Green, Blue, Red
I could not have chosen a more political time to visit the other side of the Taiwan Strait. The Mainland China, the Red side of the political triangle, had just passed the legislation that allows the Communist government to invade Taiwan if the latter makes an irreversible move toward independence. The leader of the Nationalist Party in Taiwan, the Blue side, had just visited the Mainland for the first time since 1949 when it was ousted by the Communists following a brief civil war at the end of W.W.II. To the dismay of the Green side of Taiwan---those who are determined to make it a sovereign nation---the visitor reaffirmed in Beijing the Nationalist desire for a unified China and its opposition to Taiwanese independence.
It was not that I wanted to find out about Taiwanese politics on my first visit to the other side of the Strait. I was invited to give a talk at the renowned Academia Sinica, and decided to stay for a week for some sightseeing. But I did not have time to visit any place other than the political nerve center, Taipei. And in Taipei, the least political tourist destination, the National Palace Museum, was under renovation. The part that remained open to visitors was hardly worth more than half of a day's visit. Unless I spent all my time in shopping malls and night markets, politics was simply unavoidable in the usual tourist attractions.
On the Blue side, there was the Zhongzheng Memorial Hall, named after Chiang Kai-shek, or Jiang Jie-shi, the Nationalist leader who lost to the Communist Mao Ze-dong during the civil war and fled to Taiwan in 1949. For a mainland Chinese, the idea that Chiang Kai-shek was upright and righteous (Zhongzheng, as he called himself) is as ridiculous as calling the famine and the destruction at the end of 50's the Great Leap Forward. And I doubt that any Taiwanese on the Green side would want to come here to pay him respect. Chiang Kai-shek was the symbol of an iron fist rule by the outsiders that attempted to extinguish anything Taiwanese, lest anyone would question the Nationalist fantasy of using Taiwan as a stepping stone for the soon, and then eventual invasion and recovery of the Mainland. But did he (and his son, the late President Chiang Ching-kuo) learn from the mistakes made by the Nationalists in Mainland China and implement policies that help transform Taiwan from colonial backwaters to a decent democracy and a thriving economy? The exhibits did not say, although an affirmative answer was strongly suggested by my Lonely Planet travel guide. I wondered if those Taiwanese on the Green side would give any credit of Taiwan's amazing transformation to the Chiang clan. I wondered also if the Red Mainland Chinese could appreciate Chiang's contributions looking at their own nascent economic and political reforms.
On the Green side, there was the 2-28 Memorial Museum. Its location, right between the Presidential Office and the headquarters of the Nationalist Party, must have been chosen by then mayor of Taipei and current president, Chen Shui-bian, to exact maximum humiliation on the Blue side, after the last Nationalist government apologized for the killings that followed the riot on February 28, 1947. Inside, the meticulous documentation of the shootings, the deaths, and the political persecutions that followed impressed me as preaching to the converted. It is hard to imagine that anyone on the Blue side would set foot here to ponder the turning point in the modern Taiwanese history, and that is a shame. The exhibits stress the lack of understanding shown by the Nationalist officials sent from the Mainland to take over Taiwan from the defeated Japanese, demonstrated by the contrast between the continuous warfare, famines, and poverty on the Mainland throughout the first half of the 1900's, and the relative peace and economic development in Taiwan under the Japanese colonial rule, and by the contrast between the violent swings between anarchy and dictatorship on the Mainland and the push for self-government in Taiwan under the Japanese. Until the Blue side appreciates this lack of understanding of the other side, there is little hope for reconciliation. Likewise, the current tension across the Taiwan Strait has its origin in the lack of understanding shown by the Red side on the history of the Taiwanese struggle under foreign domination and their yearning for self-determination.
The only place that came close to a neutral meeting place of all sides was the Zhongshan Memorial Hall, named after Dr Sun Yat-sen. He is revered as the Father of the Revolution by the Communists and as Father of the Nation by the Nationalists. Dr Sun visited Taiwan twice when it was a Japanese colony during his life-long drive to overthrow the last dynasty of China. He was said to have expressed sympathy in his political writings towards small and weak peoples that tried to find their own place in the world. Although it was unclear whether he was ever a strong advocate for the right to self-determination, his attitude on this issue is practically endearing to the Greens compared to his Nationalist successors. My guess is that some Taiwanese also identify with Dr Sun's love-hate relations with the Japanese---he received military and financial aid from Japan for his revolutionary efforts but he often chastised it for colonizing Taiwan and Korea. The last exhibit in the memorial hall was a chart showing President Chen Shui-bian in the same political lineage beginning from Dr Sun and followed by the Chiang clan, all under Dr Sun's political theory of Three Principles of the People. I thought it was comical: Chiang Kai-shek would be turning in his grave if he found out his successor not only gives up on the recovery of the Mainland but is bent on making Taiwan an independent country, and Chen Shui-bian would stammer to identify anything in common between his politics and that of the Chiang's. But I bet Dr Sun would have approved his legacy being used as ground for reconciliation, as comical and poignant as it is.