Why People Are Flocking to a Symbol of Taiwan’s Authoritarian Past

TAIPEI, Taiwan – Surrounded by barbed wire fences and tall gray walls, and once the site of a secret military detention center, the museum located just south of Taipei has become a landmark Surprisingly hot travel.

The Jing-Mei White Terror Memorial Park, located on the grounds of a former military school, is a chilling reminder of Taiwan’s not-so-distant authoritarian past when its rulers imposed martial law. law for four decades. The molded concrete buildings with faded paint were once the site of secret courts, where dissidents were tried, and a detention center where at one point hundreds of people were detained. incarcerated in crowded areas.

Once known as the Jing-Mei Detention Center, the site has found new appeal in Taiwan after Speaker Nancy Pelosi and pro-democracy activists who have Criticize China met there in August, with visitor numbers increasing in the weeks since. Its relevance was also highlighted at last week’s two-decade congress of the Communist Party of China, in which Beijing’s determination to absorb its democratic neighbor was a major talking point.

On a recent afternoon, groups of local tourists explored the dimly lit cells and small courtrooms where dissidents were prosecuted for four decades until 1992. in Taiwan called White Terror. Some stopped at a fountain with a statue of Xie Zhi, a mythical, one-horned Chinese beast said to represent justice, as a guide described the irony of the presence its place in a place where more than 1,100 people have been sentenced to death, many because of them. political beliefs.

At its peak, the complex was the seat of secret courts for the army and military police, who arrested offenders with the Kuomintang police. It is also home to political prisoners who have received knocks and disappeared for years, or forever.

The White Terror began in 1949, when Chiang Kai-shek’s Chinese Kuomintang, or Kuomintang, fled to Taiwan to escape Mao Zedong’s Communist revolution. During this period, the government targeted those seen as a threat to the Kuomintang rule of the island, accusing them of supporting the Communists, threatening to invade Taiwan, or promoting independence for Taiwan, which was considered subversive.

For many Taiwanese, the museum has a new resonance as the island faces a growing threat from Beijing, which has increased its military threat to the island to pressure Taiwan into reunification. with China. It echoes China’s autocratic present under Xi Jinping’s rule and a powerful warning of a possible future that awaits Taiwan should it happen. absorbed by China.

The history of the White Terror may feel distant to many young Taiwanese who were raised in a democracy. James Lin, a historian of modern Taiwan at the University of Washington, said the purpose of the museum “is to show firsthand how authoritarianism has allowed the government to deny basic human rights to people.” people and cause terror to a society”.

The period of White Terror bears clear similarities to the human rights abuses in China today. In the courtroom of the detention center, many people were prosecuted for their statements and other actions that appear to challenge one-party rule – not unlike the way China’s ruling Communist Party has suppressed dissent in China and Hong Kong.

In a famous Taiwanese case, the authorities prosecuted the cultural critic and the translator Bo Yang after his translation of the Popeye comic appeared to satirize Chiang, the leader of the Kuomintang. In 1969, he was found guilty of sedition and sentenced to 12 years in prison, of which he served 9 years.

For 85-year-old Chen Chung-tong, a doctor who was held there for a decade until his release in 1979, the message surrounding Ms. Pelosi’s visit could not be missed.

“Now, Taiwan is a free and democratic country. Pelosi’s visit to the museum is a way to note that the Kuomintang used to rule Taiwan this way, just like the Communist Party rules China now,” he said.

Dr. Chen was arrested in 1969 for having ties to a group of young Taiwanese in Japan who were promoting the island’s independence. Taiwanese authorities interrogated him for days on end, did not let him sleep, and forced him to confess to crimes he did not commit, he said. A month later, he was found guilty of sedition by a military court, although he was spared the death penalty.

While he was locked up, Dr. Chen helped reveal the names of hundreds of other detainees, which were published in an overseas journal. That became evidence rebutting the KMT’s insistence at the time that Taiwan had no political prisoners, and helped fuel international pressure against Chiang’s government.

Dr. Chen’s efforts to draw attention to the persecution have been memorialized at the museum. The infirmary where he worked has been recreated, with a screen showing a list of the names he helped come up with.

Much of the history of the White Terror remains elusive, in part because of its relationship to political life today.

The Kuomintang, which runs the camp ruthlessly, remains one of the island’s two main political parties. Political battles over the removal of the Memorial statues continue to this day. Some of the judges who ruled in martial law cases are still alive; Dr. Chen, for example, later formed a friendship with the man who sentenced him to 15 years in prison.

Chou Wan-yao, a history professor at National Taiwan University in Taipei, said that one challenge to Taiwan’s efforts to deal with the era of white terror is that successive governments continue keep many documents from that period classified. The long-standing concern is that this historical extension could sow hard-to-heal divisions in Taiwanese society.

“The most important practice of transitional justice is the search for truth,” Professor Chou said. “If you know the sins and names of the participants, but you cover them up, it still doesn’t help much.”

In the case of the museum, the site not only documents the history of oppression but also the struggles of early democracy activists in Taiwan.

In a courtroom, visitors learn of the 1979 trial of a group of protesters, known as the Kaohsiung Eight, who led a large march in the southern port city of Kaohsiung. All eight were convicted.

After being released from prison in the 1980s and 1990s, some of these eight rose to become leaders of Taiwan’s democratization. Among them were Lin Yi-hsiung, who went on to chair the independence-based Democratic Progressive Party, the island’s current governing party, and Annette Lu, who was later elected vice president of Taiwan.

The youngest of those detained, Chen Chu, who was 29 years old when convicted, will go on to serve as mayor of Kaohsiung.

Now 72 years old, Ms. Tran recalled in an interview how she experienced the indoctrination of the KMT while in prison. At weekly political classes, teachers instruct inmates about the visible achievements of the government under Chiang Ching-kuo, son of Chiang Kai-shek, she said.

“I don’t need to argue with them because they represent the people in power,” Ms. Chen said.

When Ms. Chen met Ms. Pelosi at the museum, she highlighted the sacrifices her generation of activists have made to help push Taiwan toward democracy.

“All my life, my only wish has been to live without fear,” Ms. Chen told Pelosi. “We have worked hard for half a century to achieve the freedom and democracy that Taiwan has now.”


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