The 228 Inheritance: Taiwan’s Revolution Is Here

Seventy-two years after Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek’s forces massacred more than twenty thousand Taiwanese in ‘the February 28th Incident’, Taiwan is in the midst of an unacknowledged revolution.

You will not find the Taiwanese Revolution named in history books or identified in newspapers. Indeed, it is assumed that this revolution has yet to occur – or rather that it never will. Yet to occur, because there is no internationally-accepted Taiwanese Republic and never to occur, because the leaders of the People’s Republic of China may use military force to prevent it from happening.[1] Having failed to follow a particular revolutionary blueprint – armed rebellion, prolonged war – this line of thinking goes, Taiwan has rightfully been denied the full benefits of statehood.

What if we wrote a different history for Taiwan instead? What if we recognized Taiwan as Taiwan (not ‘Chinese Taipei’ or ‘Taiwan-comma-province-of-China’) and therefore its people as a revolutionary force? Seventy-two years ago when they protested a humble cigarette seller’s beating by a new military regime, they transformed what was supposed to be a quick project of reunification into an open-ended campaign for justice and freedom.[2]

The Taiwanese Revolution, after all, was never supposed to happen. By 1947, Taiwan was meant to be safely ensconced within a restored, cross-strait Republic of China under the rule of Chiang’s Nationalist Party (the Kuomingtang, or KMT). With Chiang’s loss to the Communist Party in 1949, the terror unleashed by the February 28th Incident was at least supposed to ensure that Taiwanese survivors would be sufficiently cowed into devoting their lives and resources towards ‘retaking the motherland’. Instead, the trauma of February 28th and the decades of martial law that followed ended up serving as the foundation of a new, modern, and distinctively Taiwanese identity, one that has been seeking its expression in a liberated homeland ever since, even as it has grown to encompass many more constituencies than the first generation of Hoklo-speaking, benshengren opposition figures.[3]

The Taiwanese Revolution is a unique one. It is now being undertaken by political and sociocultural means on three fronts – against the annexationist desires of the PRC; the continuing occupation of the KMT’s Republic of China; and the legacies of dispossession and discrimination left by Taiwan’s history as an early modern settler colony.[4] The tools and the leverage available for each of these battles are limited and sometimes at cross-purposes. Taiwanese aboriginal leaders resist the PRC by tentatively siding with the descendants of those who colonized their land.[5] Taiwan fights for its international space by leveraging the governmental architecture of a now-defunct China (the ROC).[6] To a casual observer, these moves can make it seem as if Taiwan is in the grip of multiple Stockholm syndromes.

Look deeper, however, and it becomes apparent that these maneuvers are the result of some very creative accounting, the determination of a people to make the most of their anomalous status, to find common ground with potential allies, to live between hope and delusion, and to pursue both peace and revolution at the same time.

The ROC provides protective (if misleading) cover, staving off invasion by maintaining the polite political fiction that the Taiwanese have not already declared their wish to be recognized as separate and independent. Put another way, out of Taiwan’s three revolutions it is the first, the threat from the PRC, that dictates the way the other two must be fought; but only when the second two are accomplished – the ROC dismantled and justice for indigenous and migrant and working-class communities pursued – will Taiwan ever be more than conditionally free.    

The Taiwanese Revolution has no single declaration of independence but rather dozens: President Tsai Ing-wen’s resounding rejection of ‘one country, two systems’[7]; full-throated defense of democratic rights; the 2014 Sunflower Movement and the coming-of-age of a generation ‘born independent’[8]; the ubiquitous refrain of ‘建國’ in Taiwanese commentary; vandalism of Chiang Kai-shek’s statues[9]; solidarity with victims of Chinese imperialism in Hong Kong, Tibet, and Xinjiang[10]; the establishment of a transitional justice commission[11]; so-far-unfulfilled promises to indigenous communities[12]; passage of legislation to protect non-Mandarin languages; the vigorous lobbying work of diasporic communities, especially in the United States[13]; flags and passport stickers proclaiming the Republic of Taiwan[14]; and the decision of the ROC’s diplomatic offices, at the end of last year, to use the name Taiwan in their social media profiles. In all these ways and more, a Republic of Taiwan is being theorized and imagined into the border of existence.

For the most part, the global community has chosen not to hear the proclamation of the Taiwanese Revolution, both out of indifference and fear of Chinese pressure. But the singular, peaceful path of the Taiwanese Revolution means that there are numerous ways of providing assistance that require no aggression at all. Journalists and writers can make every effort to represent Taiwan’s interests fully and fairly. The press organization Reporters Sans Frontiers recently selected Taiwan as the site of its first East Asian Bureau.[15] In November 2018, the Oslo Freedom Forum held its annual human rights convention in Taiwan.[16] Also in 2018, members of the bipartisan United States Congressional Taiwan Caucus helped to ensure the unanimous passage of the Taiwan Travel Act, ‘encourag[ing] visits between US and Taiwanese officials at all levels’.[17] The benefit of an unorthodox revolution, one that has thus far relied very much on its wits, is that it too can prosper based on rhetorical and incremental forms of international support.

Since the February 28th Incident, Taiwan has been living in revolutionary time. What does this mean? The sixteenth-century Florentine statesman Niccolo Machiavelli argued that only a virtuous (that is brave, stalwart) people could resist the winds of fortune. The ‘Machiavellian moment’, a phrase coined by the historian J.G.A. Pocock, is thus the moment that the republic lives or dies.[18] It is the task of a virtuous people to extend that moment for as long as possible, so that their nation might thrive for another day, another decade, during which the options for long-term survival will hopefully have expanded.

We are in year seventy-two of revolutionary time and counting. This is the moment that the nascent, unrealized Republic of Taiwan lives or dies. Whether we will reach year seventy-three or year one hundred depends not least on the investment of those who care about Taiwan and their commitment to meeting the challenges and contingencies that fortune will throw our way.

In scholarly and journalistic analysis, Taiwan’s modern trajectory is often described as an evolutionary one, moving from the backwardness of dictatorial rule to a fuller-fledged democracy, which it is praised for accomplishing without bloodshed.[19] An evolutionary timeline, however, assumes that Taiwan will have the futurity and space to mature in the same way as any other formerly-authoritarian nation. It ignores the unique geopolitical context that this democracy must operate in, subject to the interference of a powerful and ill-meaning neighbor. It forgets that the benefits of democracy are asymptotically limited and that existential questions of Taiwan’s survival are out of the reach of a simple vote. Reconfigure Taiwan as a revolutionary society, however, and suddenly the existential threat it confronts is clear, along with the urgent need it has both for broader, more consistent help from international sources (especially those who profess liberal values) and bolder, more forward-thinking action from its own leaders.[20]

How much time can a revolutionary Taiwan buy? I used to feel exhausted thinking that I might not live to see Taiwan become a ‘normal’ country. Living inside revolutionary time is disorienting in its uncertainty. But so too is it remarkably generative. Taiwan, after all, has managed to struggle and to innovate against very long odds. How much more it might it accomplish with the recognition and resources almost reflexively given to any other nation-state? Maybe one day my children or grandchildren will read about the triumph of the Taiwanese Revolution in their textbooks. In the meantime, I know that my job is to keep this revolutionary moment open a little bit longer.

Catherine Chou is a second-generation Taiwanese American and an assistant professor of early modern British and European history at Grinnell College.

Read more about 228:

Green Island Secrets: Scholarship & Journalism Force Us to Bear Witness to Taiwan’s Darkest Era | Professor Chung-Chih Li

All Quiet: An American in Taiwan’s Perspective on 228 | Joyce Chen


[1] Chris Buckley and Chris Horton, ‘Xi Jinping Warns Taiwan that Unification is the Goal and Force is an Option’, New York Times, January 1, 2019,

[2] On the events of February 28th, 2947 and the inadequacy of the term ‘February 28th Incident’ to encapsulating a much longer campaign of repression, see Silvia Li-chun Lin, Representing Atrocity in Taiwan: The 2/28 Incident and White Terror in Fiction and Film (Columbia University Press, 2007).

[3] See, for instance, Robert Edmondson, ‘The February 28th Incident and National Identity’, in Memories of the Future: National Identity Issues and the Search for a New Taiwan, ed. Stephane Corcuff (Routledge, 2016), p. 25-46, which argues that the ‘betrayal and violence of the Chinese Nationalist government made the boundaries of a distinct historical subject, ‘the Taiwanese people’, clear and compelling’ and ‘made Taiwanese history thinkable’. For a primer on the development of Taiwanese identities, see C. Donovan Smith, ‘A History of Taiwanese Identity’, Ketagalan Media, December, 8, 2018,

[4] On Taiwan in the early modern period, and the beginning of its history as a settler colony, see Tonio Andrade, How Taiwan Became Chinese: Dutch, Spanish, and Han Colonization in the Seventeenth Century (Columbia University Press, 2008); Emma Teng, Taiwan’s Imagined Geography: Chinese Colonial Travel Writing and Pictures, 1683-1895 (Harvard University Press, 2004); and John Shepherd, Statecraft and Political Economy on the Taiwan Frontier, 1600-1800 (Stanford University Press, 1993).

[5] See the recent statement by members of the Indigenous Historical Justice and Transitional Justice Committee, available at English translation by 游知澔, Tech Lead at WatchoutTW, available on his Medium page here:  

[6] In August 2018, for instance, Tsai Ing-wen travelled to Paraguay as president of the Republic of China to attend the swearing-in of Mario Abdo Benitez. She was photographed exchanging a joke with former leader of Brazil Michel Temer. ‘President Tsai Attends Inauguration of Paraguayan President and Vice President’, Office of the President, Republic of China (Taiwan), August 15, 2018, The PRC does not allow for ‘dual recognition’ of two Chinas, but neither would it establish diplomatic relations with any country that might be willing to recognize Taiwan-qua-Taiwan, effectively creating a zero-sum game with the odds heavily stacked against the ROC and even more so against Taiwan.

[7] Soon after President Tsai’s statement, Taiwanese diplomats in North America reiterated her message in op-eds in major newspapers. See, for instance, the Seattle Times column by Alex K.S. Fan, Director of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Seattle, ‘‘One Country, Two Systems’ is not Viable for Taiwan’, January 10, 2019,

[8] In 2014, Taiwanese youth led a three-week occupation of the Legislative Yuan to oppose the Cross-Strait Services Trade Agreement Act championed by then-President Ma Ying-jeou’s government. The magazine New Bloom, edited by Brian Hioe, has created an online archive of the movement, including timelines, photographs, and interviews, accessible here: On June 20, 2018, Rob Schmitz published a story about Taiwanese identity entitled, ‘‘Born Independent’, Taiwan’s Defiant New Generation is Coming of Age’, National Public Radio,

[9] On the latest examples of such anti-colonialist vandalism, see James X. Morris, ‘The 228 Incident and Still Haunts Taiwan’, The Diplomat, February 27, 2019,

[10] At a February 2019 rally in New York City to support the Uyghurs currently imprisoned in camps in Xinjiang, a participant carried a sign reading ‘Taiwan stands with the Uyghurs’ and ‘#我是李明哲’ (I am Lee Ming-che), connecting the plight of the Uyghurs to that of the Taiwanese democracy activist who is currently serving a five year prison sentence in China.

[11] Ian Rowen and Jamie Rowen, ‘Taiwan’s Truth and Reconciliation Committee: The Geopolitics of Transitional Justice in a Contested State’, International Journal of Transitional Justice, vol. 11, no. 1 (March 2017), p. 92-112.

[12] Yaut Yi-Shiuan Chen, Da-Wei Kuan, Sandie Suchet-Pearson, and Richard Howitt, ‘Decolonizing Property in Taiwan: Challenging Hegemonic Constructions of Property’, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, vol. 36, no. 6 (2018), p. 987-1006.

[13] See the work of the Formosan Association for Public Affairs, a nonpartisan lobbying group dedicated to securing US support for Taiwanese democracy,

[14] The Facebook page of the Taiwan Passport Sticker (台灣國護照貼紙) movement is The cover image currently reads, ‘If you want to be seen as a Chinese national, it’s very easy; just don’t say anything. But if you want to be recognized as Taiwanese, you must have strength’. The stickers were designed by Denis Chen.  

[15] ‘Reporters Without Borders (RSF) Opens its First Asia Bureau in Taipei’, last updated June 6, 2017,

[16] ‘2018 Oslo Freedom Forum in Taiwan’, November 10, 2018,  

[17] H.R. 535, ‘Taiwan Travel Act’, passed by the 115th US Congress; became public law March 16, 2018,

[18] J.G.A. Pocock, The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition (Princeton University Press, 2003).

[19] In an incisive recent article, Mark Harrison argues that violence is the ‘critical unexamined force in Taiwan’s experience of modernity’: ‘Art, Violence, and Memory in Taiwan: Telling the Story of the Beautiful Island’, Thesis Eleven, vol. 146, no. 1, p. 3-23.

[20] A recent article by Jeffrey C.H. Ngo, a researcher with the Hong-Kong pro-democracy party Demosisto, argues that Taiwan is ‘The Island the Left Neglected’ (Dissent, Fall 2018,

One Response to “The 228 Inheritance: Taiwan’s Revolution Is Here”

  1. An interesting challenge to “Taiwan’s modern trajectory is often described as an evolutionary one, moving from the backwardness of dictatorial rule to a fuller-fledged democracy” is the idea that without a healthy middle class, full fledged democracies can easily fail. Taiwan’s current economic situation is a threat to its once healthy middle class. Without a solution to that crisis, the path to democracy will also be fraught with authoritarian dangers.

Leave a Reply