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An Enlightened Transition

Chiang Ching-kuo's Crucial 200 Days


Under his leadership, authoritarian rule reached a crescendo, and also came to an end. Over a 200-day period in 1986, Chiang Ching-kuo permitted an organized opposition to form and set the stage for Taiwan's democracy.



Chiang Ching-kuo's Crucial 200 Days

By Sherry Lee
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 427 )

With a blazing sun and bracing wind outside, on the afternoon of 28 September 1986, Frank Hsieh, Chen Chu, David Chiang and over 130 others who had gathered at the Grand Hotel raised their right hands and swore oaths forming the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

The dangwai opposition movement – a grouping of activists determined to contest the Kuomintang monopoly on power (dangwai means "outside the party") – put their own lives at risk by working to establish an independent party, in an effort to loosen the grip of 38 years of martial law.

On the other side of the fence, the Kuomintang (KMT) hawks were extending their talons.

They hurried over to the residence of President Chiang Ching-kuo, where senior KMT leadership, fearing that another political party would threaten the KMT's hold on power, implored Chiang to give the order to start rounding people up. Some even declared that Chiang could ill afford to be soft at this critical time, and that the opposition should be "driven into the sea."

Sitting in his wheelchair, the 76 year-old Chiang Ching-kuo paused to reflect.

Perhaps it is difficult to imagine from today's perspective that the fate of a political party, and the life and death of a group of people, could be held in the balance at the whim of a single strongman.

The order was given: no crackdown, no action. Stroking his chin, Chiang told the party elders, "The times are changing, the environment is changing, and the trends are changing. The KMT can't afford to be too proud, too self-important."

What was it that compelled Chiang Ching-kuo to choose a different path? What was it that changed Chiang, and turned Taiwan's democratic fate around?

Choosing between Conservative and Enlightened

History generally holds Chiang Ching-kuo in higher regard than his father, Chiang Kai-shek. And although there are as many detractors as supporters, polls have shown that he remains the most fondly remembered of Taiwan's presidents.

The personality, experience and faith of this strongman made him different, and helped shape the destiny of many people on the island of Taiwan.

Former legislator Kang Ning-hsiang and former China Times journalist Chen Hao, both of whom had extensive dealings with Chiang during his time as premier, describe him as a pragmatist, who "kept conservative decisions in his right pocket, and enlightened decisions in his left," who played his hand as necessary according to prevailing conditions.

His conservative, cunning style was evidenced by the choice of Political Warfare Department chief Wang Sheng to head an ad hoc task force known as the "Liu Shao-kang Office," which concentrated power separately from the official party apparatus. Similarly, through the party and the China Youth Corps system, he established a series of offices inside the school system that worked to suppress communism, and dissent in general.

When he took office as premier in 1972, Taiwan was economically free and politically authoritarian. However, several major events that transpired in the 1980s prompted Chiang to shift towards democratization and reform.

Forces at Work on Eve of Reform

The first force at work on the eve of reform was the People's Republic of China across the strait, where Chiang's former classmate from the Soviet Union, Deng Xiaoping, had instituted the policy of Opening and Reform.

A consistent thread throughout many statements Chiang Ching-kuo made over the years was his insistence that the biggest difference between Taiwan and China was that the Republic of China is a constitutional republic. Thus, he wanted to unify the two sides through the principles of freedom, democracy and equitable distribution of wealth.

China's reform and opening certainly put him under pressure. He knew very well that the final battleground between the two systems was not just the economic realm, but that of democracy.

Moreover, the murder of Henry Liu (in October 1984) and the Tenth Credit Cooperative scandal (in February 1985) also showed him the dangers of the KMT's increasing corruption.

The murder of Henry Liu, author of the unflattering Biography of Chiang Ching-kuo and a US citizen living in California, by the Bamboo Union gang, strained relations between Taiwan and its major ally, the United States. Investigations showed that ROC intelligence chief Wang Hsi-ling had ordered the hit, and even Chiang Hsiao-wu, Chiang's son, was implicated.

The ROC's intelligence community recruited members of the organized crime underworld to carry out the gangland-style execution on foreign soil, doing considerable damage to the image of the ROC's self-proclaimed democracy.

Professor Kao Yung-kuang, director of the National Chengchi University College of Social Sciences, contends that because Chiang had been the head of the intelligence, security and military apparatuses, he was surely aware that if he lost control of the intelligence organs, Taiwan faced the kind of turmoil common in Latin America, the Philippines and other parts of the Third World.

In the Tenth Credit Cooperative scandal, an illegal lending scheme worth nearly US$200 million, several of the people implicated for taking illicit loans were government officials.

These events hit Chiang hard, striking a blow to his confidence.

The period between March and October 1986 marked a major shift in politics in Taiwan. Over a short 200-day period, Chiang made numerous vital decisions that would subsequently have a far-reaching impact on Taiwan's democracy.

Race against Time

In late March of that year, at his simply furnished residence in the Shilin district of Taipei, Chiang lay down to rest on a single bed under a gold military blanket.

As the grandfather clock in the room ticked away, he knew he was in a race against his own mortality. He knew he would have to pick up his pace.

Just 50 centimeters away at his bedside, ROC representative to the U.S. Frederick Chien, freshly returned from America, briefed him, his voice betraying his urgency.

"Mr. President, you have to commit to reform. It's obvious we haven't implemented full-scale martial law – we have a constitution and a parliament. But since we haven't given the people certain freedoms, we're saddled overseas with the image of martial law, and we're viewed as a corrupt military regime. It's not worth it! Why not unbind our own feet?"

In the blink of an eye, it seemed, 37 years had passed since he first set foot on war-torn Taiwan at the age of 39. Suddenly, he was 76 years old.

Under his governance Taiwan achieved 11.5 percent economic growth in 1986; 94 percent of households had a color television, and 66 percent had a newspaper subscription. The average income had just moved north of US$4000, and the wealth gap between the rich and the poor had shrunk from 5.3 times to 4.6 times. However, the increasingly wealthy populous yearned for greater freedom and autonomy, and was frustrated under authoritarian rule. Sporadic protests and movements sprang up all over the place.

Reform through Code Names

Following his change of heart, the momentous decisions Chiang Ching-kuo made over the 200 days between March and October of 1986 – including initiating the end of martial law, permitting opposition parties, and opening up cross-strait exchanges – have had a far-reaching impact that continues to reverberate in the present.

The KMT's Twelfth Central Committee held its Third Plenum on March 31, 1986. As party chairman, Chiang Ching-kuo proposed "preserving the past while moving forward, embarking on a bright future for the country." Standing before the Central Standing Committee and party elders, he declared, "We must drive administrative reform via party reform," and "drive overall reform through administrative reform." He directed the Central Standing Committee to prepare the direction of reform.

While reviewing his six-point reform program, for the first time Chiang Ching-kuo extended an olive branch on his own volition, interacting with members of the dangwai opposition and holding Taiwan's first three-way negotiation conference (consisting of liberal scholars, KMT members, and dangwai representatives).

The KMT decided to make gradual concessions to the dangwai opposition, allowing them to found the Association for Public Policy – but requiring them to legally register and to drop the Chinese characters dangwai that were originally attached to the association's name. The two sides agreed to work for the promotion of democratic constitutional rule.

As all eyes inside and outside Taiwan focused on two consecutive rounds of negotiations, a storm brewed within the KMT. Many party members distributed leaflets opposing the talks, undermining the KMT negotiators.

Then, on September 28 at the Grand Hotel, a group of opposition activists, centered around a core membership from the Association for Public Policy, suddenly announced the formation of the Democratic Progressive Party.

There was a collective holding of breath on Taiwan and abroad as people feared a crackdown. The Taiwan Garrison Command stood at the ready.

Chiang Ching-kuo summoned the presidents of the government's five branches to a meeting with senior party and government leaders. Upon conclusion of the meeting, he directed Lee Teng-hui, overseer of the six-point reform program, to proceed with restraint, refrain from cracking down and continue to observe the public's mood.

Academia Sinica fellow Yang Kuo-shu, a mediator at the trilateral summit, believes that the meeting averted mass antagonism between the two sides and potentially terrible bloodshed. And it allowed Taiwan to enter the era of bipartisan politics.

"This was a precious asset," Yang relates. "The emergence of bipartisan politics free of bloody repression is extraordinary in Chinese society."

The establishment of the Democratic Progressive Party was like the shattering of a long-held taboo. Partisan competition emerged in Taiwan.

Chiang Ching-kuo seems to have come to a conclusion about certain other issues as well.

One Interview, One Momentous Decision

Smelling change in the air for the Republic of China, Frederick Chien worked tirelessly to arrange for Katharine Meyer Graham, publisher of the Washington Post, to visit Taiwan for an exclusive interview with Chiang Ching-kuo.

Chiang spoke with Graham on July 7. Her questions were pointed, such as whether martial law would be lifted, when would a national security law be implemented to replace the martial law orders, and even whether Taiwan would come under military rule if Chiang were to leave office.

The interpreter sitting between the two was none other than current ROC president Ma Ying-jeou. Unexpectedly, Chiang departed from the script.

He not only indicated that martial law would shortly be rescinded, but also declared that he wasn't concerned, since opposition parties are a normal part of the political process. He added that even if he were no longer president, military rule would under no circumstances be instituted.

After the interview, he presented Ms. Graham with a bouquet of roses, with the thorns thoughtfully plucked out for her in advance.

As if wiping away martial law's climate of fear from the island, the thornless roses seemed to signify the end of an era.

The Washington Post portrayed Chiang as relaxed, confident and lucid, and a buzz began to grow among foreign media that Taiwan was ready to genuinely democratize and put an end to martial law.

Over those 200 days in 1986, Chiang pushed forward the six-point reform program, opened the door to talks with opposition members, and assented to the formation of an opposition party even while martial law remained in place. This circuitous process virtually paved the way for Taiwan's subsequent democratization and cross-strait exchange.

Over the following year the government amended its national security laws, rescinded martial law, removed restrictions on newspapers, and permitted ROC citizens to visit relatives in China.

Martial law in Taiwan came to an end at midnight on 15 July 1987. The Legislative Yuan then passed the National Security Act and the Assembly and Demonstrations Act. Speaking at that year's National Day celebrations, Chiang declared, "The year 1987 marks the entry into a new era in the course of our nation's development. It is a year of momentous import."

The late Lei Chen's demands of 1960 for the formation of opposition parties finally came to fruition, and the Taiwanese people could struggle for power under the protection of "the system," without resorting to violence or bloodshed. And after 40 years of mutual proscription, Taiwan and China initiated bilateral exchanges, diminishing the threat of war.

Moving Focus Closer to Home

Were Chiang Ching-kuo's reforms inevitable or accidental? Were they engendered from within or by outside forces? Interpretations differ widely.

Lee Teng-hui, Chiang's lieutenant and successor, believes that Chiang's concern for Taiwan grew in his last years, especially in the latter half of 1986, which would become a crucial threshold in Taiwanese history.

Many people, Lee Teng-hui among them, believe that if Chiang Ching-kuo hadn't proposed the lifting of martial law, then no one else in the KMT would have dared to do so. Without that move, would successor Lee Teng-hui have been able to hold back the opposition of old-guard conservatives in the party? And could Taiwan's democratization have been so smooth?

Chiang Ching-kuo passed away at his presidential residence on 13 January 1988. He was 78. His passing symbolized a new beginning.

In the post-Chiang Ching-kuo era, a crack had opened in the gate of authoritarian rule, letting in a ray of light. Whether the level of Taiwan's democracy has risen or fallen over the past 20 years, it all lies outside Chiang Ching-kuo's script. For better or worse, it has transpired without his involvement. And democracy continues to restlessly stir.

Translated from the Chinese by David Toman