Tomorrow marks the 30th anniversary of the Kaohsiung Incident of 1979. It was a watershed in Taiwan’s political history, as it galvanized the democratic opposition in Taiwan and overseas Taiwanese into action, and thus ushered in the beginning of the end of the Chinese Nationalist Party’s (KMT) martial law and one-party police state.
In Taiwan itself, the event is being commemorated with a series of activities, including seminars, a photo exhibition and a concert in Kaohsiung. The irony of the situation is that one of the defendants in the “sedition” trial that followed the Incident was Chen Chu (陳菊), now mayor of Kaohsiung.
Over the years, much has been written about the significance of the events of December 1979, the subsequent trials and the Incident’s impact on Taiwan’s transition to democracy. Here we want to highlight two aspects: one, what was said during the incident, and did it constitute “sedition,” and two, how it played a role in galvanizing the overseas Taiwanese community.
The event, which started out as a Human Rights Day celebration by the nascent democratic opposition, turned into a melee after the police surrounded the crowd and started using teargas. Three days later, the KMT authorities used the disturbances as an excuse to arrest virtually all leaders of the opposition. Eight major leaders were accused of “sedition,” tried in a military court and sentenced to prison terms ranging from 12 years to life imprisonment.
What is less well-known is that the course of events during the evening of Dec. 10 were later chronicled in a publication called The Kaohsiung Tapes, published in December 1981, which is now available at www.taiwandc.org/kao-tapes.pdf. The document presents a word-for-word account of what was said during the evening, and strongly contradicts the KMT government’s claim that the speakers were “inciting” the crowd to “overthrow” the government — the basis for the sedition charges.
The document shows that the police were primarily responsible for the disturbances, when heavily armed military and police units encircled the crowd and started to throw teargas into the peaceful demonstration. The melee occurred after the crowd broke through the police cordon to escape the teargas.
On the second point: How did the Incident play a role in galvanizing the overseas Taiwanese community? It is of course well-known that the defendants and their defense lawyers became the core of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which was founded in 1986. Their roster reads like the Who is Who of the DPP.
What is less well-known is that the Incident provided a strong impetus for overseas Taiwanese to get organized and to speak out. Before “Kaohsiung” there were pro-democracy organizations and groups, such as the World United Formosans for Independence, the various Taiwanese associations (in the US, Europe, etc) and the Overseas Alliance for Democratic Rule in Taiwan, which was organized by Kuo Yu-hsin (郭雨新). But their impact was relatively limited.
After “Kaohsiung,” the existing active clusters attained critical mass and gained considerable political power and influence in their host countries. In the US, Canada and in European states the overseas Taiwanese organized themselves and started to lobby the US Congress and European parliaments and governments.
This increased political awareness and activity led to the establishment of a number of like-minded organizations, such as the North American Taiwanese Professors Association (1980), the North American Taiwanese Women’s Association (1986) and the Formosan Association for Public Affairs (FAPA) — set up in 1982 by Mark Chen (陳唐山), who later became foreign minister; Chai Trong-rong (蔡同榮) and Peng Ming-min (彭明敏).
FAPA was specifically set up to work with the US Congress, and it has gained strong support for human rights and democracy in Taiwan. Through its activities, the “Gang of Four” (senators Ted Kennedy, Claiborne Pell and representatives Stephen Solarz and Jim Leach) frequently and forcefully spoke out for an end to the KMT’s one-party dictatorship and the 40-year-old martial law.
After Taiwan made its successful transition to democracy in the late 1980s, FAPA and the other organizations reoriented their work to support Taiwan’s membership in international organizations, such as the UN and the WHO.
Sadly, the erosion of justice under the President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) administration, and the drift toward China at the expense of democracy and hard-earned freedoms are now necessitating a renewed focus on human rights and democracy in Taiwan.
The anniversary of the Kaohsiung Incident presents a good opportunity for the people in Taiwan and abroad to reflect on what has been achieved — and what can so easily be whittled away.
Gerrit van der Wees is editor of Taiwan Communique, published in Washington by the Formosan Association for Public Affairs.
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