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Taiwan Park Gives Controversial Chiang Kai-shek Statues Standing Room

Taiwan's ruling Democratic Progressive Party has stirred up a debate over the legacy of former President Chiang Kai-shek, striking his name from the island's main international airport, renaming a memorial hall in the capital Taipei and removing his statues from military bases around the island. Many of those statues have ended up at a park in northern Taiwan, one of the few public places where Mr. Chiang's image remains. VOA's William Ide toured the park during a recent visit to Taiwan and has more about the debate.

Nestled in the leafy green mountains of Taiwan's northern Taoyuan County is a small park like no other. There, on a grassy knoll, are more than 100 statutes of the late Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek. And that number is growing.

The statues were relocated here after Taiwan's ruling Democratic Progressive Party began a series of aggressive steps last year to deChangify the country, including renaming Taiwan's largest international airport and a memorial hall that had been dedicated to the former ruler.

Some of the statues now in the town of Tahsi show Mr. Chiang as the traditional Chinese scholar wearing a long silk robe, or as the elegantly dressed statesman. In others, he is the military leader mounted on a horse with his sword drawn.

The campaign to delegitimize Mr. Chiang has been controversial. For some, images of the former ruler conjure up memories of his accomplishments and leadership. For others, they stir up memories of martial law and of his Nationalist troops crushing a popular uprising in 1947, killing more than 20,000 people.

Su Wen-sheng, Tahsi's mayor, understands Mr. Chiang is controversial, but he says the waning prestige of Taiwan's former ruler is a natural part of the island's process of democratization.

He also says the statues should be kept as historical and cultural artifacts, documentation of Taiwan's authoritarian period when national leaders were treated like heroes and school students were instructed to bow down to them.

The town of Tahsi established the park to attract more tourists and it has succeeded in doing that. Groups even come from neighboring China.

Liu Chien-fei, an 81-year old army veteran who came to Taiwan years ago with Chiang Kai-shek and his Nationalist troops, believes the park is a good idea.

He says he is upset with the government's "Chu-Chiang Hua" campaign, which in Mandarin means to "deChiangify" the island.

Liu says that while everyone has their strengths and weaknesses, the push to erase Mr. Chiang's legacy is extreme.

Mr. Chiang once ruled all of China, but he fled to Taiwan with his Nationalist troops six decades ago after he was defeated by Mao Zedong's Communists. He ruled Taiwan with an iron fist, implementing martial law and discouraging political dissent.

His legacy has long been a source of heated debate, especially since the end of martial law in the late 1980s and the island's transformation into a multi- party democracy.

When Mr. Chiang's Nationalist Party was voted out of office in 2000 by President Chen Shui-bian's Democratic Progressive Party, the move to deChiangify intensified.

The moves have sparked protests and added to already tense relations between the ruling and opposition parties.

But for Mr. Chen, the issue is clear.

Mr. Chen says the former Chiang Kai-shek memorial hall was a shrine for a dictator. He says that by changing the name it now belongs to the people of Taiwan and will no longer stand as a symbol of mistakes that were made in the past.

Opposition politicians, especially members of the Nationalist Party, say the moves are unconstitutional and superficial. They also accuse Mr. Chen of making them to bolster his political party before elections, scheduled for early next year.

Ma Ying-jeou, a former head of the Nationalist Party and the party's candidate in next year's presidential contest, says that despite his faults, Mr. Chiang made contributions to the economy and even helped open up the island's political arena.

"Nobody is perfect. He has done good things for Taiwan.... He is the person who defended Taiwan by fighting many wars with the communists," said Ma.

Bruce Jacobs, a professor at Australia's Monash University and a Taiwan expert, disagrees. He says that from a democratic perspective, Chiang's reign was brutal and his economic accomplishments minor by contrast.

"There were lots and lots of political prisoners, there were lots and lots of executions, it was a pretty tough dictatorship," said Jacobs. "If you are a democrat in Taiwan and you value those things, it is pretty hard to value Chiang Kai-shek's period of time."

Jacobs says, given all this, the renaming movement makes sense.

As for Tashi's Mayor Su, he says he will leave the debate to politicians and historians. For him, the fact that the park is attracting more tourists is reason enough to keep Chiang's legacy alive.