taiwan

The 1979 Kaohsiung Incident

The Kaohsiung Incident of 1979 (Chinese: 高雄事件, pinyin: Gāoxióng Shìjiàn) marked a turning point in the history of the Republic of China (ROC) on Taiwan. It was one of the last acts of repression of political dissent carried out by the Guomindang one-party state. Although in the short-term the old brutal ways of the regime triumphed, in the long run the opposition was strengthened, and the most progressive forces of Taiwanese society, including many liberal Guomindang politicians, realised that the days of authoritarianism were numbered. 

Many opposition leaders involved in the Kaohsiung Incident were soon to form a new political elite of the ROC, who would advance the cause of democracy, human rights, and constitutional government. Although many within the ruling Guomindang also endorsed democratisation, the contribution of those people who were unjustly arrested and punished by the state because of their ideas to the progress of Taiwan’s political system and civil society cannot be underestimated. They were and still are a driving force of liberalism and pluralism, and even if they remain opposed to the Guomindang ideologically, the standards they set also helped the Guomindang change its autocratic style and implement the programme of democratisation envisioned by its founder Sun Yat-sen.

The Origin of the Kaohsiung Incident – Taiwan’s Opposition before 1979


When Taiwan was handed over to the ROC in 1945, the Guomindang one-party state extended to the island its authoritarian system of government. The party’s performance in Taiwan was, economically as well as politically, as poor as it had been on the mainland. The ROC administration under Chen Yi (陳儀/陈仪), the ex-governor of Fujian Province who was appointed Chief Executive and Garrison Commander of Taiwan after 1945, was unable to restore the economy to prewar levels. Chen believed in a form of economic statism popular among Guomindang cadres since the late 1920s. He thought that the state should establish large industrial conglomerates and manage the economy from the top in a way that echoed the principles of Soviet-style planned economy  (see: Tse-Han Lai / Ramon H. Myers / O. Wei: A Tragic Beginning: The Taiwan Uprising of February 28, 1947, 1991, p. 84).

The Taiwanese economy was already in bad shape by the time of the handover to the ROC. As part of the Japanese Empire, Taiwan had had to give its contribution to the war effort, so that the production system had been subordinated to military needs. After the war, it wasn’t an easy task to reconvert the economy to its normal peacetime structure. Moreover, Taiwan was now cut off from Japan, its major trading partner.  

However, the Chen administration is likely to have contributed to the deterioration of the Taiwanese economy with its unwise policies. The state took over all Japanese-owned property, including factories, and handed them over to mainland bureaucrats. Soon the government controlled 70% of industrial and agricultural enterprises. Through a newly established Monopoly Bureau, it also controlled the supply of salt, camphor, opium, matches, liquor, tobacco, and other items. Only licensed vendors were allowed to sell these products, and private competition to state monopolies was repressed by the police. Moreover, the state regulated trade, which bureaucratised exchanges between private parties, who were compelled to conduct business through the Trade Bureau (ibid., pp. 85-86). 

These and other examples show that Chen Yi’s statist capitalism was very different from the successful model of state-promoted capitalism which led to Taiwan’s economic boom in later decades. Chen’s economic policy, in fact, discouraged private enterprise, competition and productivity, while it established an inefficient form of bureaucratic planned capitalism that did not deliver results.

As a consequence, by 1946 railway capacity still stood at 80% of its pre-handover levels. In 1945 factory production had declined by 80% compared to 1942. Lack of infrastructure and supply shortages plagued trade and industry. Since import of fertilisers from Japan had stopped, rice output in 1945 was below that of 1904. To meet its current expenses the government began to print money, causing dramatic hyperinflation. The tremendous increase in food prices hit the population hard. For instance, between January and February 1946 the price of rice increased by 230% (ibid. pp. 81-82).

The Guomindang’s inefficient administration was made even worse by the ongoing Civil War on the mainland. Chiang Kai-shek’s autocratic style, the government’s endemic corruption and economic inefficiency had already beset the ROC before 1945. But after the war, the showdown between the Guomindang and the Communists led to increasing violence, economic instability, and further restrictions of civil liberties. 

In 1948 the National Assembly of the ROC enacted the “Mobilisation for the Suppression of Communist Rebellion Provisional Act“, which gave President Chiang Kai-shek enormous personal power and de facto nullified the democratic foundations of the ROC Constitution and of Guomindang ideology. The Act was extended to Taiwan in 1949 and became the “legal” basis for the martial law era and the white terror. 

But despite its authoritarian one-party rule, the Guomindang regime did have several democratic elements. First of all, the party had a democratic ideological component in Sun Yat-sen’s principle of democracy. Second, after retreating to Taiwan the Guomindang needed the support of the American public opinion and its allies; therefore, it portrayed the ROC as “free China” as opposed to the inhumane despotism of Communist rule on the mainland. The idea that Taiwan was a better, a free China was of course contradicted by the martial law and the white terror. But limited democracy through local elections allowed the Guomindang to at least partly soothe its critics. Third, after the humiliating defeat of 1949 the ROC government realised that ruling by force alone wasn’t sufficient. The state needed the support of the people; and if not of all the people, at least of those who were willing to be co-opted. One of the means the Guomindang chose to mobilise the masses was the electoral system. But how could the Guomindang maintain its one-party rule and at the same time permit free elections?

As Shelley Rigger notes, the Guomindang did it through a combination of laws and institutions that made sure the party could not lose elections. “In the 1950s and 1960s, and much of the 1970s, the KMT exercised near-total dominance over Taiwan’s elections. Under the emergency provisions, new political parties were banned, and the two legal ‘opposition’ parties operated under the ruling party’s thumb. It was obvious to politically ambitious Taiwanese that their best chance of winning public office lay in joining the KMT” (Shelley Rigger: Politics in Taiwan: Voting for Democracy, 1999, p. 82).

In order to be truly democratic, the ROC of the martial law era would have needed an independent and freely elected legislative body as well as other institutions. However, since the ROC claimed to be the sole legitimate government of all China, it kept in office the legislators from all Chinese provinces elected in 1947-48. As a consequence, the Legislative Yuan, the National Assembly and other bodies were dominated by mainland-born, Guomindang-loyal members. This insulated the state’s highest institutions from electoral competition (ibid., pp. 62-63).  

Moreover, the Guomindang controlled the media, the army and the police, and it possessed enormous financial resources (the Guomindang is still one of the world’s richest parties). 

The actual elections allowed in Taiwan were local elections as well as “supplementary elections” that replaced legislators elected before 1949 who were too old to serve or who had died. In addition, the Guomindang recruited as many talented individuals as possible. As Shelley Rigger explains, “the regime constructed an electoral system that allowed for competition at the local level, but coopted elected officials and channeled their actions in ways that reinforced the regime’s authority and legitimacy” (ibid., p. 82).
Even though independent candidates could take part in elections, their lack of resources, organisation, media presence and social influence made sure that they never challenged the Guomindang’s electoral dominance. It was only after Chiang Kai-shek was succeeded by his more liberal son, Chiang Ching-kuo, that the ROC’s political system began to change. Chiang allowed a gradual, uncertain, but steady opening up of the political landscape which made the formation of organised opposition groups possible.  

In the 1970s independent opposition leaders began to organise themselves, creating the so-called Dangwai (黨外) movement. Dangwai literally means “outside the party”, where “the party” of course refers to the Guomindang (Michael Y. M. Kau / Denis Fred Simon, ed.: Taiwan: Beyond the Economic Miracle, 1992, p. 9). After becoming president, Chiang Ching-kuo transferred the authority over the approval of new publications from the Garrison Command to the Government Information Office (GIO). The GIO authorised the publication of a magazine called The Taiwan Political Review, edited by opposition leaders Kang Ningxiang (康寧祥) and Huang Xinjie (黃信介; Huang later became the 3rd chairperson of the Democratic Progressive Party). But the magazine was soon closed by the government on charges of “incitement to sedition” because of an article that called for the overthrow of the Guomindang regime or immediate unification with the mainland (Jay Taylor: The Generalissimo’s Son: Chiang Ching-kuo and the Revolutions in China and Taiwan, 2000, pp. 322-323). This shows how tense and uncertain the era of cautious liberalisation under Chiang Ching-kuo was.

Supplementary National Assembly and Legislative Yuan elections were to be held in December 1978. Huang Xinjie and other politicians established the Dangwai Organisation to Promote Elections, which co-ordinated the campaigns of various independent candidates. However, on December 16 the United States announced the normalisation of relations with the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Washington no longer recognised the ROC as a sovereign state, let alone as the sole legitimate government of China. This step was not unexpected, but it nevertheless shocked the Guomindang leadership as well as the Taiwanese population. Chiang Ching-kuo postponed the supplementary elections, saying that the country could not afford instability at such a difficult moment. Some leaders of the opposition such as Kang Ningxiang agreed. Others, however, did not. 

Yu Dengfa (余登發), the Kaohsiung County Executive and Dangwai politician, protested, saying that the postponement was unconstitutional and that it reflected the Guomindang’s “martial law mentality”. On January 22, 1979, Yu Dengfa was arrested (see Rigger 1999, p. 116). 

The opposition once again used magazines to voice its views. Three journals, the Formosa Magazine (美麗島雜誌), Spring Wind, and The Eighties, were founded. Despite differences in their respective programmes, these three magazines were critical of the government and advocated a democratic opening up of the political system (Marc J. Cohen: Taiwan at the Crossroads, 1988, p. 38). Formosa Magazine was the most radical and influential of these magazines. With an estimated circulation of 100,000-300,000 copies, it was Taiwan’s second most read magazine after the TV Guide (ibid., and Taylor 2000, p. 350). The magazine de facto became a semi-party organisation and a nucleus of the anti-Guomindang opposition. Formosa‘s publisher was Huang Xinjie, and the general manager was Shi Mingde (施明德). Shi Mingde had been arrested on charges of sedition in 1962 because he organised anti-government cadet discussion groups. He was sentenced to life imprisonment and freed only in 1977 after Chiang Ching-kuo had risen to power and pardoned several political prisoners (Richard C. Kagan: Chen Shui-bian – Building a Community and a Nation, 2000, p. 68). Later in his career Shi was elected 5th chairperson of the DPP.

The Guomindang reacted to the formation of these Dangwai publications with the usual violence. Offices and homes of magazine staff were raided by members of Taiwan’s underworld (perhaps instigated by the Guomindang, though no evidence exists to confirm this hypothesis), while the police refused to intervene on behalf of the victims (Cohen 1988, p. 38).

On December 10, 1979, Formosa organised a demonstration in Kaohsiung to commemorate the anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 30,000 people took part in the rally (ibid.). Clashes erupted between the crowd and the police, leading to casualties on both sides. Some people argue that members of ultra-rightist criminal gangs such as the Iron Blood Patriots infiltrated the protesters and provoked the incidents, while others claim that Dangwai leaders like Shi Mingde stirred up the people and led to excesses (see Taylor 2000, p. 352). According to estimates (see ibid.) 183 policemen were injured. 

The Aftermath of the Kaohsiung Incident


The Kaohsiung Incident had deep political repercussions. Guomindang hard-liners and conservatives blamed Chiang Ching-kuo for what they saw as a riot. Chiang had ordered the police not to use force against the demonstrators, and the way in which the Dangwai had taken advantage of it seemed to prove that too much freedom would destroy political stability and lead to social unrest. On the 4th plenum of the 11th Guomindang Central Committee in 1979 Chiang Ching-kuo had announced that “from now on, we shall address ourselves more actively to developing the basics of democracy, including further fulfillment of the functions of public opinion, strengthening of the rule of law and enhancing the concept of responsible politics” (ibid., p. 351). But the Kaohsiung incident weakened Chiang’s position and reinforced the antidemocratic sentiments of Guomindang senior officials and hard-liners. Pressed by his own party, Chiang agreed to crack down on Formosa and the Dangwai.     

Three days after the Kaohsiung march, dozens of people were arrested, among them Huang Xinjie, Shi Mingde, Lin Yixiong (林義雄), feminist writer Lu Xiulian (呂秀蓮, aka Annette Lu), and Chen Ju (陳菊). The last four are still prominent politicians and activists in Taiwan (Chen Ju is currently mayor of Kaohsiung). The Formosa group was court martialled for sedition and accused of planning to stage a pro-Communist and pro-independence insurrection (Cohen 1988, p. 39). 33 other people were trialed in civilian courts. The police tortured many defendants to extract confessions or intimidate them.

On February 23, 1980, a young lawyer named Chen Shuibian (陳水扁) received a call from a colleague of the Formosa Magazine. He asked Chen to defend the people who had been arrested after the Kaohsiung incident. That was a dangerous case. If Chen lost – which was a foregone conclusion – he might be arrested and accused of aiding acts of treason. If he won, he might face retaliations. Nevertheless, he accepted (Kagan 2000, p. 59). After the ROC’s democratisation, Chen Shuibian was elected chairperson of the Democratic Progressive Party and in 2000 he became the first non-Guomindang president of the ROC.  

Before the trial, activist Lin Yixiong was tortured and warned not to inform his relatives. But his mother visited him in jail and saw his injuries. She tried to contact Amnesty International to make the case public. On February 1980, Lin’s mother and his 7-year-old twin daughters were murdered, despite their house being under 24-hour police surveillance (Cohen 1988, pp. 39-40). 

The trial. From left to right: Zhang Junhong (張俊宏), Huang Xinjie, Chen Ju, Yao Jiwen, Shi Mingde, Annette Lu, Lin Hongxuan (林弘宣)

On April 18 all the defendants were convicted. Shi Mingde was sentenced to life imprisonment – the tribunal had planned to sentence him to death, but Chiang Ching-kuo had made clear he would tolerate “no bloodshed” during his presidency. Huang Xijie was given 14 years, the others 12 years (Taylor 2000, p. 359). 

Despite the bitterness and injustice of those years, the Kaohsiung Incident was the end and not the beginning of an era of repression. Chiang Ching-kuo and the moderate factions of the Guomindang continued to open up the political system, and the leaders of the 1979 Kaohsiung rally became prominent politicians of the new, democratic ROC. 

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Categories: taiwan, taiwanese history

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