The Taiwanese Kuomintang’s “White Terror”
Taiwan’s 40-Year Martial Law Period
Today, the Kuomintang represents one of a number of parties vying for power in Taiwan’s democratic system — though it is a major party. But it had not always been like this. For a long period of time, the Kuomintang ruled Taiwan with an iron fist.
Before the Kuomintang’s final retreat to Taiwan but after its handover from the Japanese to the Chinese, a crowd broke out around the government’s confiscation of contraband cigarettes and the subsequent accidental shooting of a civilian. Riots broke out across the island with people demanding greater autonomy, free elections, and an end to government corruption. The Nationalist governor Chen Yi called upon Chiang Kai-shek for help.
Chiang in turn brought troops from the mainland to crack down on the protests. To be fair, it is unclear what exactly the Generalissimo was told when the request for troops came in to his desk. There are spurious reports of him telling Chen to “Kill them all”, but this comes via a secondary source without solid proof for such an order existing. Regardless, in the end an undetermined number of people were killed with estimates ranging from the hundreds to the thousands. Chen Yi would later be reassigned back to the mainland but was convicted of spying for the Communists and shot in Taipei. The 228 Incident remains a politically sensitive topic on the island today.
Thus, after coming to Taiwan with memories of the 228 Incident and its loss of the Chinese Mainland clear in its mind, the Kuomintang knew that it was not particularly popular with the local population. The crackdown on the 228 protestors had uncovered some sleeper Communist Party cells. This especially alarmed the Kuomintang high command because the Communist Party had successfully taken root in the lower peasant classes of the Hainan community. Their collaboration, infiltration and espionage played a big role in one of the Kuomintang’s last strongholds.
While fifty years of Japanese colonization made such infiltration somewhat less likely on Taiwan island — the existence of communist sleeper cells clearly made it possible. The Kuomintang wanted to make sure it did not happen. They began closely studying the factors and ideas that led to its unpopularity and ousting by the Chinese people.
Chiang’s study led to him deciding that the structure of the Kuomintang Party impeded its ability to respond to the people’s needs. Previously he had resisted such reform because doing so could possibly displace him as the center of power within the Party. Coming to Taiwan, this was no longer an issue — Chiang was the Generalissimo. Thus, they needed to overhaul how the Party fundamentally worked. They turned of course to the side who beat them for inspiration.
Inspired by the Leninist Chinese Communist Party, the Kuomintang extended its tentacles into virtually every aspect of Taiwanese society. From the grass-roots level to the highest ranks of governance, the Kuomintang involved itself in Taiwanese society in order to firmly establish its grip on power and remake Taiwan in China’s image. They would also deploy their secret police force to prosecute and imprison some 140,000 Taiwanese. This period of suppression is broadly considered to have lasted from 1947 to 1987 and is labeled the “White Terror”. This term was borrowed from the Russian civil war, referring to the white Army made up of former Tsarist officers fighting against the Bolshevik Red Army.
Being that the White Terror was not actually all that long ago, there is not a lot of information on the topic. Yet over the span of forty years, there was only one more major uprising — one in 1977 called the Kaoshiung Incident. This lengthy period of authoritarian-imposed peace makes you wonder what exactly made the Taiwanese White Terror so successful. The answer seems to be a multi-leg strategy of economic payoffs, cultural remaking through education and the resettling of peoples, and constant surveillance.
The party secured a lasting hold on the reins of power by deeply involving itself with economic activity and dissembling the old systems of power. That started with extensive land reform in which the party would seize at low cost from owners (usually those associated with the former Japanese colonizers) and redistribute it to tenants. The party would benefit economically in that it collected the spread between the rents and the cost of acquisition. Politically, the party resettled a massive Chinese refugee population of 2 million across the entire Taiwan island — earning their loyalty and bringing Chinese cultures and practices to Taiwanese households and people. This land reform also helped the party achieve its political goals by ejecting native Taiwanese land owners from positions of power and preventing lower class discontent from coalescing around them. If you were a peasant and the party’s changes made you angry, there was nowhere for you to go to express your desire for change.
The wealth acquired from the party’s involvement in land reform and the Taiwanese economy gave it the funds to keep comfortable the social classes that allow it to maintain power: educators, public servants, and the army. These people — mostly mainlanders who came with the Kuomintang — would help instill Chinese cultural tenets back into a population that had drifted during the 50 years of Japanese colonial rule. Old Japanese and Taiwanese texts were destroyed. New ones were written focusing on the idea of China and the celebration of Chinese culture. A Taiwanese raised before the end of the White Terror told me that she would have to learn and memorize all the provinces of mainland China as part of their curriculum despite never having visited the mainland before in her life.
The Taiwanese language itself as well as all other indigenous languages were banned from use in public — those caught by the language police would be issued a fine. TV programs all switched to the Mandarin language and Taiwanese opera (which I have never personally seen) was replaced with the Peking Opera.
And then as a guarantor of the rest of the system, the Kuomintang held the right to imprison, torture, and occasionally execute its political opponents. It drew on the Sedition Law of the Criminal Code for this power. The party would conduct public executions on the banks of major rivers in Taiwanese cities as well as midnight arrests and killings out in the countryside. The goal was to warn against any attempt to revolt against or even question the party’s grip on power.
I do want to emphasize something. When most people bring up the White Terror, the thing they most often bring up is the imprisonments, the constant fear of being watched, and the executions. Yes this happened. Yes, force and surveillance is a crucial part of the puzzle, but the Kuomintang is attempting to govern and “control” a population of 9+ million with generally what is only a tiny minority of that population — the mainlanders who arrived from the mainland in 1949. This could not work unless it had at least the tacit support of a class of native Taiwanese. And it appears to have had such without needing to resort to violence and coercion. A regime run exclusively on coercion would soon see a civil war break out. We can probably attribute this to the fact that the Kuomintang in Taiwan — like the Chinese Communist Party back on the Mainland — promised and delivered on economic growth. People got rich and prosperous. World War II was a desperate time for everyone on the island. The Kuomintang’s economic policies — headlined by its large infrastructure projects and free trade agreements with the West — helped deliver that.
It is a remarkable system, and it reminds me of what Trevor Noah wrote about apartheid — that it was a finely tuned system built with great thought. But like apartheid it could not last. Times were changing. The 1970s had brought amazing economic growth and excellent education had created a rich and sophisticated middle class increasingly aware of the world beyond their shores. The people began to demand more of their government. In addition, massive geopolitical trends began that would eventually force the Kuomintang to dissemble its systems, revert from its Leninist roots, and convert Taiwan into a democracy. Unlike the Chinese Communist Party however, the Kuomintang responded and stepped down from power.