A Prosperous and Confused Island: Taiwan Since 1945

The History of China. Editor: David Curtis Wright. 2nd edition. The Greenwood Histories of the Modern Nations Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood, 2011.

Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist government assumed control over Taiwan soon after the Japanese surrender in early September 1945, and there was a brief euphoria and honeymoon period on the island over its restoration to Chinese rule. The situation quickly soured, however, as the realities and difficulties of everyday governance of Taiwan began to sink in for Nationalist Chinese and native Taiwanese alike. In a nutshell, the problem was that native Taiwanese quickly came to see mainland Chinese as oppressors, while mainlanders despised the islanders for being culturally and linguistically Japanese and suspected them of harboring fond memories of Japanese colonial rule.

Like its Communist alter ego on the mainland, Taiwan’s KMT government was, from 1949 to the mid-1980s, a dictatorship. Chiang Kai-shek was no democrat, and he ruled Taiwan during this time with terror, high-handed oppression, and tacit U.S. support. During the Cold War Chiang was, in the estimation of the United States, preferable to Mao and the Chinese Communists on the mainland. Soon after the arrival of mainland troops in Taiwan, the island’s population grew disappointed and disillusioned with the mainlanders, the majority of whom seemed uncouth and uneducated; most of them had not even known about running water or electricity prior to their arrival. Worse yet, most mainlanders harbored a sense of hostility, resentment, and suspicion toward the Taiwanese because they had been under Japanese rule for 50 years. Tensions eventually flared up between the two groups, and even though the native Taiwanese vastly outnumbered the mainlanders (85% to 15%), the mainlanders had political power and the firepower of the armed forces to give them the advantage in any intercommunal confrontation on the island.

The February 28 Incident

The mainland Chinese troops were not universally welcomed in Taiwan, and tensions between native Taiwanese and mainlanders began to increase, culminating with a reign of terror on the island that began on February 28, 1947. On that day widespread protests against the Kuomintang government’s harshness and excesses broke out. Unnerved by these protests, Chiang Kai-shek unleashed a massive, violent crackdown. Before it was all over more than 20,000 Taiwanese, including many nonviolent intellectuals, had been murdered. The Kuomintang government then swept all record and discussion of this violence under a rug of guarded secrecy, and it was not until the late 1980s that the people of Taiwan began to talk openly, instead of in whispers, about the February 28 Incident. The incident and the long period of terrified silence that followed it seriously diminished the moral stature and legitimacy of the Nationalist government in the eyes of Taiwan’s native population. The mainland Chinese who arrived in Taiwan after August 1945 were, at least initially, largely welcomed as liberators and fellow countrymen, but after the February 28 Incident they were reviled as oppressors even worse than the Japanese. “The dogs have gone, the pigs have come” was how many Taiwanese characterized the transition from Japanese to Nationalist Chinese rule.

By early 1947 Taiwan was a powder keg waiting to explode. The fateful spark came on February 27, when an elderly woman selling contraband cigarettes on the streets of Taipei was roughed up by Nationalist agents from the Tobacco and Alcohol Monopoly Bureau. When she resisted and protested a crowd gathered, and in response the agents panicked and fired their pistols wildly into the crowd, leaving one person dead. When news of the incident spread throughout the city the next morning there were protests and riots, and mainland Chinese agents of the Monopoly Bureau were beaten to death.

Rioting quickly spread to other Taiwanese cities, and within a day or two many mainlanders were in hiding, frightened at the specter of widespread ethnic violence on the island. The newly appointed Nationalist leader of Taiwan was concerned enough about the precarious situation to send urgent appeals to Nanjing for military assistance, and when Nationalist military forces arrived in response in early March there was a general bloodbath throughout much of the island. Order was restored through sheer brute force and terror. The violence poisoned intercommunal relations between mainlanders and islanders for decades, and ethnic harmony on the island has been a hotly emotional issue ever since.

George H. Kerr, an American who lived in Japan and Taiwan before World War II, was an Assistant Naval Attache assigned to Taiwan at the war’s end, and in 1947, as a Foreign Service Staff officer and Vice-Consul, he was an eyewitness to the February 28 massacres in Taiwan. His book Formosa Betrayed, first published in 1966, is a classic for its portrayal of the Kuomintang’s brutality in Taiwan, and his chapter “The March Massacre” contains vivid eyewitness accounts of the violence following February 28 in Taipei:

Nationalist Army trucks rolled slowly along the road before our house, and from them a hail of machine-gun fire was directed at random into the darkness, ripping through windows and walls and ricocheting in the black alleyways …

From an upper window we watched Nationalist soldiers in action in the alleys across the way. We saw Formosans bayoneted in the street without provocation. A man was robbed before our eyes—and then cut down and run through. Another ran into the street in pursuit of soldiers dragging a girl away from his house, and we saw him too cut down.

This sickening spectacle was only the smallest sample of the slaughter then taking place throughout the city, only what could be seen from one window on the upper floor of one rather isolated house. The city was full of troops. (Kerr, 292-93)

Uneducated Nationalists seemed to have had it in for Taiwan’s intellectual and economic elite. “The ignorant warlord mistrusts the ‘clever’ intellectual,” Kerr observed (Kerr, 300).

Tan Gim, Columbia University graduate, banker, and head of a large trust company was taken from a sickbed and done away with. The Min Pao editor, Lin Mousheng, another Columbia University graduate and former professor of the English and German languages, was dragged naked into the night and not heard of again. Gan Kin-en, owner and director of important mining interests, was seized and killed. (Kerr, 298)

Students were also regarded with suspicion by Nationalist ruffians and liquidated in large numbers:

We saw students tied together, being driven to the execution grounds, usually along the river banks and ditches about Taipei, or at the waterfront in Keelung. One foreigner counted more than thirty young bodies—in student uniforms—lying along the roadside east of Taipei; they had had their noses and ears slit or hacked off, and many had been castrated. Two students were beheaded near my front gate. Bodies lay unclaimed on the roadside embankment near the Mission compound. (Kerr, 300-01)

Mainlander violence against native Taiwanese was at times startlingly petty and vindictive and was perpetrated out of spite or to settle old scores:

At Keelung a minor employee of the Taiwan Navigation Company (an accountant) was taken out to the street in front of the offices and there shot before his assembled office colleagues; he had offended the Manager—an influential mainland Chinese—late in 1945 when he laughed and criticized the Manager’s blundering attempts to drive an automobile. (Kerr, 304)

The exact number of people murdered in the February 28 bloodbath may never be known precisely, but according to Kerr it is at least in the several thousands:

Formosan leaders in exile charge that more than 10,000 were slaughtered in the month of March. I must assume that there could not have been less than 5000 and I am inclined to accept the higher figure. If we add to this the thousands who have been seized and done away with since March, 1947, on the pretext that they were involved in the affair, the number may reach the 20,000 figure often given by Formosan writers. (Kerr, 310)

Land Reform

The Nationalist government on Taiwan quickly took steps to improve its image and public relations in the wake of the February 28 disaster. In 1948 the Joint Commission on Rural Reconstruction, composed of Chinese and American members, began planning for the implementation of Sun Yat-sen’s long-delayed land reform program. Land reform was the Nationalist government’s forced redistribution of farmland to the farmers who actually farmed it.

Land reform program had three stages. During the first stage, which began in 1949, the Rent Reduction Act was implemented. This specified that the maximum any landlord could charge farmers was 37.5 percent of their yield. This single act was very popular among the island’s farmers, but the government followed it up in 1951 with the second stage: the sale of public lands (mostly confiscated from Japanese officials at war’s end) on easy terms and at no interest to working farmers. (The government made certain that city-dwellers or former landlords were not allowed to buy the land.) The third stage of the land reform program, called the Land to the Tiller Act, began in 1953 and required all wealthy landowning elite families to sell their land, beyond what they needed for their own sustenance, to the state at specified prices. The state then sold this land, again at easy terms and no interest, to tenant farmers. (Fortunately for the Nationalists, they were not dependent on rich landowning families in Taiwan for support, so they could afford to confiscate and redistribute their land with little fear of consequences. A small number of Taiwan’s economic and cultural elite families were unhappy with the land reforms, but they were largely ignored.)

Many Nationalists were well aware that they had lost the mainland to the Chinese Communists because of Nationalist neglect of the countryside. In Taiwan, their last bastion, they were determined that relations with farmers would be better. Land reform was enormously popular in Taiwan and considerably improved relations between the Nationalist government and the island’s agricultural population. In its wake millions of Taiwanese farmers gained title to their own land. Farmers’ income more than doubled over the next few years, and agricultural productivity soared. Land reform was achieved without the bloodshed that occurred on the mainland, and it deprived what few communists there really were in Taiwan of an issue.

The White Terror

Safely beyond the reach of the Chinese Communists on the mainland and hiding behind the skirts of the U.S. military, Chiang Kai-shek insisted until his death in 1975 that his military and government would one day return to the mainland in triumph and cleanse it of communist occupation. He stubbornly regarded his as the sole legitimate government of all of China and the Communists on the mainland as mere “communist bandits” (gongfei) who would one day be exterminated. Generations of soldiers in Taiwan were inducted into the Nationalist armed forces and indoctrinated with this unrealistic hope. Until around 1987, political and military slogans about one day returning to the mainland and defeating the Communists were plastered everywhere: on government buildings, street signs, school walls, and even mailboxes. Chiang Kai-shek suspended plans for participatory democracy in Taiwan indefinitely because of the “national emergency” involving “Communist bandit insurgency” on the mainland. The ragtag remnants of his central government and various provincial governments ran the entire show, and the tiny number of officials from Taiwan he allowed to be elected into his government and rubber-stamp legislature made little significant difference in the formulation of government policy. Chiang ruled Taiwan with an iron fist and promptly clapped anyone who criticized him or his government in jail. His government controlled all newspapers, television stations, and radio broadcasts and encouraged people to inform anonymously on “Communist troublemakers” (feidie, literally “bandit agents”). Government signs in public buses gave people the telephone numbers to call to inform on suspected Communist troublemakers. “Everyone is responsible for informing on bandit agents” (Jianju feidie, renren you ze). Fear in the populace and paranoia in the government characterized the bad old days under Chiang’s rule.

The Nationalists were in paranoid shock after they relocated to Taiwan in 1949 and 1950, and many of them tended to see communists behind every door and under every rock. Chiang Kai-shek’s son Chiang Ching-kuo (later the President of the Republic of China on Taiwan from 1978 to 1988) was put in charge of the Nationalists’ internal security apparatus on the island, and his agents were ruthless and greatly feared. During Taiwan’s long period of White Terror (1949-1987), when martial law was in force, the Nationalist government arrested large numbers of suspected communists, sometimes on the flimsiest of evidence, and brutally and summarily executed many of them. Thousands more were arrested, tortured, and sentenced to long terms in prison on charges of criticizing the government, sedition, advocating Taiwan independence, or functioning as communist agents. The majority of these victims were innocent, and several of them were prominent members of Taiwan’s society, including female dance instructor Ts’ai Jui-yueh, female radio broadcaster and performer Ts’ui Hsiao-p’ing, writer Poyang, English grammar textbook author K’o Ch’i-hua, Presbyterian Church leader Kao Chun-ming, and writer/gadfly/comedian/politician Lee Ao. A majority of these victims were mainlanders.

In Taiwan during the White Terror there were several prisons for the thousands of dissidents found guilty of “political crimes,” or expressing political opinions that differed from those of the Kuomintang. Many of the most prominent dissidents were eventually imprisoned for years on Green Island (about 30 kilometers east of Taiwan) in an infamous brainwashing and torture concentration camp run by the Kuomintang. Several high-profile political dissidents, including the famous mainland Chinese writer Poyang (Kuo I-tung), spent years languishing on Green Island. Happily, the political prisoner camp there is today an open museum and a monument to human rights.

Poyang (1920-2008) was imprisoned in the late 1960s by Chiang Ching-kuo for his Chinese-language translation of one segment of the newspaper comic strip “Popeye the Sailor.” In the frames in question, Popeye had ended up on a small island and was addressing his subjects there as “Fellows.” Poyang translated “Fellows” into Chinese as “Military and civilian compatriots of the entire nation” (quanguo junmin tongbaomen), a favorite phrase Chiang Kai-shek used at the beginnings of his speeches. Poyang claims in his memoirs that he meant nothing at all by this translation and did not intend to insult or hurt the feelings of Chiang Kai-shek. Chiang Kai-shek’s son Chiang Ching-kuo, however, was furious, and it was not long before Poyang was arrested by the island’s feared internal security forces and tortured into confessing to charges of being a communist agent, if not a full-fledged member of the Communist Party. In his memoirs Poyang recalls his 1967 arrest and coerced confession in horrifying detail.

“Dear Poyang,” he [interrogator Liu Chan-hua] said. “Whether to arrest you or not is for us to decide. But whether or not you can walk out that door [to freedom] is for you to decide. If only you come clean, you may leave immediately. Bandit agents the likes of you can never comprehend the lofty and noble sentiments of those of us who are true believers in the Three Principles of the People. We treat people with sincerity. If only you are willing to cooperate, I pledge on my honor that… from now on, nobody will ever dare touch you again!”

My two hands were swollen. I said that I was willing to come clean and cooperate, but that I had truly never participated in any subversive organizations.

“Yesterday you confessed to joining the Communist Party, and today you are contravening even yesterday’s words!”

Liu Chan-hua put down his ballpoint pen, took up a yardstick, and brandished it menacingly, coming very close on several occasions to piercing my eyeballs. My two hands were burning. Then, quicker than lightning, the yardstick landed with a resounding whack on my right cheek. A fiery flash of pain made me feel like he was using a red-hot iron. As I cried out my left cheek was lashed with the yardstick, and I said, “You beat people?!” With this he struck my right cheek even harder, this time with his fist. My glasses flew off my face and I lost my balance, collapsing onto my cot as I fell out of my chair, which went flying. He then kicked my left knee with the sharp point of his leather shoe, and as I struggled to make it back to my feet he kicked me hard in my right knee. It seemed like I heard the sound of bones breaking, and the fierce pain in both knees made me cry out in pain. As I rolled around on the floor I got another brutal kick, this time in the sternum. I crawled over to a corner of the room wailing in pain and feeling like a stray dog that was about to be beaten to death under a hail of blows. As I struggled to draw my knees in towards my chest I was kicked directly in my right ear. I held my head and was unable to restrain my cries.

“Now you listen here,” Liu Chan-hua said. “If you’re flogged to death, we’ll just say you killed yourself out of fear for your crimes, and that’ll be the end of that. You’ve overestimated yourself.”

Suddenly he grabbed me by the hair, and then his fists rained down on my face and chest. I struggled to block his blows with my hands, but he kicked me in my exposed lower abdomen with his leather shoes. I crashed my forehead on the floor but was not willing to die. And even if I did die, it would not have stopped him from beating me. After all, an agent would not be an agent if he cared whether a criminal lived or died. I feared his kickings would give me a brain concussion or make an invalid out of me.

“I’ll confess! I’ll confess,” I cried. “Don’t beat me any more.”

“Alright. Sit back down in your place.”

It took all of three or four minutes for me to crawl from the corner to the edge of the table. I was wet all over and could not manage the fete of standing up. I was shaking like a withered and fallen leaf blown into a corner by a strong wind. Perspiration, fresh blood, and tears covered my face. I gasped for breath and wiped my face with my hand, and only then did I know my face was covered with mud. Liu Chan-hua kindly helped me up and into my chair.

“Out with it!” He took up his pad and ballpoint pen again. I don’t know where he threw the yardstick.

“I… I…” I thought to myself that I longed to know what he wanted to hear me confess. What sort of participation in which subversive organization would satisfy him? As I groped about mentally for a clue to his intentions I saw the two characters for “Democratic Alliance” [Minmeng] at the beginning of my file, and it seemed like I had found a small clue. With this I sobbed and said, “I participated in the Chinese Democratic Alliance[Zhongguo minzhu tongmeng].”

“There now,” Liu Chan-hua said with a friendly smile. “Dear Poyang, if you had said this earlier, how could we have had our misunderstanding just now? Actually, we have all your materials at hand. We just wanted you to confess on your own.” (Poyang 1996, 267-69)

Poyang remained a political prisoner on Green Island until 1978, when pressure from Amnesty International finally secured his release. After his return to freedom he continued with a distinguished writing career. During the 1990s Poyang began to write in Taiwan’s newspapers about his years as a political prisoner, and his erstwhile tormentor, Liu Chan-hua, was so upset about it all that he threatened to sue Poyang for defamation. But Liu Chan-hua’s day had passed. In 1996 Chiang Ching-kuo’s younger brother, retired Kuomintang general Chiang Wei-kuo (1916-1997), publicly apologized to Poyang on behalf of his deceased brother for how the Nationalist government had mistreated him. Poyang died on Taiwan in 2008, and his passing was widely noted and mourned on the island. His ashes were scattered off the shore of Green Island.

Incredibly, many countries supported Chiang’s fiction of being the only legitimate government of all China, of which Taiwan was a part, until well into the 1960s and 1970s. Britain, never a fan of Chiang Kai-shek’s government, had recognized the People’s Republic immediately after its founding, but most other major countries continued to recognize the Nationalists. In 1964 France extended diplomatic recognition to the People’s Republic of China regime on the mainland, and in response Chiang Kai-shek quickly severed diplomatic relations between France and his Republic of China on Taiwan. Canada recognized the People’s Republic in 1970, followed by Japan in September 1971. The next month, Chiang Kai-shek’s Republic of China on Taiwan withdrew from the United Nations. Chiang Kai-shek was enraged that the PRC was allowed into the United Nations and angrily predicted that the UN would soon collapse as a result. By the mid-1970s most of the industrialized democracies of the world had, with the exception of the United States, faced up to reality, broken off relations with Chiang’s Nationalist regime on Taiwan, and recognized the People’s Republic of China and its claim to be the only legal government of China, of which Taiwan was a part. In the early 1970s the Americans made tentative overtures to the Chinese Communists, and anyone who could sense the directions of the political winds of the time could tell that the United States would eventually recognize the PRC. Chiang Kai-shek did not live to see the final break with the Americans. He died a deeply frustrated and disappointed man in 1975, probably knowing that his government would end up forsaking his dream of recovering the mainland.

On December 15, 1978, President Jimmy Carter finally announced the United States’ break with Taiwan and pending normalization of relations with mainland China, which would be effective on January 1, 1979. The abrupt, unceremonious break with Taiwan led to widespread anger and fear in Taiwan. Anti-American riots broke out, and some Americans were beaten for their country’s “betrayal” of Taiwan. A mob of protesters went to the Chiang Kai-shek Airport to throw eggs at the U.S. envoys who had flown to the island to speak with Chiang Ching-kuo about the derecognition.

Taiwan was essentially a police state from 1949 until Chiang Kai-shek’s death in 1975. During the 1950s Taiwan’s White Terror continued internally, and the island was in something of a constant state of alert for a counter-attack against the mainland, which never did happen. The United States did not support Chiang Kai-shek’s military ambitions and even actively opposed them for a while during the decade. Chiang Kai-shek stubbornly held the islands of Quemoy and Matsu off the shore of mainland China, despite U.S. misgivings. By the early 1960s, in the wake of the disastrous Great Leap Forward on the mainland, Chiang once again made plans for attacking the mainland, but these came to nothing.

The Kaohsiung Incident

After the death of Chiang Kai-shek in 1975 there were a few brief years of relative openness, and it appeared for a time that more popular elections were in the offing and that there would be broader tolerance for dissent. By the late 1970s, however, these hopes were dashed. The Kuomintang would not loosen its stranglehold on political power without direct popular action and political rallies and protests.

In the summer of 1979 political dissidents Shih Ming-teh and Huang Hsin-chieh began publishing Formosa (Meilidao), a magazine critical of the Kuomintang government. The government tolerated its publication and distribution, but rogue right-wing opponents, possibly the “Iron Blood Patriots” or the “Anti-Communist Heroes,” damaged some of the magazine’s twelve offices throughout the island, and on one occasion a Formosa staffer was beaten by thugs. Others were constantly tagged and harassed by Kuomintang agents, and their telephone lines were tapped. Activists associated with the magazine planned a rally for December 10, 1979, in observance of International Human Rights Day. This was one of a series of rallies that were to climax on December 16, the anniversary of the U.S. announcement of its impending break of diplomatic relations with the Republic of China on Taiwan and recognition of the Communist regime on the mainland. The Kuomintang permitted the rally but prohibited protest marching. But the march went ahead anyway, with clashes between rally participants (who numbered between 10,000 and 30,000) and police ensuing and each side blaming the other for inciting the ensuing violence. Police with shields and riot helmets fired tear gas canisters into the crowd. Many rally participants and the police officers attempting to control and contain the rally were seriously injured in the subsequent melee, but fortunately nobody was killed.

Official accounts of the incident as well as historical writings based on them claim that the police had been instructed not to retaliate even if they were beaten. There are, however, also reports and indications that there were Kuomintang or gangland agents provocateurs in the crowd who stirred up much of the trouble. The Kuomintang-controlled media on the island portrayed the rally as a violent and seditious riot at which the police displayed extraordinary restraint, even to the point of allowing themselves to be beaten without defending themselves. Television news reports featured prominent politicians and entertainers visiting injured policemen in hospitals.

Meanwhile, a full 48 hours after the incident, the Kuomintang began arresting several leaders and organizers behind the rally. Shih Ming-teh eluded capture for a few weeks. The apprehension, show trial, conviction, and sentencing of the “Kaohsiung Eight” became an international media spectacle, and the Kuomintang government did its best through its Government Information Office, headed by Director-General James Soong (Song Chuyu), to control and contain the public relations damage for the Kuomintang government internationally.

The Reverend Dr. Kao Chun-ming, General Secretary of the Presbyterian Church in Taiwan, was imprisoned for several years for his role in sheltering Shih Ming-teh. In his memoirs, Reverend Kao recalls his difficult decision to harbor Shih Ming-teh from the Kuomintang authorities:

On 23 December 1979, Shih Ming-teh escaped into the night as the Kuo-mintang’s dragnet was spread. After this all of Taiwan was on the lookout for him, and a reward of 500,000 NT for information leading to his arrest was put up. In a few days this reward was raised to a million NT, and then to two million, and then 2.5 million NT. Everyone was jittery and fearful of their own shadows.

One day, perhaps 15 December, the publication manager of the Bible Society, one Rev. Chao Chen-erh, came to see me at the General Assembly. He closed my office door and said quietly, “Shih Ming-teh is desperate and has nobody to turn to. I hope you can find a way to help him.”

I did not immediately respond to his entreaty. I told Rev. Chao, “Let me think about it.” If it were merely my own personal destiny at stake here, this would not have mattered much. But I was also responsible for more than eight hundred Presbyterian churches and 160,000 believers throughout Taiwan. I paced back and forth in my office for more than ten minutes, thinking and praying.

Shih Jui-yun, my assistant, reminded me, “If Shih Ming-teh is arrested again, this time he will be sentenced to death.” My heart skipped a beat. The situation is indeed serious, I thought to myself. Shih Ming-teh was not facing any ordinary punishment. He was facing death.

In Christian faith there is an inescapable responsibility to love and protect those in the midst of affliction and suffering. All other Christian duties are relatively secondary to this. Jesus said, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” Of all the types of love, the most important is the ability to forsake one’s own life for others or for friends. What is more, Shih Ming-teh had been designated by Amnesty International as a prisoner of conscience. He had been using non-violent means in pursuit of political ideals and had been struggling mightily for Taiwan for many years. All the more reason to help him, I concluded.

I said to Reverend Chao and Shih Jui-yun, “Alright.” (Gao 2001, 271-72)

With Reverend Kao’s help, Shih Ming-teh eluded Kuomintang capture for a few weeks. His American wife, Linda Arrigo (Ai Linda), whom James Soong (Song Chuyu) once compared to Mikhail Borodin (a Soviet Comintern agent who attempted with varying degrees of success to spread communism in Mexico, the United States, the United Kingdom, and China), was deported in mid-December. Linda later returned in the 1990s and today still lives in Taiwan. Meanwhile her arch-critic, James Soong, has largely faded into obscurity.

For a few years, until the full truth about the incident was known, majority public opinion in Taiwan believed that entire incident had been instigated by seditious rabble-rousers and troublemakers. Leaders of the protest were labeled as insurgents and traitors, and for a while this vilification campaign seems to have worked.

The Kaohsiung Incident (also known as the Formosa Incident) turned out to be a major watershed event in the democratization of Taiwan. Several of the imprisoned “Kaohsiung Eight” were to emerge over the next two decades as important leaders in Taiwan. Among them were Annette Lu (Lii Hsiu-lien), who was elected vice president in 2000 and reelected in 2004, and Chen Chu, a woman who was elected mayor of Kaohsiung in 2006. Even more importantly, the lawyers who came to their defense were to emerge in the early twenty-first century as major political figures in Taiwan, among them Chen Shuibian, Su Tseng-chang, and Frank Hsieh (Hsieh Ch’ang-t’ing).

Unsolved Political Murders of the 1980s

In addition to open state oppression of the island’s political and ideological dissidents, during the last 10 years of martial law there were also some high-profile extrajudicial murders of political dissidents, murders that remain partially or completely unsolved today. The dark shadows of these political murders have left scars on Taiwan’s public political psyche to this very day, and their perpetrators remain eerily at large.

The first of these were the Lin family murders of 1980. In February of that year Lin Yi-hsiung, one of the “Kaohsiung Eight” and a vocal Taiwanese dissident and provincial assemblyman who had been charged with sedition and imprisoned for his participation in the Kaohsiung Incident in December 1979, told his wife during a visit from her how his Kuomintang captors had tortured him in an attempt to get him to confess to trumped-up charges. On February 27, 1980, Lin’s mother attempted to contact an Amnesty International office in Japan about her son’s mistreatment. The next day, on the symbolically important date of February 28, an assassin armed with a knife broke into Lin Yi-hsiung’s home on Hsin-yi Road in Taipei and there slashed Lin’s mother and twin seven-year-old daughters to death. A third daughter named Huan-chiin, then nine years old, managed to survive the murders in spite of having received multiple stab wounds. All of this happened in spite of the Kuomintang’s claim to have been watching over Lin Yi-hsiung’s home 24 hours a day. A misinformation campaign concocted by the Kuomintang claimed that a mysterious bearded foreigner had committed the murder, but today Huan-chun (now Judy Huan-chiin Linton), who works in a Christian ministry, adamantly denies ever having claimed or thought any such thing. An open media statement from her in 2008 says it all:

I was the sole surviving eyewitness of the murders that took place in my home. I alone saw the assassin. Yet in an effort to divert attention away from the KMT, the KMT controlled media of that time began to circulate a description of a “man with a bushy beard.” Though I never once mentioned the assassin as having any beard, every media reporting repeated over and over again this image of a heavily bearded man. Eventually, a bearded foreigner was exiled from Taiwan. The assassin in my home did not have a beard and was not a foreigner.

Fast forward to the year 2003. Just four years ago, 24 years since the murders of my family members, I accepted an interview with TVBS Magazine. I appeared on the cover of the magazine and was their main story for that issue. In large captions, the headline of the article stated: “Judy Lin says, ‘I have forgiven the bearded murderer.’” Though I never once used the word “bearded,” 24 years later, someone from the KMT still wants to make sure that the murderer is not associated with the KMT.

Several months after that interview, the reporter who penned the article saw me on the street and came running up to me. She wished to ask for my forgiveness. She said it was the decision of her superiors to put words in my mouth, but she still felt responsible. All I could do was smile, expressed [sic] my forgiveness, and pray to God for ultimate justice.

Because nobody wanted to occupy or own a house in which such grisly murders had taken place, the Presbyterian Church in Taiwan bought the home and converted it into the Gikong (I-kuang) Presbyterian Church, which today has a small congregation and additionally functions as a historical site or shrine related to Taiwan’s struggles for democratization. Lin Yi-hsiung himself is still alive and has now withdrawn from political life, having chosen instead to work in a nonpolitical capacity for environmental and political reforms. He is very widely admired and respected in Taiwan and is perhaps the closest thing the island has to an elder statesman or national hero.

The murderer of the Lin family members is still at large. According to investigative journalist David E. Kaplan, a shadowy group called the “Iron Blood Patriots” was behind the murder, and behind the group was likely Chiang Hsiao-wu (Alex Chiang, 1945-1991), the no-good, ne’er-do-well second son of President Chiang Ching-kuo and grandson of Chiang Kai-shek himself. Although Chiang Hsiao-wu was, according to Kaplan, “a friend of gangsters and spies,” his alleged role in the murders will likely never be clarified. Regardless of who was ultimately responsible for the Lin family murders, a climate of terror and intimidation prevailed in Taiwan for months afterward, as Kuomintang goon squads roamed the island unchecked and unchallenged (Kaplan 1992, 305-306).

The next political murder to shake the island occurred in the summer of 1981, when the body of Chen Wen-chen was found in Taipei early one morning on the campus of National Taiwan University, Taiwan’s premier institution of higher learning. Chen Wen-chen, a native of Taiwan, had earned a Ph.D. in statistics at the University of Michigan and landed a tenure track position at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. While he was visiting family and friends in Taiwan that year, three Kuomintang members from Taiwan’s infamous Garrison Command (Jingbei zongbu) showed up at his brother’s house and interrogated him for 13 grueling hours about his activities in the United States, which included a quite minimal amount of association with critics of the Kuomintang regime. Chen was, however, by no means a fanatic or an extremist, and there were many Taiwanese critics of the Kuomintang in the United States who had a higher profile than he did. Nonetheless, for some reason Chen Wen-chen’s case seemed to stick in the craw of some of his Kuomintang tormenters. The Garrison Command later claimed to have escorted Chen back to his brother’s apartment, but he never did return there. The next morning he was found dead, with a fresh one-hundred New Taiwan Dollar bill stuffed into one of his shoes, reflecting an old Chinese superstition that held that if executioners left the deceased with some money, his remains would be properly handled and he would not come back as a ghost to haunt them.

Nobody knows who the murderer of Chen Wen-chen was, but it seems likely that it was someone in the Garrison Command. The case remains unsolved today, and his murderers are still at large and living outside the law. The U.S. government pursued active interest in the case because it involved Kuomintang spying on Chen on American soil. After some investigation the AIT (American Institute in Taiwan, America’s quasi-embassy in Taiwan after its recognition of the People’s Republic of China regime on the mainland) concluded that out-of-control vigilante gangs, and in particular the Iron Blood Patriots, were likely behind the murder. The group seems to have colluded with sympathetic elements within the Garrison Command to kidnap and murder Chen while on his way home to his brother’s apartment. The Taiwan Garrison Command did not like being implicated in the murder, and its commander, General Wang Ching-hsu, publicly speculated that Chen had committed suicide out of feelings of guilt for his supposed crimes. But the public in Taiwan was not fooled, and its sympathies were clearly with the Chens:

As details of the Chen case emerged, sympathy for the Chen family swept Taiwan. Virtually no one believed the Garrison Command’s version of events. Realizing they had a public relations disaster on their hands, KMT officials appointed a special task force to investigate Chen’s death. At the same time, hard-liners in the government turned to another overused tactic, cracking down on the press. Warnings went out to newspapers that while they could report on the case, they had best avoid speculation on the cause of death. AIT officials learned that James Soong, the ham-handed director of the Government Information Office, personally telephoned the Hong Kong bureau chief of a foreign wire service to advise him to have his reporters back off the story. (Kaplan 1992, 309)

The thug or thugs who murdered Chen Wen-chen will live on in history in anonymous ignominy, but the professor himself is well remembered as a martyr in Taiwan’s struggle for democratization and human rights. Today the Professor Chen Wen-chen Memorial Foundation awards scholarships to college and university students in North America and promotes studies on Taiwanese history, culture, and language. It operates a website at http://www.cwcmf.net.

The most spectacular and high-profile political murder of the 1980s was the carefully planned assassination of Chinese-American muckraking author Henry Liu (Liu I-liang), who was killed on American soil in California by Taiwan-based organized crime thugs operating in collusion with rogue elements and officials in the Kuomintang and the Kuomintang government.

Henry Liu was born in mainland China and fled to Taiwan with the Nationalists in 1949, but by the late 1960s he had grown disillusioned with them and became a prominent critic of the Kuomintang. He emigrated to the United States and became an American citizen, and there he seems to have believed that his U.S. citizenship made him impervious to the Kuomintang’s wrath. He eventually turned his writing skills to a biography of Chiang Ching-kuo (1910-1988), Chiang Kai-shek’s son and president of the Republic of China in Taiwan from 1978 until his death from old age and diabetes in 1988. Henry Liu was more of a freelance scandal digger than a serious historian or biographer, and his book on Chiang Ching-kuo is an amateurish hatchet job. Nonetheless, Henry Liu’s biting style and spicy tone raised some eyebrows in Taipei, and eventually Admiral Wang Hsi-ling, a high-ranking rogue intelligence official in the Kuomintang’s state security apparatus, decided along with several other like-minded Kuomintang party members that Henry Liu should be killed, both for his defamatory biography and for his supposedly increasing coziness with the communist regime in Beijing. They may also have intended, by murdering Henry Liu, to convey a warning to other people whose actions they strongly disliked.

Accordingly, Wang Hsi-ling invited Ch’en Ch’i-li (1943-2007) to a dinner appointment on August 2, 1984. Ch’en Ch’i-li was head of the Bamboo Union, a criminal gang founded in Taiwan in 1957 and that in 2008 was named by Foreign Policy magazine as one of the three most dangerous gangs in the world. Ch’en happily accepted the assignment to travel to the United States, locate Henry Liu, and kill him. On September 14, after a farewell dinner hosted by Admiral Wang, Ch’en Ch’i-li flew to the United States on his assassin’s errand. On October 15, Ch’en Ch’i-li, accompanied by Wu Tun and Tung Kui-sen, found Henry Liu at home in his garage in Daly City, California. One of them shot him to death.

This time, Kuomintang hardliners had gone too far. The murder was a news sensation in the United States, and the U.S. government was aroused and angered that such a brazen political murder had occurred on its soil. (The FBI had strategically placed listening devices and possessed concrete evidence pertaining to the murder.) Congressman Steven Solarz conducted Congressional hearings into the case and demanded the extradition of killers Ch’en Ch’i-li and Wu Tun to stand trial in the United States. The Kuomintang declined to do this, on the pretext that the extradition treaty between the United States and the Republic of China had been rendered null and void by Washington’s recognition of the Beijing regime on the mainland in 1979.

But the Kuomintang government was clearly vexed and distressed by the incident and tried hard to make amends with Washington over it. President Chiang Ching-kuo blew his stack at an important meeting of high-ranking Kuomintang leaders and announced to them that all contacts between high government officials and gangsters were to cease at once. He launched a major campaign against organized crime on the island and allowed FBI investigators to come to Taiwan to interrogate Admiral Wang Hsi-ling and subject him to a polygraph test, which Wang failed. Sensing that the Reagan administration did not want to punish Taiwan severely for the murder, President Chiang Ching-kuo made amends by secretly having his government make two deposits of one million American dollars each to Oliver North’s secret Swiss bank account for funding the “Contras,” who were then fighting the leftist Sandinista government in Nicaragua. President Chiang also strictly forbade any further covert operations in the United States. (Taylor 2000, 385-94)

In Taiwan in April 1985 Ch’en Ch’i-li, Wang Hsi-ling, and Wu Tun were tried in Kuomintang military court, found guilty of murder, and sentenced to “life” imprisonment, but everybody knew they would be out before long. And indeed they were; in 1991 all three murderers were released, ostensibly as part of a general amnesty to mark the occasion of the 80th anniversary of the founding of the Republic of China in 1911. Ch’en Ch’i-li then became a businessman in Taiwan for a time but in the mid-1990s fled to a life of self-imposed exile in Cambodia. After he died of pancreatic cancer in Hong Kong in 2007 his body was shipped back to Taiwan, where gangster Wu Tun helped organize and conduct his funeral. Meanwhile, in 1986 Tung Kuei-sun wound up being extradited from a third country to the United States, where he stood trial, was convicted, and sentenced to 25 years to life imprisonment. He met his end in 1991 at the hands of fellow inmates at a federal prison in Pennsylvania.

We will perhaps never know who ordered the murder of Henry Liu, but there are persistent reports that the man behind it all was, once again, President Chiang Ching-kuo’s wayward son Chiang Hsiao-wu (Jiang Xiaowu/Alex Chiang). Chiang Ching-kuo himself seems to have believed that his son Alex was involved in some way:

At the minimum, however, Ching-kuo came to believe that Alex’s “love of intrigue,” his life style, his unsavory friends, and his reckless comments had at the least led indirectly to the murder. Almost certainly Ching-kuo himself knew nothing of the plan to kill Henry Liu, but nevertheless he also bore responsibility…. The prominent political murders in 1980 and 1981 were also very possibly or even probably related. (Taylor 2000, 390)


Life dragged on in Taiwan during the long White Terror, with the occasional anti-Nationalist riot to break up the monotony, but eventually it improved both economically and politically. Taiwan was emerging as a wealthy and fairly industrialized island by the early 1980s, and during this time there appeared some faint but hopeful signals that Taiwan might become more democratic. Chiang Ching-kuo must be given a portion of the credit for fostering the transition to genuine democracy in Taiwan. He took a significant step toward the reconciliation of the island’s mainlander and native populations by appointing Lee Teng-hui, a native Taiwanese with a Ph.D. in agricultural economics from Cornell, as his vice president. He also eased up on many of his father’s more draconian policies and perceptibly toned down the back-to-the-mainland rhetoric, although he continued to excoriate the Chinese Communists during his entire tenure as president. In a Chinese speech competition for nonnative speakers sponsored by his government in 1984 in the Dr. Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall in Taipei, the themes required for the speeches included “upright anti-Communist heroes (fangong yishi) fleeing in droves to freedom in Taiwan” and “the demarcation between the Three Principles of the People and communism.” That same year Chiang Ching-kuo insultingly referred to the Chinese Communist party as the “Chinese Communist bandit party” (Zhonggong feidang) in a televised speech he delivered to an enormous crowd assembled in Taipei for the October 10 National Day celebrations. He had little tolerance for talk of Taiwan independence, but by the mid-1980s he seems to have begun to understand that his father’s claim to be the sole legitimate government of all of China was unrealistic. His own purpose seems to have been more toward making the Republic of China on Taiwan as good as it could be and having it serve as an attractive alternative to continued Communist administration of the mainland. To this day, the Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation remains dedicated to promoting Chinese culture and fostering interest in it all over the world.

During the 1980s President Chiang Ching-kuo seems to have had something of a change of heart regarding the legacy of his rule over Taiwan. He took credible measures to reduce corruption in government, and he wanted to be thought of as a man of the people. He frequently traveled around Taiwan and loved to be photographed with groups of ordinary people. During the 1980s local restaurants throughout the island featured pictures of President Chiang patronizing their establishments. As he aged and mellowed he also grew more tolerant of non-Kuomintang political organization. In 1985 he announced that the next president of the Republic of China on Taiwan would not be a member of his family.

Until the late 1980s the formation of political parties was technically illegal, so critics and opponents of the Kuomintang government were referred to collectively as Dangwai, or “outside the [Nationalist] Party.” Sensing an imminent change of political direction in the air, by the mid-1980s Dangwai people and movements became bolder and more assertive, especially after several of them were successful in the local elections the Kuomintang allowed. Many Dangwai activists who had been involved in the publication of Formosa magazine and the Kao-hsiung Incident were now widely regarded as heroes and inspirations.

In 1986 it was plain that major changes were on the horizon, and a trickle of travelers ventured out of Taiwan for the mainland. That same year, in September, many Dangwai politicians met informally at a famous hotel in Taipei. During their meeting a bold and daring motion was made to form a political party, and it carried. This was the birth of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which was destined to play a major role in Taiwan’s democratization. Fortunately for the DPP founders, they had read the political climate in Taiwan correctly. The next year President Chiang Ching-kuo lifted martial law on the island and allowed many people in Taiwan to visit their families on the mainland.

Chiang Ching-kuo passed away in January of 1988 and was succeeded as president by Lee Teng-hui. Everyone knew momentous changes were coming. In 1990 the Wild Lily student movement demanded direct popular election of Taiwan’s president and vice president. President Lee approved of this, and in 1996 Taiwan held its first-ever fully open and democratic presidential election. Lee won it and served a final term of four years as president, and during this term he came out more and more in favor of “Taiwanization,” or the strong assertion of the island’s differences with the mainland.

After Chiang Ching-kuo died in 1988, the Kuomintang began allowing democratic reforms. The transition from essentially one-party rule to authentic democracy was brief but intense and highly confrontational. Fistfights and even gang fights frequently broke out on the floor of Taiwan’s legislature, right under a gigantic portrait of Sun Yat-sen, as members of the DPP, Kuomintang, and other parties struggled to learn how to disagree with one another in a peaceful and civilized manner. One rogue politician with a Ph.D. in philosophy from a German university was in the habit of snatching the microphone away from rival lawmakers, and once a woman legislator walked up to the podium where another woman legislator was speaking and slapped her right in the face, in full view of television cameras. The former one-party rule by mainlander Kuomintang members had fostered such a black-and-white paradigm of good versus evil in Taiwan that people had difficulty imagining that someone could oppose the government and yet remain loyal to the nation. The concept of loyal opposition was new to Taiwan, and for a while it showed. By the late 1990s, however, the people of Taiwan had become more democratically mature, and the fisticuffs tapered off significantly.

In the spring of 1995, President Lee delivered a speech to a gathering of alumni at his graduate alma mater, Cornell University in New York, where he had earned a Ph.D. in agricultural economics. Ironically, the mainland Chinese government, in spite of its long record of haranguing the United States for interfering in China’s internal affairs, tried to pressure the U.S. government into refusing to grant Lee a visa. Their reasoning was that Lee, as president of a government that neither the United States nor China recognized as legitimate, should not be allowed to travel abroad because his travel in his official capacity as “president” of the “Republic of China” might lend him some air of legitimacy and implied official recognition. If Lee wanted to go abroad later as a private citizen, after he had stepped down from his position as president, the mainland would have no objection to that. When the U.S. government refused to bow to Chinese pressure and issued President Lee a travel visa over Beijing’s objections, denunciations of the U.S. government and President Lee were broadcast nationally on Chinese television and radio, and angry diatribes against Taiwan and the United States were plastered all over public buildings and college campuses. Matters worsened somewhat when the government claimed to discern hints of Taiwanese independence in his speech and lodged the usual and very predictable accusations of U.S. behind-the-scenes complicity in the entire affair. The government’s anti-American and anti-Lee Teng-hui propaganda appeared on bulletin boards and blackboards all over the campus of Nanjing University in mainland China. A few people angrily confronted American students about this and wanted to argue about it, but the vast majority of Chinese students on the campus found the entire matter a laughable tempest in a teacup and paid it no mind. They had come to expect these paranoid antics by the government, it seemed, and they were largely cynical and dismissive of them. The mainland government, however, took the entire affair very seriously and indefinitely suspended national unification talks with Taiwan in protest of Lee’s visit to the United States. This turned out to be a mistake on the mainland’s part because it further increased resentment and suspicion across the Taiwan Strait and interrupted a once-fruitful dialogue between the two governments.

In 1996 Taiwan held its first openly democratic and popular election for the president of the Republic of China. Prior to this time, the president was appointed by the government; even Lee Teng-hui’s elevation to the presidency upon the death of Chiang Ching-kuo was the result of succession, not election. Lee Teng-hui had vowed to hold an open and democratic election for the presidency, and in 1996 this became a reality. The Communist leaders of mainland China, always fearful of direct democratic elections, watched nervously as the people of Taiwan excitedly participated for the first time in all of Chinese history in a genuinely democratic and popular election of a national leader. The free speech of the campaign unnerved the Communist rulers and led them to fear that widespread sentiment in favor of Taiwan’s formal independence might be given popular and legitimate expression in the election. Mainland Chinese news broadcasters, failing utterly to understand the momentous significance of the democratic nature of the election, warned Taiwan not to harbor ambitions of formally breaking away from China based on its “excuse” of having “changed the manner of selecting its president.” Lee, for his part, publicly stated during the campaign that the mainland was “crazy in the head” (a phrase he spoke in Japanese) over the election and his visit to Cornell the year before.

Highly distressed by all of this and suspicious that Lee was secretly scheming for independence, the mainland launched a crude campaign of intimidation aimed squarely at Taiwan’s voting public. Mainland Chinese warships plied the waters near Taiwan and “test fired” several missiles in the general direction of the island. Their purpose was to create panic and fear in Taiwan and goad the island’s population into backing away from their pending election of Lee Teng-hui. This clumsy demonstration of brute force showed just how little the mainland rulers really knew and understood Taiwan’s people, and their actions produced the opposite effect. Support for Lee actually increased during this time, especially after he traveled to the Pescadores (a group of islands midway between Taiwan and the mainland) and defiantly shook his fist at the mainland, proclaiming that nobody was frightened of Chinese Communist scare tactics.

U.S. President Bill Clinton jumped into the fray by sending two carrier battle groups from the U.S. Seventh Fleet (stationed in Japan) into the waters off Taiwan in a show of force against the mainland vessels attempting to intimidate the island. This action enraged the Chinese leadership, and soon the inevitable accusations of U.S. connivance in Taiwan’s elections were flying. In the end, however, the Chinese warships backed off and returned to port, and the situation blew over. Hotheads in the mainland nursed a growing grudge against the United States for its influence in the region, while in Taiwan some advocates of Taiwanese independence began to believe, perhaps unrealistically, that the action proved that the United States would never stand idly by and allow the mainland Chinese military to invade or seriously menace their island.

Tensions between the mainland and Taiwan were once again heightened in mid-1999, when President Lee announced in an interview broadcast over German radio that he and his government would now conduct talks and contacts with the Communist government on the mainland only on the basis of government-to-government relations. In doing so Lee was simply emphasizing the obvious facts that two governments on either side of the Taiwan Strait did in fact exist and that the Republic of China had been a reality since 1912. To the mainland, this was an ominous step closer to a formal declaration of independence. Given the mainland’s recent belligerent mood and saber rattling, Lee’s “one country, two governments” formulation was precipitous and ill-advised. It only increased suspicion and heightened tensions in the Taiwan Strait, across which fundamental misunderstanding existed in both directions.

Tensions flared up once again in February 2000, when the mainland Chinese government issued a white paper making new threats to Taiwan. Like mainland China’s saber rattling in early 1996, these new threats occurred on the eve of democratic presidential elections on Taiwan and were obviously intended to intimidate and bully the island’s voting population into selecting a candidate pleasing to Beijing. The Chinese Communists were clearly unnerved by the possibility of a pro-independence candidate winning the election and taking Taiwan even farther down the road of formal independence. The three candidates running were Lien Chan (President Lee’s vice president); Chen Shui-bian, a native Taiwanese and member of the DPP who had declared that Taiwan already was a sovereign state and did not need to declare it formally; and James Soong, a former member of the Kuo-mintang who now ran as an independent and generally favored closer ties with the mainland. Of these three candidates, James Soong was obviously the most suitable as far as Beijing was concerned, and Lien Chan, even though he had been Lee Teng-hui’s vice president, was certainly more acceptable than the pro-independence choice Chen Shui-bian. Chen Shuibian won the election with 39 percent of the popular vote. James Soong finished right behind him with 37 percent; and Lien Chan came in a distant third at 23 percent. The remaining 1 percent of the vote went to minor also-rans.

James Soong and Lien Chan both favored eventual reunification of Taiwan with mainland China. Meanwhile, they would pursue a status quo ante policy, neither rejecting unification nor taking concrete steps toward it. It was just this go-slow, status quo approach to unification that was troubling Beijing in early 2000. The Chinese Communists did not want to wait forever for the unification of China, and they could not understand why Taiwan rejected Deng Xiaoping’s “one country, two systems” approach for China, which seemed to them to be working nicely enough for Hong Kong.

The previous blustering from the mainland had consistently emphasized that Taiwan would be invaded if one of two situations developed: a formal declaration of independence or foreign invasion of the island. In February 2000 a third condition was added: indefinite postponement of unification. Taiwan loomed very large in Jiang Zemin’s thinking about his historical legacy. Mao and Deng both made great contributions to China: Mao had liberated China from Chiang Kai-shek and foreign imperialists, and Deng had stopped Mao’s ruinous mass movements and brought relative prosperity by opening China to trade and contact with the outside world. Jiang was the third major leader of the People’s Republic of China; what would his historical contributions be? Jiang noted with satisfaction that the return of Hong Kong in mid-1997 and Macao in late 1999 had both occurred during his rule. The reunification of China would be his legacy, along with the continuation of Deng Xiaoping’s policies. Only Taiwan remained beyond Beijing’s grasp, and Jiang longed to bring the island back to the motherland during his rule. Taiwan’s continued resistance to Beijing’s overtures was a source of frustration and vexation for Jiang Zemin and China’s other Communist leaders as the year 2000 dawned in China and around the world.

The Presidency of Chen Shui-Bian

As president, Chen Shui-bian grew increasingly open about his wish for Taiwan to formalize its de facto independence, but in this he was opposed by the Kuomintang majority in the island’s legislature, and he and his vice president, Annette Lu, were demonized by the Chinese Communists and their media on the mainland. Chen and Lu ran for reelection in 2004 against the Kuomintang’s Lien Chan and James Soong, narrowly winning the vote. Up until the last few days of the campaign it appeared that Lien and Soong would win the presidency handily, but on March 19, 2004, there occurred a bizarre shooting incident that likely tipped the scales in the favor of Chen and Lu. On that day in the city of Tainan, the president and vice president were traveling in an open Jeep vehicle when both were grazed by bullets. Their injuries proved only superficial, and they were both released from hospital the same day. Whether or not this was a staged incident (kurouji) engineered to elicit sympathy votes for Chen and Lu is still a controversial and divisive question in Taiwan, and what a person thinks about it seems largely predetermined by his or her political sympathies. Whatever the realities of the incident, Chen and Lu won the vote by 30,000 votes and served four more years as president and vice president.

Allegations against Chen and his family about financial wrongdoing and money laundering emerged during Chen’s second term. In response, in the late summer and fall of 2006 Shih Ming-teh, one of the “Kaohsiung Eight,” launched a popular campaign to oust Chen from the presidency or pressure him into stepping down. (Ironically enough, Chen Shui-bian had once been Shih Ming-teh’s defense attorney in the aftermath of the Kaohsiung Incident.) Shih’s followers wore the color red to symbolize their anger and to emphasize his contention that his followers were united mainly by their frustration at Chen’s alleged corruption. The “Red Shirt” movement held marches throughout Taiwan for a time, but it ran out of steam by the end of the year without succeeding in toppling Chen.

The entire movement was divisive and unnerving for the island. People driving red cars in southern Taiwan had their vehicles vandalized, and barbed wire barricades and jack-booted troops armed with M-16 machine guns surrounded the Presidential Palace to protect it. The movement brought to the surface some latent-foreign feelings. The specter of increased ethnic tensions also loomed.

President Chen badly mismanaged Taiwan’s economy, and this plus widespread public suspicion that he or his family members had indeed been involved in illegal financial transactions doomed the election chances for Frank Hsieh and Su Tseng-chang, who ran on the Democratic Progressive Party’s presidential ticket. They were defeated in the March 2008 presidential elections by the Kuomintang candidates Ma Ying-jeou and Vincent Siew, who are now the President and Vice President of the Republic of China on Taiwan. Ma and Siew have dramatically decreased tensions with mainland China, and with their Kuomintang super-majority in the island’s legislature they now rule the island without much effective opposition or criticism.

Former president Chen Shui-bian was arrested in November 2008 and remains in prison as of this writing. He and his sympathizers suspect that his confinement and prosecution are part of a political payback campaign waged against him by the Kuomintang, and there have been some troubling indications that he and others implicated in his case have been denied some measure of due process. Nevertheless, members of his family have pled guilty to financial wrongdoing. The ultimate fate of Chen himself remains to be seen.

Green and Blue

Partisan politics in Taiwan today are sometimes badly polarizing and stridently Manichaean, especially during national elections. Since Taiwan’s democratization in the 1990s, a duality of “Blue” versus “Green” has emerged, with “Blue” symbolizing the people and parties (mainly the Kuomintang or Nationalists) who generally favor some sort of eventual accommodation or unification with mainland China, and “Green” representing people and parties (mainly the DPP, or Democratic Progressive Party) who identify with the island’s majority ethnic group and topolect and hope for an eventual separation from the mainland, amicable or otherwise. The Green and Blue camps sometimes demonize each other in the most puerile of terms, with Blues insisting that Greens are traitors to China and lackeys of the Americans and Greens swearing just as adamantly that the Blues are traitors to Taiwan and allies with the Communists on the mainland. Foreigners who allow themselves to be swept up in the maelstrom of Taiwan politics usually sympathize with the Greens, and their subjective blogo-sphere invective sometimes reflects an undercurrent of animosity toward mainland Chinese. (Some mainland Chinese and their first-and second-generation descendants in Taiwan today have their own prejudices toward the ethnic majority in Taiwan, but these animosities do not often find expression on the English-language Internet.)

Taiwan’s Path of Darkness

Politics in Taiwan are already difficult and strident enough, but compounding the island’s complexities even further is the widespread problem of organized crime, known in Mandarin Chinese as heidao, the “black way” or the “path of darkness.” The ubiquitous extent and influence of organized crime on the island was perhaps no more apparent than during the widespread media coverage of the 2007 funeral for Ch’en Ch’i-li, the crime gang boss behind the murder of Henry Liu.

Ch’en’s funeral was attended by men in black shirts, retired state security officials, and miscellaneous Taiwan establishment glitterati, including celebrities and business fat cats. Most astonishing of all, however, was the presence at the funeral of several politicians, among them Legislative Speaker Wang Jin-pyng of the KMT (Kuomintang) and Legislator Ko Chien-ming of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). In a scathing editorial entitled “Gangsters, gangsters everywhere,” the English-language, Green-leaning Taipei Times on November 9, 2007, lit into the two lawmakers for their attendance:

In the course of mourning Chen, the sight of a string of celebrities, ne’er-do-well politicians and retired security agency officials lining up to pay their dues played itself out. Of the former, pop singer Jay Chou was the most conspicuous, and he has gutted his reputation—and raised questions about who he owes and how much—by paying his respects. Chou should be ashamed, but we are not sure if he has the depth of character to feel it.

But it is the politicians—and their seniority—that should be of enduring concern. How astonished and enraged Americans would be if House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi joined the organizing committee for the funeral of a notorious mafia boss. Yet that is exactly what has happened here: Legislative Speaker Wang Jin-pyng of the KMT blessed Chen by having his name added to the list of honorary funeral officials. Again, one might ask, what does Wang owe, and to whom?

The KMT, it seems, can’t get by without cavorting with criminals.

But this is not a partisan cancer. Even more despicable is the presence on the honorary list of Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) legislative caucus convener Ko Chien-ming, who warrants expulsion from the party.

… This easy association with criminality continues to plague the legislature, too, with an attempt to restrict candidates for public office to people with no criminal record or a minor criminal record being defeated in recent days.

Both parties have acted shamefully and shamelessly on this matter. President Chen Shui-bian, as chairman of the DPP, deserves censure for not intervening to ensure that DPP support for the changes did not eventuate.

And Wang Jin-pyng deserves an equally strong rebuke for blithely dismissing this debacle as being unworthy of any concern …

It is all too easy to say “a pox on all their houses” or some such, but the fact is that all of this behavior is tolerated by a large number of voters who will put any lowlife into office as long as it is not someone from the opposition. Thus continues this collapsible morality in the face of criminal connections to the political, security, and entertainment establishments.

According to a high-ranking law enforcement official in Taiwan, the reach and influence of organized crime on the island has recently reached crisis proportions (Chin 2003, 13-14).

In November 1996 Taoyuan County Magistrate Liu Pang-yu was murdered along with several other people, including his bodyguards, in a mafia-style hit. The murders remain unsolved today. Newspaper headlines screamed the story to the public, and the subsequent feeling of dread and dismay throughout the island was palpable. Taiwan’s justice minister became famous for revealing that around one third of Taiwan’s 800+ city and county councilors were tainted by organized crime backgrounds or contacts and for his warning that if efforts at “sweeping away organized crime” (saohei) were not thorough, Taiwan would become another Sicily.

Things have not dramatically improved since 1996. According to a recent study of organized crime in Taiwan, “Hardly a day goes by without news reports about politicians, businessmen, and gangsters being involved in financial scandal, bid rigging, corruption, vote buying, violent confrontation, or fraud” (Chin 2003, 14). A corrupt triangular nexus among politicians, gangsters, and businessmen has developed in Taiwan, with each corner of the triangle giving benefits to, and receiving benefits from, the two other corners. The result of this baleful triangulation is the moral confounding of Taiwanese society:

A relationship between the upperworld and the underworld has evolved into an integration of the two worlds into one and the development of public figures who are at the same time gangsters, entrepreneurs, and politicians in the fullest sense. An influential legislator who is also the convener of the judicial committee of the legislature could also be one of the richest entrepreneurs in the country and the one who proclaimed himself to be the “spiritual leader” of a powerful gang and listed as a hoodlum by the authorities. A county magistrate who was imprisoned as a hoodlum could also be the owner of a major construction company and other big businesses and considered by his constituents as the best county executive in Taiwan. The integration of the upperworld and the underworld in Taiwan results in the development of a morally confusing society where politicians are talking and acting like gangsters and gangsters are talking and acting like politicians. (Chin 2003, 19)

Although voter participation rates in Taiwan are quite high, the ubiquitous tentacles of organized crime and shady moneymen in Taiwanese politics have given some people in Taiwan, particularly intellectuals, considerable pause and moral qualms about voting. There is little wonder that so many mainland Chinese are so cynical about Taiwan’s democratic process. Further, a large majority of American leaders and policy makers would quite likely rethink their view of Taiwan as a viable emergent democracy if they knew the extent to which criminal gangs manipulate the island’s democratic institutions. These gangs constitute a significant threat to the island’s newfound democracy and international security and are a blight, nay a tumor, on Taiwan’s body politic.

Taiwanese Society

Taiwan’s society is another story. Taiwan has been called an island of corruption and covetousness, but in terms of public and personal safety and violent crime rates it is superior to almost any Western country. Random mass murders, shootings in post offices or schools, and poison gas attacks in subways are unknown. It is quite safe to walk in Taipei after dark, and unless one gets involved in drugs, commercial sex, or gambling there is very little reason to fear the organized criminal gangs on the island. Health care delivery is efficient, inexpensive, and socially just.

For all of its problems and setbacks and its current economic slump, Taiwan is a more livable and loveable society than mainland China is today or the island itself once was before its democratization. Taiwan has a much more modern feel to it, and this is not limited to its material prosperity. Now that the bad old days of the White Terror and one-party Kuomintang rule are gone, the tiresome and ubiquitous political slogans against communism on the mainland have disappeared, and so have most statues of dictator Chiang Kai-shek. There is no more censorship of domestic or foreign news media, and there are dozens of television channels from which to choose. (There were only three until the late 1980s.) The people of Taiwan are, by and large, well-mannered and speak quietly in public. Public restrooms in Taiwan are much cleaner than they once were, and vehicular traffic is relatively orderly. (Sometime between 1985 and 2005 drivers in Taiwan learned not to honk their horns indiscriminately.) Users of Taipei’s ultramodern rapid transit subway system actually line up for subway cars and escalators, and smoking is now strictly prohibited in public places in Taipei. The written language in Taiwan is beautiful and aesthetically coherent because it retains the traditional, complex characters. Dogs are liked in large Taiwan cities and are treated relatively well. The Taiwanese topolect is openly and freely spoken in public now, and gone forever are the signs that used to exhort the Taiwanese, “Be proper and upstanding Chinese people—speak Mandarin!” Forming a political party in Taiwan is not an illegal or seditious act, and Internet users in Taiwan can write virtually anything they want about their government and fear neither censure nor censorship nor recrimination. The island feels modern, open, free, and relaxed, quite possibly because it is democratic.

The Politics and Ideology of Taiwan History

In Taiwan today, Taiwan history is a polarized field, with Green voices predominating, at least in the more popular histories of Taiwan commonly available in bookstores. The arguments for and against Taiwan’s historical independence from China are manifold and convoluted. A popular argument posits in crudely racial or genetic terms the non-Chinese identity of the majority of Taiwan’s people today, maintaining that historical patterns of intermarriage between Han Chinese and the island’s aboriginal populations have produced a population ethnically distinct from that on the mainland. (This argument presupposes, of course, that the essential core of Chineseness is genetic or phenotypic, an assumption fallacious on its face and unworthy of serious comment.)

Others argue that Taiwan was never ruled by Qing China, which is of course a distortion of historical facts. More sophisticated historians and history buff activists argue that the Qing never ruled over all of Taiwan; only the western plains region of the island settled by Han Chinese were ruled by the Qing government, they observe, whereas the aboriginal regions in the mountains areas and the eastern coastal areas were largely left to their own devices and rule. This argument usually includes some description of Qing Taiwan’s society as particularly turbulent and prone to rebellion. But according to a highly authoritative history of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Taiwan, Qing Taiwan’s society was neither exceptionally turbulent nor its government exceptionally corrupt, and the Qing “ruled Taiwan with the same repertoire of policies it applied to other regional societies” (Shepherd 1993, 3).

Others maintain that Taiwan during the Qing dynasty was not part of China but of the Manchu empire. This contention, however, is questionable because it does not ipso facto negate the very real geopolitical and administrative union of Taiwan with Fujian province on the mainland in the 1680s; the Qing dynasty was China’s government at the time, and the ethnicity of the ruling dynastic house that accomplished this union of Taiwan with mainland China is irrelevant.

Still others concede that although China may have had sovereignty over Taiwan, this sovereignty ended in 1895 when China ceded the island to Japan in accordance with the terms of the Treaty of Shimonoseki. (This argument assumes, of course, that Taiwan was the Qing’s to give away in the first place.) Blue historians counter by arguing that the Treaty of Shimonoseki was part of the nineteenth-century era of unequal treaties and imperialist victimization of China and was, therefore, legally illegitimate. Any subsequent developments flowing from the Treaty of Shimonoseki are fruits of the poison tree and are irrelevant, Blue historians maintain, at least as far as the ultimate fate of Taiwan is concerned. Many Green historians, on the other hand, affirm the legality of the Treaty of Shimonoseki and then point out that Japan in the San Francisco Peace Treaty, signed in 1951 and effective as of April 1952, renounced all claims and title to Taiwan but did not specify which country or regime would gain sovereignty over the island. Blue historians counter that the Cairo Declaration, issued by the United States, Great Britain, and the Republic of China in 1943, and thus predating the San Francisco Peace Treaty by several years, contains a provision that Taiwan would be retroceded to China after the defeat of Japan. Green historians respond that the Cairo Declaration was just that: a declaration and not a legally binding treaty.

And so the debate goes, on and on, around and around, with no definitive resolution in sight. In some ways the debate is dishonest or at least not genuine, since many of its principals already have conclusions and positions firmly in mind prior to considering historical evidence and arguments. Many of the contours of this debate are actually quite compelling and interesting, but ultimately the historical debate over the international disposition of Taiwan is largely irrelevant. This is because the most ingeniously constructed and eloquently presented historical arguments will never convince Beijing to quit its territorial claims to Taiwan. Most people who take a clear-eyed view of Taiwan’s past and present do know this. So what are historian-activists who agitate and argue for Taiwan independence really doing? Their hearts may be in the right place, and they may be striving for the moral high ground, but the fate of Taiwan is not really very much of a moral issue. Taiwan’s fate is first and foremost a political issue, although in the worst-case scenarios it might also become a military issue.

Taiwan’s Fate

What will become of the new and flourishing democracy on Taiwan? This is one of the major international questions for the first decades of the twenty-first century. In Taiwan today there is a widespread sense of helpless fatalism or impending, resigned acceptance of whatever the island’s ultimate fate turns out to be. Perhaps only a minority will want to stand and fight in the face of an invasion from the mainland. People who three decades ago were “recapture the mainland” true believers and ardent Cold Warriors are now soberly defeatist or capitulationist in their attitudes. There seems to be little sense among Taiwan’s youth today that their island democracy is worth fighting and dying for. Therefore they may lose it.

Despite the fondest wishes of Taiwan independence advocates and Republic of China boosters alike, Taiwan’s fate will not be decided by the people of Taiwan alone. It will be decided partially in Taipei, perhaps, but certainly in Beijing as well, and perhaps also in the corridors of power in Tokyo, Washington, New York, and Brussels. Taiwan has often felt swept along in the strong political currents flowing through the Taiwan Strait—currents it cannot control and does not always fully understand. Taiwan’s helplessness in the rough neighborhood in which it lives often elicits sympathy from outside observers and expatriate residents alike, but for the island’s own good, sympathy must not trump reality. If foreign sympathy implies hopes for concrete outside support for formal independence, it weakens the island’s security rather than fortifying it. In their naive political ineptness, people who advocate the formalization of Taiwan’s current de facto independence seem to assume that they can heedlessly pursue their headlong course and that the United States will, in the end, come to the island’s rescue when the chips are down. Independence advocates on the Internet do not fully understand that they are playing an exceedingly dangerous game, one that could very quickly draw China and the United States into a war over Taiwan’s fate and destroy the very democracy on the island they seek to defend.

Many Green-leaning supporters seem to live in their own world, and it is not unreasonable to state that many of them do not really understand the rest of East Asia, much less the realities of the broader international community. Advocates of formalizing Taiwan’s independence seem to assume that if one has a full and nuanced understanding of the domestic political climate on the island, one has understood the Taiwan problem. This is not so; at most, they have understood exactly one halfof the Taiwan problem. The other half is the other side of the Taiwan Strait: the communist People’s Republic of China on the mainland and its unflagging resolve to bring Taiwan back into China’s embrace—even a death embrace, if push comes to shove. Mainland China simply will not allow Taiwan to go its own way, and op-ed pieces in the pages of the Taipei Times belittling the rationality or sanity of the mainland Chinese ruling authorities do not alter or attenuate this adamantine fact.

Taiwan grossly underestimates the mainland’s determination and commitment to bring Taiwan back into its grasp, by force if necessary. The mainland rulers are well aware of, and distressed by, public opinion in Taiwan that favors independence for the island. But public opinion on Taiwan will not alter their plans to absorb the island because they have an even more awesome consideration in mind: the momentum of history. Since its first unification under the Qin in 221 B.C., China has placed an enormous premium on national unity. At the end of the twentieth century, Hong Kong and Macao returned to Chinese sovereignty, and Taiwan is now the last piece of historically Chinese territory left for the People’s Republic to recover. As much as the government of the People’s Republic of China would like to, it cannot proclaim at the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century that its great enterprise of achieving complete national unity is accomplished. Much to its frustration, the mainland government cannot even point to a timetable for an orderly transition to national unification; that remains an elusive goal. Taiwan’s continuing independence from the People’s Republic is a painful thorn in the side for all mainland Chinese patriots. The mainland will not let Taiwan go without a tooth-and-nail fight, and it seems that if the people of Taiwan truly desire independence from the mainland, they must admit that they are in fact cutting off their historical ties with mainland China and then prepare themselves for a very long and disruptive battle with mainland invaders. They must neither underestimate the determination and military ability of the People’s Republic to resist their moves toward independence nor naively expect the United States or other countries to rush to their rescue in their hour of need. The United States might elect to stay out of the fight and wait to see what comes of it. U.S. intervention in a battle across the Taiwan Strait could very well lead to a larger war between China and the United States, which would mean tremendous losses for both sides, but especially for China. China’s economic development would be ruined and set back 30 years or more, and mass starvation would likely break out in China after the disruption of its transportation and communication infrastructure. The United States would probably prevail in any armed conflict with China not involving a ground war, but the cost in blood and treasure for such a victory might ultimately prove higher than the American public is willing to tolerate.

Mainland China, for its part, badly overestimates Taiwan’s desires for reunification with the motherland. In Taiwan today a majority of the population would favor formalizing independence for their island if it could be achieved without provoking an armed attack from the mainland. Taiwan today has good reason for not being enthusiastic about unification with the mainland in the near future. Already in the 1990s, Taiwan was light-years ahead of the mainland in terms of prosperity, democracy, respect for human rights, and freedom of expression. The island does struggle with some measure of corruption and organized crime, but the overwhelming majority of its people would be quite unwilling to trade their newfound democracy, freedom, and prosperity for any form of mainland-style authoritarian government that might take harsh moves to improve social stability. An invasion of Taiwan by the Chinese mainland would post an enormous quandary to the United States, which heartily approves of Taiwan’s recent democratization and prosperity and yet greatly desires harmonious diplomatic relations with China, the world’s most populous state and potentially America’s largest market. The U.S. Seventh Fleet is stationed in Japan, and the question for the Americans would be whether to intervene.

Over the past decade and a half there has emerged in books on China’s growing military might a consensus that of all the irritants in relations between China and the United States, only the Taiwan question could lead to war between the two giant countries. One such book, published in 2007, is A War Like No Other: The Truth About China’s Challenge to America, by Richard C. Bush, who has been involved in Taiwan and mainland China issues for two decades in the U.S. government and is now a scholar at the Brookings Institution, and Michael E. O’Hanlon, a national security expert at the Brookings Institution. Bush and O’Hanlon warn repeatedly that conflict between mainland China and Taiwan could go careening out of control, especially if the United States becomes involved in it, and lead very quickly to a direct military confrontation between two nuclear states.

War between China and Taiwan is a distinct possibility. Such a war could easily drag in the United States, pitting the world’s only superpower against its main rising power and thus leading to the first serious conflict in history between nuclear weapons states.

It seems inconceivable, in this day and age, that the United States and China could really wind up in a war. Their mutual interests in cooperating are so strong, their economies are so intertwined, the dangers of war are so enormous, and the number of other problems for them to worry about is so great that it would seem the height of foolishness for the two huge powers ever to come to blows.

There is much truth to this. Indeed, as we have argued in chapter three, most of the reasons why China and the United States could theoretically fight do not in the end hold water. But the Taiwan problem is different… the way that a China-Taiwan crisis could begin and escalate would hold the inherent potential for escalation to direct superpower war. (Bush and O’Hanlon, 99)

Avoiding such a war is in the interests of Taiwan, mainland China, and the United States. But if a war starts, it will because mainland China starts it; neither Taiwan nor the United States will strike the first blow. Mainland China will be viewed worldwide as the aggressor and will be condemned both in history and in international public opinion.

Mainland China needs to understand that Taiwan does not find immediate reunification attractive because it finds the undemocratic, authoritarian colossus across the Taiwan Strait repulsive. The people of Taiwan have now tasted freedom and democracy, and they are not going to turn or look back. Many public opinion polls conducted in Taiwan over the past few years have shown that absent any military threat from the mainland, a majority of Taiwan’s population would opt for formalizing and openly, joyously affirming its present independence from mainland Chinese control. In such an event, Taiwan’s current status as an abnormal and largely unrecognized independent state that hesitates to provoke Beijing with too much talk or action as a sovereign entity would become an oddity or curiosity in the history books, where it belongs.

Taiwan was clearly and unambiguously an integral part of Chinese territory from 1683 to 1895, but time and experience since the late nineteenth century have given the people of Taiwan a very real sense of distance and separateness from the mainland. If mainland China truly longs for reunification with Taiwan, the best thing it can do is to stop threatening Taiwan and start democratizing itself. The longer mainland China postpones its democratization, the more difficult peaceful reunification will be. And for peaceful reunification to be viable and enduring, the people of Taiwan must be openly and democratically consulted about it. Reunification accomplished in any other way will smack of brutal annexation and will poison mainlander/Taiwanese intercommunal relations in a way that may well make February 28, 1947, and its decades-long repercussions look sedate by comparison.