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James Soong: The End of an (Authoritarian) Era in Taiwan

Soong’s departure from the political scene signals a break with Taiwan’s authoritarian past.

By James Baron for
James Soong: The End of an (Authoritarian) Era in Taiwan

Taiwan’s 2020 presidential election candidate James Soong answers the press after the first televised policy address in Taipei, Taiwan, Dec. 18, 2019.

Credit: AP Photo/Chiang Yong-ying

Amid the coverage of Tsai Ing-wen’s resounding victory and re-election as president of Taiwan last week, scant attention was given to political veteran James Soong’s showing. The former Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) heavyweight finished a distant third place with just 4.25 of the vote. This represented a drop of more than 8.5 percentage points from his 2016 campaign, though an improvement on the dismal 2.77 percent he received in 2012. More tellingly, 2020 marked the first year Soong’s People First Party contested an election without winning a single seat in Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan.

Prior to the election, the 77-year-old Soong had promised that this would be his last bid for power. Given his status as a perennial loser in democratic process – he was also trounced in the 2006 Taipei mayoral election –  the fulfillment of this pledge might seem long overdue.

Since throwing his hat into the ring again in November, Soong’s unsavory role in Taiwan’s authoritarian era has been largely absent from the political discussions surrounding the election. A recap is in order.

During his tenure as director-general of the Government Information Office (1979-1984) and director of the KMT’s Bureau of Cultural Affairs Committee (1984), Soong waged a campaign of repression against hundreds of writers, journalists, publishers, and artists. He is said to have pursued and persecuted his targets with zeal. Prominent on his resume is the crackdown against Formosa Magazine and Tangwai leaders in the aftermath of the Kaohsiung Incident of 1979.

He also famously stripped Associated Press reporter Tina Chou of her credentials over the reporting of the autopsy of Carnegie Mellon assistant professor Chen Wen-chen. Chen’s body was found on National Taiwan University campus on July 3, 1981, the day after he was subjected to a 12-hour interrogation by the KMT’s notorious secret police, the Taiwan Garrison Command. In a classic example of the kind of doublespeak for which the GIO was then renowned, Soong took credit for Chou’s reassignment to India*, a move that AP had made precisely in protest of Soong’s heavy-handed tactics.

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A known activist, Chen had been a vocal critic of the government and had helped fund Tangwai activities, including Formosa Magazine. He had returned to Taiwan for a vacation when he was dragged in for questioning. His death was subsequently ruled by the authorities in Taiwan as due to an “accidental fall,” but was widely perceived as murder, a view that was corroborated by the independent inquest by an American forensic pathologist. Chen’s death remains unsolved.

One of Chen’s most prominent actions was to draw attention to the “professional students” – a euphemism for KMT spies – who were alleged to be present across campuses in the United States and elsewhere. While these claims are now known to be true, as GIO head, Soong poured scorn on them. Interestingly, former President Ma Ying-jeou was one of those accused of being a stooge. Specifically, there were accusations that he had taken photographs of Chen and eventual Vice President Annette Lu, among others, at pro-independence events.

As Taiwan transitioned to democracy, it didn’t take long for Soong’s authoritarian tendencies to resurface. Running as an independent after losing his bid to be the KMT candidate, he was defeated in the 2000 election by DPP candidate Chen Shui-bian. On the back of this, Soong formed the People First Party (PFP) – essentially a one-man party – to contest the tension-fraught 2004 election.

Running as KMT candidate Lien Chan’s vice-presidential nomination, Soong was again on the losing side against Chen on March 20, this time by the narrowest of margins. Claiming the election had been rigged and that the 3-19 shooting incident — in which Chen and Lu were injured — had been staged, the Pan-Blues, as the alliance between the KMT and PFP was known, refused to concede defeat.

In the weeks that followed, Soong and Lien stoked tensions with rabble-rousing speeches to protesters in front of the Presidential Office and at nearby Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall. Employing ominous language, Soong expressed anger that Chen was being allowed to rest easy at night and said Lien had been “too polite” in protesting the result, implying that stronger action was required. He vowed to lead protesters in “storming” the Presidential Office if Chen did not promptly initiate investigations into alleged election irregularities and the 3-19 shooting incident.

In the face of criticism and even accusations of treason over his inflammatory language, Soong backtracked and said he had only ever intended to lead a “peaceful” march into the building. Yet the PFP’s official website encouraged the formation of a “dare-to-die corps” to attack the building, and Soong hinted that a million-strong force of military and police could be mobilized to join such an action. Given the high levels of support for the Pan-Blues among these groups and menacing tone of the rhetoric, the claim from the DPP that Soong was fomenting a coup was not that far-fetched.

While Soong and Lien were grandstanding in Taipei, PFP legislator Chiu Yi was whipping protesters into a frenzy in Kaohsiung. Hollering through a loudspeaker, Chiu sat atop a campaign truck that rammed into the gates of Kaohsiung District Court. In Taichung, a PFP legislator provoked a crowd into attacking the prosecutor’s office, where they smashed windows. A week later, Chiu was at it again in the capital, where he called for a revolution and led violent protests aimed at preventing the Central Election Commission from posting its official announcement of Chen’s victory. This came ahead of speeches by Soong and Lien. At no point did either man condemn the violence.

For those who did not experience it, it is hard to convey the tinder-box levels of volatility that permeated Taiwan’s sociopolitical fabric at that time. Yet, far from attempting to mollify their irate supporters, Soong, Lien, and other Pan-Blue politicians actively encouraged the excesses. Several PFP lawmakers called for Chen’s murder – one of them on the floor of the legislature.

Asked to condemn these threats, Soong stonewalled. Lien went further, asserting that people would have the right to kill Chen if legal action failed. One should bear in mind that these men were key figures in a regime that had had Chen imprisoned on libel charges in 1986. As a close associate of the plaintiff, the academic and Pan-Blue politician Elmer Fung, Soong was said to have been instrumental in securing Chen’s conviction. In light of this history, these words could have been seen as more than empty bluster. At the very least, they were grossly irresponsible.

The protests continued for weeks, and the Pan-Blues’ final lawsuit to have the election results annulled was only rejected by the Taiwan High Court more than nine months after the election.

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Admittedly, the election campaign had been marred by smears from both sides, but the Pan-Blue tactics were particularly egregious. On one campaign poster, Chen was compared to Adolf Hitler, Saddam Hussein, and Osama bin Laden and the term “dictator” was frequently bandied about in reference to the president. With not a trace of irony or self-awareness, Soong and Lien, both of whom had functioned as props for a tottering authoritarian regime in its twilight years, continued to brand Chen a despot in their bombastic post-election rhetoric.

“By taking up these themes in its post-election demonstrations and declarations, the [Pan-Blue] Alliance and in particular Soong showed that these abuses were part of a deliberate tactic to assimilate Chen to a dangerous dictator,” writes Frank Muyard, assistant professor at Taiwan’s National Central University. “Thus, the KMT and the PFP were purported to be the real democratic parties fighting for the people, and the DPP the dictatorial party. The success of this tactic rested on a particular conception of democracy dominant among Pan-Blue supporters, in part linked to their feeling of having had power stolen from them by Chen Shui-bian in 2000.”

In their study of the social psychology of the 2004 elections, Olwen Bedford and Kwang-kuo Hwang make a related point about the KMT’s inability to demonstrate social responsibility in accepting defeat or to at least “play by the rules” in (initially) pursuing legal redress rather than mob violence: “There is little precedent within the KMT for rule-of-law thinking or democratic procedures as the party has largely retained a highly bureaucratic traditional top-down power structure in which subordinates have the habit of doing only what they are told to do and discussion of alternate viewpoints is discouraged.” Bedford and Hwang point out that Pan-Blue supporters who objected to the course being pursued were branded “wimps [who] should leave the party.”

This neatly captures the warped logic of the KMT old guard. It explains how a man like Soong, who thrived under an autocratic system of government, can play the victim, cast democratically elected presidents as tyrants, and hold forth on democratic values, as he has done in each election he has been involved in.

Less than 10 days before the 2020 election, Soong was protesting the passage of the Anti-Infiltration Law designed to guard against the interference of “foreign hostile forces” in the political process. The legislation is certainly controversial, but to hear Soong invoking human rights violations, a “backsliding of democracy,” and a “green terror” was remarkable. He even went so far as to compare the bill to the extradjudicial operations of the Taiwan Garrison Command — with whom he once worked hand in glove to stifle dissent.

To be sure, in the post-martial law era, Soong adapted to the new realities of a democratic Taiwan, but these were changes that were forced upon him, which went against the principles that have shaped his career.

On January 11, hours after voters had once again overwhelmingly rejected him, Soong appeared to flip-flop on whether this was his last hurrah. Demonstrating the kind of nonpartisan attitude that does Taiwan proud, Tsai has twice appointed Soong her envoy to the APEC summit, so it’s not impossible that he still has some role to play.

However, in the wake of this latest election defeat, a PFP spokesperson’s praise for Soong’s “contribution to Taiwan’s democracy” sounded like a eulogy; while a clear distortion of the historical record, it may well have signaled the end of Soong’s chequered half-century in politics.

James Baron is a Taipei-based writer.

*A previous version of this article mistakenly said Tina Chou was reassigned to the Middle East.