In my latest trip to Taipei earlier this month, I heard a chilling phrase that I had not heard for many years.
While hearing it was distasteful, it was not unexpected; I have also been hearing it in Washington for the last two months. The phrase is “White Terror.”
For people here, the term raises memories of that dark period in Taiwan’s post-World War II history when occupying Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) military forces killed tens of thousands of Taiwanese and persecuted and imprisoned countless more.
People who remember that period began using it again after the KMT government imprisoned — without charge — more than a half dozen Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) politicians and former officials on the eve of Chinese cross-strait negotiator Chen Yunlin’s (陳雲林) visit, and then let loose thousands of police on protesters opposing that visit.
For me, it awoke memories of my own time in Taiwan as a student in the Stanford Center at National Taiwan University (NTU) 40 years ago. While my trouble, as a visiting American, was minor compared with the thousands persecuted at the time, it does illustrate some parallels with the present time in the wake of the KMT walk-away electoral victories earlier this year.
I would not bring up the topic save for a frightening and disheartening development that I have heard about in recent years: that the young people of Taiwan do not know about the evils of the White Terror, also known as Martial Law. The school history curricula and the textbooks under a half-century of KMT rule have, I am told, erased the existence of that period for Taiwan’s younger generation.
Now, in the 21st century, the horrors of that period must be resurrected as a staple of schoolhouse education if the country of Taiwan is ever to come to terms with its sordid, late 20th century experiences.
In the 1969-70 year in which I was at NTU, I got used to the mail that came without envelopes, or with sections scissored out by censors. This was why, when I left, I dared not write letters to friends and acquaintances in Taiwan. I knew that my letters might make them targets, and they could lose their jobs, be sent to Green Island in the middle of the night, or worse.
That was probably because I attracted the KMT regime’s attention, having socialized with families of Taiwan independence pioneers, leading an unauthorized anti-war demonstration and later writing stories for Hong Kong’s Far Eastern Economic Review that left KMT leaders reeling.
Those stories led to the most worrisome and egregious incident that occurred after I left Taiwan for Hong Kong.
One day, a Stanford Center student visited me at the Review offices saying that a Stanford teacher had been whisked away in the middle of the night and was feared to have been incarcerated on Green Island without charge.
He was, according to the student, suspected of feeding me the information on which I based my stories. There was no proof, no questions asked, no justice to be had. Just the suspicion and the prospect of the horrors of Green Island imprisonment.
In fact, he had been feeding me information, but only for a story about labor conditions in Taiwan, which ironically I never wrote. An investigator for the dreaded Garrison Command found our names in a guestbook we signed while visiting a textile factory, and arrested him that night.