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The Longue Durée Of Reconciliation

(Part Two of Two) Read Part One of this article here.

In contrast to the goal of the commission as laid out in the original 2017 Act on Promoting Transitional Justice – to establish historical truth about the martial law period within a term of two years – transitional justice is now viewed by Taiwan’s Democratic Progress Party (DPP) as a more gradual process. This has some merit, as it is difficult to attain consensus on such a fraught historical question overnight, especially 30 years after the time period in question ended. On the other hand, now that the work of transitional justice has been passed on to the central government’s ‘six ministries’, the fear is that the original focus of the commission will be further splintered and the political will for pursuing genuine transitional justice will fade into bureaucratic obscurity. ‘Within 5 months of shutting its doors, the Transitional Justice Commission will splinter into many components, then from many components morph into indifference, and then from indifference fade into nothingness,’ National Taiwan University history professor Chou Wan-yao grimly predicts. (李秉芳, 2022)

To be sure, the Transitional Justice Commission (TJC) has had its shortfalls. Nonetheless, a large part of the problem with directly addressing the past is that Taiwan’s democratisation was not in the form of an overnight coup or revolution, but rather a slow transfer of power from the one-party state to a two-party system. While martial law ended in 1987, it was not until 1996 when the first democratic presidential election was held, and until 2000 when the first opposition leader came to power. Unlike South Africa, there was no moment of public reckoning with the truth akin to the 1995 Truth and Reconciliation Commission (Kirby, 2022). As a result of the long transition, the term ‘transitional justice’ has evolved in Taiwanese politics through a contested process and become defined in different ways by the DPP and KMT camps. While the goal of the DPP is to promote the ‘healing of judicial injustices’ (平復司法不法), the stated priority of the KMT is ‘reconciliation’ (和解). While the former encompasses both the victims and the perpetrators of the White Terror, the latter acknowledges the victims but glosses over sensitive issues such as the role of the Two Chiangs as the root cause of this, preferring to focus on their role in creating Taiwan’s economic miracle. In the KMT narrative, democratisation was not something won by the tang wai (‘outside of “the party”’) opposition movement but something handed down by the government through their own free will (Wrocherinsky, 2017). As such, it is difficult to draw a clear line between the autocratic and the democratic regimes, and the political will for such a divisive exercise is likely to further diminish with time (李秉芳, 2022).

The Tsai government has sensed that there is currently little appetite for a complete re-assessment of the past and is itself edging toward the ‘reconciliation’ banner. Unlike the philosophy underpinning South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, where it has been said that ‘revealing is healing’, the new consensus in Taiwanese politics seems to be that ‘blurring is concurring’. Chiang Ching-kuo may have been a harsh dictator who cut his teeth as head of Shanghai’s secret police in the 1940s. Yet in a speech marking the opening of the Chiang Ching-kuo presidential library this year, President Tsai balanced out acknowledgement of his authoritarianism by drawing attention to the economic development which he spurred on – a gesture which was positively received by ‘deep blue’ (die-hard) KMT politicians as a blow to the TJC’s project. For its part the TJC condemned the opening of the park, claiming that it white-washed his bloody legacy – comments which went unheeded. Such muddying of the waters was not a feature of Tsai’s discourse when she first came to power, and only evolved as she approached her second term, likely because ‘reconciliation’ is a far bigger vote winner than ‘truth’. As freelance journalist Brian Hioe points out, playing a more conciliatory role allows the DPP to appeal to ‘light blue’ KMT supporters who may otherwise be put off by proposals such as removing statues (Hioe, 2022).

Authoritarian nostalgia

Doing so may be wise on Tsai’s part. It is worth comparing the experience of Taiwan with that of South Korea, which democratically transitioned at a similar time and has authoritarian-era successor parties similar to the KMT and the DPP. A related fact is that in both cases most of their democratically elected presidents have faced legal charges after stepping down from office (in Taiwan’s case every president), a symptom of a divided political climate where the political parties take vengeance on one another through the courts. As academics Eunjeung Choi and Jongseok Woo write, parties in South Korea operate on an axis intimately related to their inheritance from the authoritarian period, with the authoritarian successor camp on the one hand and the pro-democracy movement successor camp on the other. Interestingly, being an authoritarian successor party can have its advantages. In 2014, the conservative camp profited immensely from ‘authoritarian nostalgia’ for the ‘economic miracle’ of Park Cheung-hee’s 1961-79 rule in the election of his daughter Park Geun-hye in 2014. Choi and Woo trace the source of this nostalgia back to the ‘political socialization’ of voters during the authoritarian era, something deeply rooted in citizens’ political identity and difficult to influence through standard issue politics (Choi & Woo, 2019). One can therefore surmise that if parties continue to define themselves by reference to the authoritarian era, then voters will continue to make election decisions based on such considerations and authoritarian nostalgia is a likely outcome.

Fig. 2: Table contrasting different scenarios in a post-authoritarian societies

Source: James Farquharson

In Taiwan, the fate of the authoritarian successor camp during recent years has been somewhat different. As T.J Cheng and Teh-fu Huang persuasively write, support for the KMT has been gradually chipped away as the party damaged the positive aspects of its authoritarian legacy through its drift towards mainland China during the 2008-16 Ma Ying-jeou presidency. As a result, support for political parties has been decoupled from their political past in the authoritarian period, with many smaller independent parties gaining ground (Cheng & Huang, 2018). That being said, Taiwan is not immune from authoritarian nostalgia, with 38.7% of respondents to 2019 survey on ‘Which president has made the largest contribution to Taiwan?’ opting for Chiang Ching-kuo, the largest share by far (羅立邦, 2019). In this context, the DPP would be wise not to be seen as too extreme when pursuing transitional justice and allow the KMT to paint themselves as the defenders the Two Chiangs’ legacy, as the conservatives did with Park Cheung-hee’s legacy in South Korea. With Chiang Ching-kuo’s grandson Chiang Wan-an currently the KMT’s candidate for mayor of Taipei, a post generally seen as the step before the presidency, this is not out of the question (Chiang Wan-an named as KMT pick for Taipei mayor, 2022). Chiang has supported giving compensation to families of those wrongly sentenced during the White Terror, but has called for an assessment of his grandfather and great-grandfather’s legacy based on their contributions to national security and economic development, a call popular amongst older voters (周毓翔, 2021).

The issue of transitional justice is not set to fade away, but with the dissolution of the TJC, the continuation of policies such as restitution to victims and the removal of symbols of the ‘Two Chiangs’ will be within the hands of whichever government is in power for the foreseeable future. Even if in line with current trends the DPP continues to govern, the chances of a wholesale and systematic examination of the past are unlikely. Firstly, the political will for such an exercise tends to decrease with time and Taiwan missed the golden opportunity to do so during its democratic transition. Secondly, the DPP are aware that forcing the population to face uncomfortable truths is not an election winning strategy, and President Tsai’s recent conciliatory attitude has highlighted this. While the slow approach to transitional justice taken by the DPP has been roundly criticised by proponents of a more hard-hitting approach, the DPP’s decision to take the long view is certainly the more politically astute option.



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