Friday, June 01, 2007

The man in the hall

In many ways, history is like a chemical experiment — chemicals are mixed in and the reactions are influenced by variables such as room temperature and barometric pressure. Sometimes the compound blows up in your face, while on other occasions it reacts in most unpredictable fashion. The main difference between the experiment of history and that which is conducted in a laboratory is that in the former, an experiment gone wrong cannot simply be thrown out.

As a linear experiment, history is all we have; we change it, add chemicals, the environment exerting pressures on it changes, but if something goes wrong, it takes time, effort and some amount of risk to bring it back to a stable form. No matter what is done to it, no matter what state it is in at a specific point in time, it will always be the product of everything that went into it down the chain of reactions.

This analogy would perhaps elucidate the Taiwanese lawmakers and politicians who, for a number of weeks now, have substituted their responsibilities toward the nation for bickering over the renaming of the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall in Taipei. The polarization and fighting that has resulted from the proposed name change — to Taiwan Democracy Hall — has reached a level of absurdity possibly unparalleled in the long history of party warfare, to such an extent that the Taipei City Government has begun splitting hairs on the law, making the CKS Hall a temporary historical site and suing a ministry for putting up banners on the walls surrounding the monument during the renaming ceremony a few weeks ago. In an ill-concealed stab at President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁), the city government has also proposed renaming part of a boulevard Anti-Corruption Democracy Square, a likely, though unacknowledged, reference to an ongoing investigation into the president's use of special state funds.

The much ado stems from the ongoing debate over the role Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) played in the history of Taiwan. Some, mostly on the Kuomintang (KMT) side, see him as the man who saved Taiwan from communism and brought it modernity, while others, mostly Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) supporters, see him as a dictator who tyrannized Taiwanese during the White Terror, imprisoning thousands and killing tens of thousands. The KMT would also have us believe that the DPP’s move to rename CKS Hall is yet another instrument in its quest for Taiwanese independence.

The result from all this has been that many important development projects in Taiwan — including this year’s budget — have been brought to a standstill.

What both parties, and Taiwanese, must realize is that like him or not, Chiang is among the chemical ingredients that make Taiwan what it is today, for better or worse. He is part of its genetic code. Reviling the man to no end and removing every reference to his reign will not change the fact that he is very much part of the fabric of the country. There is no knowing what would have happened had someone else, after losing to the civil war in China in 1949, fled to Taiwan — or, for that matter, what the outcome would have been absent a massive relocation there. The possibilities are limitless, and there is little point in pondering the what ifs. A far worse fate could conceivably have been reserved Taiwan, as today it could be another North Korea or, for that matter, China, with fewer rights and greater inequality.

Taiwanese must move on (and I suspect many, if not most, are begging to do so, were it not for the politicians who have hijacked this issue to gain points) and acknowledge the role the Generalissimo played in the history of their nation, regardless of the outcome and irrespective of whether this outcome is what he had in mind or not. He is part of the chemical mix, and there is no going back.

However, by expending undue time, energy and money debating whether he was a dictator or not, the devil incarnate or the savior of Taiwan, Taiwanese have allowed the slumbering man in the hall to reign over Taiwan once more, this time from beyond the grave.

If, as many suspect, Chiang was an opponent of democracy, upon close scrutiny of the massive statue that sits eternally inside the hall, the onlooker might perhaps see a trace of a smile.

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