A momentous event in Taiwan’s history took place on 28 February 1947 when a demonstration in Taipei spurred Chiang Kai-shek to send troops from the mainland. The ensuing massacre sparked Taiwan’s further resentment of the corrupt governor Chiang had installed in 1945, when Taiwan was returned to China after years of Japanese rule, and marked the beginning of tensions between opposing factions on the island.
The February 28th Incident, known in Taiwan as “2-2-8” (er er ba in Chinese), is perhaps one of the most important political events in the history of Taiwan. The incident—a street protest that escalated into a full rebellion, resulting in Guomindang (Chinese Nationalist Party) troops from the Chinese mainland killing thousands of Taiwanese—was a forbidden subject for decades under the authoritarian rule of Chiang Kai-shek and his son Chiang Ching-kuo. Only in 1995 did President Lee Teng-hui finally officially acknowledge this long-festering wound in Taiwan’s history and apologize on behalf of the government.
The incident began in the evening of 27 February 1947 when an angry crowd gathered in front of Taipei’s Police Bureau on Taiping Street. The crowd was upset the manner in which police and Nationalist Party (Guomindang, GMD) officials treated an elderly woman, who reportedly had been roughed up for selling black-market cigarettes, an activity that was illegal but one that was essential for many people to survive in those early years after the end of the Japanese occupation. The ill-trained and panicked police fired what was supposed to be a warning shot at the crowd but ended up striking and killing a bystander. The crowd then became incensed, and the police fled into a nearby sub-station while the crowd grew in size and surrounded the building. When the crowd discovered that the police involved in the initial acts of violence had fled the building through a back door, the crowd grew only angrier. As word spread of violence, more Taiwanese came onto the street to protest.
This incident was the spark that ignited the powder keg of resentment that had been growing on the island ever since Chiang Kai-shek had sent Chen Yi to be the newly appointed governor-general of Taiwan in 1945 after Japan’s defeat and the return of Taiwan to the Republic of China. Chen’s administration had been plagued with accusations of graft, heavy-handedness toward the local population, and even violence. Many of the GMD troops sent to serve under Chen Yi were ill-trained and unprepared to rebuild Taiwan after forty-seven years of Japanese rule. The local populace had been forced to learn Japanese, and some did not speak Mandarin. The Nationalist forces had just finished fighting a bitter war on the mainland with Japan and had witnessed atrocities committed by the Japanese. As a result, some of the GMD forces came to view the Taiwanese as “collaborators” with the Japanese rather than as an occupied people who had adapted to their new rulers in order to survive. Also, Chen Yi’s policies on Taiwan did nothing to alleviate the tension between the GMD troops and the island’s population. Chen took over thousands of Japanese-owned businesses and factories but also private Taiwanese homes and businesses. A thriving black market emerged. Some impoverished soldiers allegedly broke into private homes and businesses, looting and stealing to supplement their own paltry salaries and poor rations.
On February 28 the crowds demonstrating in the streets gathered around Governor-General Chen Yi’s office, demanding redress and punishment for the police involved in the previous day’s violence. Chen Yi called out the military, who fired indiscriminately into the crowds in an effort to disperse them. Although the violent crackdown on the protesters did end the immediate problem, it led to an even greater one—an all-out attempt at insurrection to overthrow Chen Yi and the Guomindang government on Taiwan.
In the weeks after the February 28 Incident rebels took control of many parts of the island. By 4 March many of the rebels had taken over local radio stations as well as the administration of small towns away from the capital. Chen Yi declared martial law and ordered his troops to shoot anyone caught on the streets after curfew.
The rebels were not unified in their demands; some wanted simply to negotiate more equitable treatment from Chen Yi and the new Guomindang government, whereas others wanted to take control of the island for themselves. A small subgroup even wanted to establish Communist control over Taiwan, siding with Chinese Communist Party leader Mao Zedong’s forces on the mainland rather than Chiang Kai-shek’s Guomindang government.
But by 8 March Chen Yi with his superior armed forces managed to breach the rebel strongholds, and most of the rebel groups were jailed or killed. The subsequent crackdown became known as the start of the period of “White Terror” on Taiwan as the government hunted down suspected rebel “sympathizers.” Some of the people arrested might indeed have had ties to the rebels, but others were merely local elites, people who happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time; others arrested included a disproportionately high number of high school and middle school students because many students had volunteered to serve on temporary police forces in the towns that had been taken over by the rebels.
No one was completely safe from suspicion. Mainland refugees as well as Taiwanese who had lived under Japanese occupation could be arrested, and some locals started killing so-called Mainlanders out of revenge. In fact, many of the original rebels fled to Hong Kong and escaped punishment. They soon split into two main factions: pro-Communist groups (who eventually went to mainland China after Mao’s victory in 1949) and pro-independence groups (many of whom fled to Tokyo).
When Chiang Kai-shek arrived on Taiwan, he ordered Chen Yi’s execution for mishandling the February 28th Incident. Chen was executed on 18 June 1950.
Silence Is Broken
For decades under the rule of the two Chiangs, no mention of the February 28th Incident was allowed in any textbooks, nor was public discussion of the event and its bloody aftermath permitted. After Chiang Ching-kuo’s death in 1988, citizen groups formed to formally seek a reversal of the government’s policy of silence on the incident.
A 1992 government report on the incident estimated that between eighteen thousand and twenty-eight thousand people were killed. In February 1995 Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui made a public apology to the Taiwanese people on behalf of the government, and the Legislative Yuan passed a bill to pay compensation to victims’ families. A monument was built in Taipei to honor those who had died, and 28 February was made a national memorial day in 1997. Every 28 February a bell is rung in Taipei in honor of the dead, and the president apologizes to their families and descendants.
Chiang Kai-shek’s Personal Notes on the February 28th Incident, (unpublished). Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution File on Chiang Kai-shek, Stanford University, Hoover Institution.
U.S. State Department. (1985). Formosa: Internal affairs, 1945–1949. Washington, D.C.: U.S. State Department Central Files.
Lai Tse-han, Myers, R. H. & Wei Wou. (1991). A tragic beginning: The Taiwan uprising of February 28, 1947. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Mendel, D. (1970). The politics of Formosan nationalism, Berkeley: University of California Press.
Source: Chai, Winberg. (2009). February 28th Incident. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 801–802. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.
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