US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taipei last week has caused the People’s Republic of China to launch an aggressive series of live-fire exercises around Taiwan. While these exercises require significant attention and analysis, it is also important to take time to analyze the significance of Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan’s National Human Rights Museum. The visit to the museum is important for two primary reasons: It highlights the democratic progress of Taiwan, and it serves to starkly contrast present-day Taiwan with China.
The museum — the site of the old Military Justice Academy-turned-military detention facility — is a great symbol of Taiwan’s democratic development. Instead of hiding the horrors of the authoritarian period and White Terror era, Taiwan has attempted to preserve the past to allow the domestic and foreign publics to see what really happened to political prisoners and victims. The site serves as an archive, learning facility, memorial and museum for those interested in learning more about — and seeing firsthand — Taiwan’s darker history.
I had the privilege of visiting the site in 2019 for a project sponsored by the Global Taiwan Institute on the administration of President Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) transitional justice initiatives in Taiwan and interviewed the museum’s director, Chen Chun-hung (陳俊宏), and political victim Tsai Kuan-yu (蔡寬裕).
During the interviews, both men emphasized the importance of preserving unjust sites, such as this prison, throughout the nation so that Taiwan’s authoritarian history is never forgotten. Tsai Kuan-yu described how he was tortured by the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) regime during his imprisonment. Preserving the space and allowing political victims of the White Terror era to speak publicly demonstrates that the Taiwan of the Cold War is not the Taiwan of today.
Pelosi’s visit ensured that the human rights and democratic development in Taiwan received a an international spotlight, even in the face of aggressive threats from across the Taiwan Strait, where democracy activists are imprisoned, government officials disappear on corruption charges and Uighur Muslims are facing genocide. Taiwan is a place where such horrors and violations used to occur, but has since demonstrated a path forward for reconciliation.
Now, Taiwan’s transitional justice initiatives have been the subject of immense controversy since President Tsai launched them in her first term. Nonetheless, progress has still been made: Countless political victims — both alive and deceased — have been exonerated; government documents have been archived; unjust sites have been preserved; and authoritarian symbols and statues have been catalogued and removed from public view.
The debate around the future of the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall demonstrates how the public can disagree on what to do about a site without fear of imprisonment or disappearance. Taiwan still has ground to cover in achieving full truth and reconciliation over the White Terror and authoritarian period, and the KMT, in particular, still has a lot of ground to make up in taking full responsibility for the atrocities its party members committed in the name of national security and stability. Pelosi’s visit to the museum was meant to make the point that progress has been made, but there is still room for more progress.
During her tour of the museum, Pelosi met with Chen Chu (陳菊), head of the Human Rights Council and Control Yuan; White Terror academic Lin Chuan-kai (林傳凱); Wuer Kaixi, a Tiananmen Square protest leader; exiled Hong Kong bookseller Lam Wing-kee (林榮基); and Taiwanese activist Lee Ming-che (李明哲), who was recently released from prison in China. Each of these individuals represents an important part of Taiwan’s and China’s history. Chen — a member of the Kaohsiung Eight — had been found guilty in a show trial in the very space that Pelosi toured.
Countless activists in China are facing similar fates as Chen in the 21st century. Wuer Kaixi represents how little has changed, or in many respects how worse the political situation has gotten, in China since 1989. Lam and Lee are firsthand examples of the dismal status of free speech and democracy in Hong Kong and China. People are forced to flee to avoid arrest for selling perceived offensive books. However, not everyone is lucky enough to get out. Lam and Lee are essentially modern-day examples of the very people that were locked up in the detention center that Pelosi toured in Taiwan.
Early in her congressional career, Pelosi was a strong supporter of the Tiananmen movement, going so far as to hold a pro-democracy banner in Tiananmen Square in 1991 and be chased away by police. More than 30 years later, US politicians would not even be given the opportunity to do what Pelosi had done.
By meeting with all of these people together, Pelosi intentionally signaled the dichotomy of the human rights situations between Taipei and Beijing. While human rights protections are generally unquestioned in Taiwan, it is not the case in Beijing. In the immediate aftermath of Pelosi’s visit, Beijing arrested Taiwanese National Party Vice Chairman Yang Chih-yuan (楊智淵) for allegedly “promoting Taiwan to join the United Nations as a sovereign and independent country.” The things that Chen Chu was arrested for during the authoritarian period in Taiwan are still offenses in China — something that Lee knows very well.
The utility and purpose of Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan will be hotly debated for months and years to come. In response, Beijing has carried its most aggressive actions against Taiwan in nearly a generation, even shooting missiles across Taiwan itself and into Japan’s exclusive economic zone.
That Pelosi chose to visit the National Human Rights Museum during her short trip should not be overshadowed by China’s retaliation. There are plenty of other people whom she could have met or places that she could have toured. She chose to highlight Taiwan’s growth as a democratic nation as China was planning a live-fire drill to scare Taiwan, its people and any future foreign officials thinking about visiting Taiwan. While Taiwan’s future is uncertain, its democratic development is something to be proud of — and Pelosi wanted to ensure that she paid tribute to that political change.
Thomas Shattuck is the global order program manager at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perry World House, and a member of Foreign Policy for America’s NextGen Foreign Policy Initiative and the Pacific Forum’s Young Leaders Program.
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