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

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

Chen Chung-hsin
Chen Chung-hsin

By Chiang Yi-ching and Chen Chun-hua, 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.]

Chen Chung-hsin (陳忠信), a politician and former democracy activist born in 1949, sees the 1970s in Taiwan in metaphorical terms, as a period when winter was over and the gods sent thunder to awaken those in hibernation.

It was a decade of political turmoil, highlighted by the Kaohsiung Incident, a watershed in the development of democracy in Taiwan, which also catapulted Chen from a math major to a political prisoner, he said in a recent interview with CNA.

As a student at Tunghai University in the central Taiwan city of Taichung, Chen became keenly interested in social sciences and philosophy, although he was majoring in mathematics.

"There was a sense of yearning for reform among intellectuals and students," Chen said.

Under that influence, he said, he joined a school club that met regularly to discuss social events and to produce a newsletter. In that setting, Chen said, he earned a reputation as an outspoken critic of the Kuomintang (KMT) and its one-party rule of the country.

The general atmosphere in the country at the time was one of silence, Chen indicated, recalling a conversation outside his apartment, with a military instructor from his school.

"He told me, 'Chen Chung-hsin, none of your neighbors talk. You should also stop talking.'"

Of course, the neighbors did not talk -- they were all dead, Chen said, with a laugh, explaining that he lived near a cemetery.

Nameless Political Party

In 1979, Chen joined Formosa Magazine as an editor, a job title assigned to many staff members. Chen, however, was indeed an editor, responsible for deciding what should be published in the monthly magazine.

The inaugural issue in August that year contained an editorial titled "Long Live Democracy" and a foreword that called for new political movements in Taiwan.

Much to Chen's surprise, it was an instant hit.

"Initially, we printed 30,000 copies of the inaugural issue of the magazine," Chen said, "Then, whoosh, they were all gone within a week."

A second print was ordered, and another, producing 5,000 to 10,000 copies each time because there was no way to gauge demand, he said.

By the time the second issue of the magazine was published, some 80,000 copies of the first issue had been sold, more than double the initial estimate, Chen said. After only four months in business, the magazine had sold more than 400,000 copies, he said.

It was risky work, however, because the publication was more than just a magazine, and the staff comprised mainly of pro-democracy activists, Chen said.

"We joined the magazine not for the sake of producing a publication, but to participate in a political movement. We wanted to spark a political awakening."

As part of that goal, the magazine set up offices all across Taiwan, ostensibly for promotional purposes, but in actual fact to organize and consolidate the opposition "tangwai" (literally, outside of the KMT), Chen said.

During that period, he said, he had heard rumors that the KMT administration had an eye on him.

In preparation for what he believed to be an inevitable arrest, Chen wrote a letter to his wife, offering words of encouragement and comfort and promising to return. He gave the letter to a friend for safekeeping, with instructions to pass it on to his wife if he was arrested, Chen said.

The letter is still at Chen's home today, he said.

Kaohsiung Incident

The staff of Formosa Magazine

The staff of Formosa Magazine had planned to hold a rally in the southern Taiwan city of Kaohsiung on Dec. 10, 1979, to mark the United Nations-designated Human Rights Day and to call for democracy in Taiwan.

On Dec. 9, however, two volunteers at the magazine, who were promoting the rally, were arrested and tortured by police. Upon receiving the news, many staff members, including Chen, decided to attend the rally, even though they had not planned to do so because of their work schedule, he said.

At the rally, clashes broke out between demonstrators and police, and it was described in the media as a riot started by a mob.

"It was like a witch hunt," Chen said, "and all the arrows were pointed at us."

The staff at the magazine knew that in the wake of what became known as the Kaohsiung Incident, there were going to be large-scale arrests, and that happened three days later, on Dec. 13, he said.

The snapshots of some of those accused in the Kaohsiung Incident. At the center, in the bottom row, is Chen Chung-hsin.

Chen was arrested that morning and was later sentenced to four years in prison.

"The charge against me was that I had violently threatened someone to coerce them into doing something" that was never specified in the court case, Chen said.

The only evidence brought against him in court was a photo that showed him standing next to a woman at the Dec. 10 rally, he said.

"Of course, the real reason I was imprisoned was that I was an editor at Formosa Magazine."

Lessons of History

After Chen's release from prison one month short of his sentence, he worked as a writer and an editor on some newspapers and academic publications for a few years before entering politics.

Since the 1990s, he has held multiple roles in the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and served as a two-term legislator.

Undoubtedly, the Formosa Incident helped shape his political career, although he cannot describe precisely how it has affected him on a personal level, he said.

On the issue of Taiwan's development over the years, Chen said he has mixed feelings about the gains but hopes the younger generation will understand the sacrifices made by activists like him.

"If you don't learn the lessons of history, you are destined to repeat the same mistakes," he said.



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Kaohsiung Incident key to democratization: 'Formosa' contributor

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