Democracy Lab

Remembering the White Terror

25 years after the end of authoritarianism, Taiwan is still struggling to come to terms with its past.

Chen Shin-chi smiles through his dentures and drops down to the dusty floor of a jail cell to do a push up. He looks up at the crowd watching him, smiles again, and flips on his back to perform sit-ups, his body stretching almost the entire length of the three-by-two-meter cell. In 1968, he lived in one of these windowless boxes for four months during his five-year imprisonment by the then-authoritarian Taiwanese government. Today he gives tours of his former hell, now a human rights museum 10 minutes outside Taipei.

Chen was one of tens of thousands of suspected spies and Communists who were imprisoned, tortured, or executed by the Taiwanese authoritarian government during a brutal, four-decade period of martial law known on this island nation as the White Terror. It was one of the longest periods of martial law in the world. 25 years after that authoritarian regime abruptly ended in 1987, a nascent and partisan democracy is still struggling to address its past. (This past week, Taiwan celebrated the 101st anniversary of the founding of the Republic of China -- though there was little mention of the victims of past human rights abuses.)

Taiwan has never had a non-partisan truth and reconciliation process. No democratically-elected president has formally suggested one, according to human rights advocates and government officials. Instead, transitional justice has been left to the politicians of Taiwan's two main competing political parties to implement as they see fit. "Human rights [in Taiwan] has become a political battlefield," says Lung Ying-tai, a famous Taiwanese cultural icon who was recently appointed the head of the nation's newly formed Ministry of Culture. "They chose whatever would bring them immediate credit. It's calculating."

The Nationalist Party that ruled Taiwan both in martial law and guided it to democracy mostly avoided the topic of its bloody past. Democracy didn't come easy or naturally for the former authoritarian government, Lung says: "There was a slow, loosening up of the island." It took intense social pressure to push the country's first democratically elected-president, Lee Teng-hui, to form a committee to look into a massacre committed by the Nationalists in 1947 that launched the White Terror. In some ways, he was no different from all the others in the country who couldn't believe martial law was really over, says Naiteh Wu, a Taiwanese researcher and human-rights advocate: "Lee Teng-hui was still struggling with his own past at the time he became president."

And the pro-independence opposition party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), hasn't had it much easier. A monumental shift in the political landscape occurred when the DPP, headed by the fiery, staunch anti-China president, Chen Shui-bian, was elected in 2000. The country assumed that his election would also change the transitional justice process because of his record as a pro-democracy activist while Taiwan was still under martial law. But as Wu and others like him began digging into the pasts of victims of the White Terror, they found that many had made proud declarations of their Communist ties on their deathbeds -- meaning that the prisoners were, in fact, guilty of the formal charges the Nationalist government had brought against them.

This complicated matters for Chen, who could no longer vilify the martial-law Nationalists because it would put him on the side of their Communist victims, says Chang-ling Huang, a professor at Taiwan National University. This would have been politically inconvenient for Chen, whose party, which is opposed to unification with the People's Republic of China, also has a strong anti-Communist bent. "The [old] narrative was that these people are just historical bystanders, they didn't do anything wrong," says Huang.

Despite the uncomfortable truth, President Chen did institute a comprehensive reparations system. The move is seen as one of Taiwan's most successful official transitional justice programs. (Critics say it's the only one.) Late in his presidency, he made another move to make amends for the government's past crimes by turning the vacant, abandoned Jing-Mei prison into a "human rights park," the one that former political prisoner Chen Shin-chi now gives guided tours in. But the park dedication in 2007 coincided with a corruption scandal that eventually landed President Chen and his wife in prison, once again complicating the process.

After alternating periods of rule by both political parties, the Taiwanese were beginning to realize their past could not be easily taken on by any one political group. And maybe it shouldn't be that way, some say. "I think it's demanding too much to ask for one party to really be the moral hero," says Culture Minister Lung. But justice in the hands of democracy, she maintains, is still good for the country, in part because each new leader takes another step toward helping the nation heal. Some even say now that the current president, Ma Ying-jeou, apologizes too much for the 1947 massacre that his own party perpetrated, and which his predecessor almost failed to acknowledge.

But justice is nothing without a judicial system people can trust. In Taiwan, many believe their judicial system is tainted with people loyal to Taiwan's conservative Nationalist party. It's a fear, says Professor Huang, that is not unfounded, considering that the party controlled virtually every aspect of political life for four decades. Indeed, people like former political prisoner Chen note with bitterness that some of the most egregious crimes from the martial law period have gone unsolved.

And then there's the delicate question of how to view the man who started it all, Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek. An elaborate, reverential memorial that the authoritarian government built for him after his death in 1975 is one of Taipei's key tourist attractions. His bald likeness is immortalized in a bronze statue resembling Abraham Lincoln's in Washington, D.C., and tours of the museum devoted to him are heavy on artifacts and light on historical context. His statue even stands tall at many schools across the country. "For a democratic country, it's kind of ridiculous," Huang says.

Perhaps time will lead to a more nuanced discussion about how Chiang is viewed. But an even more urgent task, human rights advocates say, is to document the histories of those who lived and suffered during martial law -- a move many see as the third prong of Taiwan's justice process. In the absence of a formal government plan, people like researcher Wu have stepped in. He and several colleagues formed a nonprofit called the Taiwan Association for Truth and Reconciliation several years ago to interview survivors, because, he says, "the government wasn't doing anything to preserve those memories." (It was some of these interviews that brought to light many victims' unapologetic Communist ties.)

A lack of leadership from the government may be changing with the appointment of Culture Minister Lung, who this summer announced a national initiative to do the same. "This is an island of untold stories," she says. But it's a slow-moving project that doesn't have time on its side. Many aging victims aren't fluent in the official language of Chinese, preferring instead to speak in the Japanese of their former colonizers. Still others, who spent most of their lives under martial law, have been conditioned by experience to stay silent about what they long suffered. Still, Lung says that the value of the project transcends the challenges. She is determined to put every resource she has into making it succeed, including delivering mementos of long-lost loved ones herself.

It's a step in the right direction for a government that had previously taken no steps at all, according to former political prisoner Chen, who says that recording Taiwan's collective memory is one of the most important things the country can do to right its wrongs. "We are getting back to the dignity of being a human being," he says. Encouraged by Lung's attempts to record the voices of the past, he is writing his own book about his imprisonment. One day, he hopes, it will be on display at the very place he was held behind bars.

But simply documenting the unadulterated truth is not enough, he insists. Chen, along with former political prisoner Lee Chen-sung, says that Taiwan needs to develop an open and honest school curriculum about its past. As it stands now, Taiwan's martial law is seen as too touchy to be anything more than a history lesson. "We don't talk much about it in school -- it's too political," says one of the park's English-speaking tour guides, Stephen Huang.

The dearth of a comprehensive curriculum is one of many signs that, for Taiwanese society, its past remains an awkward void. Lung uses the image of a poorly treated wound that has begun to scar. "Overall, Taiwan has made huge progress," she says, "But if you ask me, is it enough? Of course not."

But she and others are asking for more time to get Taiwan's justice process back on track. Taiwan, she says, is still searching for the right balance of governing today while coping with yesterday. She draws a comparison from her husband's native Germany, which ripped open the wounds of Nazism for all of society to see. "By comparison, the Taiwanese have been dealing with it rather calmly," she says. "Calmly and kindly."

She seems confident that a patient path will eventually lead to the right one. "When the ordinary citizen can take a Sunday walk with their children and tell their children stories about what human beings are capable of doing, about what's right and what's wrong -- that's when this issue is no longer a kind of sore in your skin," she says. "Then it's just a part of a healthy person."

Photo by AFP/Getty Images

Democracy Lab


The results of Georgia’s parliamentary election caught American pollsters completely off guard. They should have tried asking the right questions.

Jeremy Rosner looked ashen. The American pollster, a veteran of the Clinton White House, had just learned that the United National Movement (UNM) of President Mikheil Saakashvili had lost the country's October 1 parliamentary elections in an upset to the Georgian Dream (GD) coalition led by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili. Rosner, an executive vice president of the D.C.-based consulting firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, is one of the world's most successful political pollsters, having advised leaders ranging from Tony Blair to Israel's Labor Party to Ukrainian Orange Revolution leader Viktor Yushchenko. He had been working for Saakashvili since 2007, and his polls for the Georgian leader had always been pinpoint accurate. He is not used to losing, and when he does lose, he expects it.

But standing that evening in the bar of Tbilisi's Marriott Freedom Square, Rosner was visibly shocked. Just two days earlier, he had met me in the lobby of the city's other Marriott hotel, just down the street, to tell me how a UNM victory was all but assured. His internal polls showed it -- one he conducted in August found the UNM leading GD 55 to 33 percent -- as did a series of focus groups across the country. Polls conducted earlier in the year by rival firm Penn Schoen Berland (hired by GD) which showed the opposition in a virtual dead heat with the UNM, he told me, "are fabricated." Regaling me with stories about how Saakashvili is "more like Clinton than anyone I've ever worked with" and "a force of nature," Rosner had reason to be upbeat: A series of polls by non-partisan outlets had shown the UNM with a healthy lead over the opposition. The National Democratic Institute, for instance, found the UNM leading GD by 25 percent. Granted, all these polls had been taken before the September 19 release of undercover videos documenting torture and anal rape in Georgian prisons, shocking images that turned thousands of people -- many of them having nothing to do with Georgian Dream or politics whatsoever -- into the streets. But Rosner was not worried. "I don't know any scandal in the world that's wiped out a 20 point lead," he told me.

Whether it was the prison scandal, a combination of grievances, or -- as the opposition long alleged -- a widespread unpopularity not accurately accounted for in political polls due to a "climate of fear," Saakashvili's party lost the election, a development that took the international media, Western governments, and the bevy of political consultants hired by both sides by surprise. When I asked Rosner what accounted for the discrepancy between his expectations and the outcome, he repeated to me what he had said two days before: In his decades of politics, he had "never seen a single scandal wipe out a nearly 20 point lead." But while the prison video was almost certainly the decisive factor in turning the election in Ivanishvili's favor, there were other elements at play that largely eluded international observers and most Georgia-watchers.

There were many clues that the UNM would lose much of its support, if not suffer an outright defeat at the polls, one just needed to know where to look. The widely touted National Democratic Institute poll showing a 25 point UNM lead, for instance, found that a plurality of voters (43 percent) either did not know whom they would vote for or refused to answer. In retrospect, this relatively high number ought to have been seen as a boon for the opposition, as undecided voters everywhere tend to be. But much of the other evidence of voter discontent was anecdotal. Spending a Saturday afternoon with some Ivanishvili supporters in Tbilisi, I was told by one that, of her 600 Facebook friends, only two "dared" to post anything in favor of Saakashvili. The seemingly over-confident claims of impending victory from opposition supporters were also somewhat deflated, for me at least, by their wild predictions that the government would use fraud and, failing that, violence, to resist an Ivanishvili victory, all somehow under the watchful eyes of thousands of international election observers, media and Western governments. This excitable and, at times conspiratorial, tone, led me to discount much of what opposition activists were saying.

For their part, government supporters acknowledged that Tbilisi has long been an opposition stronghold. They told journalists to discount the large crowd (estimated as anywhere from 60,000 to an improbable ten times that) that turned up in the city's central Freedom Square for an Ivanishvili rally on the Saturday before the election. But a trip outside the capital demonstrated that the discontent with the government, if not Saakashvili himself, was deep, particularly among the country's poor and long-term unemployed. Though Saakashvili can claim tremendous success in reforming a post-Soviet backwater into a nation with real (albeit, long-term) prospects of joining the European Union, poverty and unemployment have remained consistent problems over his 9 years in power.

A visit to Georgia's rural areas the day before the election indicated that the election would be closer than the government's sanguine predictions. I began my day visiting the village of Metekhi, a dusty, depressed industrial town in the central Kaspi region. When I talked to the villagers -- nearly all of the working age unemployed and those too old to work living on measly pensions of 110 Lari (about $50) per month -- none of them mentioned the prison videos as a reason for their displeasure with the government. Elguja Gejadze, a 55 year-old man who said he had two university degrees, told me that he had been unemployed for four years "Everyone who supported this government is an enemy of Georgia. Everyone is guilty," he declared, echoing the virulent rhetoric of Ivanishvili, who took to painting Saakashvili and his colleagues as criminals. "This is what I think and the majority thinks but because of fear they don't speak it loudly." (Metekhi, some 10 miles from Josef Stalin's birthplace of Gori, also has the dubious honor of being home to a woman claiming to be the mother of Russian President Vladimir Putin. When a local man brought me to her house, surrounded by a wire fence, she emerged but refused to talk to me, nervously picking the shrubbery while saying that unnamed persons had warned her not to speak with the press.)

Other Georgians I spoke to felt that Saakashvili had indeed done much to change the country, but only on the surface. "He spends so much money but nothing goes to us," a despondent, 49-year-old Irakli Mamasakhlisi said, citing an alleged half-million-dollar New Year's tree from China as but one example of Saakashvili's excess. "Normal people, we don't feel the wealth ourselves." Saakashvili's building spree -- like Tbilisi's Public Service Hall, which opened just a week before the election and guarantees Georgians access to necessary government documents with fast-food efficiency (it even boasts a drive-thru window) -- failed to impress many rural voters. Denigrating that building, which looks like a martian spaceship hovering over the Mtkvari River, 75-year-old Kako Chiavireli in the village of Gurjaani complained to me about, "facades of buildings but nothing inside. We need something more than painted houses."

If my interviews outside the capital were any guide, support for the government closely tracked one criterion: whether people had jobs or not. This observation was richly illustrated for me in a heated argument I witnessed between three heavily made-up women who co-owned a convenience store and one of their customers. "We love the policies the government is implementing," Mtvarisa Mekoshkishvili told me when I asked her why she had put signs for the UNM in her shop windows. She ticked off roads, pension increases, and "improved buildings" as examples of Saakashvili's success. "The opposition says the election will be falsified and it will be stolen and nothing will change it," chimed in Shorena Surmanidze, one of her colleagues. "It looks like they want the election to be falsified and people to come out in the streets. It will be profitable to them."

The argument began when one of the store's customers overheard what they saying. Soon, the four women were bickering over whether or not it was the government's fault that unemployment remained so stubbornly high, with the shop owners claiming, like the archetypical American immigrant supporter of the Republican Party, that "if someone wants to find work, they can." The customer, in turn, replied that the only work available to her was manual labor, which she was unable to do.

Ironically, part of the reason why these factors likely eluded Western consultants, journalists, and NGO types (both those inclined to support Saakashvili and those who wanted to see him lose) is that they focused so heavily on the salacious prison video scandal at the expense of these deeper trends. A cool assessment suggests that the impact of the prison videos was somewhat overblown. Most of the documented abuse took place over a year ago, yet the videos were released less than two weeks before the election and on an opposition television station owned by Ivanishvili's wife. Of course, this doesn't in any way excuse the abysmal conditions in Georgian prisons. But it does lend credence to suspicions that some of the abuse might have been staged, suspicions later validated by a Lithuanian forensic expert invited by the Georgian government to examine the prisoners. A few days before the election, he told the BBC that he saw no evidence of forcible sodomy. This skepticism toward the video and its origins seemed to characterize the attitude of those who continued to support the government, like George Abuladze, a 26-year-old bank worker, who told me that "this kind of violence happens in most countries and prisons, but I've never seen it broadcast on foreign television."

Regardless, Saakashvili immediately took responsibility for what was depicted in the videos, denounced the apparent abuse, and fired two ministers. He then appointed the country's human rights ombudsman, a fierce critic of the government's prisons policies and acknowledged by even Saakashvili's critics as an independent man, to be the country's new penitentiary minister. In light of the fact that abuses happen in all prisons (particularly former Soviet ones), and that the responsible ministers were given their marching orders, it's unclear what more the government should have done in response to this scandal.

The government seemed to bank its hopes of winning the election on its swift and uncompromising response, acknowledging that some swing voters would defect to the opposition, but not nearly enough to overcome a 25 percent deficit. Raphael Glucksmann, a senior Saakashvili advisor, broke down the Georgian electorate for me over drinks shortly before the vote. 25 percent of the country, he said, "thinks Misha ruined their lives" and will vote for the opposition regardless of who leads it. Meanwhile, 40 percent is "hardcore Misha." That is precisely the percent of Georgians who ended up voting for the UNM, meaning that Ivanishvili was able to persuade roughly the remaining 35 percent that the country was in need of change.

Ivanishvili's confrontational rhetoric also struck the government as a sign of desperation, not confidence. Lambasting Saakashvili as a "son of a dog" and an autocrat was a sign, Glucksmann told me, that Ivanishvili was aware he had no chance of winning and was thus waging "a post-electoral strategy" that would force a showdown on the streets between an invigorated opposition that believed the election had been stolen from them and the government. "If he had accepted a moderate strategy," criticizing the government for substantive policy shortcomings rather than attacking the institutions itself, "he could have won after the prison scandal," Glucksmann said. In hindsight, it's clear that the government underestimated the level of disappointment people felt with it. Ivanishvili, with his vast fortune, was able to unite the country's disparate opposition and capitalize on that dissatisfaction.

While analysts have exaggerated the importance of the prison scandal, the video speaks to a deeper, more underlying problem that ultimately hurt the popularity of Saakshvili and his party. One of his undisputed successes is tackling petty crime and corruption, Georgia has one of the lowest crime rates in the world, which is rather incredible when you factor in that it's a young, post-Soviet democracy that has experienced more than its fair share of war and civil strife. Yet in exchange for this low crime rate, the country also has one of the highest per capita prison populations in the world. This is a trade off, but one that appears to have weighed too heavily on the side of imprisonment, as the country's judicial system is widely criticized for lacking independence and too often being the plaything of prosecutors. One Georgian told me that practically everyone in this country of 4.7 million people has some connection to one of the country's 24,000 or so prisoners, or the 200,000 people on probation. This is one surefire way to create an army of angry voters.

These factors, however, escaped the notice of most of those whose jobs it was to know this small country like the back of their hand. "If the Georgian government was unable to see [discontent], so too were its friends and counterparts in the West, who were impressed by Georgian GDP growth and its high rankings on international indices," Caucasus expert Michael Cecire recently wrote in the National Interest. "And the UNM and its leadership, which had long been enthusiastic partners to the United States and Western Europe, had become a metonym to many analysts -- and especially the more casual observers -- for modernization and liberalism in a region traditionally hostile to both."

It's not hard to see why Georgia's friends in the West were blindsided by the challenge unleashed by Ivanishvili. Daniel Kunin, an American advisor to Saakashvili from the day after the 2003 Rose Revolution until January of 2010, told me that in his six and a half years at the president's side, he never once heard Ivanishvili's name mentioned. This underscores Ivanishvili's secretive nature; for a time there existed just one, blurry photo of the man on the internet, and still no one was even sure if it was of him. "We used to joke around that he could be sitting next to you on an airplane ride and you wouldn't know who it was," Kunin told me in Tbilisi the evening before the election. Now, everyone in Georgia knows the eccentric billionaire with the Albino rapper son, $1 billion art collection and private zoo, who can add one of the world's most dramatic electoral upsets to his list of accomplishments.

Correction: An earlier version of this article mistakenly quoted Jeremy Rosner as stating that the UNM’s vote share in Tbilisi was 20 percent less than that of the opposition in 2008 parliamentary elections. He actually stated that it was 20 percent below its national average.

Photo by VANO SHLAMOV/Stringer/AFP/Getty Images