Taipei Times: The Formosa Incident: a look back

The present street demonstrations in Hong Kong are reminiscent of those in Taipei in 1986.

In addition to pressure from the grassroots level, Taiwan’s democracy movement of the 1980s had important support from abroad: In the US and Europe, the overseas Taiwanese community coalesced after the Kaohsiung Incident through organizations such as the Formosan Association for Public Affairs (FAPA). They were effective in getting members of US Congress and European parliaments to speak out for human rights and democracy.

In the US Congress in particular, then-US senators Ted Kennedy and Claiborne Pell, and then-US representatives Stephen Solarz and Jim Leach — known as the “Gang of Four” — were outspoken in their support of human rights and democracy, and critical of the imprisonment of the democracy leaders and of the continued existence of martial law.

What is less well-known is that then-president Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國) was eventually pressured into ending martial law on July 14, 1987, and the nation transitioned to democracy under the presidency of Lee Teng-hui (李登輝).

Thus, in retrospect, the Kaohsiung Incident laid the foundation for this momentous transition. Taiwanese can be thankful that it was a relatively peaceful change.

At the same time, those who made the ultimate sacrifice must be remembered: Lin I-hsiung (林義雄), whose mother and twin daughters were murdered in their home in broad daylight on Feb. 28, 1980, while their house was under strict police surveillance; Carnegie Mellon University assistant professor Chen Wen-chen (陳文成), who was found dead at National Taiwan University on July 3, 1981, after having been “interviewed” by the Taiwan Garrison Command; Deng, who set himself on fire rather than being arrested by police storming into his office on April 7, 1989; and Dr Wang Kang-lu (王康陸), a leading Taiwanese-American independence activist who died in a mysterious “car accident” in Taipei on Oct. 12, 1993.

This new and democratic Taiwan is now a beacon of hope in East Asia, in particular for the people of Hong Kong who are fighting so courageously for their own democracy. Taiwan is a mirror for them, showing what can be achieved if they persist.

On a personal note: The Kaohsiung Incident also represents a turning point in my life, as it marked the beginning of a life-long quest in support of Taiwan’s democracy and acceptance by the international community as a full and equal member. In the process, my wife and I published our Taiwan Communique ( for 35 years.

Gerrit van der Wees is a former Dutch diplomat. From 1980 through 2016 he served as chief editor of Taiwan Communique, a publication dedicated to human rights and democracy in Taiwan.

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