Taiwan’s martial law past continues to haunt islanders

A soldier holds a Taiwanese flag in Taipei on October 6. Taiwan ended nearly four decades of martial law in 1987, and the first full elections for its parliament were held in 1992.ANN WANG/Reuters

Taiwanese lawmaker Fan Yun was stunned to learn two years ago that the government spied on her when she was a university student in the 1990s, even after the self-governing island ended the law martial law and that political reforms were promised.

Until then, she thought the Transitional Justice Commission created in 2018 to investigate Taiwan’s authoritarian past was for other people: older activists and dissidents who have been killed, beaten, imprisoned, or whose careers have been ruined.

But in mid-2020, she discovered that what the commission unearthed affected her, too.

Ms Fan said the experience reminded her of how recently Taiwan had emerged from one-party rule and how young the island’s political freedoms were. “A lot of people have paid a high price for democracy,” the 54-year-old sociologist and member of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party, or DPP, said of those persecuted under the “White Terror” crackdown.

Taiwan ended nearly four decades of martial law over most of its territory in 1987, and the first full elections for the Legislative Yuan, its parliament, were held in 1992. The country’s first democratically elected presidential election was took place in 1996.

Ms. Fan counts 2000 as the last step towards democracy. It was then that Taiwanese voters elected a president, Chen Shui-bian of the PDP, who for the first time was not from the Kuomintang, the party that had ruled the island since 1949.

She strongly disagrees with former Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, who once said that China would collapse if it was a liberal democracy, and she said the experience of martial law made Taiwanese even more determined not to live under the repressive Chinese government. “I absolutely disagree that there are some people or some cultures that just can’t have democracy,” she said.

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China, which conducted provocative military drills around Taiwan in August, still considers the island a breakaway province, even though the Chinese Communist Party has never ruled the island since seizing power from the mainland in 1949. Beijing has reserved the right to use force to annex Taiwan, where Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist forces fled after losing a civil war to the Communists.

Documents released as part of the transitional justice inquiry in 2020 revealed a dossier on Ms Fan of more than 1,000 pages. The government began monitoring her when she was a student activist in 1990 and a member of the student democracy movement Wild Lily. This surveillance lasted until 1998 and his studies at Yale University in the United States.

Even more horrifying to Ms. Fan are the uncovered documents that show other members of the student union leadership were spying on behalf of the government. There were “two or three spies in our inner circle,” she said. “It was quite shocking and totally changed my memory of that time.”

It also affects his opinion of his fellow student union members. In another insult, confidentiality rules mean Ms Fan still doesn’t know which of her friends betrayed her trust. “We are still not allowed to know the identity of these student spy after 30 years,” she said. “The past history still haunts us.”

Taiwan’s enterprise – to exhume the ghosts of its martial law past through the commission – is markedly different from the way mainland China has avoided confronting its own recent history, the catastrophic Great Leap Forward and the the ensuing famine that killed tens of millions to the chaos of the Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen Square Massacre.

In its final report a few months ago, the Transitional Justice Commission recommended that the image of Mr. Chiang, the former strongman, be removed from Taiwanese currency. The commission also exonerated more than 5,800 people convicted of political crimes under martial law and recommended the removal of symbols of Taiwan’s authoritarian past, including statues and monuments.

Ms. Fan said she believed that a liberal democracy had taken firm root in Taiwan and people no longer wanted to live under repression.

She said removing authoritarian symbols would be helpful, but she remains worried: “Our democracy is still very vulnerable.”

Freddy Lim, another Taiwanese lawmaker, agrees with Ms Fan. He is the lead singer of a Taiwanese heavy metal band, Chthonic, and was first elected to the island’s parliament in 2016. Mr. Lim is a freelancer but has worked with the DPP.

“I think it’s very fragile, actually,” Lim, 46, said of Taiwan’s democracy.

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In 2019, Reporters Without Borders published a report indicating that Taiwan is China’s main target for disinformation campaigns aimed at destabilizing the island.

Mr Lim, who was part of the 2014 Sunflower Movement which rose up to oppose a trade pact with China, was recently targeted by a voter recall campaign.

Mr Lim survived the recall effort in January when the number of votes in favor of his ouster fell below the necessary threshold. The callback initiative was sparked by a Kuomintang politician who alleged Lim was neglecting his constituents in his district in the Taipei area.

The lawmaker noted that the recall effort was supported by Chinese state-controlled media. “It’s something China liked to see.” But he acknowledges that there is no evidence that Beijing played a role in the recall effort.

Mr. Lim still supports voter recall initiatives, but said he would like to see more verification of signatures collected to trigger a recall.

In the decades since Taiwan’s democratic transition, a distinct identity has developed.

An April 2022 poll by the independent, nonpartisan Taiwan Public Opinion Foundation found that 80.1% of respondents identify only as Taiwanese. Another 10.2% consider themselves both Taiwanese and Chinese. Only 5.3% consider themselves uniquely Chinese.

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