The 1979 Formosa Incident Sparked Taiwan's Democracy MovementRoundup
tags: Cold War, civil liberties, human rights, Chinese history, Taiwan, Protest
James Carter is Professor of History and part of the Nealis Program in Asian Studies at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. He is the author of three books on China’s modern history, most recently Champions Day: The End of Old Shanghai.
This week, we look at a moment when demonstrators — who were labeled dissidents by the government — demanded political and social change. The crowd, with students, professors, and journalists at their head, demanded freedom of expression, free public debate, and an end to one-party rule. But the party insisted such reforms would lead to chaos, and banned public discussion of the topic. Defying the ban, protesters took to the streets. As the protests grew in size, armed police and soldiers moved in, with orders to disperse them.
Comparisons with Beijing in 1989 — or even the past few weeks — are obvious. But this was the scene in 1979, in Taiwan’s second-largest city, Kaohsiung, where the Formosa Incident (or the Kaohsiung Incident) lit a slow fuse that would end single-party KMT rule on the island.
Over the last few weeks, protests in a dozen or more Chinese cities have challenged COVID-zero policies, some even calling for an end to Communist Party rule. The abrupt and tragic endings of previous protests in 1976, 1979, 1984, 1986, and 1989 naturally raised questions about the eventual fate of these latest protests.
At the same time, voters in Taiwan successfully tossed the ruling DPP out of power in local elections across the island. President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文 Cài Yīngwén), though she wasn’t on the ballot, even announced her resignation on November 26 when voters chose the opposition by a wide margin. The contrast between how “the people” can express their will was clear: a one-party authoritarian state on one side of the strait, a multi-party democracy on the other.
But it’s easy to forget that this is a relatively new development. Just a few decades ago, public expression on Taiwan was as difficult, and as repressed, as on the mainland. Perhaps more so.
The roots of that repression extend back to the start of KMT rule over the island. When Nationalist forces led by Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石 Jiǎng Jièshí) fled to Taiwan in the late stages of the Civil War, they took the institutions of the Republic of China with them to Taipei and housed them there. That included a legislature, called the Legislative Yuan. The members, elected from constituencies on the mainland, remained in their seats as part of the government in exile.
The KMT announced their time in Taipei would be short, while plans to retake the mainland were carried out. But as time went on, the legislators remained fixed, vestiges of a former polity. As long as they stayed on, there was no real chance for local representation in Taiwan’s government.
Additionally, following the 2-28 Incident of 1947, the KMT imposed martial law, outlawed rival political parties, and assumed broad powers to stifle dissent, further limiting opportunities for free expression. Martial law persisted into the 1950s…
…and the 1960s…
…and the 1970s.
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