The Swamp of Taiwan’s Transitional Justice

By Yufei Zhang.

A Bill Facing Polarization

On December 5th, 2017, Taiwan’s legislature passed a bill of transitional justice, which is following a set of similar policies issued by the governing party—DPP. According to the law, a powerful committee, under the Premier, will be established to investigate thoroughly and, then, re-evaluate Taiwan’s authoritarian past, which covers the end of WWII to the early 1990s. The committee’s primary and controversial missions include opening private archives, re-naming hundreds of streets and institutions after authoritarian figures, and acquiring assets owned by the once-ruling party in the authoritarian period, which, nowadays, is the main opposition party—KMT.

In this young and highly polarized democracy, this bill immediately steered up emotions across political lines. On the one end of the political spectrum, the supporters of the law, who are likely supporters of DPP, jubilantly claimed that it was a success to “strip the legitimacy of authoritarian rule.” On the other end, the largest opposition party—KMT and its supporters—fiercely denounced that it was a plot, politically motivated to purge the opposition and to tamper with justice. A seemingly simple bill of transitional justice became involved in a series of political and cultural cleavages rooted in Taiwan society. Those cleavages were caused by multiple factors like colonial trauma, authoritarian legacy, identity politics, cross-strait relations, and so on. The most dangerous issue is that there is a suggest of using transitional justice to smother democracy. To disentangle this complicated issue, we need to look at Taiwan’s unique history of democratization in retrospect.

A Two-sided Story

Right after the WWII, the Republic of China (ROC), ruled by the KMT at the time, took back the sovereignty of Taiwan from the defeated Japanese Empire. However, the ensuing Chinese civil war led to the KMT’s loss of all of their territory in Mainland China to the Communists. Around 1949, the KMT prompted the ROC’s major institutions and over 2 million Chinese Mainlanders to retreat to the island of Taiwan, while the Communists founded the People’s Republic of China on the mainland. The latter gradually won the sole representation of China over the international community.

In order to eliminate alleged communists and stabilize the Taiwanese society, Chiang Kai-shek, the leader of the ROC and the KMT, launched a political purge between 1947 and 1975 known as the “White Terror,” which saw around 140,000 people imprisoned and about 3,000 people executed. Furthermore, Chiang and the KMT spared no efforts to promote Chinese culture and Mandarin in Taiwan, at the cost of suppressing local culture and the Taiwanese language.

Thereafter, Chiang and the KMT naturally became the targets of dissents in the authoritarian period. In the 1980s, many democracy activists, most of whom became the hard-core of DPP, labeled Chiang as a ruthless dictator who should be in shame forever. Also, they claimed that the KMT government under Chiang and his successors was a colonial regime without legitimacy. For many others, especially those who followed Chiang to retreat to Taiwan from the mainland, however, Chiang was a national hero who defeated the Japanese invaders in WWII, prevented the Communists from occupying Taiwan, and paved the way for economic take-off. This social cleavage extended to the following democratic period and has been deepened by political motives under the name of transitional justice.


 Political Motives Behind

Facing the Third Wave of global democratization, the long-term ruling KMT has gradually softened its grip on power since the 1980s. Taiwan finally embraced democracy in 1996, which was marked by the first direct presidential election in which KMT kept its power on by a landslide victory. Unlike many authoritarian parties quickly falling apart along the democratic opening, KMT has had stable support from the majority of Taiwanese even a decade after democratization. Confronted with KMT’s resilience, DPP, the then-opposition party, realized that the only chance to defeat KMT in a democracy was to exploit the social cleavage once caused by KMT but inhibited and marginalized by KMT’s statecraft for decades.

For this reason, the DPP started to actively “unearth” and mainstream numerous cases of state suppression and persecution that had occurred under the KMT’s authoritarian rule. In particular, the DPP enthusiastically hyped the ugly history and called for transitional justice during various elections with the aim of attracting voters who had suffered in the past or who sympathized with the victims. The KMT’s public image has been marred by the DPP’s long-term campaign and, to some extent, crucified in the disgraceful past as a foreign suppressor. On the contrary, the DPP successfully portrayed itself as a defender of democracy and justice and won popularity with the younger generation.

More dangerously, the DPP constructed a link between identity politics and transitional justice. In order to sell a simple narrative of “White and Black” quickly, the DPP intentionally blurred the nature of the ‘White Terror’anti-communists—without ethnic consideration. Instead, the DPP unceasingly emphasized that the identity of the victims was Taiwanese (which is not true) who spoke the Taiwanese language and who were the decedents of those who moved to Taiwan before 1945. According to the DPP’s claims, transitional justice should bring “justice” to this group of people, which makes up 70% of the population. At the same time, the DPP alienated those who spoke Mandarin who had moved to Taiwan with the KMT after 1945 and portrayed them and their decedents (who make up about 13% of the population) as collaborators with authoritarian rule. Through such a campaign, DPP simplified transitional justice to an identity conflict, claiming that the history before democratization is a history of the Chinese persecuting the Taiwanese. As such, DPP expects to benefit from the manmade ethnic line by drawing on the support of an ethnic majority and marginalizing KMT to an ethnic minority.

A Transitional Justice without Justice

In the civilized polity, people seek transitional justice for pursuing truth and reconciliation instead of chasing retaliation and further division. Unfortunately, there has been an increasing trend in Taiwan to attack political opponents under the name of transitional justice.

The new bill bestowed state institutions with the right to deprive the political opposition of private documents and assets legally. Furthermore, the party in power (DPP) can arbitrarily change the scope of victims from thousands, who allegedly had links with communists, to a whole ethnic group with a population of tens of millions. Meanwhile, the same party can arbitrarily extend the scope of suppressors from a small number of former ruling elites to another ethnic group with a population of millions. Such kind of transitional justice cannot lead Taiwan to a more inclusive and mature democracy. Instead, it is likely to polarize society further.


Yufei Zhang is a 2017 graduate of the M.A. program in Democracy and Governance. Yufei earned his bachelor degree from Hainan University, China, and his first master degree in Media Studies from City University of Hong Kong.