Page 1 of 2 A return to dark days in Taiwan
By Stephen A Nelson
TORONTO, Canada - In a world rife with deadly terrorist strikes in India,
anti-government riots in Thailand and civil wars in the Middle East, it may be
hard for the rest of the world (even in Asia) to see Taiwan's struggle for
democracy as anything more than a tempest in a China teapot. And certainly a
worldwide economic crisis has eclipsed concerns for Taiwan's future possibility
as a separate state with de facto independence from China.
For many "China experts", last year's return to power of the old Chinese
Nationalist Party (Kuomintang or KMT) in Taiwan was seen as a return to peace,
order and good government by Taiwan's natural governing party. The restoration
of the ancient regime was largely hailed as a good thing in Beijing,
and the international community.
To them, KMT President Ma Ying-jeou has "the right stuff". And the new trade
and transportation agreements with China are viewed as "one small step" for
Taiwan but "a giant leap" for regional peace and prosperity - despite
consternation from Japan.
Even the KMT government's raft of arrests, detentions and imprisonments of
senior Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) officials - especially former
president Chen Shui-bian - is seen as a campaign designed to root out
corruption and bring evil-doers to justice.
But other Taiwanese and critics say that Ma and his inner circle of senior KMT
officials - most of whom have close ties to China - have made too many
concessions and have already surrendered Taiwan's sovereignty to Beijing.
The critics say that Chen's imprisonment - and the arrests of many other DPP
officials in the past months - bears all the hallmarks of a political
witch-hunt. To them, it looks like a KMT campaign meant to silence political
opposition to its aggressive pro-China policy - and to settle old scores with
Chen Shui-bian and the DPP.
According to the highly regarded Taiwan Communique, these concerns "arise from
popular fear that Ma's government, which has allowed a reactionary KMT to set
policy, is ready to turn the clock back to the martial law-era if it will
advance its goals and please its negotiating partners in Beijing. In addition,
there is popular discomfort over the egregious lack of accountability and
transparency in the secretive party-to-party negotiations that Ma and Beijing
are pursuing in contradiction of Taiwan's own laws and constitution."
This has resulted in an ongoing war of words in the international press between
the KMT government and those concerned with human rights and democracy in
In November, a coalition of human-rights, judicial reform and social movement
organizations - including the China Rights Network and Taiwanese Human Rights
Association of Canada - accused the KMT of "pulling Taiwan's human rights
standards down to the level of the People's Republic of China (PRC)”. In an
open letter published in several newspapers, the coalition cited suppression of
protests during the visits to Taiwan of Chinese officials. They also complained
about the apparent persecution of Chen Shui-bian, his family, and other DPP
Also in November, similar criticism came from a group of 20 leading American,
Canadian and Australian experts on China and Taiwan - including Nat Bellocchi,
Washington's former de facto ambassador to Taipei. The group said the recent
acts by the KMT administration resembled "the unfair and unjust procedures
practiced during the dark days of martial law".
In particular, the experts said that the persecution is obvious because "only
DPP officials have been detained and given inhumane treatment such as
handcuffing and lengthy questioning, while obvious cases of corruption by
members of the KMT - including in the Legislative Yuan - are left untouched by
the prosecutors or at best are stalled in the judicial process".
In their joint statement, the scholars and journalists complained that the KMT
was using the judiciary - the legal system of prosecutors, investigators,
judges and courts - to persecute political opponents.
"We also believe that the procedures followed by the prosecutor's offices are
severely flawed: while one or two of the accused have been formally charged,
the majority is being held incommunicado without being charged. This is a
severe contravention of the writ of habeas corpus and a basic violation
of due process, justice and the rule of law," the experts said.
And, they protested, "the prosecutor's offices evidently leak detrimental
information to the press. This kind of 'trial by press' is a violation of the
basic standards of judicial procedures. It also gives the distinct impression
that the Kuomintang authorities are using the judicial system to get even with
members of the former DPP government."
This prompted a counter offensive from the government, which has accused the
petitioners of getting their facts wrong.
In two open letters - published in English and Chinese - Minister of Justice
Wang Ching-feng insisted that Taiwan is a country where rule of law pervades.
She said that the arrests and detentions of Chen Shui-bian and others are legal
and necessary to prevent them from colluding with co-conspirators, destroying
evidence or fleeing the country.
In the first letter, Wang wrote, "We in the Ministry of Justice ... want to
reassure those who are concerned about Taiwan, including those who wrote and
signed the open letter, that there will be absolutely no erosion of justice in
Taiwan, no matter who the accused is."
In the second letter, Wang insisted that the judiciary is acting independently
from any political influence and stressed that President Ma Ying-jeou is not
interfering with the legal process.
"Therefore, the allegation of prosecutorial bias against the DPP is entirely
baseless," she said. "All of our prosecutors, without exception, are under the
supervision of the prosecutor-general. There can be no doubt that our public
prosecutors endeavor to prosecute crimes and protect the innocent while
respecting due process."
But Taiwan watchers remain skeptical. Among them is Dean Karakelas, a Canadian
journalist and political scientist who lived in Taiwan for eight years.
"Twice now, respected international scholars have signed an open letter
pointing out bias in the actions of the ROC judiciary, and twice now the
Justice Minister has responded defending the legality of its actions," said
"Let's be clear: it is not the legality that is being contested, but the
morality. It is easy for a party that controls all five branches of government
to make all its actions legal," he said. "But if the current ROC government
wants foreign journalists to stop reporting on its unethical and undemocratic
behavior, it is going to have to do more than point out how eminently legal
these immoral persecutions are: it is going to have to behave responsibly,
transparently and with respect for the principles of democracy."
And many familiar with Taiwan's realpolitik say that Wang Ching-feng's
counter-offensive misses the point, because President Ma Ying-jeou is not
pulling the strings - but his old guard KMT comrades are.
"I am very concerned about the judicial happenings," said Bruce Jacobs,
director of the Taiwan Research Unit at Monash University in Melbourne,
Australia. "I'm not convinced this is being orchestrated by Ma. More likely, if
it is being orchestrated, it is coming from [KMT chairman] Wu Poh-hsiung and
[honorary KMT] chairman Lien Chan."
Others would add the name of another conservative force in the KMT: former
governor of Taiwan province James Soong.
But if that's true, how would the KMT control the judiciary anyway?
"Taiwan has never had true transitional justice," said Jerome Keating, author
of several books, including Taiwan: The Struggles of a Democracy. The
KMT has always controlled the Legislative Yuan and through that the
appointments to the Control Yuan [the body governing the judiciary]."
Keating said that during the Chen years, KMT legislators stifled the Control
Yuan "allowing no appointments and thus paralyzing that body".
As a result, the vast majority of judges in Taiwan - especially senior judges -
came up through the old political vetting process during the martial law era
and is profoundly pro-KMT. In short, they were appointed by (and beholden to)
Michael Turton, host of the highly regarded website The View From Taiwan,
concurs. "Judges become judges by passing a fiendishly difficult exam which
they devote all their time to, and they lack experience of the world and social
and political maturity," he said.