Taiwan Report News Brief: Transitional Justice, accomplishments and frustration

As today is the 228 holiday, I thought it would be a good time to cover a topic I’ve been sitting on for awhile, and have been collecting articles on for a show: transitional justice.
Transitional justice in the context of Taiwan is dealing with injustices inflicted on Taiwan during the White Terror, martial law and one-party state eras by the KMT.
In spite of KMT pressure to do so, it does not cover the Japanese colonial era.
After taking office in May of 2016, the Tsai administration tackled transitional justice on three fronts: the ill-gotten gains act, pension reform and the creation of the Transitional Justice Commission (TJC).
Just barely three months into her administration, the Ill-gotten Party Assets Settlement Committee was established.
It required all parties established before the lifting of martial law on July 15, 1987 to report their party assets to the committee.
Now wait, you may be asking, wouldn’t that impact the DPP–they were founded in 1986, right?
Well, yes and no.
They were founded in 1986–but didn’t become a legally registered political party until 1989.
By setting the date at the end of martial law, in effect it targets the KMT.
In theory there were other parties during the martial law era, but they were puppets of the KMT.
Their role was the same as the various other political parties allowed to have representation in China today, to create a veneer of multi-party democracy, but in fact their role is to simply follow the dominant party.
Since those essentially fake parties don’t exist any longer, at least that I’m aware of, this law solely pertains to the KMT.
At issue were the vast amount of holdings the KMT and affiliate organizations gained during the martial law era.
Many were taken from the Japanese at the end of World War II.
Others were bought, stolen or simply given to the party by the government–the distinction between party and state in a one-party state being rather minimal.
For years, the international press regularly referred to the KMT as ‘the world’s richest political party’.
The KMT itself at various points admitted this was a problem, but their own internal moves to take care of it were perfunctory at best.
The committee has frozen most of the KMT’s assets, and those of affiliate organizations like the China Youth Corps and the National Women’s League.
The Broadcasting Corporation of China, whose chair happens to be Jaw Shaw-kong, was ordered to relinquish its 13 parcels of real estate to the state and pay NT$7.7 billion in compensation for assets transferred to third parties or bought back by the government.
Jaw and his associates bought BCC from a KMT holding company in what almost everyone agrees was a sweetheart deal intended to keep the corporation in friendly pan-blue hands.
The freezing of the assets–which doesn’t include current income or subsidies–has been disastrous for the KMT.
For years the party used cushy party jobs as a reward for loyalty–creating jobs that one very smart analyst called “professional tea drinkers and cigarette smokers”.
This created a situation where the party was way overstaffed–but since they could afford it it wasn’t a problem.
Now it is.
Firing these people only helped somewhat.
The problem is that now the KMT is saddled with massive pension bills, far exceeding their ability to pay them out of their current income.
KMT Chair Johnny Chiang tried to negotiate a way out of this, offering to transfer the assets to charity or to the government after paying off their pension liabilities.
The government didn’t bite.
Was the act justified in doing this to the party?
Yes, the money wasn’t gained through any normal, or in many cases, even legal methods.
The majority of the public agrees.
That being said, is there some political vengeance in this?
Yes, absolutely.
Notice how quickly the new administration and newly DPP-dominated legislature moved on this–it was one of the very first things they did.
The DPP, and the Dangwai activists the formed the party, suffered significantly under the KMT during martial law–and afterwards in trying to battle them electorally with a fraction the resources.
While many of the founders of the DPP wanted to move Taiwan towards a democratic system, others wanted to rid the KMT from the face of the earth.
Some still do.
The KMT is very well aware of this, and this is, in part why they use overheated and exaggerated terms like “green terror” to describe the current DPP-dominated era.
They fear that the DPP is out to destroy them, and there are some in the DPP who would indeed love to do just that–but they aren’t in a majority.
And besides, the KMT really needn’t fear the DPP destroying them, they’re doing just fine destroying their own party all by themselves.
Pension reform was another problem the DPP tackled.
During the martial law era government employees, including teachers, the military and civil servants were given generous pensions and a preferential 18% interest rate on their savings.
This ensured the loyalty of these groups to the KMT.
After martial law ended, even during the DPP administration of Chen Shui-bian, these policies persisted.
If they continued, they were going to bankrupt the system.
President Tsai spent considerable political capital to get it done, phasing down the pensions and preferential interest rates.
While there was considerable protest from the groups impacted, at the end of the day 64 percent of the public approved of her actions.
The public agreed it was sensible, fiscally responsible policy and there wasn’t much sympathy for the preferential treatment that most citizens didn’t get.
The third step was the establishment of the Transitional Justice Commission (TJC) in May of 2018.
Quoting Wikipedia, their mission is this:
“The commission is responsible for the investigation of actions taken by the Kuomintang between 15 August 1945 and 6 November 1992.
The commission’s main aims include: making political archives more readily available, removing authoritarian symbols, redressing judicial injustice, and producing a report on the history of the period which delineates steps to further promote transitional justice.”
When the TJC launched, there was considerable talk of removing Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek’s grinning skull from the money, looking into changing street names referring Chiang, Sun, the Three Principles of the People and so on, and also determining what to do with the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial.
They announced they would release their plans on those issues in October of that year.
They didn’t.
Indeed, they went very quiet on those issues, and have since.
Well, in October of 2018 the local elections were well underway, and throwing this into that volatile situation would have been like gasoline on a fire.
Then, only months after that the campaigning for president and legislature were to begin.
President Tsai has shown little interest in spending political capital on these sorts of issues.
Periodically DPP lawmakers announce plans to introduce legislation changing various martial law era symbols, but almost always their legislation quietly goes away.
Though very frustrating to many who’d like to see these symbols of authoritarianism removed, there is a clear political logic to why the president isn’t moving on these issues.
She clearly wants to spend her political capital on things like the racto-pork issue, which helps shore up the relationship with the United States, beefing up the military reserves, ramping up defence spending and other national security-related issues.
While the majority of the population probably doesn’t care much one-way-or-the-other about many of the authoritarian images, those that remain loyal to them–especially on the KMT side–are fiercely so.
They would make a lot of noise, create a huge fuss and suck the oxygen out of the political cycle.
It appears the president has concluded that the distraction isn’t worth it.
If she is going to move on these issues, she’ll likely do it later in her term, after she’s accomplished her bigger objectives and is facing being term-limited out of office.
That being said, the TJC has been doing quite a bit of important work.
On the symbology side, as of last October they announced they had eliminated nearly 70 percent of Chiang Kai-Shek statues.
But that’s not where they’ve been doing their most critically important work.
Up to November of last year, they had boosted their total exonerations of people falsely convicted of crimes during the White Terror to 5,874.
That’s a big deal for those that survive, and for their families.
They have also been releasing documents on a mass scale, making it clearer what happened–again a big deal for the families.
Among other things learned is that Chiang Kai-shek personally participated in court procedures 4,101 times.
Another very significant concrete action is they are working on draft law that would allow for people whose property was confiscated by the state to be compensated, and for others to seek redress from the state.
Interestingly, KMT lawmaker Chiang Wan-an, the great-grandson of Chiang Kai-shek, introduced an amendment with stronger provisions that originally proposed by the TJC.
Overall the Tsai administration has a mixed record on transitional justice, but has accomplished far more than all her predecessor’s administrations combined.
And there is more work ahead they may still yet get done.
There will no doubt be many who will be disappointed at the end of her term and will feel that many issues that should have been addressed weren’t.
They’ll be right that those issues should be addressed, and their disappointment won’t be misplaced.
That being said, the president has a series of tradeoffs she must make for the safety and security of the country, which is especially critical as Beijing ramps up its pressure on Taiwan.
At the end of the day, I think the president would prefer her legacy to be of preparing and ensuring the safety of the nation over an endless series of political battles over symbols.
As disappointing as that may be to some.

Photo by Kaizer Bienes on Unsplash

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