In both countries the transition to democracy came with a promise of religious liberty but problems remained, as demonstrated by issues with new religious movements in Poland and the Tai Ji Men case in Taiwan.

by Karolina Maria Kotkowska*

*Text of a video prepared for the 77th anniversary of the 228 Incident in Taiwan.

An article already published in Bitter Winter on February 13th, 2024.

The 228 Memorial Monument in Taiwan. Credits.
The 228 Memorial Monument in Taiwan. Credits.

Today, we gather to commemorate the events of 1947, which took place on February 28. On the preceding day, a conflict between government officials and a tobacco vendor in Taipei escalated, culminating in the severe beating of the vendor. This episode served as a catalyst for widespread public dissatisfaction with the corrupt and oppressive policies of the Nationalist government.

The events of February 28, observed as a day of national mourning, witnessed the tragic loss of lives among thousands of protesters at the hands of the police and the army acting under the Kuomintang authorities, marking the onset of the ominous White Terror era.

Frustrated by political repression, economic exploitation, and the absence of adequate representation, the Taiwanese people began articulating their grievances. This social and political upheaval had far-reaching and enduring implications for the island’s developmental trajectory.

The sources of the events we are discussing occurred shortly after the end of World War II, and the state of martial law, prompted by protests, endured for four decades, only coming to an end in 1987. This marked the beginning of Taiwan’s path toward democracy.

The country of my birth and upbringing, Poland, operates within a distinctly different cultural and political context, yet shares several parallels with Taiwan, including the late achievement of independence at the turn of the 1980s and 1990s. The period preceding World War II in Poland was marked by 123 years since the last—the third—partition of the country by neighboring states. Following World War II, the Polish People’s Republic was established, a historical state that existed from 1944 to 1989. During this period, Poland was a non-sovereign and satellite state, remaining under the political dominance of the Soviet Union.

The period of subjugation was marked by recurring protests of varying nature, not devoid of casualties among the civilian population. Waves of protests were triggered by poor living conditions, with hotspots often punished by successive restrictions. Many strikes were promoted by blue collar workers and originated in large industrial plants.

The first significant workers’ protest occurred in June 1956 in Poznań, where social and political demands were raised. In March 1968, provocatively induced student strikes took place, which authorities, blaming the Jewish minority, exploited for a large-scale anti-Semitic campaign. In December 1970, among other events, there was a brutal suppression of a wave of strikes on the Polish coast. In 1980, the economic situation deteriorated even further. From July 1, a wave of protests swept through Poland. From the perspective of consequences, the culmination was the conclusion of the strike at the Gdańsk Shipyards. The shipyards workers’ protest concluded on August 31 with the signing of the August Agreements.

Strikers at the Gdańsk Shipyards, 1980. Credits.
Strikers at the Gdańsk Shipyards, 1980. Credits.

Shortly thereafter, the extraordinary labor movement Solidarność emerged (full name, in English, Independent Self-Governing Trade Union “Solidarity”) marking the beginning of significant geopolitical transformations in Europe. It was established by Lech Wałęsa and others. Later, Wałęsa was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and served as the President of Poland between 1990 and 1995. Poland became independent again in 1989, but the road to democracy was bumpy.

In both countries, Taiwan and Poland, the newly established democratic systems resulted in the development of associations and other civic initiatives, but also in the emergence of new religious and spiritual groups. In both countries religious liberty was officially proclaimed in late 1980s. Yet, in Poland, the initial thaw and ease of registering new religious communities significantly slowed down over the years, and currently—for various reasons—registering a new group is more challenging than three decades ago. Previously, the political climate made similar activities difficult, various groups operated unregistered, and everything was monitored by the secret security services.

In Taiwan the situation was different. One example is the case of Tai Ji Men, which is an ancient menpai, which means school of qigong, martial arts, and self-cultivation. It was registered in its present form by its Grand Master, Dr. Hong Tao-Tze, in 1966. In 1995 there were already twelve Tai Ji Men academies. One might think that the situation of such a group would improve with the development of democracy. It turns out, however, that in some sectors the return to democracy in Taiwan was only declarative.

Tai Ji Men protests in Taipei.
Tai Ji Men protests in Taipei.

In 1996, various religious movements were hit with ridiculous accusations, which was a cover for a political persecution. What they were really accused of was their lack of support for the ruling political party. This type of persecution was a legacy of Taiwan’s authoritarian past. What is even more surprising is the fact that the consequences of those actions are painfully felt by Tai Ji Men to this day. Over two decades have passed since the events of 1996 but the bureaucratic machinery that enforces unjustly imposed taxes, and the resulting confiscation of property, continues to this day.

The inscription of the sculpture honoring the victims of the February 28 Incident says, among other things: “The task of healing a serious trauma in a society must depend on the whole-hearted collaborative effort by all its people. (…) we must help each other with compassion and treat each other with sincerity; we must dissolve hatred and resentment and bring about long-lasting peace.” Tai Ji Men is still waiting for the authorities to take that declaration to heart and allow all its citizens to live freely in a democratic country.