Reflection on Human Rights Journey in Taiwan:

From Authoritarianism to Democratic Rule


Lu Hsiu-lien Annette

Vice President of Taiwan 2000-2008


November 24, 2013

Soochow University

Taipei, Taiwan



Honorable Director Huang Shiow-duan (黃秀端), distinguished speakers and guests, ladies and gentlemen:

It is my pleasure to join you at this significant International Conference on Human Rights Education to share with you, the prominent human rights experts and leaders coming from different corners of the world, the human rights development in Taiwan as its conclusion.


Taiwan Under Martial Law

Speaking of Taiwan’s human rights journey, to reflect its historical background is helpful. Taiwan was ceded to Japan by China in 1895 as a result of the 1894 Sino-Japan War. Japan occupied Taiwan till 1945 when she surrendered as a result of World War II. Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek took over Taiwan under the command of the Allied Forces. It began a period of pillage, confiscation, rape, murder and economic depression. On February 27, 1947, a woman vender was beaten to death and protest after protest against Chiang’s police and army was aroused. Chiang sent more troops from China to launch a month-long across island massacre. Approximately ten thousand civilians were killed and another ten thousand were arrested and executed. After the whole island was cracked down, Chiang proclaimed Martial Law Ordinance and six months later he retreated to Taiwan.    

From 1949 to 1987, for 38 years the Leninist Nationalist (KMT) party-state had ruled Taiwan by imposing Martial Law and by quashing political dissent, abusing human rights, and controlling the media and judiciary.

Under the Martial Law, the right to freely assemble and express was restricted and the formation of new political parties was prohibited, so was the newspapers. In order to implement the strict political censorship, a collective responsibility system (lianzuo (連坐)) was adopted among the civil servants and soon spread to all the enterprises and institutions. According to it, no one would be employed without a guarantor. Newspapers were asked to run propaganda articles or make last-minute editorial changes to suit the government's needs. At the beginning of the Martial Law era, newspapers could not exceed six pages. The number was gradually increased to 12 in 1974. There were only 31 newspapers across the nation, 15 of which were owned by either the Nationalist Party, the government or the military.

For the enforcement of Martial Law, the Taiwan Garrison Command and the Investigation Bureau were established. The military police, special agents and secret informers were used to monitor meetings, tap phones, inspect mails, and keep surveillance, etc. Provocateurs were also recruited to break up meetings or create disturbance. The intelligence network was everywhere. A pall of fear and a sense of paranoia impeded open political discussion and social activities. 

Taiwan Garrison Command had sweeping powers, including the right to arrest anyone voicing criticism of government policy and to screen publications prior to distribution. According to a recent official report, around 140,000 Taiwanese had been arrested, tortured, imprisoned or executed for their real or perceived opposition to the KMT and 3000~4000 people had been executed during the Martial Law period. Most actual prosecutions tookplace in 1950-1952. Since these people were mainly from the intellectual and social elite, an entire generation of political and social leaders was decimated out of fear that they might resist the Nationalist rule or sympathize with communism. For example, the Formosan League for Reemancipation (台灣再解放聯盟) established in 1947 was believed to be under Communist control and the World United Formosan for Independence (台灣獨立建國聯盟) was initiated with overseas Taiwanese elites living abroad. Both were severely persecuted. However, other prosecutions did not have such clear reasoning. In 1968, a popular writer Bo Yang was imprisoned for his choice of words in translating a Popeye comic strip. A large number of the White Terror's victims were Mainland Chinese, many of whom evacuated to Taiwan along with the Nationalists. Of course, Taiwan’s experience was not unique, as some other countries like South Korea and Poland during the Cold War era also had similar experiences.

I myself began to be harassed as early as 1972 when I was launching the Feminist Movement. The manager of “The House of Pioneers,” a coffee shop run by me for women’s gathering, turned out to be a secret agent. An editor of the Pioneer Publishing House also run by me for feminist books was required to report on my daily life. A couple of my most enthusiastic supporters were later proven to have special missions. All these happened 6 years before I became involved in politics!

Democracy does not come automatically from the sky. People have to fight for it. In late 1970s, international and domestic situations became harsh for the Nationalist government. The opposition leaders were consolidated to challenge the authoritarian regime and confrontations and sacrifices were made.

Internationally, on December 16, 1978, U.S. President Jimmy Carter announced that the U.S. would terminate its official relationship with Republic of China on Taiwan on January 1, 1979. It was the most serious challenge to the Nationalist government since it lost its seat at the United Nations to China in 1971. President Chiang Ching-kuo immediately postponed the then on-going congressional elections without a definite deadline for its restoration. I was one of those campaigning in that year. The opposition had won steadily expanding support, so they felt frustrated and outraged. A nation-wide resentment prevailed, partially against Chiang, partially against the U.S.

Domestically, on January 21, 1979, one of the most senior opposition leaders Yu Deng-fa and his son were arrested with the intentional false accusation of doing propaganda for the Chinese Communist. The opposition held protest demonstrations on the street, and one of the major leaders Hsu Hsin-liang was driven in-exile.


The Kaohsiung Incident

In May 1979, the Formosa Magazine (Meilidao) was established by opposition leaders aiming at consolidating the opposition forces, of which I was the Deputy Director. On August 16, the 1st edition was published and soon sold out. The popularity was overwhelmingly escalated and the benefit was remarkable. Branch offices were set up and rallies were held in different cities. The Formosa leaders planned to purchase a building and prepared to organize a political party.

On December 10, the Formosa magazine commemorated the 1979 Human Rights Day in the southern city Kaohsiung. The government already set a trap and deployed the police and military personnel waiting for the opposition to jump in. I remember that evening very well, as I was delivering the most powerful speech with thunder applauses from the audience when a line of anti-riot trucks with strong spotlightapproached the rally. They appeared to be as horrific as the dinosaurs to me. All of a sudden, the concentrative and quiet audience was frightened and became outraged. Some started to defend themselves against the police and army with bamboo sticks, bricks and anything they could find on the surrounding area. Confrontation took hours after I finished my 20-minute speech.

Two days later I became the first one of 152 arrested. Eventually 51 were indicted and 8 of the key leaders were court-martialed on charges of violent sedition. Altogether we were sentenced to 201 years imprisonment, plus one with life-sentence. Besides, they were also deprived of their civil rights.

For the first 290 days, I was detained in the Military Detention House along with another female comrade Chen Chu, and subject to daily interrogation sessions. After the final conviction was made. We were moved to the Benevolence Rehabilitation Center where the living conditions were better but we were totally isolated from other prisoners.

The Kaohsiung Incident was the turning point of Taiwan’s democracy. Out of strong pressure from both international and domestic, Chiang Ching-kuo agreed to have the Martial Law trial open to the media. I was advised by my brother who was my defense lawyer and was encouraged by the appearance of media to retract my confession which was illegally forced to make during interrogation. My retraction of testimony shocked the media and encouraged other co-defendants to overturn their confessions, making the trial a historical lesson for the media and for the general public. The journalists attending the trial had been misled by the authorities to defame the co-defendants before the trial. They insisted in reporting truthfully what they witnessed in the court. The entire society was enlightened through media reports.  

During our trial, 15 courageous defense attorneys defended us. Despite their valiant efforts, the military court still sentenced us to lengthy imprisonment but no one was deprived of his life. Yet our testimonies at the trial opened people’s eyes to the injustice of the autocratic regime, motivating and educating more individuals to join the democracy movement, including wives and defense lawyers of the defendants, who became vigorous and got elected in the following elections when we were jailed. No one would have dreamed that 20 years later, in March 2000, one of the defense lawyers Mr. Chen Shui-bian and one of the defendants who was me would be running together and elected as the President and Vice President at the crowning moment of Taiwan’s struggle for democracy. And the half-century long one-party autocracy was thus peacefully overthrown.


Lifting of the Martial Law and Democratization

Long before the presidential victory, the first native vigorous opposition party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), was founded on September 28, 1986, in defiance of the Martial Law. Ten months later, Chiang Ching-kuo proclaimed to lift Martial Law on July 14, 1987. It means opposition political parties can be formed legally and the media was free to run. But even after the law was lifted, restrictions on freedom of assembly, speech and the press still remained in the provisions of the National Security Law.

In the 1990s, Taiwan became more liberal and democratic through a series of confrontations which resulted into a sequence of political and constitutional reforms. In 1996 Taiwanese for the first time ever could elect their own national president generally, despite that the PRC had launched severe military threats against Taiwan. The U.S. President Bill Clinton dispatched 2 aircraft carriers to cruise along the Taiwan Strait to help defend Taiwan’s democracy.

Democracy, as well as the rule of law and human rights, are the three pillars to sustain a modern nation.During the 8 years administration under the DPP, democratization including human rights and Taiwanization became our major platform.    


DPP Government and Human Rights

In my two terms as the Vice President, I emphasized on human rights and women’s rights. In promoting human rights, President Chen appointed me to chair the Presidential Consultative Council on Human Rights as well as on Science and Technology. The council members and I made great efforts to institutionalize human rights, review human rights practices, provide consultative ideas and present new human rights policies for the administration. Victims and mishandled cases during the White Terror era were redressed. The military prison in Green Island and the military detention center in Chingmei where I was jailed were preserved to become Human Rights Memorial Parks. In 2005, the Ministry of Interior was about to implement a compulsory fingerprinting policy so that all citizen’s fingerprint will be on the new ID card. I found that this policy would seriously violate citizen’s privacy of the whole nation and was unconstitutional. I strongly opposed against that and worked hard to stop it through Grand Justice Judicial Court. Eventually the compulsory fingerprinting policy was abandoned and individual privacy was thus secured.

In promoting women’s rights, I hosted the “Women’s National Affairs Conference,” assisted former Taiwanese who were forced by Japan to become sex-slaves known as “comfort women” seek compensation from. I tirelessly promoted women’s political participation in politics. During the eight years of the administration, 35 women were appointed to ministerial or vice ministerial positions and two served as vice premier. The central government established the inter-agency Women Rights Promotion Committee and the Committee for the Equal Rights and Advancement of Women. At the congress, a number of legislations were enacted and adopted in favor of women, such as Gender Equality in Employment Law (性別工作平等法) and Gender Equality Education Act (性別平等教育法).

Other actions were designed to provide a more equitable working environment for female workers. Our efforts have already shown great success. The United Nations Development Program Gender Inequality Index calculates the percentages of women in parliament senior professional posts, income ratios, and health care to determine the status of women in a given society. Under this rubric, Taiwan currently ranks first in Asia and second in the world.

Looking back to the journey Taiwan had traveled, I would say that the process and price were tough and bitter, but the fruits were delicious. The oppositions fought against the authoritarian regime, and the DPP administration consolidated democracy and human rights and enlightened the Taiwan identity. In 2008 the Nationalists took back the power and ruled Taiwan. Taiwan’s democracy is thus grounded as the party alternation turned over twice peacefully. In 2016, the chance is high for the DPP to return to power again.

To reflect the development of human rights and democratization in Taiwan, I am proud to stress on two characters: 1. non-violent and bloodless; 2. women’s emancipation and participation.

Throughout the 5 decades struggle, despite the heavy sacrifice that the freedom fighters and their families have made, violence had never been applied and it was nearly bloodless. Because of the nature of non-violence, no physical damages were caused to the general public, nor destruction to the society. Perhaps peace and patience stagnated the achievement, but the whole movement was progressive and constructive.

Secondly, I had started Feminist movement 7 years before I joined the opposition movement. While I worked together with the opposition leaders, I was, in effect, liberating women at one hand and educating men to accept and respect women on the other. It was no secret that most of male opposition leaders were male chauvinists originally. The liberation of women from kitchen onto the streets strengthened the movement and earned men’s understanding and respect for women. Women’s participation, sacrifice and contribution were key factors contributory to the success of Taiwan’s democratization. Because of this, women share the fruit of democracy equally with men and they are now as active and vigorous as men in Taiwan, politically, economically and socially.  


New Crisis for Taiwan

A strong foundation for democracy must include five pillars of democratic institutions, namely,

1. An efficient, transparent and accountable executive government,

2. A representative and responsible legislature,

3. A just and fair judiciary,

4. Sound and responsive partisan culture, and

5. A free and responsible media.     


Let us examine current Taiwan’s democracy. It is a prevailing awareness that Taiwan’s democracy and human rights have been downgrading since 2008, and an “invisible hand” is manipulating Taiwan, trying to bring Taiwan back to authoritarianism under President Ma’s leadership.

The executive government is not transparent and accountable as it should be. It signed agreements with China before notifying the legislature and the people, today on violation of the Constitutional procedures.

As a matter of fact, China is influencing Taiwan in every way! It successfully affected the result of the 2012 Presidential Election, and it will play an even more dominant role in the 2014 and 2016 elections. The worst thing is that the Ma administration is dancing tango with China, and this is the biggest crisis Taiwan is facing. Taiwan’s democracy, liberty, and human rights are endangered, and we must keep our achievements from losing and downgrading!

Facing the downgrading of democracy, the civil society has become vigorous. Citizens have been busy on the streets protesting and throwing shoes, the cheapest and harmless way to demonstrate general public anger at Ma. These civic activities concern various issues, from nuclear, abuse of human rights in the military, judicial reforms, to the recall of the president. Although these civic activists claim that the crowd go to the streets spontaneously, however, one can not out the possibilitythat there might be an invisible hand behind the curtain.


Ladies and gentlemen, please let me quote from the 7th Secretary-General of the United Nations Kofi Annan to conclude my remarks. “Education is a human right with immense power to transform. On its foundation rest the cornerstones of freedom, democracy and sustainable human development.” I believe that the output of this International Conference on Human Rights Education held in Taiwan will share with the rest of the world through your enthusiastic participation and contribution, will better the world tomorrow.


Thank you. 

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