Kaohsiung Incident key to democratization: 'Formosa' contributor

12/08/2019 05:30 PM
Wu Nai-teh (CNA File Photo)
Wu Nai-teh (CNA File Photo)

By Yeh Su-ping and Evelyn Kao, 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.]

Wu Nai-teh (吳乃德) was in the United States during the Kaohsiung Incident in late 1979, but as a contributor to the magazine at the center of the Kuomintang (KMT) regime's crackdown, he was still affected by what happened.

Following the situation from abroad, he was dismayed that so many of his friends were jailed because of the crackdown, and he did not receive a warm welcome when returning home.

Wu had been in the United States to pursue his studies since 1978 (except for a brief return home in the summer of 1979 to get married), and when he arrived back in Taiwan in 1987 after getting a Ph.D. at the University of Chicago, his luggage was searched thoroughly for two hours at customs.

In 1989, a job he had lined up at Academia Sinica fell through because of what he was told were "political factors."

Yet as an academic who is now an adjunct research fellow with Academia Sinica's Institute of Sociology, he has also been able to take a step back and assess the Kaohsiung Incident's role in Taiwan's contemporary history from a more detached perspective.

And to his way of thinking, "had there not been the Kaohsiung Incident, there would not have been democracy in Taiwan," he tells CNA in a recent interview.

The protest that triggered the incident, held in Kaohsiung on Dec. 10, 1979 to mark Human Rights Day, was organized by activists composed mainly of members of Formosa Magazine, which Wu contributed to soon after it was founded in May 1979.

Defining the Kaohsiung Incident

The Kaohsiung rally was held to oppose the KMT's one-party rule, and called for the removal of bans on political parties and the end of martial law, which had been in place since 1949.

At one point, riot police encircled the crowd and used tear gas on protesters, resulting in fierce clashes between the protesters and police that left hundreds injured.

Wu sees the "Kaohsiung Incident" as an outgrowth of that rally with three elements: the arrests of pro-democracy movement participants, their trials, and the unsolved murders on Feb. 28, 1980 of the mother and twin daughters of Lin Yi-hsiung (林義雄), who was arrested on Dec. 13, 1979 for his role in the Kaohsiung rally.

Those events, Wu argues, were critical to the country's democratization because they shocked and galvanized Taiwan's political circles and the public in a way that was unprecedented.

Impact on Taiwan's politics

In the Kaohisung Incident case, 53 people were indicted and only eight, those charged with fomenting the protests and all associated with "Formosa," faced trial by a military court on charges of sedition in the presence of the domestic and world press.

During the public trials, defendants used such lines as "democracy and freedom are the best lifestyle in human history, so democracy and freedom have become goals I'm pursuing," and "I believe that progress in the democracy movement cannot be hindered by anybody" to defend themselves, Wu says.

Through that process, the concept of universal values and the idea of humanism were spread to the public, Wu says, leading to popular resistance against a dictatorial government.

When dictatorships face challenges, their first reaction is repression and arrests, and the arrests in 1960 of several critics of the regime, including Lei Chen (雷震), a publisher who opposed Chiang Kai-shek's (蔣介石) authoritarian rule and called for reform, brought 20 years of calm, Wu says.

But in the Kaohsiung Incident, when the dictatorial government arrested even more people, it found that the repressive measures "didn't solve the problem," Wu says. "The more people it arrested, lawyers spoke up, wives spoke up. Were they to be arrested, too?"

That resistance, along with pressure from the United States and the rise of Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平) in China, eventually forced the government to compromise, making it a pivotal moment on the path to democracy.

Yet histories of Taiwan's democratic journey tend to give little more than a mention to the Kaohsiung Incident, Wu says, in some cases because it conflicts with narratives portraying President Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國) as a main force pushing democracy.

"If Chiang Ching-kuo was a driver of democracy, why did he explain the clashes between the people and police as 'armed rebellion' and arrested so many people?" Wu asks.

Yet he believes that Chiang did have somewhat of a role in the process, calling him a pragmatic politician who compromised, made concessions and adapted under pressure at home and abroad.

Taiwan's 'finest hour'

He also argues that the staunch pursuit of core values and courage to defy the authoritarian regime exhibited from 1977 to 1987, exemplified by the Kaohsiung Incident, were extremely precious, leading Wu to describe the era as Taiwan's "finest hour."

But he worries that this important historical asset may no longer exist, saying that Taiwan's people today seem to have lost that spirit in the face of China, an even stronger enemy.

Taiwanese largely have only a shared sense of "national identity but not national will," he contends.

The enemy in 1979 was an authoritarian regime and resisting the regime meant being arrested and locked up, Wu says.

Today, however, people can freely express themselves and show their bravery in confronting a brutal military power, "but it's almost as if people lack the determination to face a powerful enemy," he laments.

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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

Reform more difficult than revolution: Chen Chu

Taiwan's martial law victims urge young people to cherish democracy

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