Taiwan's New Party Leader Seeks Broad Political Support
By Russel Flannery, staff reporter of the Wall Street Journal
May 12, 2000
Taiwan -- Assailants entered Lin I-hsiung's apartment here at noon on Feb. 28, 1980, and murdered his mother and twin seven-year-old daughters. Mr. Lin, a lawyer and opposition politician, wasn't home that day -- he was in prison awaiting trial on sedition charges because of his role in an opposition rally. "I still believe the murders were politically motivated," he says now.
Mr. Lin was convicted of sedition and jailed for four years. The murders remain unsolved. Next week, however, he can take some small consolation for his terrible loss. On Saturday, 13 years after the end of martial law, Taiwan's first opposition president will be sworn into office. Chen Shui-bian and his Democratic Progressive Party will displace the Nationalist Party that has ruled here for more than five decades.
And Mr. Lin will play a key role as chairman of the victorious DPP. The party's challenge will be to move beyond its tragic past. The president-elect himself once served eight months in prison for libel under martial law, and Mr. Chen's wife was run over and paralyzed in mysterious circumstances 14 years ago. His vice president, Annette Lu, spent five years in jail for sedition.
Yet because the party won the March election with just 39% of the popular vote, it must join forces with the Nationalists -- its longtime oppressors -- if it wants to pass any legislation in Parliament. Meanwhile, the DPP remains at its core a collection of groups with disparate priorities: anticorruption, antinuclear power, pro-labor, pro-independence. It falls to centrists like Mr. Lin to pull the DPP together under a platform that will give it a broader base of support. Their success, or failure, has implications for Taiwan's young democracy as the island embarks upon a new political era.
Back in the 1970s, when Mr. Lin was active in opposition politics, much of what the world knew about Taiwan could be summed up in two words: "tiger economy." But civil rights lagged far behind economic opportunity. Martial law was still firmly in place, as it had been since 1949, press freedom was limited, and the island's parliament was dominated by mainlanders "frozen" in their seats as a result of elections back in China in the 1940s. Outspoken opponents of this system -- like Mr. Lin -- paid a great personal cost.
It was only in 1986 that the DPP, Taiwan's first homegrown opposition party, came into existence. Lacking money and exposure in state-controlled media, it used bold tactics to get its message out. DPP politicians sometimes picked fistfights with Nationalists in Parliament; one of the DPP's most popular politicians in its early days was a legislator dubbed "Rambo."
Mr. Lin's personal transformation mirrors his party's move from a rebellious outsider to the ultimate insider. "We must honor all of the sacrifices of the past, but we have to face the future," he says in a gravelly voice. "We have to move toward the middle."
Born in 1941, his background is similar to that of the DPP elite, many of whom were born into poor local families in the 1940s and 1950s. The son of a timber company worker, Mr. Lin says his values were shaped by events after Japan handed Taiwan over to China in 1945.
During that period, the Nationalist government, insecure because of losses against communist troops on the mainland and complaints about its rule in Taiwan, killed or injured more than 30,000 people in an island-wide crackdown beginning on Feb. 28, 1947. The so-called Feb. 28 Incident created a social and political gap between native "Taiwanese" and "mainlanders" -- or Nationalists and their supporters born back in China -- that influences politics here to this day.
To their credit, the Nationalists under presidents Chiang Ching-kuo and Lee Teng-hui opened the party up to locals. But they didn't allow free elections for a majority of parliament seats until 1992. Direct presidential elections weren't held until 1996, a half century after the Nationalists came to Taiwan.
Mr. Lin got interested in law because of what he tersely calls "social injustice;" he went into politics because he was offended by what he says was vote-buying. He managed to get elected to Taiwan's provincial assembly in 1977, where he created a stir by promoting the use of Taiwan's local dialect instead of the Mandarin spoken by mainlanders. Unable to set up a party, Mr. Lin and like-minded native politicians formed an informal alliance known as the "tangwai" -- literally, "outside of the party," which published a magazine called "Formosa" and held rallies calling for more political freedom.
"We were used to having our phones tapped," Mr. Lin recalls. "To talk about human rights was to seek to end the ban on political parties and newspapers. And we advocated that elections should be clean."
His life changed on the afternoon of Dec. 10, 1979, when he decided at the last minute to go to the southern port city of Kaohsiung, where thousands of people had gathered for a human-rights demonstration. That was the year the U.S. switched diplomatic ties to China from Taiwan, hurting local confidence in Taiwan's government; dissatisfaction with martial law was rising as well. "I didn't want to go," Mr. Lin recalls. "But in the afternoon, I heard the armed police were there, and I thought about going to help avoid conflict."
But the conflict was inescapable. Police clashed with demonstrators in what became a watershed for Taiwan's democratic movement, known as the Kaohsiung Incident. Mr. Lin was one of eight main defendants charged with sedition. "I was locked up because the Nationalists didn't want opposition magazines to be published, not because of anything that happened that day," he says.
His mother and twin daughters were murdered while he was awaiting trial. Seven of the eight defendants at the trial later became senior figures in the DPP. In addition to Mr. Lin, the group includes Vice President-elect Lu; Yao Chia-wen, a former chairman; Chen Chu, the incoming cabinet's new labor-affairs chief; Huang Hsin-chieh, a former chairman who died in 1999; Shih Ming-teh, a DPP legislator and former chairman; and Chang Chun-hung, also a party legislator. Their lawyers -- a group that included President-elect Chen -- all lost their cases, but won public sympathy that launched their political careers.
The events in Kaohsiung marked a turning point for Mr. Lin. After that, he became a supporter of Taiwan independence. He and others in the DPP felt that the Nationalists, who fervently embraced the goal of reunification with China at that time, would never allow the island democratic freedoms. He saw the two regimes, on the mainland and at home, as wedded to repressive tactics to keep themselves in power.
"Before the Kaohsiung Incident, I was irritated by the Nationalists, but had only a vague idea that Taiwan could be separate from China," he says. "We had grown up thinking that China and Taiwan were one country because we had been educated that way for so long." The idea crystallized even more after he was released from jail and headed to the U.S. to earn a master's degree in public administration at Harvard University.
"After everything was over, I was certain. We are an independent country and should cut off political relations with China," he says. "Of course, we want economic relations, but we don't want Chinese control."
This philosophy is rejected by China, as Mr. Lin acknowledges. Indeed, he and most other DPP leaders have during this transition period backed off rhetoric calling for an independent "Republic of Taiwan." They now say they agree with the Nationalist position that the island is already a sovereign state known as the Republic of China. But the DPP differs from the Nationalists on one key point: It doesn't necessarily support unification with the mainland. Instead, it supports a referendum on any change in the status quo.
Mr. Lin, who is expected to be re-elected as party chairman at a congress this summer, says this points up the party's willingness to move toward the center. The new cabinet's economic and financial policy team, for instance, includes many senior officials of the Nationalist government, indicating the DPP's determination to avoid policies that would disrupt the economy. It also has sent emissaries to visit businesses with ties to the Nationalists.
The DPP will try to distinguish itself from the Nationalists in areas such as corruption, government services and environmental rules, he says. There are some disagreements over how to do that, though. Some say the party has to first reduce the influence of its factions in its upper echelons and bring in more of its top elected officials to boost public support. The limits of the party's influence were apparent earlier this month, when Mr. Lin faced fire simply for calling on Mr. Chen's new multiparty cabinet to follow DPP policies.
Mr. Lin suggests flexibility is the party's strength. "The DPP has no special ideology, except that Taiwan is a sovereign, independent country -- and that is different from the Nationalists," he says. "The other policy differences are just a matter of degree: The Nationalists are centrist and right-leaning; we're centrist and left-leaning." Those are hardly the words of a radical. "Things have changed a lot from the beginning of the democracy movement," Mr. Lin concedes.
But signs of the past live on, too. In central Taipei, a memorial plaque tacked to the outside of the Lins' first-floor apartment -- now a church -- notes the murder of Mr. Lin's mother and daughters there in 1980. The plaque notes that the massacre's sole survivor, Mr. Lin's then-nine-year-old daughter, survived six stab wounds "by the mercy of God."