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People in Taiwan are divided over whether to remove statues of Chiang Kai-shek

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Taiwan inaugurated a new president this month and that's again prompting a debate over whether to remove statues of the island's former authoritarian ruler. It's divided Taiwanese people along lines of politics and identity and about how to remember history. Here's NPR's Emily Feng.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Poll people in Taiwan about their view of Chiang Kai-shek, who ruled the island under martial law until his death in 1975, and for some you will get visceral anger.

AMY LEE: You, Chiang Kai-shek, you killed my father.

FENG: That's Amy Lee describing her father. His father, Lee's grandfather, was an influential lawyer who was disappeared and executed by the ruling Kuomintang Party, which Chiang headed and which took control of Taiwan in 1945. Nearly 80 years later, does she feel justice has been served?

LEE: If Chiang Kai-shek, his statue is still in the campus, if Chiang Kai-shek poetry still in our money, the coin we're using, I don't know.

FENG: Chiang also imprisoned tens of thousands of dissidents, some in a gulag on a tiny volcanic island, and executed thousands more. For other Taiwanese, however, there's admiration for Chiang, explains Kwei-bo Huang.

KWEI-BO HUANG: I think the name Chiang Kai-shek has been demonized without public debate or discourse on his achievements.

FENG: Achievements like defending Taiwan against continued attacks from China throughout the 1950s.

HUANG: And he rebuilt Taiwan's economy after the World War II. So, you know, it depends on who you talk to in Taiwan.

FENG: Roads and schools all across the island are still named after him, and about 760 of his statues and busts still grace public spaces. Chiang was also president of National Chengchi University, where Huang teaches. So Huang sees removing these statues as erasing history.

HUANG: I would say that is another form of being authoritarian. The administration has the final say about a past leader.

FENG: He means the ruling DPP administration. They've made taking down Chiang statues and emphasizing a more pro-Taiwan identity a core plank in their platform, evoking cries from the other side of the aisle that they're quashing other views. The political split extends to Taiwan's still influential military, where Chiang is respected as one of its founding generals. And so after being criticized for being slow in removing Chiang statues, Taiwan's national defense minister Chiu Kuo-cheng responded...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHIU KUO-CHENG: (Speaking Mandarin).

FENG: ...By saying Chiang statues on military grounds are military property, and if they're not illegal, why would the ministry let anyone change or remove them? But since the end of martial law in 1987, more than 3,000 statues of Chiang have already been taken down.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Shouting).

(SOUNDBITE OF RIFLE FIRING)

FENG: And many are brought here to this park south of Taipei, where there are hundreds of smiling Chiang statues of all sizes and colors arrayed so they're waving at each other. It's up to the viewer to decide whether the arrangement is satirical or respectful.

(SOUNDBITE OF RIFLE FIRING)

FENG: A uniformed guard watches over Chiang's preserved body in his mausoleum nearby while nearby tourists take selfies with Chiang Kai-shek busts. One of the visitors, a Taipei resident named Kevin Kang (ph), is old enough to have grown up during Chiang's martial law period. Kang says Chiang is responsible for decades of Taiwan's history. Chiang is now part of Taiwan's land, Kang says, and so the statues to him are like landmarks. They prompt in Kang reflection of both the good and the bad the dictator brought.

Emily Feng, NPR News, Taipei, Taiwan.

(SOUNDBITE OF RRAREBEAR'S "BACKPACK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.