Taiwan’s White Terror and the Search for Transitional Justice

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Taiwan’s White Terror and the Search for Transitional Justice

The costs of a “silent revolution.”

Taiwan’s White Terror and the Search for Transitional Justice
Credit: Pichi Chuang, Reuters

Taiwan’s democratization was once hailed as a silent revolution. Compared to most third wave democracies, Taiwan’s democratic transition in the late 1980s and early 1990s was quite peaceful, involving little bloodshed and almost no violence. The ruling and dominant Nationalist Party (Kuomintang, KMT) ended its own authoritarian rule under the leadership of its first native Taiwanese chairperson, Lee Teng-hui, who served as Taiwan’s president between 1988 and 2000. Lee assumed the presidency after the authoritarian ruler Chiang Ching-kuo, son of Chiang Kai-shek, passed away and became Taiwan’s first popularly and democratically elected president in 1996.

The silent revolution has its cost, paid by the victims of the earlier “White Terror” and their family members. The seemingly smooth transition to democracy was carried out with the continuous political dominance of the KMT and that has prevented Taiwan from properly implementing transitional justice.

Anyone who visits Taiwan today can still see the grandiose Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall in downtown Taipei, the capital city. Years after Taiwan became well recognized internationally as a full democracy, the government, regardless of which party is in power, still spends hundreds of thousands of dollars each year maintaining the hall. Moreover, as late as in 2015, Taiwanese would still witness democratically elected current or former KMT politicians competing to claim that they were the true political heirs to Chiang Ching-kuo. Even Lee Teng-hui, despite an unpleasant political breakup with the KMT in 2000, over the years has more than once called himself a pupil of the Chiang Ching-kuo School. When he was interviewed by Hong Kong media in early 2015, he still insisted that Taiwan would have no democracy if not for himself and Chiang Ching-kuo.

It is not surprising that people in young democracies sometimes have nostalgia for authoritarian times, but it is disheartening that affinity to authoritarian leaders is still embraced by politicians from major political parties as important assets. Such a phenomenon is a telling sign of Taiwan’s incomplete and imbalanced implementation of transitional justice.