TAIPEI -- An unsettling scene unfolded on the streets of Taipei during a rally commemorating the 80th anniversary of the event that triggered the Second Sino-Japanese War, the infamous Marco Polo Bridge Incident of July 7, 1937. Without warning, a number of protesters began hoisting the red, five-starred flag of the People's Republic of China, Taiwan's nemesis.
Many in Taiwan, like Hung Hsiu-chu, former leader of the Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang, call for unification with the mainland. But the premise is that Taiwan should take the lead, not Beijing.
So why were protesters hoisting the national flag of the PRC rather than Taiwan's?
Loud, violent minority
The organizer of this protest-within-a-protest was the China Unification Promotion Party. Founded in 2005, the CUPP is hostile to Taiwan's pro-independence groups and has a reputation for violence. Its leader, Chang An-lo, was once a prominent member in one of Taiwan's largest triads, the Bamboo Union -- an organized crime syndicate driven both by profit and politics.
The CUPP is also known to target similar groups in Hong Kong. According to media reports, the party was responsible for an incident involving Hong Kong's pro-democracy leader Joshua Wong and other members of the Demosisto political party. This occurred during their visit to Taiwan in January to attend a symposium hosted by the New Power Party, a youth-led political group.
When the group arrived at Taipei's Taoyuan International Airport, waiting CUPP members began scuffling with them. Chang Wei, son of the CUPP leader, later wrote on Facebook that he doesn't want Hong Kong's pro-democracy movements escalating tensions in Taiwan.
A couple of Taiwanese legislators suspect the CUPP is backed by the Chinese Communist Party on the mainland.
Chang Wei was present at the July 7 rally, but denied that the party has anything to do with the mainland. When asked why his protesters raised the Chinese flag, he responded evasively that China and Taiwan are brothers and that he sees no problem in recognizing both nation's colors.
The younger Chang's business card carries the phrase "one country, two systems," China's 1997 pledge to Hong Kong that guarantees a high level of autonomy after the territory's return to China. But it was initially drawn up for Taiwan, and there's no denying that Chang's view resonates within the Chinese Communist Party.
Although Taiwan's militant pro-unification groups are said to comprise less than 1% of the population, it is a very vocal minority. When Japan purchased the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea in September 2012, anti-Japanese demonstrations raged across China. Soon afterward, Taiwanese pro-unification hard-liners were suspected of inciting fisherman and others to encroach on Japanese territorial waters off the islands to protest fishing restrictions.
The islands are claimed by China and Taiwan, which call them Diaoyu and Diaoyutai, respectively.
Despite its claim of sovereignty over the Senkakus, Taiwan's official stance is one of moderation in order to maintain friendly ties with Japan. But after the intrusions, suspicions arose that China and Taiwanese groups were secretly scheming against Japan.
Under this scenario, the CUPP would likely play a central role, with their involvement helping drive a wedge between Japan and Taiwan.
The party makes no secret of its hostility toward Japan. In an act of vandalism, a bronze statue of Japanese civil engineer Yoichi Hatta, who worked in Taiwan during the island's colonial rule, was decapitated in April. Former Taipei city councilor and CUPP member Lee Cheng-lung confessed to the crime, telling investigators that he couldn't bear the whitewashing of Japanese rule.
Hatta spearheaded construction of Wushantou Dam in 1930, and his legacy has symbolized the warm ties between Japan and Taiwan. A series of water projects that he supervised alleviated droughts and floods in the arid Chianan Plain, turning it into the biggest grain-producing region in Taiwan.
But his legacy is not the only one being targeted. Several months before the vandal struck, extreme pro-independence groups decapitated statues of former-President Chiang Kai-shek, who fled the mainland to Taiwan after his Kuomintang, or KMT, forces lost to the communists in 1949.
Chiang was known for ruthlessness, keeping Taiwan under one-party marital law until 1987. He always maintained that, although living away from the mainland, the people were still Chinese, and he adopted tough measures to make sure they didn't forget.
Taiwan's pro-independence and pro-democracy groups reject this. In the 30 years since the lifting of martial law in 1987, the vast majority of the population downplay their Chinese roots, with 80% to 90% considering themselves Taiwanese rather than Chinese. These groups are also re-evaluating Japan's colonial rule in a more favorable light, something anathema to the CUUP, hence the beheading of Hatta's statue.
The rejection of Chiang also shakes the CUUP's assumption that Taiwanese will always be Chinese and that Taiwan and China will someday be unified. And despite their loathing for Chiang and his hated KMT -- Taiwan's second-largest party -- the CUUP and other pro-unification groups cannot completely ignore his legacy, as Chiang promoted a similar one-China view, albeit from a different political standpoint.
Revising views on Japan
For all Taiwanese, Japan's rule for about 50 years before Chiang's flight from the mainland is a sensitive issue.
The KMT maintains that it lost to the communists due to its forces being weakened during the Second Sino-Japanese War. Former Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou of the KMT -- while acknowledging some good from Japanese rule -- argues that the anti-Japanese war should be considered to have started in 1895, when Japan first colonized Taiwan. His perspective leaves no room for revisionist thinking that glorifies the colonists.
In contrast, pro-democracy and pro-independence groups are reassessing Japan's reign, taking into account the infrastructure improvements and educational achievements that occurred. The government of President Tsai Ing-wen, leader of the Democratic Progressive Party, has criticized the KMT's negativity and its history of violent crackdowns on democratic movements. This is what seems to have emboldened pro-independence extremists to vandalize Chiang's statues.
In an address to a memorial service for Hatta at Wushantou Dam on May 8, the engineer's eldest grandson thanked the Taiwanese for their efforts to maintain the dam, saying that the facility was initially expected to last only 50 years or so. But locals have taken good care of it.
The decapitated statue of Hatta, repaired by Chi Mei Group, run by renowned Taiwanese businessman Shi Wen-long, was unveiled during the service, reaffirming ties between Japan and Taiwan, according to Tainan Mayor William Lai.
Despite these words of assurance, however, the service was held amid heavy security as members of pro-unification and pro-independence groups, who were not permitted to attend, continued to skirmish. With only a tiny following and with their backs against the wall, pro-unification groups are increasingly inclined toward acts of violence.
Most Taiwanese objectively regard Japan's colonial rule and support the relationship with Japan. But there remains a sense of apprehension as a small, vocal and violent minority interprets history for its political goals, threatening ties with Japan along the way.