The Kaohsiung rally was held to oppose the KMT’s one-party rule, and called for the removal of bans on political parties and the end of martial law, which had been in place since 1949.
At one point, riot police encircled the crowd and used tear gas on protesters, resulting in fierce clashes between the protesters and police that left hundreds injured.
Wu sees the “Kaohsiung Incident” as an outgrowth of that rally with three elements: the arrests of pro-democracy movement participants, their trials, and the unsolved murders on Feb. 28, 1980 of the mother and twin daughters of Lin Yi-hsiung (林義雄), who was arrested on Dec. 13, 1979 for his role in the Kaohsiung rally.
Those events, Wu argues, were critical to the country’s democratization because they shocked and galvanized Taiwan’s political circles and the public in a way that was unprecedented.
When dictatorships face challenges, their first reaction is repression and arrests, and the arrests in 1960 of several critics of the regime, including Lei Chen (雷震), a publisher who opposed Chiang Kai-shek’s (蔣介石) authoritarian rule and called for reform, brought 20 years of calm, Wu says.
But in the Kaohsiung Incident, when the dictatorial government arrested even more people, it found that the repressive measures “didn’t solve the problem,” Wu says. “The more people it arrested, lawyers spoke up, wives spoke up. Were they to be arrested, too?”
That resistance, along with pressure from the United States and the rise of Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平) in China, eventually forced the government to compromise, making it a pivotal moment on the path to democracy.
Yet histories of Taiwan’s democratic journey tend to give little more than a mention to the Kaohsiung Incident, Wu says, in some cases because it conflicts with narratives portraying President Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國) as a main force pushing democracy.
“If Chiang Ching-kuo was a driver of democracy, why did he explain the clashes between the people and police as ‘armed rebellion’ and arrested so many people?” Wu asks.
Yet he believes that Chiang did have somewhat of a role in the process, calling him a pragmatic politician who compromised, made concessions and adapted under pressure at home and abroad.
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