Taiwan Land Reform Museum

As the protests over wind turbines in the towns of Yuanli (苑裡) and Tongxiao (通霄) descended into heavy-handed policing this week , I was reminded of the last high-profile land issue in my old manor of Miaoli County (苗栗縣), namely the expropriation cases in Zhunan (竹南) back in 2010.

These compulsory purchases (a term which, along with “collateral damage”, belongs in the oil-stained pages of doublespeak lexicon) were the subject of much debate. Featuring those chalk-and-cheese Michaels – Turton and Fagan  – the best tit-for-tat on the issue can be found here.

There are some complicated and emotive issues at play here, and I have to admit I do find myself intuitively baulking at the idea of eminent domain, as it known in the U.S. But, short of positing an ontological basis for property rights (as is Fagan’s wont) which, however philosophically tenable, just muddies the issue by failing to acknowledge the facts on the ground, Turton’s points halfway through that exchange seem to me decisive, and are worth quoting here: “Those farmers in Miaoli have that land because it was expropriated in the name of the collective good from some big landowner in the land reform and then handed out to the farmers. Except that the big landowners had that land because the state promoted them in the Qing or Japanese colonial periods and enabled them to acquire it. As a collective good, of course. Or maybe the Miaoli farmers got that land by finagling it from the aborigines, usually in defiance of Qing law, which was often quite enlightened. Which local magistrates did not enforce because such appropriations were a collective good.”

To be clear: Arguing that state requisitioning of property or land constitutes a violence against the individual and a breach of an assumed moral right to property is all well and good; but when multiple redistributions have occurred under similar or more inequitable circumstances, one seems to be in something of a bind. Turton has doubtless read Shepherd’s seminal Statecraft and Political Economy on the Taiwan Frontier, 1600-1800 (possibly the best book on Taiwan that I have read), which corroborates his points about the Qing large-rent system for pingpu aborgines and the willingness to turn a blind eye to exceptions that tended toward the general good. Turton continues: “You can talk about “property rights” in the abstract but in the real world they are generally historically contingent, and again, contingent on state action/inaction in the name of some collective good.”

With these things at, if not the forefront of my mind, washing around somewhere in the recesses, I recently engaged in a discussion of the KMT’s Land Reform Act (實施耕者有其田條例) with a friend who lived through the era and has personal experience of the state appropriations that began in 1953. “Simple theft” he said, questioning the almost uniformly trumpeted transformative power of the program and pointing out that other countries had achieved similarly equitable economic development without state coercion (Malaysia being his main example). His main gripe was that many people labelled as “landlords” were in fact small landowners who were stripped of their property on the grounds that they were  fleecing their poverty-stricken tenants. “The situation,” he said “was not comparable to the feudalism in China where landlords abused peasants.” (Interestingly, the authors cited below agree with him, though their chronology seems to be a tad awry.)

He insists that the system that existed in Taiwan was relatively fair and that abuses were not tolerated, certainly under Japanese rule. Naturally, most of the dispossessed agree with this analysis and continue to call for redress.

Taiwan Land Reform Museum (土地改革紀念館) is located in a lane behind the Land Bank of Taiwan near the corner of Zhongxiao Dunhua S. Rd, Sec. 1 (忠孝敦化南路一段) and Bade Rd, Sec. 3 (八德路三段). There’s never anyone there and there’s not an awful lot to see. The vaunted figure of 37.5 – the percentage of yield that tenants were required to pay under the first stage of reform from April, 1949 – is emblazoned on nearly every exhibit. There are some models of behatted country folk working the land, a few diagrams and graphics, chronologies. The little spinning block’s puzzle (what would one call that?) with the character for rent is probably the coolest thing there.

It’s worth a rainy half hour, though, as Frank Ho, the curator, will stick a video on for you. I think he’s chuffed just to have someone there. The film is a thoroughly cheesy affair but what strikes you in the images of soil-toiling pride is how easily these images could quite easily be from the propaganda of the bandits (共匪) from across the strait. (I was struck by a similar notion when listening to a South Korean “tour guide” denounce the criminals over the border while visiting the DMZ.)

The best thing about the museum is they’ll give you a couple of CDs, one of which contains PDFs of two books that are on display. One is Land Reform in Taiwan by then Premier and Vice-President Chen Cheng (陳誠). The second is Land Reform in Free China by Tang Hui-sun (湯惠蓀), chief of the Chinese-American Joint Commission for Rural Reforms, with oversaw the implementation of the land act. I’ve yet to plough right through them, but even in the forewords one cannot miss the dissembling, unwitting irony and pompous bullshit that seeps from some of the choicer passages.

In Chapter 1 of Free China, we are told that reform in Taiwan was “was an urgent necessity, especially in view of the maldistribution of land tenure, which hindered agricultural production and forced down the farmers’ standard of living.” 1 There then follows a nebulous attempt to ground reform of the “irrational system of tenure in Taiwan” 2 on Sun Yat-sen’s gospels (a standard procedure that was used to justify some of the worst abuses of the regime), the applicability of which “to the conditions of Taiwan is only too obvious.” 3

Right.

Most interesting are the cross-strait comparisons. Like Old Peanut’s statue at Fuao Harbor in Mazu, the authors gaze wistfully out across the strait, posing that perennial post-hangover conundrum: “How did we manage to fuck up quite so spectacularly?”

The title of Tang’s book (a none-too-subtle barb at the bandits) is a good barometer of what is to expect from these two works: in between the “facts” (tenant rent “in extreme cases … might be as high as 70 percent” 4 of annual yield) and figures, iterated references to the paragon of KMT policy are juxtaposed with the shocking abuses of the Communist regime. The terrifying excesses of the land reform movement in China are so well documented, that there’s not much I can add to the record.

But what is fascinating is that the authors are not denouncing the struggle sessions, which often involved the settling of old scores, gun-point dispossessions, torture, beatings and (up to) two million summary executions of “class enemy” landlords in China. Quite the contrary. Though the accusations set off in the realm of unchallengeable fact with the claim that “in the name of agrarian reform, the Chinese Communists have created a reign of terror”5 they quickly board a flight to Reverse World (反轉世界).”Chinese farmers,” says Chen “have fallen into the status of serfs.” 6

If one were drawing up a list of the many communist failures, a regression into feudalism (at least at that time) would seem a peculiar choice to headline with. All the more so when followed up by this most telling caveat:

We are sincerely sorry for our failure to carry out Dr, sun Yat-sen’s land to the tiller ideal while we were still on the mainland. Though that failure may be partly attributed to internal disturbances and foreign invasion [really, you couldn’t make that one up.], it was due mainly to the selfishness of a small minority of people, to their shortsightedness and lack of courage. 7

So there you have it. If people hadn’t been so spineless and selfish, everything would have been cushty. Of course, this has been thrown in there to address the poser that will have struck any half-sentient reader: If the commies were so awful, why did they win? The fact is, the PRC approach (if it can be called that) to land redistribution that the authors condemn (for, as I have said, completely the wrong reasons) was the main factor in the hearts and minds campaign that won them the country. 8

Still, remorse for these failings can only go so far, and the authors make it clear that actions speak louder than words:

We are determined, on the basis of the experience gained on Taiwan, to put the land-to-tiller policy into effect on the mainland after its recovery. Our brethren there then may be delivered from starvation and slavery, and come to enjoy the freedom stability, and happy life that they are entitled to. 9

 Taiwan Land Reform Museum

Address: 10F, Dunhua South Rd., Songshan District, Taipei 105. (Entrance to the museum is actually round the back in the lane.)

Tel: (2)2579-2509

Opening hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. except Saturdays, Sundays and national holidays.

Admission is free. It’d have to be.

  1. Tang, H.S. Land Reform in Free China, Taipei, China Engraving & Printing Works. 1954. p.9
  2. Ibid, p.19
  3. Ibid, p.14
  4. Ibid, p.13
  5. Land Reform in Taiwan, China Publishing Company, Taipei, 1961. Preface, p.xiii.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid
  8. A great resource on all of these issues is Suzanne Pepper’s Civil War in China: the Political Struggle, 1945-1949.
  9. Land Reform in Taiwan, preface, p.xiii

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