A radical Taiwanese independence group said on Sunday that it had pulled down a statue of republican China’s founding father Sun Yat-sen, who ended centuries of imperial rule.
The incident, which was condemned by members of the ruling nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) party, illustrates how hostility towards Beijing still runs deep within some Taiwanese circles, despite years of improving ties between the two sides.
The bronze statue had stood for over half a century at a park in the southern city of Tainan, until it was pulled down on Saturday.
Dozens of independence activists launched the attack, using a rope to topple the 600kg statue which was splashed with red paint and covered in protest signs reading: “ROC out, KMT down.”
The Republic of China (ROC) was founded by Sun on the mainland in 1911. It remains the official title of Taiwan, as opposed to the communist-ruled People’s Republic of China.
Sun died in 1925. Under Chiang Kai-shek, KMT nationalist forces later fled to Taiwan in 1949 at the end of a civil war with Mao Zedong’s communists.
The park has long been a flashpoint between supporters of the KMT, which continues to insist that the ROC is the one true China, and pro-independence groups who want Taiwan to formally sever from the mainland.
“This action is to show our support for the victims of the February 28 Incident,” said Tsai Ting-kui, head of the radical Alliance for a Referendum to Safeguard Taiwan. Tsai was referring to 1947 riots that erupted across Taiwan after a KMT inspector beat a female trader in Taipei for selling untaxed cigarettes.
Thousands were killed that day, an incident that remained taboo for decades under Chiang Kai-shek’s post-war rule in Taiwan. He died in 1975 after governing the island with an iron fist, and February 28 was later made an official holiday.
In 1998 the park was renamed after Tang Teh-chang, one of thousands of people killed by KMT soldiers in a 1947 massacre in Taiwan. It also has a statue of Tang, and pro-independence groups want the park stripped of KMT symbols.
Last year the statue of Sun survived an attempt by the Tainan city government to remove it when dozens of KMT supporters guarded it around the clock for weeks.
Taiwan became a fully fledged democracy in 1996 after its first direct presidential election.
Ties between Taiwan and China have improved markedly since 2008 after President Ma Ying-jeou of the KMT came to power in Taipei on a platform of beefing up trade and tourism links. He was re-elected in 2012.
But despite the thawing tensions, surveys say that a large majority of people in Taiwan reject Beijing’s demands that the island reunite with the Chinese mainland.