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In Taiwan, eyes are on the next president and the ghost of Chiang Kai-shek

In Taiwan, eyes are on the next president and the ghost of Chiang Kai-shek
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Analysts caution that if implemented, the push to remove the statues might not only sow divisions within the military but also potentially jeopardise the island in the face of a cross-strait conflict.

On Monday, Lai will become the island’s new leader, succeeding his independence-leaning DPP colleague Tsai Ing-wen, who is completing her second four-year presidential term.

Lai has named Wellington Koo, the outgoing secretary general of the island’s National Security Council, as defence minister.

03:14

Future of Chiang Kai-shek statues questioned as Taiwan reckons with former leader’s legacy

Future of Chiang Kai-shek statues questioned as Taiwan reckons with former leader’s legacy

According to local media reports, as a former pro-independence lawyer-turned-politician, one of Koo’s main duties as the military chief is to uphold “transitional justice”, which involves eliminating Chiang’s influence within the island’s armed forces.

Chiang governed the island for nearly three decades until his death in 1975. Following defeat in a civil war against the Communist Party on the mainland, he relocated his Kuomintang (KMT), or Nationalist, troops to Taiwan in 1949 and established an interim government on the island, implementing martial law.

Analysts have cautioned that the removal of Chiang’s legacy is likely to unsettle mainland authorities. Despite his conflict with the communists and being perceived as an adversary by Beijing throughout his life, Chiang aimed to unify the mainland and Taiwan under the Republic of China – the island’s official title.

They note that sentiment towards Chiang on the mainland has softened considerably over the past three decades, as he is increasingly recognised as a pivotal figure in historical ties between the mainland and Taiwan.

The DPP administration, which views Chiang as a “dictator” responsible for the deaths of many civilians during his rule in Taiwan, established a commission in 2018 to investigate Chiang’s governance and address perceived injustices committed by the authoritarian KMT government between 1945 and 1992.

One of the commission’s proposals was to remove thousands of Chiang statues across Taiwan, including a prominent monument at the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall. It also recommended ceasing the daily performance of honour guards changing shift at the hall, which were seen as symbols of the authoritarian era.

While most of the statues have been removed or dismantled, more than 760 remain in public places. This count excludes 252 statues in various of the island’s military barracks not accessible to the public.

In a commission meeting last month, outgoing premier Chen Chien-jen directed the defence ministry to accelerate efforts to enforce transitional justice within the military, a decision media and critics saw as aimed at any remaining influence of Chiang within the island’s armed forces.

During a legislative meeting on April 17, KMT lawmaker Hsu Chiao-hsin asked Defence Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng whether, if ordered, his ministry would remove all statues of Chiang within the military.

In response, Chiu, who will be replaced by Koo on Monday, said: “I have no objection to how this should be handled in the public domain in line with regulations.

“However, the statues within the barracks are military property, and as long as there is no violation of the law, why should they be removed?”

Chiu repeated his position, saying the military had the authority to decide the fate of its own assets, highlighting the forces’ closed nature.

Feng Shih-kuan, who is stepping down as head of the Veterans Affairs Council, also voiced his opposition to removing the statues within the military.

“If it weren’t for Chiang Kai-shek bringing gold, talented people and troops to Taiwan back then, Taiwan wouldn’t have its stable development today,” Feng said during a legislative meeting late last month. He argued it was “unjust” to label Chiang solely as a negative figure “without acknowledging his contributions to Taiwan”.

Even Lee Wen-chung, Feng’s deputy and a senior DPP member, advised against taking down the statues, noting that many veterans held deep sentiment and memories for the late Chiang and preserving the statues could help in “preventing dementia among veterans”.

Last week, the defence ministry affirmed its intention to preserve the statues, asserting that the military did not view them as “symbols of authoritarian worship” but rather as integral components of military history.

However, the ministry agreed to redesign five military sites adorned with symbols venerating Chiang to incorporate the principles of transitional justice.

Chiang’s great-grandson, Chiang Wan-an, who is Taipei’s mayor and a KMT member, said he “respects whatever decision [is] made by the defence ministry”.

Former civilian defence minister Michael Tsai Ming-shian from the DPP, however, accused the military of prioritising loyalty to an individual over loyalty to the island. “Authoritarian symbols should all be eradicated,” he said.

Marco Ho, chief executive officer of the Kuma Academy, an institute promoting civil defence education, also expressed concern. He said preserving authoritarian symbols “only leads to confusion in national identity among officers and soldiers”.

On Thursday, some 30 Taiwanese civic groups demanded that the incoming administration keep Tsai’s pledge to institutionalise transitional justice. They urged relevant departments, particularly the defence ministry, to remove Chiang’s statues and address injustices inflicted during the reign of both Chiang and his son, Chiang Ching-kuo, on the island.

The administration of Taiwanese president-elect William Lai Ching-te plans to press ahead with Taipei’s project to remove all statues of Chiang Kai-shek on the island. Photo: AP

Analysts suggested the appointment of Koo, who lacks a military background, may be linked to the incoming administration’s intention to diminish Chiang’s influence within the island’s armed forces, and his historical ties to the mainland.

Huang Kwei-bo, a professor of diplomacy at National Chengchi University in Taipei, said that while “Koo lacks a professional military background, he previously served as the head of a government agency involved in transitional justice.

Koo led the Ill-gotten Party Assets Settlement Committee shortly after Tsai assumed office in 2016, focusing on the return of what the committee deemed assets that were acquired unfairly by the KMT and its affiliates since 1947.

“It’s reasonable to say that one of his tasks could involve removing Chiang’s symbols and statues from military barracks, given Koo’s familiarity with efforts to diminish KMT influence under the guise of transitional justice,” Huang said.

He said that such a mandate could also improve the DPP’s control over the military.

“Koo may utilise promotions as a means to influence the loyalty of military officers. His personnel decisions could be more politically motivated compared to previous defence ministers with military backgrounds,” Huang said.

Alexander Huang Chieh-cheng, a professor of international relations and strategic studies at Tamkang University in New Taipei, suggested Lai might not feel comfortable appointing a professional military figure to oversee defence matters.

This could be because he “either doesn’t know any of them well enough or doesn’t think [a military figure] would wholeheartedly be his wingman”, Alexander Huang said.

He said that although Koo was Tsai’s protégé, he had taken part “in most of the national security and senior meetings in the presidential office and with the United States for two-plus years if compared with other members of the team”.

Tamkang University’s Huang said regardless of whether Koo “pretends or by heart, puts his hand on the chest of the uniformed service, his political stand contradicts the beliefs” of the island’s forces.

Like Lai, who Beijing calls an “obstinate separatist” who could bring war to Taiwan, Koo has been blacklisted by the mainland as a hardcore pro-independence politician.

On whether Koo could help the DPP win control of the military, Alexander Huang said: “No one – military or civilian – can win the hearts and minds of the ROC (Taiwan) uniformed service by [disparaging] Chiang Kai-shek, at least [not] in the foreseeable future.”

He said it would take time for the DPP to gain real control over the military and that “Taiwan does not enjoy such luxury at the moment” given the constant threat of coercion from the mainland People’s Liberation Army.

“If [Koo] aims to be a respected minister of defence, he needs to honour the brave sacrifice of the military in defence of the republic long before 1949,” Huang said.

Beijing sees Taiwan as its territory and has not renounced the use of force to take it back. The United States – Taipei’s biggest arms supplier – in common with most countries, does not recognise Taiwan as independent but it is opposed to any attempt to take the island by force.

US military officials and experts have issued several warnings about Beijing possibly taking aggressive action against Taiwan by 2027.

Analysts cautioned that removing symbols of Chiang in military barracks was a “highly delicate” issue, and any mishandling of the case could trigger a strong backlash from within the military and jeopardise the island’s security.

“The issue is highly delicate, as evidenced by the reactions of top military officials such as Chiu Kuo-cheng and Feng Shih-kuan regarding the removal of these symbols,” said Max Lo, executive director of the Taiwan International Strategic Study Society think tank in Taipei.

“Failure to address the matter properly will undoubtedly provoke a strong backlash from the military, and given the ongoing military threats from Beijing, any division within the military regarding the removal of these symbols could negatively affect soldier morale,” Lo said.

04:31

Vice-President William Lai wins Taiwan presidential election as his party loses legislature majority

Vice-President William Lai wins Taiwan presidential election as his party loses legislature majority

Lo noted that while younger officers, particularly those raised under DPP governance, might hold different views, most senior military leaders, including those with the rank of lieutenant general and above, maintained respect for Chiang.

“Requesting the removal of Chiang’s symbols is akin to asking them to forsake their loyalty to the ROC forces,” Lo said.

“The DPP’s move also represents its desire to sever the historical connection between Taiwan and the mainland, considering Chiang’s significance in contemporary Chinese history,” Lo said, adding that removing traces of Chiang would likely anger Beijing as well.

Huang Kwei-bo agreed there could be wider effects. “If political correctness permeates the military, it will inevitably impact defence and military professionalism in decision-making and judgment.”

He said the Lai administration must exercise caution and responsibility to prevent politics from excessively influencing professional military operations.

Lo also suggested that rather than eliminating Chiang’s influence, Koo should focus on familiarising himself with the military and developing asymmetric warfare capabilities, in keeping with US proposals.

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