Taiwan Communiqué No. 89, January 2000

The Kaohsiung Incident remembered

Turning point in Taiwan's history

The Kaohsiung Incident of 10 December 1979 was a major moment in Taiwan's history. When it took place, it was hardly noticed internationally, but since then it has been recognized as an important turning point in the island's recent transition to democracy. It galvanized both the Taiwanese people in Taiwan as well as the overseas Taiwanese community into political action.

{short description of image}

Military police releasing tear gas at the Kaohsiung Incident

The movement subsequently formed the basis for the democratic opposition of the DPP and its overseas support network of Taiwanese organizations in North America and Europe. Virtually all leading members of the present-day democratic opposition had a role in the event, either as defendants or as defense lawyers.

Below, we present a summary of the event and its aftermath, while a full account is given in our publication The Kaohsiung Tapes, which can be downloaded from our website http://www.taiwandc.org (60 pages, 1300 Kbytes, Acrobat PDF-file). The publication carries a translation of sound tapes made during the evening of 10 December 1979. Extensive present-day coverage of the commemorations of the Kaohsiung Incident in Taiwan can be found in the Taipei Times.

The now well-known event of the evening of 10 December 1979 started out as the first major human rights day celebration on the island. Until that time the authorities had never allowed any public expression of discontent, but in the summer of 1979 a slight thaw had set in, during which two opposition magazines were established: Formosa Magazine, headed by veteran opposition Legislative Yuan-member Huang Hsin-chieh, and The Eighties, headed by up and coming opposition leader K'ang Ning-hsiang.

Formosa Magazine quickly became the rallying point for the budding democratic movement. During the fall of 1979, it became increasingly vocal, and it was only natural that it would use 10 December as an opportunity to express its views on the lack of democracy and human rights on the island. When the day arrived, the atmosphere had become tense because of increasingly violent attacks by right-wing extremists on offices of the magazine and homes of leading staff members.

What happened on that fateful evening is history: the human rights day celebration ended in chaos after police encircled the peaceful crowd and started using teargas, and pro-government instigators incited violence.

Newspaper reports right after the event reported that in the ensuing confrontations, more than 90 civilians and 40 policemen were injured. However, in an amazing display of magic, the authorities managed to end up with 182 policemen and 1 (!!!) civilian injured. Although most injuries were relatively minor, the authorities quickly played up the injuries on the police side, sending high officials and TV- and film-actresses to the hospitals to comfort the injured policemen.

More seriously, three days later, the KMT authorities used the incident as an excuse to arrest virtually all well-known opposition leaders. They were held incommunicado for some two months, during which reports of severe ill-treatment filtered out of the prisons.

The arrested persons were subsequently tried in three separate groups: in March/April 1980, the eight most prominent leaders (the "Kaohsiung Eight") were tried in military court and were sentenced to prison terms ranging from 12 years to life imprisonment. In April/May 1980, a second group of 33 persons, the "Kaohsiung 33", who had taken part in the Human Rights Day gathering were tried in civil court and sentenced to terms ranging from 2 to 6 years.

A third group of 10 persons associated with the Presbyterian Church were accused of helping the main organizer of the demonstration, Mr. Shih Ming-teh, when he was in hiding. Most prominent among this group was Dr. Kao Chun-ming, the general-secretary of the Presbyterian Church. Dr. Kao was sentenced to seven years imprisonment. The others received lesser sentences.

The importance of the incident is in the fact that it galvanized both the Taiwanese people in Taiwan as well as the overseas Taiwanese community into political action. The movement which grew out of the incident subsequently formed the core of the present-day democratic opposition of the DPP and its overseas support network of Taiwanese organizations in North America and Europe.

Lessons learned: what has changed?

While it is customary for observers both inside and outside Taiwan to contrast the dark days of the Kuomintang's repressive martial law of 1979 with the free and open atmosphere presently prevailing on the island, it is essential to point out that the Taiwanese society of 1999 / 2000 still has a long way to go.

In an excellent editorial on the day of the Kaohsiung commemoration, 10 December 1999, the Taipei Times outlined the shortcoming of Taiwan of 1999 as compared to the aspirations of the democratic opposition of 1979: It stated that the Kaohsiung marchers "got the democratic institutions they demanded" but that in these present-day institutions "…seats can be bought .. and gangsters launder their past to become respectable pillars of establishment."

The Taipei Times also said that the marchers did gain an end to martial law, but that the civil legal system is "…widely seen as corrupt and inefficient" and often "manipulated for political ends" by the ruling Kuomintang. Another gain in Taiwan is that there is now the right to form political parties, but the Times emphasizes that there is still no level playing field, because of the Kuomintang's access to billions of dollars worth of dubiously acquired assets.

The pressure from the democratic opposition also led to more freedom of the press, but the Taipei Times points out that the three biggest TV channels are still controlled either by the Kuomintang or the government, and that two of the three largest newspapers are "profoundly conservative and generally un-supportive of the island's democratic change in even its current half-accomplished version."

The Taipei Times wonders why the change in Taiwan was so inadequate, so half-done. It concludes that change in Taiwan was done by the political establishment "for its own preservation", and that it was based on a strategy of "…providing a minimum of superficial reform to draw the sting from demands for deeper, more fundamental change."

The editorial contrasts the Kaohsiung Eight defendants and their lawyers who went on to become the leaders of the present-day opposition, and people like presidential candidates James Soong and Lien Chan, who "…to their shame, (were) cogs of the establishment machine then and … today."

The Taipei Times concludes by expressing the hope that the 20th anniversary of the Kaohsiung Incident would not be a time for "…congratulatory back-slapping but for finding renewed energy to try to complete the tasks the Kaohsiung protesters set out to perform a generation ago."

Back to: Table of Contents

Copyright © 2000 Taiwan Communiqué