Activist Chi Wan-sheng on legacy of Kaohsiung Incident 40 years on - Focus Taiwan

Activist Chi Wan-sheng on legacy of Kaohsiung Incident 40 years on

Chi Wan-sheng
Chi Wan-sheng

By Matt Yu and Matthew Mazzetta, CNA staff writers

[Editor's note: Dec. 10, 2019 will mark the 40th anniversary of the Kaohsiung Incident, a crackdown on protesters who called for the removal of party bans and end of martial law under the authoritarian Kuomintang regime at the time. CNA has interviewed four people who were affected by the Kaohsiung Incident in different ways. This is the story of how one of them sees it, 40 years later.]

The story of 80-year-old social activist Chi Wan-sheng (紀萬生) is perhaps best illustrated by one of his favorite maxims: The turtle has to stick its neck out in order to move forward.

In a lifetime that spans the arc of modern Taiwanese history, from Japanese occupation to one-party rule under the Kuomintang (KMT), to the transition to democracy, Chi has made a name for himself by doing just that, taking personal risks to effect social progress.

During a recent interview with CNA, Chi reflected on his life in activism, covering everything from his role in the Kaohsiung Incident -- one of the last major government crackdowns of Taiwan's martial law period, which will mark its 40th anniversary Dec. 10 -- to the recent pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.

Moral Awakening

Chi's earliest political memories are of the violent suppression of an anti-government uprising now known as the February 28 Incident, which occurred in 1947, when he was 7 years old.

From his home in Taichung, Chi remembers watching as people handcuffed in cages at the side of the road were shot one by one, by soldiers sent to put down the protests -- an image he said has stayed with him to this day.

In contrast to many other leaders of Taiwan's democracy movement, however, Chi's political awakening led him not into law but education, and upon completing his studies, he took a job as a teacher in Nantou County's Puli Township.

It was in this position in 1972 that he discovered administrators at his school conspiring with a major academic supply company to overbill the school for low-quality equipment.

When he reported the matter and received no response, he began writing to newspapers across Taiwan, uncovering what was later revealed to be a nationwide fraud case that implicated hundreds of secondary school principals and ultimately resulted in an 18-year prison sentence for the supply company's chairman.

According to Chi, it was likely some combination of his role in uncovering this case, as well as his continued refusal to join the KMT and his open espousal on campus of left-wing political views that built his reputation in Taiwanese activist circles -- while also bringing him to the attention of the government.

Kaohsiung Incident

In 1979, Chi joined the staff of Formosa Magazine, a new Kaohsiung-based political journal, as an editor and writer.

The magazine, which had run afoul of the authorities in the four issues since its launch, was shut down in a large-scale raid Dec. 10 of that year, while its staff across Taiwan were arrested in the ensuing days.

The crackdown, later known as the Kaohsiung Incident, culminated in a series of public trials that made national figures of many of the defendants, including future Vice President Annette Lu (呂秀蓮) and future Kaohsiung Mayor Chen Chu (陳菊).

While Chi never achieved the fame of these figures, he had the unfortunate distinction of receiving perhaps the most brutal treatment of any of those detained.

According to Chi, following his Dec. 13 arrest at home, he was tortured over a period of 41 days, during which time he went permanently deaf in his left ear, was deprived of sleep for eight days and was beaten until he looked, in his own words, "like the hunchback of Notre Dame."

Throughout the ordeal, however, Chi refused to sign a confession, and even the four years and six months he eventually served in jail failed to deter him, as he was back participating in a protest, facing off against riot police, only four days after his release from Taipei Prison.

The Next Generation

Despite stepping back from social activism following the ending of martial law in 1987, Chi has spoken up at important moments over the years, such as publicly calling on former President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) to resign in 2006, or, more recently, lending his support to the ongoing pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.

Chi told CNA that watching the young protesters in Hong Kong "risking their flesh and blood to defend democracy" had moved him, and brought back his own memories of the Kaohsiung Incident.

He expressed concern, however, that an excess of material comforts has made the Taiwanese people complacent and unwilling to face the threat China poses to the country's democracy.

Just recently, Chi said, he suggested to President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) that a series of nationwide marches in support of Hong Kong should be organized, as a form of mass action to let Hong Kong people know the breadth of the support for them in Taiwan.

"Whatever the case, Taiwan must do everything it can to help the people in Hong Kong, because they are shouldering a burden for us," he said.

That sense of solidarity, Chi said, is best expressed in a quote by the 19th century Japanese intellectual Yoshida Shōin, who said that "in an unjust society, being safe and idle constitutes a moral failure." Or, as Chi himself might put it: sometimes you have to stick your neck out.

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Related:

'We wanted to spark a political awakening': Formosa Magazine editor

Reform more difficult than revolution: Chen Chu

Kaohsiung Incident key to democratization: 'Formosa' contributor

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