‘228 Incident’ a precursor of life in America? Or a cure for our stasis?
SOMESVILLE – It started with cigarettes, much like what happened to Eric Garner.
The Taiwanese widow was accused of selling contraband cigarettes. Eric Garner was accused of selling single cigarettes without tax stamps.
Agents of the brutal Chang Kai-shek regime physically struck the elderly woman in front of bystanders who became visibly angry and began to stir like a mob. A shot was fired into the crowd. The next day the shooting victim died.
This was Feb. 28, 1947 on the island of Taiwan where I was born in 1950 and spent my formative years. It would become known as the 228 Incident, triggering an uprising of Taiwan’s ethnic majority oppressed by two years of a dictatorship with virtually all freedoms taken away, property illegally seized and political voice shuttered.
Historian have been unable to document the exact number of deaths as a result of the Chinese Nationalist Army’s horrific response to the uprising. Estimates range up to 30,000. The Army was indiscriminately shooting people in the streets.
My father barely escaped after a full body search and came home white as a ghost, my mother recalled, thus the massacre given the name White Terror. For sure, our status as Nationalists from the Mainland saved my father’s life.
The irony was that the Taiwanese embraced the Nationalist regime with full alacrity when it was ceded back to China in 1945 after World War II, ending 50 years of Japanese rule. The locals were eager to be governed by ethnic Chinese like them, and not by the Japanese who saw Taiwan as a convenient appurtenance to help its imperial ambitions. The air strikes on the Philippines the day after Pearl Harbor were launched from Taiwan.
The Taiwanese felt safe under the Chinese Nationalists. After all, we were all ethnic Hans.
But the Army Chang sent to Taiwan were battle-hardened veterans of 10 years of warfare — first against the Japanese and then against the Communists. They brought a martial law sensibility and were not interested in any civil discourse. They seized what they wanted and debased all Taiwanese culture and pride.
Two years after the 228 Incident Chang himself would come to call Taiwan home after being defeated by the Communists on the Mainland and exiled to the island across the Taiwan Strait. But Chang remembered that the Taiwanese had a tipping point for tolerance. Throughout the Fifties he began to attenuate his dictatorial tendencies. He made it possible for Taiwanese farmers to own their land. He allowed newspapers to have a freer voice. He made education a priority. With the help of American aid, he positioned Taiwan to become an economic force.
Today, Taiwan is a full-throated democracy with an ethnic Taiwanese president and enjoys freedoms not available in places like Hong Kong, or even the United States. The children of Taiwan do not fear being shot by a mass murderer in their schools. Taiwan guarantees the basic human right to life for children — something America cannot accomplish.
Taiwan has universal health care, and a great higher education system where graduates are not burdened by usurous, life-choking debt.
Taiwan is 80 miles from Mainland China where the Corona Virus originated. Yet, the island of 25 million people had only 7 Covid-19 deaths, and because of disciplined contact tracing and testing, fewer than 450 total COVID-19 infections.
With his knee chocking off George Floyd’s life, could Derek Chauvin become the lightning rod which triggers a national uprising in the United States where an ethnic minority has suffered an unequal administration of justice, born a higher cost for everything from disease to economic impairment and lacked the voice of the privileged and dominant whites?
Is it appropriate to call the reaction to Floyd’s death just “looting and rioting?”
In our collective management of our country, did we fail a specific and easily identifying group given our original sin of slavery?
Black Americans cannot trust the police to protect them, cannot jog in their neighborhoods, cannot buy a house in the towns of their choosing, cannot participate in the shared opportunities of the economy, cannot get health care in parity with white Americans, cannot raise their children in a protected environment and cannot bird watch in Central Park.
Was the death of George Floyd their 228 Incident? Or will the cankered alchemy under Donald Trump bind us in a downward spiral of dejection. I am not optimistic.
So when the nightmare of America coming apart reaches its denouement, I have the luxury of a choice which most Americans do not have. I have an escape hatch — the original papers which my mother gave me as proof of my birth and residency in Taipei, the capital. When this country finally disintegrates under its weight of troubled history, hypocrisy and prevarication, I can seek and receive citizenship in Taiwan, where I may bask in true equality — hard won and well deserved.