The lifting of martial law in 1987 was an important turning point in Taiwan’s history. But it was not such a clear-cut watershed moment, and many aspects of authoritarianism continued.
Social media seems full of reflections on the anniversary of the lifting of martial law. Officially martial law lasted from May 19, 1949, to July 15, 1987. But do these dates really reflect reality? Do they correspond with the experiences of Taiwanese people living through this era?
Academics love to periodize. We talk of watershed moments, critical elections, turning points in history, the end of an era. However, one thing I have learned both from my research and discussions in my classes is that start and end moments will always be debatable. Each year I hear heated discussions on when Taiwan’s democratization started and from what point Taiwan could be classified as a democracy. The answers will depend on how we define key concepts and the evidence selected to support the argument.
Of course the lifting of martial law in 1987 was important. But it was not such a clear-cut watershed moment. Many aspects of authoritarianism continued in the form of the National Security Law that was passed just before the lifting of martial law. Legislation allowing party formation was not passed until 1989. In 1989 Blacklist’s album “Songs of Madness” (抓狂歌) was banned from being broadcast. One song in particular touched raw nerves. That was “Democracy A-cao” (民主 阿草), which mocked the senior parliamentarians frozen in office since 1948 and the Kuomintang’s (KMT) empty slogan of “retaking the mainland.” Those parliamentarians would remain in office a further four years until there was full re-election of parliaments in 1991 and 1992.
Under premier Hao Pei-tsun (1990-1993), the government made concerted attempts to crack down on environmental and labor social movements in the early 1990s. In 1991 the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) was under the threat of being dissolved due to its Taiwan Independence clause. As late as 1992, people could still be arrested for freedom of speech offences under Article 100 of the Criminal Code. The KMT retained its dominance of the electronic media, even with the arrival of cable TV in the mid to late 1990s. The KMT was able to hold on to the business and real estate empire (known as party assets) it had built up under martial law, allowing it to outspend its rivals in campaigns until 2016.
For many people not interested in politics, the lifting of martial law seemingly made no difference to their lives. When I first went to Taiwan, I met many people for whom life went on as usual and who seemed puzzled by my fixation on the term martial law. In 1989-1990 I often hitchhiked around Taiwan, mainly being given lifts by middle-aged men. Two of the most common memories on those drives were Chen Shu-hua’s (陳淑樺) best-selling album (跟你說 聽你說) and complaints about how crime had gone up. In other words, some people were telling me that society had become less stable and that things were better under martial law. Others complained of frequent traffic jams caused by demonstrations. Of course, such perspectives were starkly different from the university students I spoke to who were impatient with the slow pace of political reform. The fact that the Wild Lily Student Movement emerged in 1990 reflects the limitations of political change following the lifting of martial law in 1987.
In a recent panel discussion one of my students suggested that by talking of a 30th anniversary we are neglecting the different experiences of Taiwan’s offshore islands (this point was made by SOAS M.A. Taiwan Studies student Matt Taylor). We should not forget that martial law was not lifted on Kinmen and Matsu until November 1992. County commissioners were only directly elected there in 1993. Although martial law was also lifted in Penghu in 1987, the military remained highly influential in the archipelago county’s governance and the KMT had an effective monopoly on its local politics until 1993.
We should also not forget that many components of democracy were emerging prior to the lifting of martial law. Edwin Winkler argues, for instance, that Taiwan was making a transition from hard to soft authoritarianism from the mid 1970s. Although Taiwan was officially a one-party state, the Dangwai (黨外) was a de facto party by 1977 and officially established in 1986. Although the DPP was still technically illegal and of course this was only a supplementary election that could not change the balance of power, however, we can argue that 1986 represents Taiwan’s first multi-party election. Similarly, many of the social movements that have gone on to make Taiwan the most vibrant civil society in Asia were already cautiously emerging in the late years of marital law.
The fact that Taiwan’s current government is embarking on a series of reforms aimed at transitional justice 30 years after 1987 shows how the country remains in the shadow of martial law.
In the cultural realm, the patterns are also not so clear-cut. Naturally artists were often frustrated by the restrictions imposed on their work under martial law. The film director Wan Jen (萬仁) has for instance spoken of his battles to release films that exposed some of the darker sides of Taiwanese society in the early 1980s. However, if we consider the films that make up New Taiwan cinema that has received so much international critical acclaim, we can see how these cut across the 1987 divide.
Democratic elections can result in governments that operate in an authoritarian manner, especially where electoral systems produce disproportional outcomes. During the Ma Ying-jeou administration, the government was frequently accused of reverting to authoritarian government practices, for instance in the handling of social movement protests. To a certain extent Ma’s overwhelming parliamentary majorities allowed him to rule without worrying about opposition. His refusal to engage with civil society, something that would ultimately lead to the demise of the KMT, was partly due to overconfidence caused by successive electoral victories.
Often in Taiwan martial law terms are used in the most surprising of ways, sometimes showing a lack of understanding of what really happened under martial law. I recall how the DPP government in Kaohsiung was accused of engaging in “white terror” in the late 1990s. In fact this was a reference to the white tow trucks used by the city government to remove illegally parked vehicles. I wonder how victims of political persecution would feel on hearing such casual usage of the term “white terror.”
Taiwan experienced a gradual democratic transition that allowed the former authoritarian party to thrive in democratic elections. A consequence of this compromise or pacted transition was that much of the martial law infrastructure was left intact. Post-1987 governments of both parties have been cautious, constrained or just not interested in removing authoritarian legacies. The fact that Taiwan’s current government is embarking on a series of reforms aimed at transitional justice 30 years after 1987 shows how the country remains in the shadow of martial law.