Taiwan was formally under martial law for 38 years, from 1949 to 1987. The excuse was that Taiwan was still technically at war with China. During this period, the Kuomintang dictatorship placed "emergency powers" in the hands of the president; the Constitutional rights of freedoms of the press, speech or assembly were denied; opposition parties were banned; and dissidents were jailed, exiled, tortured and even killed. "Chiang presided over a tightly run totalitarian state," wrote scholar Maurice Mesnier in the Los Angeles Times, "probably more effectively totalitarian than the than the Chinese Communist government."

Martial law lasted from May 19, 1949 to July 15, 1987—38 years and 57 days. Taiwan's period of martial law was the longest period of martial law in the world until it was surpassed by Syria’s near half-century of martial law from 1963 to 2011. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Criticism of the government, expressions of sympathy for Communists, labor strikes, discussions of Taiwanese independence, and Taiwanese opera were all banned. Newspapers and broadcasts media was tightly controlled. Political crimes were tried in military courts and thousands of people were given stiff prison sentences for crimes against the state.

There was an after-dark curfew and no place for young people to entertain themselves. One man told Business Week that when he was young, “We used to sneak around in the streets in the middle of the night behind the backs of the soldiers. Only problem: Ther was no place to go.”

Repression and Political Prisoners During the Martial Law Period

The structure of the Kuomintang was modeled after the Communist Party of the Soviet Union of the 1920s. A large army intimidated the masses and an extensive network of secret police and informants keep tabs on a relatively small number of activist and dissidents. Confucian respect of authority was used to control the population.

The National Party suppressed local Taiwanese culture. the Taiwanese language was banned in public and Taiwanese history could not be taught in schools. Taiwanese were forced to speak Mandarin. Student were fined a dollar for every Taiwanese word they uttered and repeat offenders had to wear a humiliating sign around their neck that read, "I was bad." People who lived 50 years under the Japanese occupation were told that couldn't speak Japanese. Instead, they too were forced to learn Mandarin.

Parents told their children, "Just don't talk about politics." In schools, teachers told their students to learn by imitation and not ask questions. One Taiwanese magistrate told Time, "We used to have to wear placards saying PLEASE SPEAK MANDARIN if we spoke Taiwanese in school."

In 1975, there were still an estimated 4,000 political prisoners in Taiwanese jails. One of them, the feminist leader, Hsui-lien Annette Lee, was arrested and convicted for sedition and given a 12 year prison sentence for giving a speech in the early 1970s at a rally celebrating the 38th anniversary of Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Kuomintang agents and informers infiltrated feminist meetings. "I was in for five and half years for a 20-minute speech," Lee told the New York Times. "We were surrounded by troops. I did not intend to speak, but I did. I criticized the Government. I criticized the Government;s one-China policy."

Through the 1980s, local politicians disliked by the Kuomintang were harassed by the secret police, and Western journalist were often followed and routinely had their phones tapped. People worried about being arrested talked in codes and often met in the American military officer's club because it was the one place

White Terror in Taiwan

The White Terror in Taiwan refers to the suppression of political dissidents and anti-Communist witch hunts by the Kuomintang that killed thousands and imprisoned tens of thousands following the 228 Incident in 1947 (see separate article) and during the period of martial law, which lasted for over 38 years from May 1949 to July 1987. Around 140,000 Taiwanese were imprisoned during this period, of which about from 3,000-4,000 were executed, for their real or perceived opposition to the Kuomintang and the government of Chiang Kai-shek. Most prosecutions took place in 1950-1952 and most of those prosecuted were labeled by the Kuomintang as "bandit spies", meaning spies for Communist China.

According to the Taipei Times: “During the White Terror, 140,000 to 200,000 people — many of who were from the intellectual and social elite — were imprisoned. There are no official numbers on how many people were killed during the period, but the Compensation Fund for Unlawful Persecution and Espionage Cases During the Martial Law Period has handled at least 800 cases of executions. The actual figures are believed to be higher, as many documents are believed to have been lost or destroyed during the 38 years of martial law. [Source: Taipei Times, April 25, 2014]

The KMT imprisoned mostly the Taiwan's island's intellectual and social elite out of fear that they might resist KMT rule or sympathize with communism. For example, the Formosan League for Reemancipation was a Taiwanese independence group established in 1947 which the KMT believed to be under Communist control leading to its members being arrested in 1950. The World United Formosans for Independence was persecuted for similar reasons. However, other prosecutions did not have such clear reasoning; in 1968 Bo Yang was imprisoned for his choice of words in translating a Popeye comic strip. [Source: Wikipedia +]

AFP reported: “The Nationalists, who had lost a civil war to Mao Zedong's communists in 1949, were touting their ambition of taking back the mainland but in fact they were seized by mortal fears of being invaded themselves. This created an atmosphere of dread and persecution which for some people ended only in 1987, when Taiwan lifted martial law after 38 years and embarked on its road towards democratization. [Source: Agence France-Presse, October 29, 2009]

Julie Wu wrote in The Diplomat, “The Nationalist Chinese government loved slogans. Among the most famous was this: “It is better to capture one hundred innocent people than to let one guilty person go free.” This principle, along with a healthy incentive system in which imprisonment entitled the arresting officer to a significant portion of the prisoner’s personal fortune and sometimes access to the prisoner’s wife, led to more than a hundred thousand incarcerations and several thousand executions during the White Terror, which lasted from 1949-1987. White Terror victims were often highly educated, apolitical, and guilty by association or simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. The percentage of those arrested who actually were Communist or pro-Taiwanese independence was quite low. Decades of harsh censorship have made this forty-year period obscure in the West and poorly understood even within Taiwan. Now, survivors like Tsai are struggling to make their stories known. [Source: Julie Wu, The Diplomat, March 8, 2014]

White Terror Victims in Taiwan

A large number of the White Terror's other victims were mainland Chinese, many of whom owed their evacuation to Taiwan to the KMT. Often, after having come unaccompanied to Taiwan, these refugees to Taiwan were considered more disposable than local Taiwanese.

The Taipei Times reported: Ninety-year-old Da Fei, 90, who is featured in a documentary about the White Terros, was sentenced to 12 years in prison on charges of “planning to revolt” after he came to Taiwan from China in 1978. Da said he passed his time in prison by reading and writing books. He received redress during former president Chen Shui-bian’s term and compensation of NT$2.9 million for the time he spent in prison. Da, a former secretary of a Republic of China army colonel, served 19 years in prison in China, accused of being a Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) spy by the Chinese Communist Party, before arriving in Taiwan. [Source: Taipei Times, April 25, 2014 \=]

Amber Parcher wrote in Foreign Policy: “Chen Shin-chi smiles through his dentures and drops down to the dusty floor of a jail cell to do a push up. He looks up at the crowd watching him, smiles again, and flips on his back to perform sit-ups, his body stretching almost the entire length of the three-by-two-meter cell. In 1968, he lived in one of these windowless boxes for four months during his five-year imprisonment by the then-authoritarian Taiwanese government. Chen was one of tens of thousands of suspected spies and Communists who were imprisoned, tortured, or executed by the Taiwanese authoritarian government during...the White Terror.” [Source: Amber Parcher, Foreign Policy, October 12, 2012]

According to the blog 2011greenislanden: Born to a poor family in Pingtung, Hsu Chao-jung was selected for service in the Japanese Imperial Navy in 1943. After the postwar February 28 Incident of 1947, so as to not to be taken for a dangerous element by the government of the time, he enlisted in the Nationalist government’s navy, and was sent to Qingdao on the Chinese mainland for training. In 1948 he was dispatched to bring back an American naval ship, and in August 1949 was sent to the front in the Changshan Islands in Shandong, after which he was fortunate to return safely to Taiwan. In 1955 he was again sent to the US to bring back another war ship. On the return trip he picked up English and Japanese copies of “Ten Years of the Taiwan Independence Movement,” published by the Republic of Formosa Provisional Government in Tokyo, for which he and nine others were arrested in April 1958, one of the several Taiwan independence political cases within the navy in the late 1950s. Imprisoned on Green Island and at Taiyuan Prison for ten years, he was put under surveillance upon release. []

Math Professor Killed During the White Terror

Jenny W. Hsu wrote in the Taipei Times, In May 1981, Chen Wen-chen, a math professor, “along with his wife and one-year-old son, returned to Taiwan for a vacation. However, shortly before their scheduled departure for the US, Chen was notified that his permit to leave the country had been rejected and he was wanted for questioning at the Garrison Command. On July 2, two Garrison Command agents showed up on Chen’s doorstep and took him away. [Source: Jenny W. Hsu, Taipei Times, July 2, 2009 /~/]

“The 31-year-old professor’s body was found on the campus of National Taiwan University the next day. An autopsy report at the time said judging from Chen’s injuries, he had fallen to his death from either the fourth or fifth floor of a building, CNA said. However, it is still unclear whether the professor was pushed or committed suicide. /~/

“Chen was a native of Taipei and had earned an advanced degree in statistics from universities in the US. Upon receiving his doctorate, he was invited to join the teaching staff at Carnegie-Mellon University’s statistics department. During his time in the US, the professor became involved in a movement fighting for more native Taiwanese to become government policy makers. /~/

“A record shows Chen was questioned by the Garrison Command, a secret police body operated by the government, from 9am until 9:30pm on July 2, 1981. The file shows that Chen told his interrogators that he had set up a foundation with 10 branches to support Formosa Magazine and push for democratic reform in Taiwan. The branches collected donations and sent them back to the magazine via Shih Ming-teh, who later became chairman of the DPP.” /~/

In 2009, The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) called on the government to re-examine the Chen Wen-chen case after a missing police file on Chen was uncovered. During past investigations, authorities had repeatedly said a written statement by Chen and audiotapes of his interrogation had disappeared. However, a member of the Ministry of Justice team discovered Chen’s police file in the National Archives a few days ago, CNA reported.” /~/

One Man’s Experience with the White Terror

Julie Wu wrote in The Diplomat, “In 1948, Tsai Kunlin was putting in some overtime when a military police officer came knocking. It was a Sunday morning. Tsai describes himself at nineteen as the youngest, meekest, and most bookish of all his brothers. A Taiwanese, Tsai was an outstanding student, his father a wealthy merchant, and Tsai’s future in academia seemed assured.” After the Kuomintang took power in Taiwan, “rampant corruption among the Nationalists caused wild, unchecked inflation that melted away Tsai’s father’s fortune. And now Tsai, the passionate scholar of Tolstoy, Wordsworth, and Victor Hugo, could no longer afford to go to college. Instead, he took a job in his town’s administration office.[Source: Julie Wu, The Diplomat, March 8, 2014, Wu’s debut novel, The Third Son, was published by Algonquin Books and appeared in O, The Oprah Magazine |+|]

“Devastated, but still diligent, Tsai went to his new office that weekend to finish up some work. And when he opened the door to find the military police officer asking for directions to the local police station, Tsai obligingly led the way. At the police station, Tsai was bound with rope and thrown into a cell. Although his older brother ran to the station to intervene, Tsai, who still had no idea why he had been arrested, was loaded onto a bus and taken from his hometown. On the way, he passed through the schoolyard of a girl he had loved since kindergarten. She didn’t know; for thirteen years he’d been too shy to tell her.|+|

“He was interrogated at a larger police station in the nearby city of Chung Hua. It was during his interrogation that Tsai learned of his transgression: attending a reading group in high school, when he was sixteen years old. He and several friends had regularly met to read and discuss a wide variety of philosophical books. A couple of the books, and a couple of his friends, had turned out to be socialist, and as a result, the whole group was now being rounded up. |+|

“His interrogators used standard Chinese techniques: sleep deprivation, torture, including electric shocks, and, most harrowing of all, psychological manipulation. Nationalist interrogators routinely employed Taiwanese colleagues to pose as allies and friends to the prisoners. The nineteen-year-old, idealistic Tsai easily fell prey to the deception and to the promises that he would be set free if he would only sign his confession. The eighty-two-year old Tsai pauses at this point in his tale, closing his eyes and bowing his head. “I’m sorry,” he says after a moment. “This is a very sad memory for me.” |+|

“He signed. He was taken to the Military Court Prison on East Road in Taipei, a prison that former inmates now refer jokingly to as “The Sheraton,” as it has since been torn down and replaced with Taipei’s Sheraton Hotel and several other businesses. At this prison, on his twentieth birthday, Tsai received a ten year prison sentence. His purported crime: joining an illegal organization and distributing communist pamphlets.” |+|

Imprisoned During the White Terror Period

Julie Wu wrote in The Diplomat, Tsai “was among the first prisoners to be shipped to the notorious, windswept island, Hue Sho To, now called Green Island. And there, in a concentration camp called “New Life Correction Center,” the would-be European-style pedagogue spent the remainder of his youth. The labor was back breaking. Tsai, feeling that it might strengthen his weak constitution, often volunteered for the hardest jobs, such as making rice for the prisoners, which required carrying sixty- to eighty-kilogram buckets of water. At night, he taught himself English and taught his illiterate bunkmate, Huang, to read Chinese. [Source: Julie Wu, The Diplomat, March 8, 2014 |+|]

“In the documentary DVD Tongue Untied, Huang (now deceased) notes that his ability to read the newspaper is all due to Tsai’s kindness. Huang also recalls a day when he off-handedly mentioned that Tsai had kicked him during the night. The following night, Huang burst into tears upon seeing that Tsai had tied his feet to a wooden post to keep them still. There were nights that Tsai himself could not sleep, when he would lie awake listening to the pounding surf and be reminded of the train that ran by his house. At those times he would think of the girl wistfully of the girl he loved and sing love songs to himself. |+|

“Close to the waves that made Tsai so homesick, a shoreline path winds at the base of high, black cliffs. This path leads past a “pillbox,” a small concrete cell where prisoners were at times put in solitary confinement and often tortured. Tsai recalls slipping past the guards to deliver candy to a friend locked up in here, only to hear his friend pleading desperately for water. This friend, punished for sending a letter to one of the women prisoners, was subsequently sent back to Taipei and executed. Tsai never saw him again. Lined with spiny pandanus trees, the shoreline path opens out to a small bay lined with black coral and volcanic rock, their spiky surface hewn flat by the prisoners and worn into smooth pools by the surf.”

According to the blog 2011greenislanden: While at the labor camp on Green Island, the New Life Correction Center, Tu Nan-shan worked in the mountains growing vegetables, on the one hand, while translating Yanaihara’s Life of Jesus, on the other. Sometimes he would take the place of a fellow prisoner to do the late-night shift at the prison ward, where he would try to work out the true meaning of the Life of Jesus with the help of an oil lamp. When interviewed, Tu said that he had spent nine years in prison, during which time he devoted heart and soul to the work’s translation. According to his telling, those nine years on GreenIslandwere heaven on earth. Though he may say so, when visitors to the exhibition area of the former New Life Correction Center see his original manuscript on display there, they may have a hard time imagining the process by which the Chinese translation of the book was done, where Tu, of the Japanese-speaking generation, used the Japanese term to look up its English equivalent, and then the English term to look up the Chinese. Far from being done under ordinary conditions, rather it was with the limited time available to him in prison, a struggle of body and mind in a brutal environment, with the end product being the communication between the god of the heart and God. []

White Terror Prison Entertainment

Julie Wu wrote in The Diplomat, A path from Tsai’s prison “ends at Swallow Cave, where the prisoners cremated fellow inmates, and where they built a stage to perform plays and operas. Tsai maintains that he never enjoyed these plays, all of which were performed to tout the Nationalist doctrine. Instead, he recalls a famous dancer, Tsai Zwei-yue, whom he had read about in magazines and seen on posters. She was held for one or two years at New Life Correction Center, and performed under the stars together with female guards she had trained. “Dance is just dance. It can’t be political,” he says. “So this I really enjoyed. I couldn’t believe I was seeing this famous dancer I’d only heard about, on Green Island.” [Source: Julie Wu, The Diplomat, March 8, 2014 |+|]

“The dancers and opera singers were accompanied by bands and orchestras made up of prisoners, playing instruments they had made themselves. The artifact room at the Green Island Human Rights Memorial Park museum contains a violin made by prisoner Cheng Meng-ho from driftwood and broken gardening tools. Cheng, who convinced the prison administration to hire him as official prison photographer, had a relatively easy time of it, as he made the violin in his photography studio, using a prison-issued knife. In contrast, Huang, a former post office worker with no carpentry experience, made his own violin at his bunk, using shards of broken glass from a crockpot lining he found on the beach, and asking the kitchen workers to boil the wood for him. Huang intended to learn to play in prison so he could earn a living as a violinist afterward, and he practiced while tending the livestock. “I played for the pigs,” he says. Though he never became a violinist, his violin still plays well today. |+|

“Aside from Cheng’s violin, the artifact room contains a highly detailed geographical globe a prisoner made from a volley ball, a translation of the Bible into Japanese, and several other remarkable artifacts. But museum designer Tsao laments that, with the exception of these, many of his exhibits, including many photographs of oil paintings by former prisoners, are reproductions. Funding for his museum has dried up since the presidential office has returned to the Nationalists, and his museum relies on donations of artifacts from survivors’ families. |+|

Suffering of Families and Former White Terror Prisoners

Julie Wu wrote in The Diplomat, “Tsai was released from Green Island in 1960, when he was thirty years old. Like many prisoners’ families, his family had never made the arduous, week-long journey to visit Green Island, and Tsai now journeyed for days fishing boat and bus to see them. When he reached their house, his brother and mother greeted him joyfully. “Where is my father?” he asked. His mother’s face fell. And it was then that Tsai learned that his father had committed suicide in 1951, one year after Tsai’s arrest. Tsai ran to his father’s room, fell to the floor, and cried, banging his head against the wall. He blamed himself for his father’s death, as he felt that if he had been a tougher, stronger boy his father would not have worried so much about him. “This is why I hate myself,” he says now, fingers tapping the table. [Source: Julie Wu, The Diplomat, March 8, 2014 |=|]

“But it is just as likely that his father was distressed for reasons that had nothing to do with Tsai’s constitution; families of prisoners were routinely harassed and ostracized. They often lost their jobs and became destitute; Tsai’s father had already lost his fortune and was likely in dire straits. After his death, Tsai’s younger brother supported the family by working several different jobs. |+|

“If life for the families of prisoners was difficult, life for the former prisoners, themselves, was nearly intolerable. The secret police visited weekly, often in the middle of the night, peppering them with questions and searching their homes. The police warned potential employers against hiring former prisoners and encouraged current employers to avoid trouble by firing them. In many cases, friends and family would shun former prisoners, and the former prisoners would isolate themselves to avoid bringing trouble to loved ones. |+|

“Tsai was fortunate—his family was always supportive. In fact, discovering Tsai’s diary filled with wistful entries about his teacher’s daughter, Tsai’s family shared the diary with his teacher. Soon after arriving home, Tsai found the courage to approach the woman he had admired from afar since age six. They married shortly thereafter. Tsai also benefited from his studies before and during his imprisonment. Unable to sustain employment during the first few years, he worked as a freelance translator. Soon he found a permanent position under an advertising executive willing to put up with state harassment in order to have Tsai’s invaluable translating skills at his disposal. Soon, with his father-in-law’s support, Tsai opened his own publishing company and hired many of his former “classmates” from Green Island. In this way, the self-proclaimed shy weakling became the lifeline and savior for friends who could not otherwise find work. |+|

Remembering the White Terror in Taiwan

For years, the subject of the White Terror was taboo. The formal taboo was lifted when martial law ended in 1987, but after that few spoke about it publically. Julie Wu wrote in The Diplomat, “The fact that Tsai can now speak without fear of retribution is a sign of how very much Taiwan has changed. Both internal pressure from Taiwanese dissidents and external pressures from such entities as Amnesty International and the United States government, combined to result in the lifting of Martial Law in 1987 and the 1992 revision of Article 100 in the National Security Law to decriminalize anti-government thoughts and speech. Taiwan has even had a period of opposition rule, under the Democratic Progressive Party’s Chen Shui-ban, and it was during Chen’s presidency that museums were instituted in Taiwan commemorating victims of the White Terror and a series of massacres occurring February 28, 1947, popularly referred to as 228. [Source: Julie Wu, The Diplomat, March 8, 2014 |+|]

“The most popular of these museums is the Green Island Human Rights Memorial Park, set on the grounds of the former concentration camp where Tsai and thousands of other political prisoners were forced to enclose themselves in walls they made of reef rocks.In the memorial park, visitors can walk through the remains of New Life Correction Center, from which the surf can be heard roaring just across the street. They can observe wax figures of New Life prisoners chiseling rocks from the shore, tending crops and livestock, and reading before bedtime. They can sit in a reproduction of a classroom where inmates endured many daily hours of slogans and lectures reiterating Sun Yat-sen’s Three Principles of the People. And they can view videos of Tsai and many of his fellow “classmates”—as they call each other—describing their experiences (in the Taiwanese language with Mandarin subtitles—translators are available). |+|

Close to the museum, the Green Island Human Rights Monument, a gray granite wall inscribed with names, curves into the earth. Its resemblance to the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington D.C. is no coincidence; Tsao states that he visited Washington D.C. and was deeply impressed with the monuments there. One difference, though, is that the names on Green Island have dates of imprisonment attached, and many of these people are still alive. Another difference becomes obvious at the bottom of the monument, a rounded chamber with a listing of the thousands killed in the White Terror. These names are printed on granite-colored poster board stuck to the walls; the project lacks sufficient funds to chisel all these names into the stone. Many of the poster boards are gone, washed away with the latest typhoon. Chiseled into the cliffs overlooking the area is evidence that the prison administration in the 1950’s had no such funding issues. They simply dangled inmates from nearby cliffs to chisel the pro-Nationalist and anti-Communist slogans that terrify visitors from communist China even today. |+|

Avoiding the White Terror in Taiwan

Amber Parcher wrote in Foreign Policy: “Twenty-five years after that authoritarian regime abruptly ended in 1987, a nascent and partisan democracy is still struggling to address its past. Taiwan has never had a non-partisan truth and reconciliation process. No democratically-elected president has formally suggested one, according to human rights advocates and government officials. Instead, transitional justice has been left to the politicians of Taiwan's two main competing political parties to implement as they see fit. "Human rights [in Taiwan] has become a political battlefield," says Lung Ying-tai, a famous Taiwanese cultural icon who was recently appointed the head of the nation's newly formed Ministry of Culture. "They chose whatever would bring them immediate credit. It's calculating." [Source: Amber Parcher, Foreign Policy, October 12, 2012 ==]

“The Nationalist Party that ruled Taiwan both in martial law and guided it to democracy mostly avoided the topic of its bloody past. Democracy didn't come easy or naturally for the former authoritarian government, Lung says: "There was a slow, loosening up of the island." It took intense social pressure to push the country's first democratically elected-president, Lee Teng-hui, to form a committee to look into a massacre committed by the Nationalists in 1947 that launched the White Terror. In some ways, he was no different from all the others in the country who couldn't believe martial law was really over, says Naiteh Wu, a Taiwanese researcher and human-rights advocate: "Lee Teng-hui was still struggling with his own past at the time he became president." ==

“And the pro-independence opposition party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), hasn't had it much easier. A monumental shift in the political landscape occurred when the DPP, headed by the fiery, staunch anti-China president, Chen Shui-bian, was elected in 2000. The country assumed that his election would also change the transitional justice process because of his record as a pro-democracy activist while Taiwan was still under martial law. But as Wu and others like him began digging into the pasts of victims of the White Terror, they found that many had made proud declarations of their Communist ties on their deathbeds — meaning that the prisoners were, in fact, guilty of the formal charges the Nationalist government had brought against them. ==

Addressing the White Terror in Taiwan and Compensating Victims

Many of the mainland Chinese who survived the White Terror in Taiwan, like Bo Yang and Li Ao, moved on to promote Taiwan's democratization and the reform of the Kuomintang. Fear of discussing the White Terror and the 228 Incident gradually decreased with the lifting of martial law in 1987, culminating in the establishment of an official public memorial and an apology by President Lee Teng-hui in 1995. [Source: Wikipedia]

Amber Parcher wrote in Foreign Policy: “This complicated matters for Chen, who could no longer vilify the martial-law Nationalists because it would put him on the side of their Communist victims, says Chang-ling Huang, a professor at Taiwan National University. This would have been politically inconvenient for Chen, whose party, which is opposed to unification with the People's Republic of China, also has a strong anti-Communist bent. "The [old] narrative was that these people are just historical bystanders, they didn't do anything wrong," says Huang. [Source: Amber Parcher, Foreign Policy, October 12, 2012 ==]

“Despite the uncomfortable truth, President Chen did institute a comprehensive reparations system. The move is seen as one of Taiwan's most successful official transitional justice programs. (Critics say it's the only one.) Late in his presidency, he made another move to make amends for the government's past crimes by turning the vacant, abandoned Jing-Mei prison into a "human rights park," the one that former political prisoner Chen Shin-chi now gives guided tours in. But the park dedication in 2007 coincided with a corruption scandal that eventually landed President Chen and his wife in prison, once again complicating the process. ==

“After alternating periods of rule by both political parties, the Taiwanese were beginning to realize their past could not be easily taken on by any one political group. And maybe it shouldn't be that way, some say. "I think it's demanding too much to ask for one party to really be the moral hero," says Culture Minister Lung. But justice in the hands of democracy, she maintains, is still good for the country, in part because each new leader takes another step toward helping the nation heal. Some even say now that the current president, Ma Ying-jeou, apologizes too much for the 1947 massacre that his own party perpetrated, and which his predecessor almost failed to acknowledge. ==

“But justice is nothing without a judicial system people can trust. In Taiwan, many believe their judicial system is tainted with people loyal to Taiwan's conservative Nationalist party. It's a fear, says Professor Huang, that is not unfounded, considering that the party controlled virtually every aspect of political life for four decades. Indeed, people like former political prisoner Chen note with bitterness that some of the most egregious crimes from the martial law period have gone unsolved. ==

“And then there's the delicate question of how to view the man who started it all, Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek. An elaborate, reverential memorial that the authoritarian government built for him after his death in 1975 is one of Taipei's key tourist attractions. His bald likeness is immortalized in a bronze statue resembling Abraham Lincoln's in Washington, D.C., and tours of the museum devoted to him are heavy on artifacts and light on historical context. His statue even stands tall at many schools across the country. "For a democratic country, it's kind of ridiculous," Huang says. Perhaps time will lead to a more nuanced discussion about how Chiang is viewed. ==

Recording White Terror History and Educating People About It

Amber Parcher wrote in Foreign Policy: “ an even more urgent task, human rights advocates say, is to document the histories of those who lived and suffered during martial law — a move many see as the third prong of Taiwan's justice process. In the absence of a formal government plan, people like researcher Wu have stepped in. He and several colleagues formed a nonprofit called the Taiwan Association for Truth and Reconciliation several years ago to interview survivors, because, he says, "the government wasn't doing anything to preserve those memories." [Source: Amber Parcher, Foreign Policy, October 12, 2012 ==]

“A lack of leadership from the government may be changing with the appointment of Culture Minister Lung, who this summer announced a national initiative to do the same. "This is an island of untold stories," she says. But it's a slow-moving project that doesn't have time on its side. Many aging victims aren't fluent in the official language of Chinese, preferring instead to speak in the Japanese of their former colonizers. Still others, who spent most of their lives under martial law, have been conditioned by experience to stay silent about what they long suffered. Still, Lung says that the value of the project transcends the challenges. She is determined to put every resource she has into making it succeed, including delivering mementos of long-lost loved ones herself. ==

“It's a step in the right direction for a government that had previously taken no steps at all, according to former political prisoner Chen, who says that recording Taiwan's collective memory is one of the most important things the country can do to right its wrongs. "We are getting back to the dignity of being a human being," he says. Encouraged by Lung's attempts to record the voices of the past, he is writing his own book about his imprisonment. One day, he hopes, it will be on display at the very place he was held behind bars. ==

“But simply documenting the unadulterated truth is not enough, he insists. Chen, along with former political prisoner Lee Chen-sung, says that Taiwan needs to develop an open and honest school curriculum about its past. As it stands now, Taiwan's martial law is seen as too touchy to be anything more than a history lesson. "We don't talk much about it in school — it's too political," says one of the park's English-speaking tour guides, Stephen Huang. The dearth of a comprehensive curriculum is one of many signs that, for Taiwanese society, its past remains an awkward void. Lung uses the image of a poorly treated wound that has begun to scar. "Overall, Taiwan has made huge progress," she says, "But if you ask me, is it enough? Of course not." But she and others are asking for more time to get Taiwan's justice process back on track. Taiwan, she says, is still searching for the right balance of governing today while coping with yesterday. She draws a comparison from her husband's native Germany, which ripped open the wounds of Nazism for all of society to see. "By comparison, the Taiwanese have been dealing with it rather calmly," she says. "Calmly and kindly." ==

White Terror Film

Prince of Tears is a film by the Hong Kong-based director Yonfan (who goes by one name) about the White Terror Era in Taiwan. Featuring the actors Joseph Chang, Xuan Zhu, Terri Kwan and Fan Chih-wei, the film debuted at the 2009 Venice Film Festival and chosen as Hong Kong’s submission for the Academy Awards for best foreign language film. "Prince of Tears" tells the story of a small family that gets torn apart when the father, an air force pilot, is wrongly accused of being a spy and is executed. It is based on the biography of Taiwanese actress Chiao Chiao, whose family was struck by a similar tragedy.

Joyce Hor-Chung Lau wrote in the New York Times: “The gorgeously crafted film, set in the 1950s, refers only obliquely to larger politics. Instead, it focuses on daily life in a remote Taiwanese village where anyone — -a schoolteacher, a housewife, a soldier — -could commit a political faux pas and be sent to the execution squad. “The project originated with the real-life story of the actress Chiao Chiao, a longtime friend and collaborator of Yonfan, whom she met in Hong Kong when she was a starlet there from the “60s to the “80s. The actress, who uses only her surname, grew up in Taiwan, but hid her childhood memories of the White Terror for years until she found a confidant in Yonfan, who also grew up in Taiwan in the 1950s. Several years ago, they decided to make a film based on her memories.” [Source: Joyce Hor-Chung Lau, New York Times, October 13, 2009 ^]

“The film opens with a scene of a perfect-looking family in Taiwan: a handsome air force pilot, his pretty, doting wife and their two girls. But, after Kafkaesque political complications, the parents are dragged off and the father is killed in a field. As the executioners fire their shots, his daughters hide in the tall grass in a desperate attempt to get one last glimpse of him. The younger sister — -the character representing Chiao Chiao — -is sent to live with an eerie and physically scarred government agent nicknamed Uncle Ding, whom she suspects is the informer who turned in her father. In a strange turn of events, her mother is released from a prison camp and — -under pressure to resume a normal family life and support her girls — -gives into advances by Uncle Ding, whom she marries.” ^

According to the Taipei Times: Prince of Tears tells the story of the Sun family — an air force pilot, his beautiful wife and two daughters, living in a military-dependent village in southern Taiwan, more privileged than the general population but not immune to the fear spreading through an anti-communist campaign in the country. During that period of “national hysteria,” the movie states that 3,000 people were sentenced to death, 8,000 people were imprisoned and sentenced for a collective total of 10,000 years in prison. [Source: Taipei Times, September 6, 2009 /]

“The core plot is based on the true story of what happened to the Sun family — not the real family name — when the parents came under suspicion of communist leanings, but Yonfan populates his first movie ever shot in Taiwan with characters and memories from his own childhood. There’s the young, beautiful and wealthy Shanghai-born wife of General Liu played by Terri Kwan, who conspicuously jangles her necklace of 266 pearls, and her loyal driver, played by Jack Kao. Joseph Chang plays the air force pilot Sun Han-Sun, who is imprisoned because of a flight made years before to get his eldest daughter out of China. For this, he is accused of being a communist spy and executed. His best friend could clear him, but he is in love with Sun’s wife, played by Zhu Xuan making her big-screen debut. While the movie is set as political terror begins to spread, Yonfan said Prince of isn’t a historical reckoning with the period, but actually a film about betrayal./

Making the White Terror Film

The Asian film industry steered clear of making films about the White Terror period, because doing so was seen as financially risky. Yonfan told the Taipei Times, “I think many producers, they would think it is not appropriate to do a commercial movie on the White Terror, and no one’s interested in watching the movie because nobody wants to see it,” Yonfan said. “But the movie is important to me. I grew up during the 50s in Taiwan. And it is the things that I see and I hear and I feel of that period. I would say this movie is an ―expression of my childhood.” [Source: Taipei Times, September 6, 2009 /]

The Taipei Times reported: “Because the movie was so important to him, Yonfan financed it himself to retain his artistic freedom. But he said he still faced difficulties developing the film because of its subject, and that only acceptance to the Venice Film Festival helped secure its distribution so far in Taiwan, Hong Kong and France. Without that, the film “probably would have had a harder time,” Yonfan said. To develop the core story, Yonfan said he spoke extensively with both of the now grown daughters of the air force pilot. The elder daughter took him to the field where her father had been buried, though she was unable to ever identify his remains.” /

"It's a real story that happened during the early 1950s. They were catching Communist spies, imprisoning them or shooting them," Yonfan told Agence France-Presse in an interview in Taipei. "Producers didn't want to touch anything that dealt too directly with the political background," said Yonfan. "They liked to make movies about martial arts or comedies, because it's comfortable for them to make commercial movies like that...I combined her story with people that I know and the life experience of my childhood and made it into this movie.” [Source: Agence France-Presse, October 29, 2009 ~]

“Yonfan himself spent the 1950s in the central Taiwan city of Taichung, living with his parents in a university campus filled with Chinese intellectuals who had fled from the mainland in 1949. "Of course, they talked. And sometimes they talked a little too much and disappeared. Sometimes they were taken away for questioning and sometimes they came back," said Yonfan. While shooting the movie took just two months, pre-production lasted eight, because every detail had to be correct—not historically correct in a strict sense, but true to Yonfan's own memories. "I didn't have to really research, because I lived through that period. But we spent a lot of effort to do the things according to my memory," he said. ~

Despite the topic, Yonfan denies that the movie is targeted at the Kuomintang, or KMT, the party of the Nationalists who arrived from China in 1949. "If it was an anti-KMT movie, I would have shot it in 2006," said Yonfan, suggesting it could have premiered before the 2008 presidential election that brought the KMT back to power after eight years in opposition. "I decided I wanted to postpone the shooting, because I didn't want my movie to become a political vehicle for any party."

Documentaries About the White Terror Period

In April 2014, the Taipei Times reported: “In an attempt to preserve history and educate the next generation, the Preparatory Office of the National Human Rights Museum has released a series of documentaries that tell the poignant stories of the survivors of the White Terror era. The seven documentaries are composed of interviews with survivors and their families about their lives before, during and after their imprisonment during the White Terror, a period of suppression of political dissidents in Taiwan that lasted from 1947 until the lifting of martial law in 1987. [Source: Taipei Times, April 25, 2014 \=]

“The documentaries, each focusing on the story of one survivor, also include images and documents from that period. Wang Yi-chun, director of the office, said the documentaries are aimed at recording the lives and never-yielding spirit of the survivors, and as teaching materials for classrooms. He added that his office is scheduled to complete another nine documentaries this year. William Liao, the documentaries’ director, said he has been touched by the strength and perseverance of the survivors, who are in their 80s and 90s. “Everyone’s story is different,” Liao said. “I hope these stories can be preserved and shown in schools, so that the younger generation can gain a proper understanding of human rights.” \=\

Kaohsiung Incident

Considered a turning point in Taiwan’s shift from authoritarian rule to democracy, the Kaohsiung Incident of December 1979 occurred when editors of Meilidao, a publication often critical of the government, organised a rally to celebrate International Human Rights Day. According to Lonely Planet: The day before the rally, two organisers were arrested and beaten by police when they were caught handing out promotional flyers. On the day of the rally, scuffles broke out between police and protestors and the situation turned violent, changing from a peaceful event into a full-scale riot.[Source: Lonely Planet]

According to ““The now well-known event of the evening of 10 December 1979 started out as the first major human rights day celebration on the island. Until that time the authorities had never allowed any public expression of discontent, but in the summer of 1979 a slight thaw had set in, during which two opposition magazines were established: Formosa Magazine, headed by veteran opposition Legislative Yuan-member Huang Hsin-chieh, and The Eighties, headed by up and coming opposition leader K'ang Ning-hsiang. [Source: +/+]

Formosa Magazine quickly became the rallying point for the budding democratic movement. During the fall of 1979, it became increasingly vocal, and it was only natural that it would use 10 December as an opportunity to express its views on the lack of democracy and human rights on the island. When the day arrived, the atmosphere had become tense because of increasingly violent attacks by right-wing extremists on offices of the magazine and homes of leading staff members. The human rights day celebration ended in chaos after police encircled the peaceful crowd and started using teargas, and pro-government instigators incited violence.+/+

Newspaper reports right after the event reported that in the ensuing confrontations, more than 90 civilians and 40 policemen were injured. However, in an amazing display of magic, the authorities managed to end up with 182 policemen and 1 (!!!) civilian injured. Although most injuries were relatively minor, the authorities quickly played up the injuries on the police side, sending high officials and TV- and film-actresses to the hospitals to comfort the injured policemen. +/+

More seriously, three days later, the KMT authorities used the incident as an excuse to arrest virtually all well-known opposition leaders. They were held incommunicado for some two months, during which reports of severe ill-treatment filtered out of the prisons. The arrested persons were subsequently tried in three separate groups: in March/April 1980, the eight most prominent leaders (the "Kaohsiung Eight") were tried in military court and were sentenced to terms ranging from 12 years to life imprisonment. +/+

Soldiers Dressed as Civilians Stir Up Kaohsiung Incident

A former member of the Military Police said: "In 1981, I graduated from college. Before we entered the military service, a few of my friends got together to celebrate. During dinner, my friends brought up the subject of Kaohsiung Incident. They were regular readers of "tangwai" magazines and were criticizing the KMT authorities handling of the incident. As I was not familiar with the tangwai magazines, I initially did not quite believe what my friends told me. [Source: +/+]

“Then one of them told us a shocking story: He said that at the time of the Kaohsiung Incident, his cousin, who was serving in the military police, was member of a unit which was ordered to dress up like civilians and to beat up the uniformed military police in order to aggravate the conflict between the oppositionists and the military police. He said that afterwards his cousin felt deeply depressed and regretted the fact that he had played a role as instigator at the Kaohsiung Incident. +/+

“After I entered the military service, I was assigned to the military police myself. In 1983 in a celebration for the Chinese New Year, the battalion commander and the political commissar of my unit, after a couple of drinks, were bragging about the heroic acts of the military police. They said that since the death of Chiang Kai-shek, the military police has been sidelined. But since the Kaohsiung Incident, the authorities had regained their confidence in the military police. +/+

“I then pressed them for an explanation. They told me the story of their joint experience: In 1979, the battalion commander was stationed in Tainan, and the political commissar was stationed in Chia-yi. More than a month before the Kaohsiung Incident, the different military police units in southern Taiwan were moved around. The unit in Yun-lin was moved to Chia-yi, and the unit in Chia-yi was moved to Kaohsiung. They said the authorities planned the Kaohsiung Incident. +/+

“The strategy was to surround the oppositionists with three layers. The first layer was the military police, the second layer was the army and the third layer was the police. They received order from their superiors that they should not fight back if they were beaten. Between 2:00 and 3:00 p.m. in the afternoon of December 10, 1979 (four hours before the demonstration commemorating Human Rights Day started, and before any irregularities had taken place — Ed.), the military police, the army and the police had already taken up positions. +/+

“When the event took place during the evening of December 10th, the military police marched forward and closed in on the demonstrators, then they retreated again to their original position. This was repeated two or more times. The battalion commander explained that the purpose of this exercise was to cause panic and fear in the crowd and also to provoke anger and confusion.

The political commissar also said that the number of injured military police were exaggerated. Even those who suffered only minor scratches were hospitalized. Many of the low ranking soldiers were thrilled to see high officials come to the hospital to pay them visits and to offer them money. They were excited by the visits of film actresses, who came to give them flowers and kisses." +/+

Coerced Confessions After the Kaohsiung Incident

Some of the former Kaohsiung prisoners discussed their treatment in prison for the first time ten years after the Kaohsiung Incident in interviews with The Journalist and Freedom Era. Mr. Huang Hsin-chieh. After his release in May 1987, Mr. Huang returned to political life in Taiwan again: in October 1988 he was elected chairman of the DPP-party, and at the end of October 1989, he was re-elected to a second term. Mr. Huang passed away in November 1999. [Source: +/+]

"I was taken to the basement of An Kang Detention Center of the Investigation Bureau of the Ministry of Justice. The interrogation continued non-stop for seven or eight days. They wanted me to confess to things that I completely had no knowledge of. When I refused to cooperate, they pounded the table and shouted at me. They used intimidation and coercion. They threatened to give me harsh treatment, if I did not cooperate. They told me that if I cooperated with them, they would let me go home to spend the Lunar New Year with my family. The "confession" was prepared by them. They asked me to copy it but I refused to put my signature on it. Then they threatened to arrest my brother and my daughter. I finally gave in." +/+

Mr. Chang Chün-hung. Mr. Chang was also released in May 1987. He has served as Secretary-General of the DPP-party. His wife was elected to the Legislative Yuan in 1980, and was re-elected twice since then. "I was imprisoned in the basement of An Kang Detention Center of the Investigation Bureau. My interrogators had three shifts. Every shift varied from two to three people. The interrogation continued non-stop for seven days. They screamed at me and poured cold water on me, when I about to close my eyes and fall asleep. They also slapped my face. The basement was extremely quiet. The quietness frightened me. +/+

“When the interrogators came marching with heavy steps, it was frightening to hear the noise of their boots and their shouting of passwords. I did not know whether they were coming to get me out to go through another round of non-stop interrogation, to confess to things that I did not know about. The interrogation centered on the "five-member committee" and "the short and long term plan to seize power." In fact, there was no such plan, it was a complete fabrication by the Investigation Bureau. The "confession" was also fabricated by them. At first, I refused to put my signature on it. Then they threatened to arrest my wife and my sister. I did not want my family to suffer, so I signed the "confession." +/+

Ms. Chen Chü. Ms. Chen was released in February 1986. She has since been very active in Taiwan's human rights movement, and served as executive director of the Taiwan Association for Human Rights (TAHR), Taiwan's most prominent and active human rights organization. From 1995 through 1998 she served as Director for Social Services in Taipei City. In May 2000, she was appointed Minister for Labor Affairs in the new DPP government. "I was taken to the An Kang Detention Center of the Investigation Bureau. The interrogation continued non-stop for at least three days. On the fourth day, they let me go back to my cell at midnight. But early in the morning at 5 AM, they took me back for further interrogation. There were four shifts of interrogation. Every shift had four people. The Investigation Bureau now denied that physical violence was used. They did slap me in the face and often treated me with verbal abuse. +/+

“What frightened me the most was not knowing when the interrogators would appear again in front of the door to drag me out for another round of questioning to confess to things that I had no knowledge of. All the interrogators refused to tell their names. It was not until after the Jung-hsing scandal (a bribery scandal involving members of the Taipei City Council — Ed.) broke out that I found out from a television news report that one of my interrogators was Wong Tsu-ch'o, the son of the former chief of the Investigation Bureau. We were watched 24 hours. There was a spot light, a one-way mirror in my cell. Even when I went to the toilet and took a bath, someone was with me all the time." +/+

“Ms. Lü Hsiu-lien. Ms. Lü — a prominent women's rights leader even before the Kaohsiung Incident — was released on medical bail in March 1985. Since then she spent some time at Harvard University, continuing her studies. She returned to Taiwan in 1992 and ran successfully for a seat in the Legislative Yuan. In 1997 she was elected to the position of County Magistrate for Taoyuan County. In March 2000, she was elected Vice-President of Taiwan. "I was detained at the Ching Mei Detention Center. Although they did not beat me up physically, they used different methods of intimidation and threats, which were even more frightening: once, they showed me the picture of the bullet-ridden body of Wu Tai-an after he was executed. They said to me: "Open your eyes. Look at this bloody mess. You will be the second Wu Tai-an. This is how you will end up." They also wanted me to read the notice, which was sent to the wife of Wu Tai-an notifying her to come and pick up her husband's remains. +/+

“They said to me : "Read this notice, read it loud. Do you hear me Soon your family will receive the same notice." They also told me: "Wu Tai-an died with bare chest. That wouldn't be appropriate for a girl." Besides this type of intimidation, they also mistreated me in other ways, such as refusing to give me food, ordering me to stand facing the wall for several hours on end. Sometimes they ordered me to eat a big meal, which was meant for two people. Even the "confession" had to be tailored to their needs. If they didn't like it, they tore it up and ordered me to write it over again." +/+

Mr. Lin Yi-hsiung. Mr. Lin, a former Provincial Assembly-member, was treated most harshly during his interrogation. On 28 February 1980, his mother and two of his daughters were murdered in one of the most gruesome — and still unsolved — political murders in Taiwan. Mr. Lin was released in August 1984. Since then he has devoted himself to study and research. In mid-1998, he was elected as Chairman of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), in which position he served until July 2000. The following is an excerpt from a statement Mr. Lin Yi-hsiung wrote on 25 February 1980, three days before the murders took place. "If the investigators were not satisfied with an answer, they would keep hitting me until I couldn't bear it any longer. I shall never forget the verbal intimidation, and what some of the investigators said to me: "If you don't talk and give us the evidence, we will beat you. If you get beaten to death, we will just say that you committed suicide out of fear or guilt. If you don't talk we will knock all your teeth out." The nameless man who beat me was fierce and evil. One look at him and I would shiver. His modus operandi was punches and kicks. To scare and intimidate me, he often threatened to have me dragged down to the basement. For about ten days, he punched my chest, back, and abdomen. He kicked me in the shins and in the stomach. Sometimes he held a lit cigarette against my face.” +/+

After Kaohsiung Incident

After the “Kaohsiung Incident” in December 1979 , a group of pro-independence leaders were charged with sedition after leading a protest in the port city of Kaohsiung. In April 1980, the Kaohsiung Eight, editors and backers, were charged on trumped charges of trying to overthrow the government. The Eight of included Taiwan’s future vice president Annette Lu. Among the lawyers who represented the organisers was future Taiwanese president Chen Shui-bian. All eight were given heavy political sentences. Efforts by their family members and lawyers eventually won their freedom. [Source: Wikipedia. Lonely Planet]

In April/May 1980, a second group of 33 persons, the "Kaohsiung 33", who had taken part in the Human Rights Day gathering were tried in civil court and sentenced to terms ranging from 2 to 6 years. A third group of 10 persons associated with the Presbyterian Church were accused of helping the main organizer of the demonstration, Mr. Shih Ming-teh, when he was in hiding, because he feared torture and immediate execution. Most prominent among this group was Dr. Kao Chun-ming, the general-secretary of the Presbyterian Church. Dr. Kao was sentenced to seven years imprisonment. The others received lesser sentences. [Source:]

According to Lonely Planet: Though it was a short-term defeat for the democracy advocates, the violence brought increasing support for democratic reforms. Public sentiment eventually forced the KMT to make political concessions. In 1986, with martial law still in effect, Taiwan’s first opposition party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), was formed. Chiang Ching-kuo, surprisingly, did not shut the party down, resulting in a large number of DPP candidates being elected to office, and culminating in the official formation of Taiwan’s first opposition party. [Source: Lonely Planet]

According to “December 10th, 1979 was a major moment in Taiwan's history. When it took place, it was hardly noticed internationally, but since then it has been recognized as an important turning point in the island's recent transition to democracy. It galvanized both the Taiwanese people in Taiwan as well as the overseas Taiwanese community into political action. The movement subsequently formed the basis for the democratic opposition of the DPP and its overseas support network of Taiwanese organizations in North America and Europe. Virtually all leading members of the present-day democratic opposition had a role in the event, either as defendants or as defense lawyers. [Source: +/+]

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourism Bureau, Republic of China (Taiwan), Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated June 2015

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