they would still not begin to contend with the pain his actions caused in Taiwan.

However, that's not why I wrote in.

One thing that really, really bothers me is the use of historical arguments to make one's case that are not actually historically accurate. I can tolerate it to some extent on the Internet because that place is full of crazies who don't know what they're talking about, but Hatch is a graduate student in the field. I don't want to be too mean, but I have to say, a grad student in this subject ought to know better. I'm a graduate student (or I will be soon) in an entirely different field, and simply because I care about Taiwan and read a lot, I knew his points were wrong. So where did he get these ideas? Who is teaching the postgrads at NCCU? What is up with the revisionist history? I do not believe that Hatch is attempting to push an agenda, and I do not mean to attack him personally, but whoever is teaching this version of history sure is.

What's more, these three arguments keep popping up in discussions of Taiwan affairs and their related history - this isn't the first time I've heard the "but economic development, land reform, and he kept the Commies away!" triad of arguments.

Frankly, I'm sick of it. It's time to beat these inaccurate arguments down - punch them with the fists of history.

A quick summary of why all three points are wrong - not wrong in my opinion, but factually wrong:

Regarding "Chiang Beat The Commies":

The change in Western attitudes to Taiwan came with the outbreak of the Korean War. The U.S. decided that Taiwan was an essential bulwark against the spread of Communism (and of China's navy into the Pacific). It was this change in Taiwan's strategic importance and the subsequent mutual defense agreements signed between the United States and the Republic of China, not any action of Chiang’s, which ensured that Taiwan did not fall to the People's Republic. Not only would this have likely happened without Chiang in power, it might have happened sooner under a leader more appealing to the United States, or with Taiwan hypothetically having gained independence as a former colonial territory of Japan.

Of course, we can't know what would have happened if the ROC had never come here, and Taiwan had been dealt with by the Allies as all former colonies of Japan had been, but the hypothetical seems reasonable given how things played out elsewhere.

In any case, Taiwan not falling to the PRC had nothing to do with Chiang himself.

And about "Chiang created economic development initiatives that made Taiwan an Asian Tiger", remember that this bit of revisionism asks you to believe that the KMT came to backwater Taiwan, and developed it, but that was not the case:

Before World War II, Taiwan was one of the most prosperous territories in Asia.
World War II certainly did its part to create economic turmoil in Taiwan, but for the most part, the Chinese Nationalist Party (Kuomintang or KMT) inherited a prosperous and well-run economy in 1945. This is not a defense of the Japanese colonial period: colonialism is, generally, indefensible. However, Taiwan's pre-ROC era economic prosperity is simply a fact. What destroyed the Taiwanese economy so much that the KMT eventually decided to "develop" it? The KMT themselves: as Hsiao-ting Lin (林孝庭) notes in “Accidental State”, under Chiang-appointed Chen Yi (陳儀), resources were so badly mismanaged, governance so high-handed and command economy and state monopoly enterprises so unsuited to local conditions that the economy, and the living standards of the Taiwanese, plummeted....
Chiang Kai-shek did not develop initiatives to turn Taiwan from a backwater into an Asian Tiger. He merely, and belatedly, sought to fix what he and his own party had broken to begin with. 

More could be said about this, and is included in the article, but the point is, you are not a hero when you wait a decade or so to fix what you yourself broke. And even if you were, it does not absolve you of other crimes: if you kill tens or hundreds of thousands, it does not matter if you made the trains run on time.

Finally, on "but land reform was really necessary, something Chiang realized led to his failure in China!" - yeah, not really, no:

Land reform is similarly a complicated issue: while breaking up large landholdings of an entrenched property-owning class is quite defensible, much of that land was ceded by Japanese owners leaving the former colony, and although some was redistributed, much of it was taken by the state directly, or given to KMT state-run monopolies. Make no mistake: land reform was enacted to enrich the ruling diaspora, including Chiang himself, just as much as it was meant to redistribute land to everyone else.

So please, make your arguments, mount your defenses, create your cases, but do so with an accurate view of history. Quit it with the "look at all the good Chiang did, too!" remarks. We know them to be inaccurate, because history tells us so. These are not secrets. These are not hidden stories. We know the story of the end of the Chinese Civil War. We know the story of the Taiwan Miracle. We know how land reform was handled. We know these things, so don't try to make a case by getting them wrong. These points keep popping up, and I'm done. Stop it.

Learn your history, and learn it well. 

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