The Unfolding Epic KMT Tragedy

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Friday April 7, by Jerome F. Keating Ph.D.

With President Tsai Ing-wen's recent directive to declassify absolutely all government documents relating to the 228 Massacre, Taiwan has passed another milestone in its pursuit of truth about its past. Linked to this is the continued removal of statues of former president Chiang Kai-shek, who clearly bears responsibility for the massacre.

However, Taiwan's coming to terms with this part of its history and Chiang's role in it is not the final step. It raises other deeper issues that remain unanswered.

Numerous books have already been written on the history of Taiwan, as well as on Chiang and on his son Chiang Ching-kuo but a different book still demands to be written. That book is a thorough, comprehensive and honest history of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) along with its failed struggles with democracy, identity, and power.

Such a book would need to cover the KMT from its very inception to its current fading position and all the missteps and betrayals along the way including its loss of China.

It would be a crucial work not only on the KMT's role in Taiwan's struggle for democracy but it would also have to trace how and where this party, which was allegedly built on the pursuit of democracy lost its focus and soul.

The KMT dates its founding to right after the 1911 Xinhai Revolution when Sun Yat-sen and Song Jiaoren united the Chinese Revolutionary Alliance, (Tongmenghui) and other revolutionary groups to form the KMT based on a belief in government of the people, by the people and for the people.

Sun would become the first president of China but would quickly cede that role to Yuan Shikai and so begin the KMT's ill-fated journey.

Because of its length and scope, this history of the KMT has the makings of an epic or--more accurately--of an epic tragedy. The scope covers more than a century of numerous wars for control and leadership and would end with the KMT as a diaspora in exile.

"I sing of arms and a man," wrote Virgil when he began The Aeniad, his epic on the founding of Rome. From its revolutionary inception, the KMT--through contention with Yuan, the warlords, the rise of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the Northern Expedition, the Japanese Invasion, the Chinese Civil War and more--has seen its share of battles, victories and defeats.

However, what makes it a tragedy is the KMT's continuing identity crisis as it struggles to balance conflicting paradigms of power, money and democracy and its belief in "one China." It wants to create the image and role of being modern China's founding hero.

It wants to promote democracy, but it also wants dynastic power and profit. These paradigms do not mesh.

The KMT contributed to the founding of modern China but never achieved its desired status as central hero, just as it contributed to Taiwan's democracy but was never the hero of that struggle.

Instead, it acquired the roles of obstructionist and loser, capable of "swelling a progress" and setting the stage for democracy yet remaining a loser, never quite able to achieve the desired conclusion.

In this, the KMT has remained "full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse." That is its tragedy.

All epics have an epic question. Here, the question would be, "Why did the KMT never learn from its past? Why did it miss the mark and continue to fail?"

For Aeneas and his Trojans their destiny was the founding of Rome. Once they left Troy, they never looked back.

However, for the KMT, its epic is not that of China, nor is it that of Taiwan. Instead its epic remains a tragedy of wandering souls striving to be part of a lost dream, paying a price but never the right one.

What would be the title of this tragedy? Paradise Lost might seem fitting if referring to China, but that title has already been taken.

A different title could be Gone with the Wind, which would be an appropriate reflection of its role in Taiwan. Each treats the KMT's loss and inability to learn from the past, but each still does not cover everything.

Epic tragedies also have a tragic flaw. The flaw of the KMT is believing that its founding purpose justifies its lust for power and its desire for heroic leadership. Its hardliners still seek a way to triumphantly return and fit into a China built by their former enemy the CCP.

The KMT's lost founding identity was based on Sun's Three Principles--government of the people, by the people, and for the people, yet in its ruling style and desire for power the KMT could only embrace the government of the people part.

Profit and power became part of its perceived destiny, why?

In the KMT's failed destiny, a number of "what ifs?" exist where fate seemed to intervene: What if the Japanese had never invaded China in the 1930s when the KMT was beginning to unify the country and consolidate its power? What if the Xian Incident never succeeded and Chiang was able to put down the "Communist bandits"? What if when the UN votes were there in the 1960s, Chiang had decided to accept the Italian proposition for "two Chinas" just like there were two Germanys and two Koreas?

However, in each case, the "what ifs" never happened and fate carried the day.

To face up to the tragic flaw of its past desire for dynastic power and profit remains the KMT's real challenge. It is a flaw that caused so many to sacrifice themselves for so few.

Just as honesty with the 228 massacre had to be forced upon the KMT it must engage in additional soul-searching but it is almost impossible to say how. Stolen state assets hold current members back. To be transparent in this would mean their forfeiture.

Some party members recognize this albatross but they are unable to convince the others. Without money KMT leaders will have to join the common democratic herd, and how can an epic journey end like that? This is not the hero's paradigm, nor does it fit the paradigm of "one China."

The years under former president Ma Ying-jeou were the KMT's final chance and swan song. With control of the presidency and Legislative Yuan they had one last opportunity but they still could not face the issue of asset transparency.

Even now the party's best lack all conviction for the required sacrifice and the ceremony of innocence is drowned. How can one claim to be for the truth especially if it means giving ill-gotten gains back to Taiwanese? How can a foreign party do this and achieve its goals?

The complete story of the KMT remains a story that needs to be told, but who can tell it to its fullest? Who can be both sympathetic to the lost cause but brutally honest with how that loss happened? It remains an epic tragedy in search of an author.