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Taiwan marks the 76th anniversary of the start of the 228 Massacre

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

One of Taiwan's darkest moments in history involved a radio station. It happened 76 years ago today, in 1947, just after Japan handed the island over to Chinese rule. As NPR's Emily Feng reports, marking that history is increasingly complicated.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: The imposition of Chinese Kuomintang - or KMT - rule did not go over well in Taiwan. The KMT was an opposition political party, then fighting a civil war with the Chinese Communist Party. And in Taiwan, they fostered a highly corrupt local government. On February 28, police fired into a crowd of Taiwanese protesters and killed one man. Gao Chuanqi is a historian who has written several books on this episode and what followed in the days after.

GAO CHUANQI: (Through interpreter) The protesters had nothing but bamboo sticks with cabbage knives on the ends, and the police had guns. So the protesters rushed to where we are sitting now, the former Taiwan Broadcasting Station.

FENG: That's because they knew they needed to reach a wide audience, and the former Japanese occupiers had left them a powerful tool.

GAO: (Through interpreter) The Japanese used Taiwan as the southernmost station to broadcast all their imperial front lines.

FENG: The Taiwanese convinced the station managers to give them access to the mics. And this is what they broadcast.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ONG THIAM-TENG: (Speaking Taiwanese).

FENG: You just heard Ong Thiam-teng, a journalist and activist, broadcast in the Taiwanese language, not Mandarin Chinese, sharing news of the protests. The Chinese Republic's response was swift and brutal. Chen Yi, the KMT-installed governor of Taiwan, issued a radio edict in Mandarin Chinese announcing martial law.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHEN YI: (Speaking Chinese).

FENG: An estimated 2,000 people were disappeared and executed in the weeks after, though various historians say the number is as high as 30,000 people. Ong, the original broadcaster, was arrested and was never seen again. Today, that radio station is a museum dedicated to remembering the victims and leaders of that resistance. But after those radio broadcasts, Taiwan spent nearly all of the next 40 years or so living under authoritarian KMT rule.

SUMEI WANG: February 28 was a huge tragedy because all knowledgeable people of the time were wiped out. Famous painters, opinion leaders were killed.

FENG: That's Sumei Wang, a professor in the journalism department at Taipei's National Chengchi University. She says the KMT also knew the power of radio.

WANG: They wanted to reeducate people and to teach them Mandarin, and so they used radio as a tool.

FENG: But so did the opposition. Here's Cheryl Lai, the chairperson of Radio Taiwan International.

CHERYL LAI: There were so many underground radio stations, almost 100, to launch all different protesting voices.

FENG: And a lot of these underground stations became Taiwan's first commercial radio stations in the '90s, when Taiwan democratized. That ruling party, the KMT, is still a major political party in Taiwan today. One of its leaders is Chiang Wan-an, the new mayor of the island's capital, Taipei. He claims to be the illegitimate great-grandson and grandson of both KMT dictators who ruled Taiwan through much of its authoritarian history, a time many now call the white terror. That's made today's anniversary especially uncomfortable. Here's Li Huisheng, whose grandfather was one of the victims.

LI HUISHENG: (Through interpreter) Mayor of Taipei, what roles did your supposed great-grandfather and grandfather play during Taiwan's years of white terror? Were they the victims, or were they the perpetrators?

FENG: These families want the mayor to admit that the ancestors whose namesake he claims were the main perpetrators of what's now called the 228 Massacre. Every year, the Taipei mayor attends a 228 commemoration event, but this year, many of the families of those executed and disappeared in 1947 say they're boycotting any event Mayor Chiang Wan-an goes to. It's a reminder of just how contentious Taiwanese history and identity remain.

Emily Feng, NPR News, Taipei, Taiwan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.