4,000 Days, 40 Years:
My Part in Taiwan’s Transition to Democracy
Thank you for the kind introduction. Hello, everyone, I am very honored to be here today, to share my experience in the transformation of Taiwan and the city of Kaohsiung. In the video just played, you saw that Kaohsiung is a beautiful, culturally diverse port city with friendly people. I welcome you all to come for a visit.
Kaohsiung was not always the beautiful place it is today. Our story is a lot like the tale of The Ugly Duckling. In the past, we suffered through a half-century of pollution from heavy industry. There’s a river that runs through Kaohsiung called Love River. Bob Dewitt, the former Chief of the Kaohsiung Branch Office of the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), used to joke that when he first came to Kaohsiung as a young man, the Love River stank so bad that he could always smell it before he saw it. But by the time he came back in 2014 to take up his position at the AIT Branch Office, the Love River had become a beautiful tourist attraction.
There is another reason why I take pride in Kaohsiung—it played a key role in Taiwan’s democracy movement. When I was young, the Kaohsiung Incident took place there. It resulted in the arrest of many people who had risen up in protest against the authoritarian rule of the Kuomintang (KMT). I was among those arrested, and was accused of being one of the ring leaders. I was charged with an offense that could have carried the death penalty. I certainly never dreamed that one day I would become the mayor of that same city.
Over the past 40 years, Taiwan has undergone a dramatic transformation from authoritarian rule to democracy. Kaohsiung, as well, has seen enormous changes over the past 12 years—or the past 4,000 days, as I often prefer to say. We’ve put our polluted past behind us and created an eminently livable city.
I’m really happy to have this opportunity to come here today and speak with you about how Taiwan has transformed during my 40 years in public life, and how Kaohsiung has done likewise in my 4,000 days as mayor.
My journey into politics
My journey into politics began in 1968. I was a 19-year-old student and worked part-time as an assistant to the provincial legislator Kuo Yu-hsin (郭雨新). Mr. Kuo was involved in the fledgling democracy movement.
Taiwan was ruled by the KMT, which had come to Taiwan in 1949 and immediately declared martial law. It was illegal to organize opposition parties. The national legislature had been elected in mainland China, and for decades afterward the members never had to stand for re-election. Anyone who opposed the government ran the risk of getting thrown in jail for years, or even being executed, for offenses as minor as reading a banned book or making a few complaints. Mr. Kuo opposed this one-party dictatorship, and longed for Western-style freedom and democracy. Working for him, I gradually came to understand Taiwanese politics. Little by little, I got caught up in the maelstrom of history.
After Taiwan was kicked out of the United Nations in 1971, the Taiwanese people felt alarmed and worried about the nation’s uncertain future. The democracy movement began to focus on a specific demand: re-election of all national legislators. The KMT was forced to open up a few legislative seats to popular elections. Since opposition parties were illegal, we called ourselves the dangwai, which meant “outside the KMT.” Every election provided an opportunity for dangwai activities, and our movement gained strong popular support.
To provide aid to political prisoners, some foreign friends helped me get a list of political prisoners delivered to Amnesty International. This angered the KMT government. One day in 1978, the police suddenly came and searched my apartment. I hid out at a Catholic church run by Father Ronald Boccieri in Changhua, but they found me within just a few days. Father Boccieri was expelled from Taiwan and returned to US. He just passed away 3 years ago. May he rest in peace. That was the first time I got arrested. I’m told that the US government put pressure on the KMT, and they released me after just 13 days.
Near the end of 1978, the US broke diplomatic ties with Taiwan and switched recognition to China. The KMT immediately suspended elections for the national legislature, and Taiwan fell into a state of profound anxiety. People in the dangwai movement responded by launching the Formosa Magazine to promote the principles of democracy.
Then on December 10, 1979 – December 10 being Human Rights Day of course –Formosa Magazine marked the occasion by organizing a rally in Kaohsiung, and the KMT responded by making mass arrests. This was the Kaohsiung Incident, which played a pivotal role in Taiwan’s democracy movement. Over 100 people were arrested, and eight of us were charged with sedition, an offense that carried a mandatory death penalty. Two of those eight people were women—Annette Lu and myself. Annette Lu would one day become Taiwan’s vice president.
I am often asked about women’s public participation in Taiwan. Well, there you go, two of the eight political prisoners were women. Not bad, wouldn’t you say? There were a lot of outstanding women in the dangwai movement, and they are highly respected for their contributions. Some have since taken part in various social movements, and others have become national legislators, county magistrates, and city mayors. Women now account for 38% of all national legislators.
At our Human Rights Day rally in 1979, we were only calling for the lifting of martial law, establishment of democracy, permission to organize opposition parties, and the right to elect our own legislature. But for that we were charged with sedition.
In the past, politically charged cases were always tried in secrecy, but the Kaohsiung Incident attracted so much international attention that the KMT was forced to carry out the trial in public. During the trial we made the case for ourselves and for democracy, and the media reported it all almost verbatim. It turned out to be a very successful education in democracy. The public learned that we who had supposedly engaged in sedition were in fact true patriots. We gained a lot of sympathy and support.
After our arrests, we were held in complete isolation and had no idea what was happening in the outside world. We were in court when we first learned what had happened to our fellow defendant, Mr. Lin Yi-hsiung. Someone had broken into his home, murdered his mother and his seven-year-old twin daughters, and left his nine-year-old daughter Judy in grave condition. Everyone broke down and cried in court. I always knew that participating in the democracy movement would involve sacrifices, but I never imagined it could be so horrible. The Lin family home had been under 24-hour surveillance by the secret police, so the murders were clearly a warning to us all. Lin’s mother and daughters were very close to me, and what happened to them is a pain inside of me that will never go away. Fortunately the doctors were able to save little Judy’s life. She was later sent to California, and became a pianist. I am happy to tell you that Judy is married to an American pastor. They have 5 children, and they now live in Taiwan.
After the murders of the Lin family, international pressure increased, and the KMT had to give up on sentencing us to death. I was sentenced to 12 years in prison. The mass arrests after the Kaohsiung Incident were intended to quash the democracy movement, but on the contrary, they actually spurred the movement to grow even faster. After that, the number of seats won by dangwai candidates increased rapidly with each successive election.
In early 1986, I was suddenly released after six and a half years in prison. I soon joined a secret team that was organizing an opposition party, and in September of that same year, the Democratic Progressive Party was born. To our surprise, the KMT didn’t arrest anyone, because the democracy movement already enjoyed mainstream support in Taiwan by that time. The KMT was cowed by our strong public support. The next year, martial law was finally lifted, and the dawn of democracy was in sight.
After the lifting of martial law, the democracy movement and other social movements developed quite quickly. In late 1992, all the seats in the national legislature were put up for re-election. The people finally got the chance to elect their own national legislature. That would be no big deal in the United States, but in Taiwan it was a historic first.
Two years later, Mr. Chen Shui-bian was elected as mayor of our capital city Taipei, and he invited me to head the Department of Social Welfare. And so, after long opposing the system from the outside, I joined the government myself.
Turnovers of power
As we all know, a major test of any young democracy isn’t just the holding of free and fair elections; it’s whether the ruling party is willing to hand over power when it loses. That moment of truth for Taiwan came in 2000, when Chen Shui-bian won the presidency.
This was something that we dared not dream possible, and many were worried that the KMT might refuse to hand over power after ruling for five decades. There were even concerns about a possible military coup. And in fact, after President Chen’s re-election in 2004, the KMT candidate refused to concede defeat, and called on his followers to occupy the square across from the Presidential Office Building, which they did for several months. Luckily, however, Taiwan dealt successfully with all these challenges.
But what sort of changes would democracy actually bring to Taiwan? Let me share two examples with you.
During his first term as president, President Chen appointed me to head the Ministry of Labor, which in those days was called the Council of Labor Affairs, and we undertook a series of labor legislation amendments. We cut the work week from 48 to 42 hours so that people could take Saturdays off. We established an employment insurance system so that unemployed workers could receive benefits. We reformed the labor pension system to ensure that all retired workers could receive pensions. And we passed legislation to safeguard gender equality in the workplace.
People had talked for a decade or two about doing these things, but they never got it done. So how did the DPP manage to do it so quickly after coming to power? That’s the good thing about democracy. Back in the authoritarian period, the government was so high and mighty it didn’t need to pay any attention to the people. It’s only in a democracy that the government will care about the people’s well-being.
The second example is the younger generation of Taiwanese. After the handover of power in 2000, a democratic mindset began taking root in schools, and would one day have a huge impact. In saying that, I’m thinking in particular about the Sunflower Student Movement of 2014. Most of the participants were born after the lifting of martial law. They had never lived under the shadow of authoritarianism, and grew up with a normal education. They all identified themselves as Taiwanese, regardless whether their parents or grandparents were from Taiwan or the mainland. In that sense, they were just like the children of immigrants to the US, who identify themselves as Americans. These young people felt that the economic policy of the KMT government promoted too much reliance on China, and was undermining national security, so they stormed the national legislature and occupied it for 23 days. What they did sent shock waves through Taiwanese society, and even provided inspiration to the young people of Hong Kong, who just a half year later launched their own Umbrella Movement.
The youth of the Sunflower generation aren’t divided by ethnic tensions. They’re plain-spoken and courageous. In short, they’re different from the Taiwanese people of the past. They are the ones who will defend Taiwan’s freedom and democracy in the future. I have great expectations for them.
After Chen Shui-bian’s eight years as president, the KMT returned to power in 2008. But eight years later Tsai Ing-wen was elected as Taiwan’s first female president ever. Now that power has changed hands between the KMT and DPP three times, a peaceful handover process has become the established norm. I am very proud to say, this is the greatest accomplishment of Taiwan.
Along with the transformation of Taiwan, I realized that those of us who once fought for democracy had to change as well. When I was in my 20s, my companions and I were all revolutionaries who sought to overthrow a dictatorial regime. The KMT government regarded us as seditious. In fact, they used to speak of the “four women desperados” of the dangwai. Annette Lu and I were two of the four.
But that was then. Times change, sometimes quite dramatically. The handover of ruling power in 2000 marked the beginning of a new era in Taiwan. The KMT stepped down, and it was the DPP’s turn to govern the nation. After changing from a revolutionary into a reformer, I discovered that reform is more difficult than revolution. When we were outside the system, we could just take a “full steam ahead” attitude in opposing the government, but once I was inside the system I had to pursue reform with great caution.
I already had this realization when I headed the Council of Labor Affairs, but when I became the mayor of Kaohsiung, this struck home even more so.
Kaohsiung is the biggest metropolis in southern Taiwan. The Port of Kaohsiung is the 13th-busiest container port in the world, and industry has been a major feature of the city’s economy ever since the period of Japanese rule. After World War II, oil refineries, steel mills, and shipyards began popping up, turning Kaohsiung into a center of heavy industry. As mayor, my biggest challenges were to clean up decades of pollution, and to facilitate the transformation of local industry.
We’ve built a lot of parks, greenbelts, and wetlands, and the natural environment is gradually recovering from years of mistreatment. We’re also cleaning up our rivers and streams. The most notable example is the Love River.
Many areas in Kaohsiung used to flood during the typhoon season, often up to half a story deep, but we’ve created 15 flood-detention basins that when dry are used as parkland, complete with jogging paths and more. Areas where we’ve built these basins don’t flood anymore.
Kaohsiung has a population of 2.8 million, and most people get to work by either car or scooter, which creates serious air pollution. We now have two mass transit lines, and we’re building a light-rail loop line as well as other new rail transit lines. Our mass transit network is soon going to offer outstanding coverage throughout the city. All of Kaohsiung City’s 38 districts have public bus service, and there are 5,000 public rental bicycles. Transportation in Kaohsiung just keeps getting more convenient, and cleaner.
The industrial harbor facilities have been moved south to the Second Harbor, while abandoned warehouses in the old harbor have been rebuilt as the Pier-2 Art Center, which provides space for artist workshops, museums, and shops. On another front, it is no coincidence that a big industrial port city like Kaohsiung should be home to large numbers of immigrants from Southeast Asia. As part of our effort to promote multiculturalism, school-age children of immigrants are provided with special classes where they learn the native languages of their parents. Kaohsiung is gradually moving on from its heavy industrial beginnings to become a multifaceted metropolis with an appealing combination of industry and culture.
My administration is very clear about what we want to accomplish. We want to clean up our polluted environment. We want to create a livable city that doesn’t flood, and a city with convenient transportation. We want our people to be able to choose from a wider variety of jobs. And we want cultural diversity. The transformation of Kaohsiung is still in progress, but everybody is already saying: “Kaohsiung has become so beautiful. It’s a different place these days.”
New challenges facing Taiwan
Under authoritarian rule, I was a revolutionary who fought to build a society where different voices could be heard. In democratic times, I have become a reformer who is working to build a city where people and nature can thrive together. Different times call on different qualities from each of us. Our President Tsai Ing-wen is also quite different from me.
She gave a speech here three years ago, before she was elected president, so I think many of you remember her. She’s not a “desperado” type of personality, like I supposedly was. She’s even-keeled and professional. But she’s every bit as determined as I am about getting reform accomplished.
Since taking office, President Tsai has been working to reform the pension system and recover assets that political parties have obtained through illicit means. These reforms are absolutely necessary, but they’re also very difficult.
Take the case of pension reform, for example. Public sector retirees receive far more generous pensions than blue-collar workers, and some receive 18% interest on their pension deposits, which is especially unfair. Most people support President Tsai’s pension reform effort, but a small minority opposes it bitterly.
The campaign to recover ill-gotten party assets is another case in point. During the authoritarian period, billions of US dollars’ worth of assets belonging to the state were transferred by the KMT to its private ownership. The KMT became the richest political party in the world, and its immense wealth has undermined the fairness of elections. The effort to recover these ill-gotten assets has also enjoyed strong popular support.
We must deal with the unfair systems that remain with us as holdovers from the authoritarian period. That’s the only way to achieve normalcy. Our transitional justice campaign has met with resistance, but I firmly believe that President Tsai, in her own low-key but determined way, will succeed in the end.
It’s the same with cross-strait relations. President Tsai, acting firmly but without fanfare, is tenaciously upholding Taiwan’s sovereignty, while at the same time demonstrating to China her good-faith intention to maintain peaceful ties. She has launched reform of our armed forces, emphasizing Taiwan’s self-defense capabilities. And she hopes to cooperate with the US, Japan, and other nations to maintain regional security in Asia.
Taiwanese values are the new values of Asia
There have been a lot of ironic twists and turns in my life. The most ironic of all was that I should go to prison because of the Kaohsiung Incident, and end up years later as the mayor of Kaohsiung.
The entire dangwai leadership was arrested during the Kaohsiung Incident, so who would have expected the crackdown to kick the democracy movement into higher gear, rather than snuffing it out? This movement put an end to authoritarian rule and ushered Taiwan into the community of democratic nations.
When I was young, I opposed the single-party dictatorship, and dreamed about Taiwan having the same freedom of speech and democracy as in the West. But those things back then were as distant as the stars in the night sky. I didn’t think those dreams would one day come true.
Taiwan now has complete freedom of speech, and we choose our national legislators and president through democratic elections. Our current president is a woman. The mayor of Kaohsiung is a woman. So are the speakers of the Kaohsiung City Council and the Taipei City Council. Women also account for almost 40% of the members of the national legislature. Taiwan is the most free and democratic nation in Asia.
Achieving democracy was no easy feat, and consolidating it is proving just as difficult. At the same time that we are reforming legacy authoritarian systems, we also have to deal with a threat from overseas as well as rapidly changing conditions in Asia.
Taiwan’s democracy is maturing, and the DPP has already emerged as a fully fledged reformist party. I firmly believe that we have the ability to face all the challenges that lie ahead.
However, Taiwan needs the support of the international community. It was thanks to the support of the international community that I was able to stay safe through two stints in prison. And it was international support that helped Taiwan throw off authoritarianism and achieve freedom and democracy. Today, Taiwan needs international support all the more.
The youth of Hong Kong, China, and Southeast Asia yearn for the free and democratic ways that Taiwan already enjoys. I believe Taiwanese values are the new values of Asia. Taiwan may be small, but we can play a huge role in Asia.
Maintaining Taiwan’s freedom and democracy is important to all of Asia. It’s not just in the best interests of Taiwan and the US; it’s also our shared responsibility. I hope the US and Taiwan can work together even more closely to defend peace in the Indo-Pacific region and throughout the world.