Fred Chin in the research library of the Jing-Mei Human Rights Museum, Taipei, Taiwan, 2019; photograph by Patrick Shaou-Whea Dodge.
Beginning with the infamous “228” massacres in the Spring of 1947, Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang (KMT) brutalized Taiwan with murder, torture, mass imprisonment, and relentless censorship — this period has come to be known as the “White Terror.” The brave work of generations of activists led to the KMT finally lifting martial law in 1987. Since then, a growing body of literature, film and musical productions, museums and monuments and memorials, postcolonial scholarship, and activist-led events and performances have begun the hard work of making sense of the atrocities of Taiwan’s forbidden past. The once terrorized populace is thus engaging in a culture-wide reckoning, a process we refer to as postcolonial remembering.
But as Taiwan’s activists have quickly learned, the work of representing Taiwan’s political history is complicated because of the overlapping legacies of the island’s multiple colonializations. Stretching from seventeenth century Dutch and Spanish occupations through Qing Dynasty occupations, and from Japanese colonial rule during 1895-1945 through the post-World War II colonization by the KMT, Taiwan has been pummeled again and again by outside forces. In addressing this layering of cultures, histories, and memories, including the traumas suffered by at least 16 tribes of indigenous islanders, most observers recognize that Taiwan’s postcolonial remembering is transnational, transcultural, multilingual, and interdisciplinary — there are no simple stories here, just overlapping and conflicting memories shot through with questions, possibilities, hauntings, and hopes.
Calls to perform postcolonial remembering function like political hammers in Taiwan, as they endorse a Democratic Progressive Party (DPP)-driven version of Taiwanese nationalism. Founded in 1986 in opposition to the KMT’s one-party rule, the DPP stands for a sense of Taiwan not only as an independent nation-state (hence rebutting China’s “unification” fantasies), but as a postcolonial entity freed from the KMT’s forced forgetting. In this sense, Taiwan’s postcolonial remembering cuts in multiple directions, bolstering DPP-style nationalism while attacking both the CPC and the KMT.
To try to make sense of this postcolonial remembering in Taiwan, we spoke with Fred Chin. A leading advocate for postcolonial remembering, Fred was a victim of the “White Terror,” who spent twelve years imprisoned for committing an act of political terrorism against the KMT — which he did not do. Fred was born in Malaysia in 1949 and came to Taiwan in 1967 for university. Because he wanted to study English, he frequented the United States Information Services (USIS) in Tainan, where he accessed the English library. In 1970 he was suspected by Chiang’s dreaded Criminal Investigation Bureau (CIB) of carrying out the explosion that rocked the USIS that year. Fred was arrested in 1971 and was tortured for weeks, as the KMT tried to coerce him into making a false confession and naming his alleged accomplices. Without the benefit of a trial, the KMT sent him to the Jing-Mei Detention Center in Taipei. Then the KMT’s secret police accused him of joining what he called “a nonexistent Communist Party in Malaysia.” This led to Fred receiving a death sentence, but, for reasons he still does not understand, his execution was commuted into a twelve-year sentence. He was eventually released from prison in 1983 and, since then, has rebuilt his life in Taiwan.
Fred retired in 2007 and has been an eyewitness for the National Human Rights Museum since 2009. Today, he laughs, leans back in his chair, and says “I am proud to be a Taiwanese and a surviving narrator telling my story and promoting human rights. I am hoping that such a tragedy will never happen again.”—
SJH: So, Fred, often times when cultures undertake postcolonial remembering, of addressing some forbidden past, it makes people really angry. By opening old wounds, the remembering leads to a sense of grievance. In Taiwan, is postcolonial remembering helping the people move into a better future, or is it making folks angry?
FC: Well, yes, people are angry with the KMT. Both because for decades we were not allowed to tell our stories and now because as we do tell our stories, they make everyone understand the atrocities the KMT committed. So remembering the forgotten is leading to a lot of anger. People are stunned to learn just how terrible the KMT was. We all kind of knew it, but there was no public conversation about the “White Terror,” not at least until after ’87. So now, for us to begin to learn the details, to know the truth . . . it is pretty incredible.
SJH: So does all this remembering of the past — and hence this new wave of anger against the KMT — help the DPP?
FC: Not exactly . . . President Tsai Ing-wen’s version of transitional justice shows a sense of compassion for the victims of the KMT’s abuse, but it is not clear to me that the DPP is committed entirely to justice — I think their efforts have been half-hearted. From the DPP’s perspective, it seems they want transitional justice to go forward smoothly, but the DPP has not used all its might to understand our position. So today the Transitional Justice Commission still has lots to do to support us.
PD: What do you think are some things the Commission needs to do to help push forward transitional justice?
FC: First, they need to support the DPP’s Archive Bill. We have many archives that have been reviewed but there are still so many classified files that are not yet open to the public. We were promised a completely open national archive that would include all the records of the White Terror abuses, so that we could find out the truth. Where is it? Those files are not yet public and there have been no public hearings. So I don’t see the DPP’s actions matching their words.
As for the delays, we have been told that the Commission is worried about releasing files that contain the names of innocent Taiwanese. They consider it a high risk. But I also think the DPP is afraid of revealing secrets about the KMT. I think they are afraid of what is in those records.
We have wanted to know from the beginning: who were the informers? I did nothing wrong, so why was I arrested and put in jail? So many of us have this same question. Those are the points that we want to learn. All those answers, we believe they are buried in the classified files.
SJH: There may be good reason to be afraid. I assume that if everyone from the old KMT regime is complicit, and maybe a fair number of regular citizens were complicit as well, then the files may create a sense of shame, or guilt, or just more anger.
So, let me ask you this: in South-Africa they have a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and the deal there is if the perpetrators confess their crimes publicly, so that the truth is told, then they’re given amnesty. The idea is that people can tell the truth, confess their political sins, but then there’s no more violence. Would you like something like that here?
FC: Yes, something like that would be helpful. I spoke to the former Director of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, he came here to the Jing-Mei Human Rights Museum and we discussed this. I told him that we didn’t want to do anything for revenge. If any perpetrators come forward willingly and tell us why they did what they did at that time — any kind of confession — then we would definitely forgive them. We don’t want revenge, we want the truth.
PD: What impediments do you face doing this work?
FC: We went through almost 50 years of dictatorship and now our democracy is still fragile. I think both the KMT and DPP fear the possibility of revenge — they are concerned that if all of our stories are told, there may be a wave of political anger. So, on the one hand, everyone hopes that transitional justice will lead to a kind of cultural forgiveness, some new beginning freed from the past. But on the other hand, there is a real fear that more truth will just open up old wounds.
SJH: But at the same time, the DPP is supporting a new culture of museums, facilities like the Jing-Mei Human Rights Museum, right? So Tsai and her party do seem to be supporting a new culture of remembering.
FC: Yes, yes, and we are very pleased with that trend. This museum collaborates closely with us. The museum is a fantastic space of remembering. And we use this space to have lectures, to show films, and to hold meetings — so it is a cultural space, a space for all of us to reclaim the forgotten and forbidden past. But there obviously needs to be so much more of this kind of work, especially releasing those classified records.
SJH: So, Fred, you were arrested and served time in Taipei and then on the dreaded Green Island, where the conditions were brutal — can you tell us, how did you survive that?
FC: Those were really hard years. In the beginning, for the first three years, I really lost any enthusiasm to stay alive. I was always isolated. I was angry and depressed. Management was tight, very un-free. I didn’t want to talk to anyone. Time moved slowly. It was really bad. My health really deteriorated at that time. So one day I fainted there on Green Island. I went out for exercises and fainted. It was very weird, I heard very strange voices that kept encouraging me, saying you have to stay alive, you have to keep going.
Then I found my courage and decided that I was going to stay as optimistic as possible. Then I learned that Green Island had a library, and I was able to get a job working in the library, so after that I stayed strong, read every day, and made the best of it.
SJH: So hope led to education?
FC: Yes, hope and encouragement . . . and duty and responsibility to my mother. That was very important. I always thought about my mother. And you know, even then, my mother still didn’t know where I was, she must have thought I died. That was really hard, knowing that she didn’t know where I was, or what had happened to me. That might have been the worst part of it, knowing that my mother didn’t know where I was.
SJH: Last summer, when we visited Green Island, we saw a form that the prison made all the prisoners sign, saying that when you’re released from Green Island, you won’t talk about it — so the KMT was trying to force you into post-incarceration silence, but here you are, talking about it!
FC: That was only a formality. The form was a joke. It meant nothing to us. We called it a “release document.” We all signed it to get freed. Sometimes the KMT tried to enforce it, but really, the silence during the White Terror period was not so much because of those forms — it was just that everybody feared getting arrested, or worse . . . You never knew who to trust, who you could talk to, or who was working for the secret police. So silence was built into the system.
PD: I want to go back to the beginning of your story. You were a student here in Taiwan. Can you tell us about how you were arrested?
FC: Even today, I do not know why I was arrested. . . I ended up in Tainan, studying Chemical Engineering. So when I needed a break from learning Chinese, I would go to the USIS in Tainan. I went there to use the English library. At that time, Taiwan had a lot of support from America. American offices and agencies sent a lot of people to collect information, to find out about the Taiwan people, and to monitor what the KMT was doing. I made friends with those people and the American staff.
SJH: So this was 1969. America was using Taiwan to stage activities in the Vietnam War. We set up the USIS for two reasons: 1) we wanted to teach English to the people in Taiwan. So, it was a nice service that America provided to people in Taiwan, but 2) they were also intelligence bases to spy on what was going on. So, going to the USIS to use the library, do you think the KMT thought you were a spy?
FC:I only went there to make use of the library. I made good friends with the people there, but I never talked about politics or anything about Taiwan.
SJH: So, in 1969 the KMT was arresting people that they thought were Communist sympathizers. So, Fred, I have to ask: were you and your friends members of the Communist Party?
FC: No, I didn’t join any party. I didn’t know any friends of mine that had connections to the Communists.
SJH: So, it sounds like your connections were not with any mythical communists, but with Americans? So why on earth were you arrested?
FC: I think they thought that I was the one who planned and carried out the USIS bombing, just because I was studying there . . .
SJH: Do you think they thought you were the bomber because you were studying Chemical Engineering?
FC: I honestly don’t know. But, probably, yes. So they detained me and brought me to Taipei. They were very tough. They wanted me to admit that the crime was mine. But, even under such harsh torture, I didn’t admit to anything.
PD: So, you were arrested for a bombing that you did not do. Then they brought you here and you were tortured, here in Jing-Mei?
FC: Yes, for a bombing I did not do. But, no, I was not tortured here in Jing-Mei. When they brought me up here, from Tainan to Taipei, I was detained in a small house. You know the CIB in Taiwan at that time, they had many small rooms all over Taipei, locations like this for the interrogations.
SJH: Oh wow, so you mean you were first held in what we would call today a “black prison,” an underground space off the grid of usual rules and oversight? The US CIA does this now as part of the “War on Terror” . . .
FC: Yeah, a “black prison,” an unmarked CIB space. So I was in one of them, but I didn’t know where it was . . . I was held there for two weeks. Nobody knew where I was, including my family. . .
At this time there was another bombing, this time at the Citibank in Taipei. It was a big crime according to the KMT, so they wanted to close that case as soon as possible to show the U.S. that they were able to solve the problem.
This was the same time as when the KMT was kicked out of the UN, do you remember that?
Another reason, do you remember Chiang Ching-kuo, Chiang Kai-shek’s son? He went to America and he was nearly killed by an assassin.
And then, another reason, was Malaysia supported America letting China into the UN. At that time, Malaysia intended to break diplomatic relations with Taiwan.
SJH: So it sounds like you were a pawn in a geopolitical game that involved assassination attempts in America, bombings in Taiwan, China entering the UN, and then Malaysian politics as well. . .
FC: I don’t know. I kept telling myself that this was all bad luck. I had done nothing wrong. I was not interested in any politics. Why should I be arrested?
SJH: And then you were sentenced to 12 years?
FC: I asked them why? Do you know the reason they told me? It was incredible.
He said: the first reason is a face problem. If we arrested the wrong person and then let you go, it would look bad. The second is the bounty problem, the money problem. They put me in jail, so they received money from the government as the bounty. This bounty system killed a lot of people.
In 1972, in Green Island, I met many of the political prisoners incarcerated from the 1950s. They had been incarcerated, been in jail for more than twenty years just because of this bounty problem.
SJH: Woah, so the KMT police were being paid to arrest prisoners? Even those who were innocent?
FC: Yes, they were encouraged to do it. The bounty was like an incentive. So the KMT police just rounded up innocent people and tossed them into prison — it was crazy.
SJH: So, Fred, once you got out of prison and rebuilt your life, when did you start to become an activist?
FC: Well, you know the Dangwei movement was picking up momentum in the late 1980s and former prisoners were starting to talk with each other. But in 1998 I promised my wife that I would not mention anything about the past. We agreed that it was time to concentrate on our family and our business.
But then in 2009 I received a call from an organization, an NGO. They contacted me and asked if I would record my story. I said, “what story?” They said your past. I said “what is my past?” But he was very persistent. He kept calling and calling, and finally I had to accept.
SJH: So this goes back to our first question. Since 2009 you have been telling your story. Has it helped your consciousness? Do you feel unburdened?
FC: Yes, this is important. It is called trauma therapy. Initially, after I started telling the stories, I couldn’t sleep for ten days. It brought it all back to me. Nightmares . . . every night. For a couple weeks it was like that, but then it began to calm down a little bit.
Initially, I just came here to Jing-Mei to have a look, to see the changes to the detention center. I just walked around and tried to lend a hand. It was another former prisoner, a man in his 80s, who was really encouraging — he told me that it was my duty to speak out and to help Taiwan learn the truth. And then, when I told this to my wife, she was also encouraging, she said she was proud of me . . . So that is when I really started to speak out.
But what I didn’t realize at the time was that it wasn’t until after going through the trauma of remembering the past that I started to feel better. I started to feel strong again. It felt good to finally speak the truth.
PD: In mainland China, there is another approach to history, they still demand this regime of forced forgetting — what are your thoughts on that?
FC: The Chinese model seems inhumane. But, I have met some scholars from China who have come here and visited — but they have to come here secretly. I told them about my story, about what happened here, and they admire us, that we have this place to tell our story in public. They also hope that one day China can do the same.
SJH: So do you imagine China making a democratic transition like Taiwan?
FC: Well, you know that what helped us was gathering so much information. You really need to have the facts before you can start to form any political conclusions. In China, they are still stuck in this total lack of information. There are so many stories to tell. They need to gather so much information. But the government is committed to repressing this work. They still think silence leads to conformity. We know, of course, that silence just leads to resentment.
SJH: Thank you, Fred, for speaking with us. It really is an honor. You’re part of this exciting moment in Taiwan, where folks are understanding that learning more about the past leads to more democracy now. It is too bad that China has not yet come to this same realization, but it is terrific to see this happening in Taiwan.
FC: Yes, and I am proud of it. Honestly speaking, I am proud that I am able to perform my duty and to tell my story to younger generations. That is very important for us because our current times tell us that we need to do more — we need the whole population to learn to respect human rights.
Stephen J. Hartnett is a professor of communication at the University of Colorado, Denver; he served as the 2017 president of the National Communication Association and is co-editor of Imagining China: Rhetorics of Nationalism in the Age of Globalization.
Patrick Shaou-Whea Dodgeis an associate professor at the International College Beijing; he is the vice-president of the Association for Chinese Communication Studies, and editor of the forthcoming Communication Convergence in Contemporary China: International Perspectives on Politics, Platforms, and Participation.
Recorded at the Jing-Mei Human Rights Museum, in Taipei, Taiwan, July 4, 2019, with Fred Chin, Stephen J. Hartnett, and Patrick Shaou-Whea Dodge