Taiwan tosses Chiang Kai-shek statues to shed authoritarian past

To strengthen its national identity, Taiwan's government is removing the likenesses of its former ruler.

They came in the middle of the night and cut him limb from limb. The victim of the cruel March 12 dismemberment: a 26-foot-high statue of Chiang Kai-shek, the Kuomintang Party (KMT) strongman who fled the mainland to Taiwan in 1949 after losing the Chinese civil war to the communists.

The nationwide removal of Chiang statues is part of a recent campaign by President Chen Shui-bian's government to do away with the last trappings of the former KMT authoritarian regime, 20 years after martial law was lifted.

Such moves are the latest stage of the island's bumpy democratization, which has shifted power toward a native Taiwanese majority and away from a mainlander minority – feeding a surge in Taiwanese identity.

Other items on Mr. Chen's "to do" list: renaming Taipei's landmark Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall as "Democracy Memorial Hall", renaming state firms ("Chinese Post" was recently redubbed "Taiwan Post"), and demoting Mandarin Chinese as the official national language in favor of the local Taiwanese dialect (under Chiang's reign, speaking Taiwanese was forbidden in schools and in the media).

Now, despite vocal protests from a few die-hard Chiang fans, statues like the dismembered Chiang at a cultural center in the southern city of Kaohsiung, are being sent in pieces to a park next to Chiang's mausoleum in northern Taiwan. There, an enterprising mayor has gathered scores of Chiang busts and figures taken down from schools, military bases, and other government sites in recent years.

While the statue will be put back together and displayed with the others, the independence-minded government hopes Chiang's legacy – and that of his autocratic KMT regime – will remain forever shattered, Humpty Dumpty-like, and cast into the dustbin of history.

But the KMT, now in the opposition, says the government is playing identity politics. They point out that he presided over the island's economic boom and helped keep Chairman Mao Zedong's forces at bay. To drive those points home, thousands turned out last weekend in Taipei for a pro-Chiang rally. Many increasingly cynical Taiwanese dismiss the government's campaign as useless name games and Chiang-bashing, saying they'd prefer a focus on livelihood issues.

Meanwhile, Beijing – which considers Taiwan part of its territory – can't help but interpret the current campaign as a "splittist" attempt to cut historical links between the island and the growing mainland superpower.

Depending on whom you ask, the Taiwanese government's latest moves are about cementing independence from the mainland, shoring up democracy, raw politics – or all of the above.

"It's a campaign season again, and [Chen's] Democratic Progressive Party wants to set the agenda," says Lo Chih-cheng, a political analyst at Taipei's Soochow University. "But it's also a way to remove the legacy and relics of the past authoritarian regime. ... In the past, we tended to have only one side of history. Now, after democratization, people think it's time for a more balanced view."

The timing of the recent push is clearly political. The lame-duck Chen is about to enter the last year of his term, when he hopes to secure his legacy as champion of Taiwan's young democracy. Chen has successfully cultivated a strengthening of Taiwan's identity. In June 2006, 44 percent on the island described themselves as "Taiwanese" only (rather than "Chinese" or both), compared with just 23 percent 10 years before.

But the president has also been weakened by corruption scandals involving his wife, in-laws, and aides. Chen's grander ambitions for domestic reform and greater independence have also been stymied by an opposition-controlled legislature and increasing pressure from Beijing.

Meanwhile, the campaign for the 2008 presidency is under way. Five candidates are battling to take Chen's place. With early polls suggesting that the KMT could retake power in the March 2008 vote, some of Chen's supporters think the party needs to act now, in case it's wilderness bound.

"There's a sense of urgency, because some feel the KMT is coming back, and things could go back to the old days," says Mr. Lo.

Such sentiment has rattled nerves in Beijing, which invariably see steps in Taiwan's democratization as "moves toward independence" and fears a dramatic leap in that direction. Taiwan's current "Republic of China" Constitution was written on the mainland in 1947, and Beijing sees it as akin to an umbilical cord connecting the two sides of the strait – the cutting of which could be grounds for war.

"We firmly oppose the scheming of Chen Shui-bian and the Taiwan secessionist forces, which attempts to seek 'de jure Taiwan independence' through so-called 'constitutional reform,' " said Yang Yi, spokesman of the Taiwan Affairs Office of China's State Council.

Those concerns are overblown, say analysts. The current campaign has more to do with putting a nail in the coffin of authoritarianism than with seeking formal independence. Taiwan is already de facto independent, and Chen has pledged that constitutional reform will not touch on sensitive issues of territory and sovereignty.

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