As the legacy of historical figures around the world are brought into question, we at Redfield & Wilton Strategies, having previously considered this question in relation to the UK, US, and France, decided to take a look at Taiwan.
In 1949, Chiang Kai-shek, former president of the Republic of China, lost the Chinese Civil War, and fled with his army to settle in Taiwan, hoping to retake the mainland someday. Taiwan had previously been under Japanese colonization for 50 years. To make the people recognize Chiang’s government and Chinese identity, his Kuomintang (KMT) party instituted nearly 40 years of martial law. Beginning with the February 28 Incident in 1947, “White Terror” killed thousands of political and intellectual dissenters. Over 40,000 statues of Chiang Kai-shek were erected around the island during this era.
Since Chen Shui-bian’s first term in 2000, Taiwan has begun a process of transitional justice to recognize its past and pay tribute to families of victims. Many statues of Chiang have been vandalized, particularly on the anniversary of 228, with red paint and the words “killer” written on them. Protesters argue that monuments to Chiang are symbols of authoritarianism and unrepresentative of the future of Taiwan.
We at Redfield & Wilton Strategies asked the Taiwanese public on their views of Chiang Kai-shek. We found that nearly half (43%) of respondents see Chiang as a dictator, with only 10% disagreeing. A further 38% neither agree nor disagree, implying Chiang can accurately be described as a dictator.
Although there is a partisan divide, there is a general consensus among both parties. A majority (58%) of Tsai Ing-wen voters in the 2020 election agree that Chiang was a dictator, while 31% of Han Kuo-yu voters feel the same. Han supporters appear ambivalent about calling Chiang a dictator. Nearly half (46%) of Han voters neither agree nor disagree, compared with 31% of Tsai voters. A notable minority of Han voters (22%) disagree with this characterization of Chiang.
This partisan divide is likely due to the fact that Han Kuo-yu’s party, the KMT, is Chiang’s own party. Many voters are direct descendants of those Chiang brought with him from China. KMT supporters are likely to positively see Chiang’s policies and historical legacy. Yet, that nearly a third of Han voters do consider Chiang a dictator indicates that the Taiwanese public recognizes his complicated legacy, although whether they consider it simply a matter of fact and not necessarily a negative thing is also a salient question.
Despite recognizing Chiang’s authoritarian rule, we found that nearly half (46%) of the Taiwanese public have neither a positive nor negative view of Chiang Kai-shek. Indeed, 31% even have a positive view of him, with only 14% dissenting.
The partisan division is stronger here, with Tsai voters particularly conflicted on how to understand Chiang’s legacy. Both a quarter of Tsai voters hold a positive (25%) view and a negative (24%) view of Chiang. The remainder (46%) are ambivalent. Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has led the movement for transitional justice. During Chen Shu-bian’s presidency, he promoted the removal of Chiang Kai-shek statues and renaming of public monuments. Over 200 statues were moved to a park across from Chiang’s mausoleum, while the “Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall” was renamed the “National Taiwan Democracy Hall.” Families impacted by 228 are thus likely to be DPP voters.
Yet during KMT President Ma Ying-jeou’s tenure, the name change was reversed, although he retained the name “Liberty Square” for the plaza in front of the hall, originally called “Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Square.” This continues to reflect political differences today. A striking 50% of Han voters have a positive view of Chiang Kai-shek. A further 41% have neither a positive nor negative view. It is possible that Han voters recognize that Chiang was a dictator but see this trait as a reason why he was an effective leader.
Unlike her predecessor Chen, President Tsai is proceeding with a more cautious approach to transitional justice. In 2017, she convened an independent Transitional Justice Committee to investigate the KMT’s legacy, including ill-gotten assets, to exonerate martial law victims, to provide financial reparations to affected families, and to recommend neutral names for monuments. In addition, Tsai has also raised attention to treatment of Taiwan’s indigenous peoples. Tsai officially apologized to indigenous communities for mistreatment and pledged to protect their rights. It seems that Tsai’s more measured approach may align more with the general sentiment of the Taiwanese people who do not feel strongly one way or another about Taiwan’s most internationally recognisable historical figure of the 20th century.