A recent visit to Taiwan has prompted memories of 1963 and my first visit to the island nation then ruled with an iron fist by Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek.
It was impossible for me to imagine at the time that Taiwan could emerge as the robust democracy it has become today.
I was a rookie reporter with United Press International taking a quick look at Taiwan, and UPI’s Taipei bureau chief, Shullen Shaw, told me to watch my step.
He warned me to be careful with what I said and whom I met.
He said that I might be followed.
I later learned that Shullen himself had occasionally been on the receiving end of complaints and other pressure from the ruling Kuomintang, or Nationalist Party.
But he had a reputation for getting around censorship.
I’m guessing that he simply didn’t want an inquisitive young reporter getting into trouble or causing trouble for UPI.
Taiwan’s ruling party had a Leninist structure and didn’t tolerate opposition. A meeting of only a handful of people might arouse suspicion, and anyone trying to organize a strike or new political party, or advocating Taiwanese independence from China, could be immediately jailed.
Cartoons could also be dangerous.
Bo Yang, a well-known writer and poet whom I later got to know, went to prison for nine years in 1967 after translating the American cartoon Popeye to apparently make fun of Chiang Kai-shek’s refusal to allow for free elections.
The inauguration of a new president of Taiwan from a party opposed to Chiang’s Kuomintang, such has just occurred in Taiwan, would have been unthinkable for many people for years after I first visited there.
Tsai Ing-wen from the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), was sworn in as Taiwan’s new president on May 20. The party would not have been allowed to exist under the rule of Chiang Kai-shek.
Her party is heavily supported by native Taiwanese, as opposed to the mainlanders who dominated politics for many years under Chiang Kai-shek and his Kuomintang successors.
How Taiwan lifted martial law
It was only after I returned to Taiwan in 1985 and 1986 as a reporter for The Washington Post that I saw how much Taiwan was changing—and in ways that I hadn’t foreseen.
In early October 1987, I accompanied Katherine Graham, the publisher of The Post, along with leading editors from the newspaper and from Newsweek on a visit to Taiwan.
We arrived amidst reports that Chiang Ching-kuo, who succeeded his father Chiang Kai-shek as Taiwan’s president, would soon make moves to create a more democratic Taiwan.
In a meeting with Katherine Graham, President Chiang made it official by saying that martial law would be lifted, and I wrote a front-page story about it.
According to an authoritative account by author Jay Taylor, Chiang surprised his aides by telling his visitor that his government intended to “propose” an end to martial law.
He also said that the government was studying the question of legalizing new political parties.
Sensing change in the political climate, native Taiwan opposition politicians had already decided to establish a new party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).
Since then the DPP has taken power twice, first through a presidential election in the year 2000 and most recently with the election of President Tsai Ing-wen, Taiwan’s first female president.
The Economist succinctly summed up what many analysts regarded as the positive aspects of Tsai’s election victory in January of this year: “The vibrancy of the campaigning; the engagement of young voters; a smooth…transfer of power; Asia’s first female leader not to come from a political dynasty: there is much to celebrate.”
But Tsai now faces two major challenges: how to revive a stalled economy and how to deal with a skeptical and possibly hostile government in Beijing.
The last thing Beijing wanted was a party in power in Taiwan that talks about Taiwan’s sovereignty and leans toward independence from China.
Growing farther apart
During a recent visit to Taiwan I realized how distant many people in Taiwan have grown from mainland China, even if their grandparents had come from the mainland.
Many were born long after the civil war of the 1940s between Communists and Nationalists ended.
It hasn’t helped that some Chinese tourists visiting Taiwan have displayed an arrogance that offends local people.
This, of course, does not apply to all Chinese tourists. I met several who were polite, friendly, and well-meaning.
But as a teacher in Taipei told me during my recent visit, some Chinese visitors act as if to say, “I’ve got money. You need my money. So I’m your boss.”
A bigger problem for China now is polls that show the growth of a “Taiwanese identity.” In one recent poll a solid majority of respondents regarded themselves as “Taiwanese” rather than “Chinese” or “both Taiwanese and Chinese.”
Facing brutal history
Another issue distinguishing the leaders of both major parties in Taiwan from the Communist Party leaders in Beijing is how they have chosen to deal with the “dark days” in their history.
China’s leaders maintain a long list of historical subjects that can’t be publicly discussed. The list includes repression in Tibet and Xinjiang, the deaths of millions of Chinese resulting from Mao Zedong’s political campaigns between 1950 and 1976, and the deaths resulting from the Tiananmen crackdown in June 1989.
The benefits of Taiwan’s evolution toward democracy are also off limits for discussion.
Taiwan’s darkest moments under the Kuomintang’s rule occurred in 1947, when Nationalist soldiers brutally suppressed an anti-government uprising in Taipei only a day after it erupted on Feb. 27.
It was the beginning of the “White Terror” period in Taiwan, during which thousands of Taiwanese were killed or imprisoned.
But in Taiwan, the media were gradually allowed more freedom to delve into the past. And while the the massacre of native Taiwanese in early 1947 was a taboo topic until the early 1990s, authorities then began to allow open discussion and research on the subject.
In 1995, Lee Teng-hui, Taiwan’s president and Kuomintang chairman at the time, issued a formal apology and designated Feb. 28 as a holiday to commemorate the victims.
A new park and museum in Taipei now commemorate the event. The government has allowed the truth to be fully exposed.
Dan Southerland is RFA’s executive editor.