Taipei Can Offer a Lesson on Tiananmen

Thomas B. Gold teaches and writes about Chinese society at UC Berkeley

China’s long pre-post-Deng era has ended at last. Watching the funeral proceedings, one wondered what stratagems were fermenting behind the shifting or glazed eyes of the assembled mourners as the demonstrably moved party secretary and president, Jiang Zemin, delivered the eulogy to his patron.

Some Westerners, particularly Americans, argue that the new leadership should give top priority to a review of the decision to send the People’s Liberation Army to suppress the demonstrators in Tiananmen Square, a brutal act that Deng Xiaoping approved and applauded. The June 4, 1989, massacre has had a serious impact on Sino-American relations and deeply colored this country’s perception of Deng.

A one-sided focus on Tiananmen distorts Deng’s extraordinary achievement, which was to release the genie of Chinese entrepreneurship from its Marxist-Leninist lamp and to ensure that it stayed out.

Opponents of the reforms marshaled numerous attacks, but each time, Deng responded by accelerating and broadening his programs and getting laws passed to protect the new system.


Deng was nonetheless a prisoner of the know-it-all arrogance common among Marxist-Leninist true believers. He confidently boasted of the party’s ability to solve whatever problems popped up. But the story of the reforms he unleashed is the story of unintended consequences. Tiananmen exposed the party’s inability to solve a broad range of severe economic, social, political and cultural problems in a manner that took into consideration the stifled frustrations and aspirations of common citizens.

The number of victims of June 4, 1989, may never be known, just as the number of victims of other communist massacres and political fiascoes in China are also likely to remain uncounted, though those other events do not seem to obstruct Sino-American relations as much as the globally televised rampage in the center of Beijing.

There was another Chinese massacre, which predated television and did not affect Sino-American relations. It happened on Taiwan 50 years ago today and was committed by our ally Chiang Kai-shek and the Kuomintang (Nationalist Party).

In 1945, the KMT recovered Taiwan after 50 years as a Japanese colony. The Chinese occupiers brought unbridled corruption, carpetbagging and lawlessness to what had been an orderly society.


On Feb. 28, 1947, a street disturbance in Taipei provoked an uprising. The Taiwanese organized councils to present their grievances in a constructive manner, but Chiang sent troops from the mainland that over the course of several months violently hunted down and systematically massacred 18,000 to 28,000 civilians islandwide and introduced a long period of terror led by his son, Chiang Ching-kuo. Washington, choosing to view this horrific slaughter against the larger context of China’s murderous civil war, did not consider severing relations with the regime.

For decades, the Feb. 28 incident was not spoken of or acknowledged officially in Taiwan. But with economic growth and the emergence of a middle class and a dissident movement, the incident was raised publicly. Soon after assuming office in 1988, President and KMT leader Lee Teng-hui, himself a Taiwanese, ordered an official review of the incident, which resulted in monuments to the victims, reparations and an official apology from the government. Lee’s master stroke lanced a boil that had festered in the body politic, bringing about a reconciliation that made it possible for Taiwan’s democracy to continue to develop in an inclusive fashion.

With Deng’s passing, the Chinese Communists might take a lesson from the KMT’s playbook and appoint a commission to study the extremely confusing events leading up to the horror of June 4, even though many of the perpetrators are still alive and in power. They could agree that mistakes were made on both sides, and apologize for the suffering of victims and their families.

The wounds of Tiananmen are nowhere near as wide or deep in China as those of Feb. 28 were in Taiwan; in fact, many Chinese are unaware of what happened that day in Beijing. But a review could help to reconcile a significant part of the elite, including those abroad, serve as a catharsis for those who care about it and certainly lay the groundwork for improved relations with the U.S. and much of the rest of the world. This sort of bold stroke, in the manner of Deng Xiaoping, who apologized for some (but not all) the past previous tragedies, would be a fitting memorial.