Twenty Years, No Martial Law

Today marks the twentieth anniversary of the lifting of martial law in Taiwan. That period--thirty-eight years--still represents the longest official imposition of military rule anywhere in the world.

First imposed by Chiang Kai-shek and the Nationalists, or Kuomingtang (KMT), in May 1949, martial law remained in effect in Taiwan until 15 July 1987 when it was officially lifted by the dictator's son, Chiang Ching-kuo.
Caroline Gluck describes the situation in a BBC report.

The media was tightly controlled, outspoken academics and others were blacklisted and even hundreds of songs were banned.

The secret police, called the Taiwan Garrison Command, had wide-ranging powers to arrest anyone deemed to be critical of government policy.

"It was obvious how militarised this place was," said Linda Arrigo, who was a teenager in Taipei in the 1960s. "There were military police all over the streets, signs saying 'Communist spies turn yourself in.' You would go to the post office and you would see them unravelling films, to look at every frame of the film. Even as a child, I met people who told me about students, people disappearing."

The restrictions began to erode after the death of Chiang Kai-shek in 1975.

But by the 1980s, increasingly emboldened opposition forces and citizen protest movements had begun to challenge the existence of martial law.

The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) - today's governing party - was illegally established in September 1986, before martial law restrictions were revoked.

Antonio Chiang was the publisher of a weekly opposition magazine, The Journalist, which began publishing before the lifting of martial law and was regularly suspended, banned and confiscated.

When people get old, some get stubborn, some get wise; we were lucky Chiang [Ching-kuo] got wiser," he said. "He realised his time was numbered; he had no hope to go back to China. To survive, the party had to identify with this land, this people - so democracy was the only way for Taiwan to survive. If Taiwan didn't reform enough, there would be no difference between Taiwan and China - and then, why would the US, the western world, support Taiwan?"

Older people educated under Chiang Kai-shek still experience cognitive dissonance when it comes to 'identifying with this land' and accepting that the KMT, as a party, now enjoys no special privileges. For Taiwan's young people, of all political stripes, this is simply reality. They live in a free country.

Opening up to China had the ironic (and unintended, on both Kuomintang and Communist sides) effect of building Taiwanese identity. The seminal moment was the removal of Taiwan's ban on travel to China in months after lifting of martial law.

Initially, it was a measure applied only to those with close relatives there - many of them elderly former KMT soldiers desperate to see their homeland and sweep their ancestors' tombs.

"Coming to Taiwan was a painful experience," said 78-year-old He Wen-De, a former KMT soldier from a poor peasant family in China's Hubei province. "At that time, life was difficult. We missed our families and we had no opportunity to return," he said. "I didn't get a single letter from them after living in Taiwan for more than 20 years; the KMT withheld the letters. If I hadn't gone back to China, I wouldn't even have known about them."

But when they were finally allowed, these visits brought a range of emotions, and there were also social changes following the Chinese cultural revolution. Many came back to Taiwan disillusioned, with heartbreaking stories of giving all their money and possessions to poor relatives, yet happy to return to Taiwan - a place they now saw as home.

The effect was reinforced as young Taiwanese students and professionals travelled internationally. They increasingly encountered colleagues from China and were obliged to notice how their culture differed from China's and explain their nationality to foreigners. The experience reinforced a sense of distinct Taiwanese identity.

The BBC summarizes the situation today.

As a society today, Taiwan is still dealing with the legacy of its martial law period, and is grappling with how to right the wrongs many suffered during that time. Even so, analysts agree that democracy is fully-entrenched.

"It's 100% democracy. People are not happy, but they are not desperate to go back. They have no nostalgia for the bad, old past. They want a good future," said sociology professor Michael Hsiao.

"It's immature, lousy, chaotic... But we have a democracy," agreed Mr Chiang. "We have a vital media, a strong opposition, lively party politics and judicial independence is on the march. It may be chaotic, but there's no way to turn it back."

Here's to moving forward. Gambai.


Caroline Gluck. 'Remembering Taiwan's martial law.' BBC. 2007 07 13.

. 'Taiwan marks twentieth anniversary of lifting of martial law.' VOA News. 2007 07 16.

Associated Press. 'Taiwan marks twentieth anniversary of martial law lifting.' AsiaOne. 2007 07 14.

'Former president Lee Teng-hui credits public over Chiang'. Taipei Times. 2007 07 16.

'Photo expo commemorates lifting of martial law in 1987.' The China Post. 2007 07 16.

Photo ©2007 Alton Thompson. Presidential Palace on Twentieth Anniversary of Lifting of Martial Law.


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