Reform more difficult than revolution: Chen Chu - Focus Taiwan

Reform more difficult than revolution: Chen Chu

Chen Chu (CNA File Photo)
Chen Chu (CNA File Photo)

By Wen Kui-hsiang and Emerson Lim, CNA staff reporter

[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.]

After decades on the frontlines of political activism and public service, Presidential Office Secretary-General Chen Chu (陳菊) has concluded that "reform is more difficult than revolution."

Chen was one of the demonstrators during the pro-democracy movement in Taiwan four decades ago, and years later she entered the government service, moving between local and central governments.

That transition from activist to government official, however, traversed a very rocky path that began in the 1970s when she was editor of Formosa Magazine, a publication that was critical of the martial law regime headed by President Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國) of the Kuomintang (KMT).

The sparks started flying on December 10, 1979, when anti-government activists, including the staff of Formosa Magazine, staged a demonstration in Kaohsiung to mark the United Nations-designated Human Rights Day and to call for democracy in Taiwan.

That night, riot police fired tear gas in an attempt to disperse the protesters, but Kaohsiung residents came out with iron railings and barricaded the streets to prevent the police vehicles from advancing on the demonstrators, Chen, now 69, recalled in an exclusive interview with CNA.

"The aspirations of the people in southern Taiwan were not quelled by the government forces," she said. "Instead, the residents helped us to stop those riot police vehicles."

During the demonstration, clashes broke out between protesters and police, and three days later, the KMT government began arresting leaders of the pro-democracy movement islandwide, in what later became known as the Kaohsiung Incident, Chen said.

Chen was among those arrested and she was tried in a military court on charges of rebellion. She was found guilty and sentenced to 12 years in prison but was released in 1986 after serving six years of her sentence.

In May 2019, Chen's record of conviction on rebellion charges was wiped out by the Transitional Justice Commission appointed by President Tsai Ing-wen's (蔡英文) administration.

Despite the high price Chen paid for her participation in the democracy movement, she has no regrets.

"It was the best choice of my life," she said.

Nonetheless, when Chen's criminal record was expunged, it was a relief, although it was 40 years late, she said.

The early years

Chen first got involved in democracy activism at the age of 19, when she working as secretary to provincial councilor Kuo Yu-Hsin (郭雨新), who was regarded by some historians as one the pioneers of Taiwan's democracy movement.

A provincial young woman at the time, she joined the democracy movement, not out of courage, but rather due to a lack of fear, she wrote in one of her books.

On her secretarial job, it seemed that her phone calls and movements were being monitored, she wrote.

According to a declassified report on the Kaohsiung Incident, when Chen was arrested, she told her interrogators that she was a human rights activist and that declaring independence was the only way out for Taiwan amid the government "suppression."

She was among eight democracy activists who were tried in a military court after the Kaohsiung Incident and the only one of them who today is part of the government's decision-making process.

Entering the ranks

After Chen's release from prison, she was recruited in 1994 to head the Taipei City Department of Social Welfare, under a Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) mayor who later went on to become president of Taiwan.

Over the years, Chen has served as head of Kaohsiung City's social welfare department, labor minister in the central government, Kaohsiung mayor, acting DPP chairperson, and presently secretary-general of the Presidential Office.

As a public servant, she said, she has encountered many challenges and difficult issues but the most painful incident was the gas explosion in Kaohsiung five years ago that killed 32 people and injured more than 300, when she was mayor of the southern city.

"As an activist, you are responsible only for staying true to your ideology, but when you enter political leadership, you're responsible for everyone in your city or country," Chen said.

In a revolution or social movement, what is at stake is one's own life and the lives of fellow activists, but in government reform, every step has to be made carefully because millions of lives are affected, she said.

From that perspective, "reform is more difficult than revolution," Chen said.

Beyond imagination

Today, Taiwan is a free and democratic country, having transitioned from an era of martial law, an achievement that was "far beyond our imagination" 40 years ago, Chen said.

Over the past four decades, Taiwan has abolished the untouchable National Assembly, instituted direct presidential elections, and has had three peaceful transfers of power from one political party to another, she noted.

Among the younger generation, enjoying democracy is as natural as breathing, Chen said.

"However, Taiwan's democracy still needs to be improved," she said, adding that populism is an escalating threat.

There is a growing trend of politicians making controversial statements simply to gain attention among voters, Chen said.

With ascent of that approach and the proliferation of fake news and disinformation campaigns, political discourse is characterized by frantic rhetoric rather than rational debate, she said.

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Related:

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

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

Kaohsiung Incident key to democratization: 'Formosa' contributor

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