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Transitional Justice In Taiwan – Valuing Reconciliation Over Justice?

(Part One of Two)

With the dissolution of Taiwan’s Transitional Justice Commission (TJC) on 30th May after serving a four-year mandate, the issue of transitional justice has once again reared its head in Taiwanese politics. Brought into being by the 2017 Act on Promoting Transitional Justice after Tsai Ying-wen’s DPP government first came to power, the aim of the TJC was two-fold: firstly to remedy past injustices committed by the Kuomintang (KMT) government during the period of the White Terror (1947-1992), and secondly to initiate a process of truth and reconciliation which would come to terms with Taiwan’s authoritarian period. However, the overall reception of the committee’s achievements has been tepid on both sides of the political spectrum. On the one hand, the opposition KMT has denounced it as a political tool in the hands of the ruling DPP, and on the other many members of the DPP have regretted the lack of progress with promoting a true understanding of Taiwan’s past. (林佳和, 2022)

Fractured memory

The ‘White Terror’ period examined by the commission dates back to when the KMT, led by Chiang Kai-shek, took over control of Taiwan from Japan in 1945. While originally welcomed as liberators, the KMT quickly made their mark as rulers with an iron fist. The 228 Incident of February 1947, which refers to demonstrations against the implementation of government monopolies and the bloodbath subsequently ordered by the governor of Taiwan, is most seared into the public consciousness. Due to the intensity of the deaths and disappearances when troops landed from the mainland the following month and began to ‘cleanse the countryside’, the death toll cannot be truly estimated but has been posited at between 18,000 and 28,000. It marked the beginning of the White Terror, which continued through the establishment of the Republic of China in Taiwan in 1949 all the way until the ‘Period of mobilization for the suppression of Communist rebellion’ was officially ended in 1992. Following the lifting of martial law in 1987 and Taiwan’s democratisation, this incident became the focal point for discussions about the White Terror, leading to the establishment of a national holiday on the date of the incident and 228 Peace Parks in all major cities. (Shattuck, 2017)

However, as for the ‘White Terror’ in general, Taiwan has never passed through a period of formal reckoning akin to the Peace and Reconciliation Committee in South Africa following apartheid or the Stasi-Aufarbeitung in East Germany. Instead, the White Terror per se is rarely talked about in political spheres and a proportion of the population even deny that it ever really happened. Transitional justice requires that the period is examined systemically and fully but this is politically difficult in Taiwan. In contrast to the swift dissolution of South Africa’s white-minority ruling National Party and the GDR’s Socialist Union Party after their respective democratisations, the KMT not only still exists but is the second most powerful political party in Taiwan. Make no mistake, the White Terror involved the brutal detention, torture, disappearance and execution of tens of thousands in a system based on martial law rather than due process. People were arrested by association and crammed into tiny 30-person cells for months while awaiting trial. Teachers were given twenty-year sentences for organising left-wing reading groups. Nonetheless, if you belonged to the right political class, those years are remembered more for ‘Taiwan’s economic miracle’ than human rights abuses.

The difficulties of reaching consensus

The founding purpose of the TJC was to try to find a way through these conflicting interpretation towards the truth. The establishment of the TJC was part of a parcel of three measures taken by the Tsai government when the DPP – the successor party of the pro-democracy movement under authoritarian rule – came to power for the second time in 2016. The others included the reform of a pensions system which favoured state employees affiliated with the KMT and the restoration of property illegally acquired by the KMT under martial law. (Donovan Smith, 2021) According to Article 4.2 of the Act on Promoting Transitional Justice, the purpose of the committee is to ‘Restore factual and historical truth regarding the period of authoritarian rule, and ascertain the role and responsibility of perpetrators within the repressive system.’ (回復威權統治時期相關歷史事實真相,釐清壓迫體制加害者及參與者責任) ( 促進轉型正義條例, 2022) Held up to this standard, it has fallen far short. Originally given a two-year mandate, the extension to four years reflects a term dogged by controversies and budget shortages. Only three months after it was inaugurated on 31 May 2018, the commission was hit by accusations of using smear tactics on behalf of the DPP when a tape emerged of a commission member discussing how to politically attack Hou You-yi, then the KMT candidate for mayor of New Taipei City. After an investigation into the matter, the relevant commission member and the chairman resigned. Then, due to difficulties in hiring experts, obstacles to communication with ministries and lack of funds, the succeeding chairperson applied twice for a one-year extension. Overall, this has damaged the reputation of the organisation and meant that it has fizzled out with a whimper rather than a bang. (李秉芳, 2022)

The final report is long on addressing individual cases but short on offering up a comprehensive approach for dealing with conflicting narratives on the past. On the issue of compensation to victims, which has widespread political support, the commission has made significant headway by overturning 5,983 sentences that it has deemed to have been in error and a bill to compensate the family of each victim with the equivalent of €380,000 has been passed by the Legislative Yuan. (周毓翔, 2022) Yet on the more political sensitive issues of historical memory and how to apportion responsibility for these injustices, both of which are mentioned in Article 4.2 of the Act on Promoting Transitional Justice, the commission has achieved little. For example, regarding symbols of the ‘Two Chiangs’ – Chiang Kai-shek and his son Chiang Ching-kuo, who collectively ruled Taiwan from 1950 to 1988 – in the form of statues, street names and bank note portraits, Taiwan is no closer to a consensus than it was four years ago. It has identified 1,546 symbols of the Two Chiangs in the form of statues and parks but has secured the removal of fewer than 30% among them. Furthermore, while it has identified a smattering of perpetrators from the White Terror period, three of whom are former presidents, it has not put forth a clear and credible plan for how to deal with these individuals. (林佳和, 2022) The purpose of the commission as laid out in the founding act, and of transitional justice in general, is first to establish the truth, and then use this as the basis to pursue justice. From this perspective, the TJC’s approach to focusing on individual cases is putting the cart before the horse, as it will be hard to implement restitutive measures without first agreeing as a society which ones are necessary.

Fig. 1: Bronze Chiang Kai-shek statue situated in memorial hall

Source: China Times

Taiwanese society is still very far from achieving a historical consensus on the martial law period. Regarding the huge bronze statue of Chiang Kai-shek which dominates a marble remembrance hall in the political district of Taipei – incidentally, also named after Chiang Kai-shek – only 37% of respondents surveyed by the DPP supported its removal, with 54% opposed. (丘采薇, 2021) Conversely, on the issue of forgiveness, Taiwanese society still has many unresolved issues. In October 2021, after the left-wing newspaper Liberty Times reported that DPP legislator Huang Kuo-shu had served as a police informant during the White Terror, it provoked a furore which ultimately led to his resignation. This is despite many in the DPP, including President Tsai Ing-wen, publicly stating that young people drawn into the informant network should be viewed as victims rather than perpetrators of the terror. (Hioe, 2021) Meanwhile, the KMT is filled with politicians who either openly or while undercover contributed to the White Terror. This includes current mayor of New Taipei City, Hou You-yi, who headed the Taipei Police Department’s Criminal Investigation Division in the latter years of martial law. In 1989, he led a team of officers who attempted to arrest a pro-democracy activist for sedition, prompting the activist to commit suicide by setting himself on fire. This has not been an obstacle to his political career, with his name tipped as a likely KMT candidate for the 2024 presidential election (Yu-hua, 2018).

Such an attitude to the past – uproar in one political camp and complacency in the other – suggests that neither have reached a stance capable of dealing with the far-reaching implications of confronting the so-called ‘perpetrators’ of the White Terror. Regarding informants or xianmin, the issue is further complicated by the fact that the security apparatus embedded itself deep within communities, utilising an informant network of over 30,000 members in the 1980s (the Stasi in East Germany had an estimated 174,000 at its peak) (中央社, 2021) (Amnesty International, 2015). Infamously, military officials known as jiaoguan would be stationed within educational establishments in order oversee the activities of students and teachers through networks of xianmin, a situation depicted in the 2019 film ‘Detention’ – as an interesting relic of authoritarianism, the jiaoguan have still not been removed from schools (志祺七七, 2021). Films like this and the emergence of more high-profile xianmin, including the DPP mayor of Tainan, has led people in the DPP to adopt a more forgiving approach (黃驛淵;劉榮, 2021). Yet many still take the hard-line stance, unable to forgive friends and fellow activists who contributed to the downfall of those who trusted them (BBC中文, 2021). In a society where, as the TJC has pointed out, the network reached into every layer of society and informants could be pressured or coerced into giving information, this approach will suppress examination of the past and damage reconciliation attempts (中央社, 2021). Unlike the Stasi files in East Germany, the files are not fully open to the public and as such the revelations of collaborators are likely to be slow and brutal (中央社, 2022). As more and more names emerge from the files, it remains to be seen how the parties and the public will find a way between justice and reconciliation.

Stay tuned for part two, which will be published soon!



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