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Taiwan’s Miracle: Democratization without Bloodshed

An inFOCUS centerpiece with Lu Hsiu-lien Annette

Lu Hsiu-lien Annette Fall 2023

Madam Lu Hsiu-lien Annette served as vice president of the Republic of China (Taiwan) from 2000 to 2008 under President Chen Shui-bian. Previously active in the tangwai movement, a loose confederation of opposition to the ruling KMT, she joined the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in 1990, when political parties were legalized. She was elected to the Legislative Yuan in 1992 and served as Taoyuan County Magistrate between 1997 and 2000.

During the 1970s, Lu established herself as a prominent feminist advocate in Taiwan, which included writing the book New Feminism. She was imprisoned in 1979 after speaking at an anti-government rally and was an Amnesty International prisoner of conscience. While serving nearly 5 ½ years in prison, she wrote a novel entitled Three Women. To evade surveillance in the detention facility, she wrote part of the novel on toilet paper, using a washbasin as a desk. The novel became a television program in 2008. We are honored to have her in this issue of inFOCUS Quarterly.

Among the three Chinese communities, Taiwan distinguishes itself from the others through peaceful and bloodless transition to democracy. While people in Singapore enjoy democracy with little freedom, and Chinese on the mainland enjoy neither freedom nor democracy. It is only in Taiwan that freedom has been restored and democracy installed. This success was achieved at a high price and many freedom fighters were sacrificed.   

After the Second World War, Taiwan was occupied by the forces of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek who, after being defeated on the Mainland by Mao Zedong’s communists, fled to Taiwan to establish a “Free China,” despite the fact that Taiwan was neither free nor Chinese.

Lu Hsiu-lien Annette

1947: The Feb. 28 Incident

With the arrival of Chiang’s troops, there began a period of pillage, confiscation, rape, murder, and economic depression in Taiwan. The overwhelming enthusiasm of the native Taiwanese to welcome their Chinese compatriots quickly cooled and a series of conflicts arose. On Feb. 27, 1947, a female cigarette vendor was charged with not paying the required tax. Her packs of cigarettes were seized, and she was shot.  When an angry crowd gathered, the agents fired wildly. The next morning, a crowd marched to Governor-General Chen-yi’s office, where the army fired machine guns on the marching crowd. By late afternoon, military trucks roamed the city, firing now and then at random. This uprising is popularly referred to as the February 28 Incident.

At dawn on March 9, a week of naked terror began, when 13,000 troopers sent by Chiang Kai-shek arrived in Taiwan. People were bayoneted or robbed, and cities littered with the dead and wounded. People of influence – such as political leaders, lawyers, doctors, and rich businessmen – were tracked down. In all, an estimated 18,000–20,000 people were killed in this infamous March Massacre. Another 10,000 people were arrested and executed later. A whole generation of Taiwanese leadership was thus virtually wiped out. Others fled to Hong Kong and Japan to strive for an independent Taiwan. A petition was sent to the United Nations and an appeal made to the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers, (then U.S. Gen. Douglas MacArthur), requesting an immediate occupation of Taiwan pending preparation of a plebiscite for independence.

Regrettably, both efforts were ignored internationally.

1949-1987: Martial Law

Two years following the massacre, Chiang Kai-shek fled to Taiwan with 2 million mainlanders. During the period of “Communist Rebellion,’’ Taiwan was considered to be in a state of siege, and under a regime of martial law, in effect from May 19, 1949 through July 15, 1987, 38 years total. Under martial law, military courts would try persons accused of vague offenses said to “threaten the internal security of the state,” or offenses against public order and safety. The government kept control over speech, teaching, newspapers, magazines and other publications. It also restricted religious activities, prohibited worker or student strikes and demonstrations, censored mail, and inspected personal property.

For the enforcement of martial law, the Taiwan Garrison Command and later the Investigation Bureau of the Judicial Administration Division were established. Military police, special agents, and secret informers were used to monitor meetings, tap phones, inspect mail, maintain surveillance, and more. Provocateurs were also recruited to break up meetings or create disturbances. In fact, the KMT’s intelligence networks were among the best in the world. They were everywhere. In schools, the student informant network was set up by military training instructors to monitor students and professors. Off campus, many governmental branches and private enterprises were required to hire KMT cadres to spy on the employees. 

Because such monitors acted in secret, a pall of fear and a sense of paranoia impeded open political discussions, and even social activities. For instance, I began to be harassed as early as in 1972 when I initiated the Feminist Movement. The manager of the House of Pioneers, a café that served as women’s activities center, turned out to be a secret agent sent by the Investigation Bureau. An editor of the Pioneer Publishing House, which I ran for the publication of books on feminism, was required to report on my daily life. In addition, a number of my most enthusiastic supporters were later proven to have special missions. Note that they began to put their dirty, secret hands on my shoulder six years before I began political involvement.

Despite the KMT police state, political dissidents called for demonstrations and liberation beginning in the late 1950’s. Their efforts ended with execution or imprisonment. It is estimated that approximately 200 – 300 executions were carried out and more than 6,000 years of imprisonment handed down to dissidents under Chiang’s martial law regime. However, combined with the general dissatisfaction of the middle-class, a desire for democracy began to be pervasive throughout the island.

1979: The Kaohsiung Incident

The efforts of the democracy fighters came to a head on Dec. 10, 1979, in Kaohsiung, the second largest city in Taiwan. That was the year that the United States broke diplomatic ties with Taiwan to recognize the People’s Republic of China (PRC). To commemorate International Human Rights Day, democracy activists organized by Formosa Magazine held a rally to call for democracy, human rights, and the right to self-determination for Taiwan’s future.

Formosa Magazine was published monthly by opposition leaders to discuss political reforms and human rights issues, including the status of Taiwan versus PRC, and was critical of Chiang’s national policies. The then-martial law regime authority “Garrisons Command” banned and confiscated each edition of the magazine quickly after its publication. However, additional copies were widely distributed through underground access to readers. In fact, the more pressure, the more distribution. Thus, the Formosa Magazine group was not only empowered, but enriched. Members began to think about founding an opposition party. The then-President Chiang Ching Kuo decided to crack down on the opposition movement to prevent the opposition party from being born.

Before the human rights rally was held, the KMT authorities had set a trap to hunt for the opposition. Police and troops were recruited in the city and gangsters were ordered to attack the police. There were casualties. Nearly all the activist leaders were gathering at the rally site, making it easy to have a mass arrest.

As deputy director of the magazine and well-known feminist movement leader in Taiwan, I was requested spontaneously to speak on stage. Roughly 70,000 people stood on the street, listening to me with tears and applause. All of a sudden, a long line of anti-riot trucks with strong lights was approaching from the far end of the street toward the rally. Then tear gas was released. At first, people were so frightened that they attempted to escape. But soon they came to realize that it was the KMT that was attacking the people. Full of indignation, they began to defend themselves against the security forces with bamboo sticks, iron bars, bricks, anything they could find. This was one of the few times that violence was met with violence in our long struggle for democratization.

Both the people and the security forces suffered injuries. Soon after, 152 activists were arrested, and I was the first one. The authorities accused me of half of the responsibility for the incident because my speech was so inciteful and appealed to people’s hearts. Eventually, 51 people were indicted, and eight of the key leaders were court-martialed on charges of sedition. Altogether we were sentenced to 201 years and one month of imprisonment, in addition to one hundred years of deprivation of our civil rights. As for myself, I was sentenced to 12 years imprisonment but was released after 1,933 days—a little more than five years—due to heavy pressure from the international human rights community, especially Amnesty International. It adopted me as one of its “Prisoners of Conscience” and launched a global rescue campaign to get me out of jail.

Of the eight court-martialed on charges of sedition, two were women.  For the first 290 days, we were imprisoned in the Military Detention House, where living conditions were poor, and food was unsanitary. There I was subjected to daily interrogation sessions. Later, we were moved to a Benevolence Rehabilitation Center with better living conditions.

The Kaohsiung Incident was the democratic turning point of Taiwan’s politics. It created opportunities for women to get into politics, as wives of the convicted activists ran for the legislature two years later. 

Four were elected to Parliament. The people of Taiwan voted for them as a way to protest the unfairness of the system. By voting for these women, the Taiwanese in fact voted for democracy. The wives of the victims carried the torch we lit for Taiwan. And the achievements of the wives of political prisoners was also a milestone for the feminist movement launched by me as early as 1971 in Taiwan.

1986: Birth of the DPP

On Sept. 28, 1986, the opposition politicians defied martial law and established Taiwan’s first opposition party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). Its platform called for a general parliamentary election as well as the presidential election. It also claimed the right of “self-determination“ for the future of Taiwan.

To everyone’s surprise, on July 19, 1987, Chiang Ching-Kuo, the son of Chiang Kai-shek, took no action against the party. Years later, rumors were spread that the DPP was born of Chiang’s plot to earn compliments from both domestic and international commentators and to compensate for his wrongdoing in the past. Gradually the authoritarian government of Taiwan became more liberal, more democratic. The efforts of the freedom fighters had finally paid off. In 1988, Chiang Ching-Kuo died and was succeed by Vice President Lee Teng-Huei, a native-born Taiwanese. The middle class, the liberals, and the freedom fighters all came together and pushed for democratization.

To be honest, we were the catalysts, but the efforts of liberal KMT members and the general public also had their roles.

2000: Peaceful Transfer of Power

If Nelson Mandela’s victory in 1994 was a miracle made in South Africa, the 2000 peaceful transfer of power from the KMT to the DPP to end 50 years of single party autocratic rule in Taiwan without violence certainly was another.

This miracle was brought about by the youngest among the 15 defense lawyers for the Formosa defendants at the martial law court, Chen Suei-Ben and me, one of the “seditionist elements” convicted. Simply by shaking hands with people and speaking on the campaign platform we earned support from the people and were elected  as president and vice president. We were inaugurated on May 20, 2000, a historic day for Taiwan.

One reason for our victory was women who used to vote for the KMT ruling party voted for us because of my decades of struggle for them and for Taiwan. Many women regarded my victory as their own victory to break through women’s glass ceiling. Taiwan was 20 years ahead of the US to have its first female vice president!