At 11:00 A.M. on February 27, 1947, Taipei City’s Monopoly Bureau was informed that a boat carrying fifty boxes of illegal matches and cigarettes had arrived near the port of Danshui, north of Taipei. Matches and cigarettes were part of the system of government monopolies set up by the Kuomintang regime after the Republic of China (ROC) took over the administration of Taiwan from the Japanese in 1945. Only traders with a special government license were allowed to sell them.
A team of investigators was dispatched to Taiping Street (present-day Yanping North Road) where it was thought the smuggled items would be sold. But there was no trace of the dealers. Instead, the investigators bumped into a street vendor, a forty-year-old widow. The officials, believing that the woman was selling contraband goods, confiscated the cigarettes. She resisted. “If you confiscate everything,” she said, “I will not be able to eat. At least let me have my money and the cigarettes provided by the Monopoly Bureau.”
One of the investigators then hit her on the head with the butt of his gun. The woman’s daughter began to cry, and soon a crowd of angry citizens gathered around the officers, demanding that the men returned the cigarettes to the woman. One of the officers panicked and shot in the crowd, killing a man.
This episode led to violent protests, which the understaffed Taipei police forces were unable to handle. While the Japanese had 208,480 military and police personnel, in 1947 the Nationalist government had only around 10,000 police officers on the whole island. On 28 February 1947, the police tried to suppress the revolt and fired in the crowd, killing several people.
The protests turned into a popular uprising that channeled the dissatisfaction of many Taiwanese people with the corruption, inefficiency and arrogance of the Kuomintang administration. On March 7 (other sources say March 9), Nationalist troops landed in Keelung (Jilong). They brutally suppressed the uprising and killed thousands of people. An American reporter in Nanjing, then capital of the ROC, related eyewitnesses’ accounts of the massacre.
An American who had just arrived in China from Taihoku [Taipei] said that troops from the mainland arrived there March 7 and indulged in three days of indiscriminate killing and looting. For a time everyone seen on the streets was shot at, homes were broken into and occupants killed. In the poorer sections the streets were said to have been littered with dead.There were instances of beheadings and mutilation of bodies, and women were raped, the American said. Two foreign women, who were near at Pingtung near Takao [Kaohsiung], called the actions of the Chinese soldiers there a “massacre.” They said unarmed Formosans [Taiwanese] took over the administration of the town peacefully on March 4 and used the local radio station to caution against violence.Chinese were well received and invited to lunch with the Formosan leaders.Later a bigger group of soldiers came and launched a sweep through the streets. The people were machine gunned. Groups were rounded up and executed. The man who had served as the town’s spokesman was killed. His body was left for a day in a park and no one was permitted to remove it.
In a speech made on March 10, China’s leader Chiang Kai-shek defended the government’s decision to put down what he described as a “disturbance” caused by “evil persons” and by a “Japanese-style deceit”:
Since our recovery of Taiwan last year, the central government regarded the state of the harmony and order in Taiwan as very satisfactory, and we did not send troops to be stationed there … [The] spirit of patriotism and self- respect [of the Taiwanese] is no different from that of the Chinese people in other provinces. Recently, however, some people formerly mobilized by the Japanese and sent to the Southeast Asian theater to fight–and some Communists among them–took advantage of the Monopoly Bureau’s smuggling case to promote their own ends and create a disturbance.
[On] March 7, the so-called February 28th Incident Resolution Committee unexpectedly made some irrational demands. That committee demanded that the government abolish the Taiwan Garrison Command Headquarters, that the Nationalist forces surrender their weapons, and that all security organs and the army and navy be staffed only with Taiwanese. These demands go beyond the jurisdiction of the local administration, and the central government cannot accept them. Moreover, yesterday many people illegally attacked government administrative organs.
Because these incidents have repeatedly happened, the central government has decided to dispatch a military force to Taiwan to maintain security. It has been reported that a military force already has safely landed in Keelung and that harmony has been restored.
After the indiscriminate butchering perpetrated by the army, a period of organised suppression of real or presumed dissent to the regime began. “China put down the revolt with brutal repression, terror, and massacre,” wrote Peggy Durdin on May 24, 1947. “Mainland soldiers and police fired first killing thousands indiscriminately; then, more selectively, hunted down and jailed or slaughtered students, intellectuals, prominent business men, and civic leaders.”
The repression of dissent was made worse by the difficulties that the Kuomintang central government was facing in mainland China, where the civil war with the Communists led by Mao Zedong was going bad for Chiang Kai-shek’s army. In early 1949, Communist troops crossed the Yantze River. They kept conquering territories, until only Taiwan and a few more areas on the mainland remained under Kuomintang control. Chiang decided to retreat to Taiwan and relocate the government to Taipei, in order to reorganize the army and eventually retake the mainland.
Faced with the prospect of a complete collapse of the Republic of China, Chiang Kai-shek was unwilling to implement the democratic reforms enshrined in the Constitution. He regarded order and stability as the absolute priority, and he feared traitors, deserters and defectors. Therefore, he responded to the crisis by declaring martial law and stifling all real and alleged anti-Kuomintang activities. During the era of repression known as the White Terror, an estimated 4,000 people were executed and 140,000 people were imprisoned.
Even Chiang’s close associates were not spared. For instance, Li Youbang (李友邦), was executed in 1952 on Chiang’s order. Li had been an early supporter of the Kuomintang. Born in Taiwan in 1906, he had graduated from Whampoa Academy and fought in Chiang’s army against the Japanese. After Taiwan’s administration had been taken over by the ROC, Li had become Chairman of the Kuomintang Taiwan Provincial Headquarters.
Sun Liren (孫立人), known as the “Rommel of the East”, had distinguished himself as a general during the Sino-Japanese War and the Civil War against the Communists. In 1950 he was named Commander in Chief of the Republic of China Army. However, this was just a prestige title without real power, for Chiang had grown suspicious of his general, whom he considered too independent and potentially disloyal. An investigation against Sun was launched, and he was found guilty of plotting a conspiracy. In 1955 he was put under house arrest. He was released only thirty-three years later and died in Taichung in 1990. Controversially, in 2011 Ma Ying-jeou‘s Kuomintang government rehabilitated Sun and made his former residence a museum.
Many innocent people, who had never been interested in politics, also became victims of the White Terror. For instance, Ke Shiyuan, grandfather of current Taipei mayor Ke Wenzhe, was imprisoned by the Kuomintang without official charges and trial.
During Taiwan’s martial law era, the Kuomintang dictatorship did not allow the facts of the 228 incident to be discussed publicly. For decades, the victims were forgotten, their family could only grieve privately. In many respects, the 228 incident was for Taiwan what the Tiananmen Square protests are nowadays for China. It was only after Taiwan’s democratisation that those events started to re-emerge in the collective memory.
In the late 1980s, President Lee Teng-hui implemented democratic reforms. In 1995, he made a formal apology to the families of the victims of the 228 Incident on behalf of the government. On March 23 of the same year, the Legislative Yuan passed an ordinance regulating the handling of the 228 incident and the compensation of the victims (二二八事件處理及補償條例). The ordinance declared February 28 a national holiday called “Peace Memorial Day” (和平紀念日).