TAIPEI, Taiwan — In very different ways on Wednesday, citizens of Taiwan used an important holiday to call for the 23 million people of this self-governing island — which Beijing claims as its territory — to have a greater say in their political identity.
Young protesters in the northern city of Taoyuan, carrying an anti-China banner, splashed red paint on the tomb of Chiang Kai-shek, the generalissimo who fled to Taiwan after losing China’s civil war to the Communists and who declared martial law on the island that lasted until 1987, 12 years after his death.
And at a news conference in Taipei, the capital, two former presidents called for a referendum in April 2019 on whether to replace the Republic of China, which has been the island’s government since 1945, with a Republic of Taiwan — a move that Beijing has warned would lead to war.
Both developments on Wednesday — the 71st anniversary of an uprising that led to a massacre of Taiwanese by Chiang’s soldiers — highlight the challenges that President Tsai Ing-wen faces in dealing with rising pressure from China while trying to keep Taiwan’s pro-independence voters on her side as midterm elections approach.
Video footage of the demonstration at Chiang’s tomb on Wednesday showed chanting protesters throwing red paint and unfurling a white banner that read, “Abolish China authoritarian rule, establish the Republic of Taiwan.” Mausoleum staff politely asked them to stop, to little avail.
In past years, statues of Chiang have been defaced on the anniversary of what has become known as the 2/28 Incident — a public uprising that began on Feb. 28, 1947, and was crushed by Nationalist soldiers, who killed tens of thousands of Taiwanese.
While Chiang is still revered as a strong leader by some older residents, many in Taiwan oppose the use of his likeness or name in public spaces. Statues of Chiang, once ubiquitous in Taiwan, are gradually being moved to a park in Taoyuan. Many support the removal of Chiang’s likeness from Taiwan’s currency and of his name from roads and schools, as well as the repurposing of Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, one of Taipei’s biggest tourist sites.
Mainland China’s ruling Communist Party has warned Taiwan against such “de-Chiang-ification.” They see it as an attempt to eradicate the Chinese identity that Chiang and the Nationalists, also known as the Kuomintang, imposed on Taiwan, which before their arrival in 1945 had been under Japanese colonial rule for 50 years.
A public vote on declaring a Republic of Taiwan, as the two former presidents called for on Wednesday, would be considered a much graver matter. Beijing has said that establishing such a republic would prompt it to invade.
Under Taiwan’s Constitution, issues like sovereignty cannot be decided by public referendum. But even a nonbinding vote in favor of a Republic of Taiwan would put pressure on Ms. Tsai to take a more confrontational stance with the mainland, while giving Beijing more fodder with which to justify its own increasing pressure on her government. But voters in Taiwan have shown a tendency to push back against threats from the mainland.
Ms. Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party has traditionally favored independence, but as president she has shelved that goal in favor of maintaining the status quo and is unlikely to support the referendum proposal.
Lee Teng-hui, one of the former presidents backing the proposal, told hundreds of supporters at a news conference that a referendum was the “most powerful weapon” that Taiwan could use to establish itself as a “normal country,” according to Taiwan’s Central News Agency. Mr. Lee, now 95, bemoaned the fact that Taiwan cannot participate in numerous international organizations, due in large part to China’s attempts to isolate it.
Mr. Lee, a mentor of Ms. Tsai, won Taiwan’s first democratic presidential election in 1996, amid threats of war from China that led to the deployment of United States carrier groups to the Taiwan Strait.
Joining Mr. Lee in supporting the referendum was former President Chen Shui-bian, 67, who is on medical parole from a 20-year prison sentence for corruption. Speaking in a recorded video, Mr. Chen struck a defiant tone.
“Taiwan is our country, not China’s,” the Central News Agency quoted Mr. Chen as saying. “We have to use our right to vote to show the world Taiwan’s will and determination that the country will never concede to the control of the Communist Party of China.”
Ms. Tsai made no public mention on Wednesday of the referendum proposal or the protest at Chiang’s tomb. On Twitter, she commemorated the 1947 uprising and said the government would continue to investigate abuses committed under Kuomintangs rule.
“Today we commemorate the lives that perished during the 228 Incident 71 yrs ago,” she wrote. “Only when we reconcile w/ the past, can we move forward together.”