In Taiwan, a contentious quest for ‘transitional justice’

Foreign Affairs

In recent years, Taiwan has been trying to rectify the wrongs from its “White Terror” period, nearly four decades of martial law. But critics say the current ruling party, the DPP, is using “transitional justice” as a cudgel against its political opponents.

Taiwan and transitional justice
Illustration by Derek Zheng

From 1949 to 1987, the Nationalist Party (Kuomintang, KMT) ruled Taiwan under martial law, a period known as the “White Terror.” The party repressed local culture and persecuted political dissidents, and executed thousands of opponents, both real and perceived. It also acquired vast sums of assets, including enterprises, properties, and cash.

Since the lifting of martial law, Taiwan’s various ruling parties have attempted to rectify many of the wrongdoings of the past. The Ill-gotten Party Assets Settlement Committee (CIPAS, 党产会 dǎng chǎn huì) was created in 2016 with the goal of identifying and returning “ill-gotten” assets from the White Terror period. This meant finding all illegitimately acquired properties in the hands of the KMT or KMT-associated organizations (附随组织 fùsuí zǔzhī) and transferring them to the state. The passage of the Act of Promoting Transitional Justice a year later further moved this initiative forward.

In October 2018, CIPAS targeted Central Motion Picture Company (CMPC), founded in 1954 by the KMT, which for the majority of its existence was the most important film studio in Taiwan. After the CMPC was identified as an associated organization, the process of transferring its assets to the state began. CMPC appealed, but a 2020 decision by the Taipei High Administrative Court found that the studio was in fact a KMT-associated organization, and left it with two options: allow the completion of the case, or come to an agreement with CIPAS.

Last month, on August 24, CIPAS and CMPC jointly announced that they had reached a settlement, marking the first time that a process to reclaim illegitimately seized property went to completion.

CMPC agreed to pay $950 million TWD ($34 million) and transfer the intellectual property rights for 330 movies made before 2005 to Taiwan’s government. This includes many of Taiwanese cinema’s classics, including Ang Lee’s Eat Drink Man Woman and Edward Yang’s A Brighter Summer Day.

After the announcement, figures in the Pan-Blue camp, which is aligned with the KMT, voiced their opposition to the committee. Yeh Ching-yuan (叶庆元 Yè Qìngyuán), head of the KMT’s Inspection and Discipline Committee, said that CIPAS “wants to liquidate the KMT.” Speaking with the United Daily, he claimed that the KMT has offered to donate its assets, but that CIPAS will only allow a transfer to the committee itself. Yeh said that because of their frozen funds, the KMT has had to go increasingly into debt to finance all its activities, including elections.

“Once the state decides to target you, there is no way of surviving,” said Lei Chien (雷倩 Léi Qiàn), chairperson of the National Women’s League, another KMT-associated organization targeted by CIPAS beginning in 2019. About the National Women’s League case, which is ongoing, Lei said that the fight is one for the “spirit of the constitution.”

Transitional Justice in Taiwan

“Transitional justice refers to the ways countries emerging from periods of conflict and repression address large-scale or systematic human rights violations so numerous and so serious that the normal justice system will not be able to provide an adequate response,” according to the International Center for Transitional Justice. In Taiwan, CIPAS plays a crucial role, tasked with investigating assets acquired as a result of the KMT’s authoritarian rule, both for the KMT itself and other associated organizations.

The Central Motion Picture Company’s roots lie in the Japanese colonial era. After 1945, the KMT took control of all Japanese-owned assets in Taiwan, including the Taiwan Film Company (台湾电影事业公司 Táiwān diànyǐng shìyè gōngsī). In 1954, the KMT merged it with another film studio to form CMPC. This studio would go on to produce films for some of Taiwan’s most well known directors, including Ang Lee (李安 Lǐ Ān), Edward Yang (杨德昌 Yáng Déchāng), and Hou Hsiao-hsien (侯孝贤 Hóu Xiàoxián). In 2005, the government forced the KMT to sell all firms it controlled, including CMPC.

As Taiwan began to democratize, activists and academics began demanding transparency over the wrongdoings of the martial law period, including the processes used by the KMT to acquire its properties. Various actors began suing the party and the government in civil court, arguing that these assets represented a historical injustice, posed a threat to the political system, and had to either be returned to their original owners or the state. These lawsuits had mixed results, and it became clear that the existing legal structures were inadequate.

“Taiwan’s government has used transitional justice as a tool to solidify Taiwanese national identity.”

When the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) came to power in 2000 with the victory of President Chen Shui-bian (陈水扁 Chén Shuǐbiǎn), DPP legislators began developing the first ill-gotten party assets legislation. However, because of the KMT’s majority in the Legislative Yuan, Taiwan’s parliament, it never passed. The Chen administration used its other powers to begin investigating the KMT’s assets, resulting in a 2007 report by the Control Yuan, Taiwan’s state ombudsman. While the report outlined assets transferred by the state to the KMT during the martial law period, it lacked the power to investigate KMT records and those of associated organizations, or transfer any assets to the state or original owners.

But the consensus in Taiwanese society was changing, says Arata Hirai, a researcher at Waseda University. He says that beginning in the late 1990s with the Lee Teng-hui (李登辉 Lǐ Dēnghuī) administration, “Taiwan’s government has used transitional justice as a tool to solidify Taiwanese national identity.” Akata believes that as the Taiwanese state liberalized, it revealed a polity without a “shared historical memory.” Different identity groups had been the target of different transgressions, and the new state now had to bring them together.

This meant that regardless of political party or controversy, all governments had to make at least a minimal recognition of the importance of transitional justice and a shared Taiwanese identity. For example, KMT President Ma Ing-jeou (马英九 Mǎ Yīngjiǔ) participated every year in the 228 Incident memorial ceremony, even though it was his own party that committed the atrocities of 1947. Conversely, in 2020, DPP President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文 Cài Yīngwén) paid her respects to Hau Pei-tsun (郝柏村 Hǎo Bǎicūn), a recently deceased KMT hardliner and 228 Incident denialist.

It was out of this environment that, in 2016 — with a DPP majority in the Legislative Yuan — the Ill-gotten Party Assets Act (不当党产处理条例 bùdāng dǎngchǎn chǔlǐ tiáolì) was passed, and CIPAS was created.

A disputed process

A Business Weekly poll found that at the time, even 54% of Pan-Blue (KMT-aligned) voters supported dealing with ill-gotten assets, but controversy quickly arose. When CIPAS froze the KMT’s assets and opened cases against the party and various associated organizations, critics claimed that the DPP was using transitional justice as a tool to attack their opposition.

Cheng Fei-wen (郑斐文 Zhèng Fěiwén), head of the China Youth Corps’ (CYC) secretariat — another associated organization targeted by CIPAS — claims that the committee is not an objective body. He says that CYC “feels very frustrated” with the case against it because the government shouldn’t “punish people for what was just and legal now being unjust and illegal.”

Cheng denies that CYC was ever associated with the KMT; instead, he says, it existed as a public institution for its first 20 years before becoming a non-profit. “At the time, the KMT was the party in power. The party’s relationship with the government was very close. CYC’s task was to assist the government in serving the public,” he says. “That doesn’t mean CYC was ever controlled by the KMT.”

In Cheng’s view, and that of many critics of CIPAS and transitional justice in Taiwan, the Pan-Green camp, which is aligned with the DPP, has corrupted CIPAS. “The members of CIPAS all lean toward the ideology of the party in power (the DPP) when it was formed,” he says. “They don’t consider the background behind that era’s social environment or historical factors.”

“Every government has used transitional justice as a political tool at least a little,” says Akita, the researcher at Waseda University. However, he recognizes that transitional justice has been disproportionately championed by the DPP. “Dealing with ill-gotten party assets is extremely important to the DPP because it affects their ability to compete politically. There is no doubt that the KMT having a hugely disproportionate amount of assets affects the fairness of the political system.” For example, a 2014 investigation by the Control Yuan found that the KMT had over 60 billion TWB ($2 billion) in assets, 40 times the amount held by the DPP.

For some, it is wrong to see everything coming from the martial law period as a historical injustice without acknowledging its context.

Cheng, the official at CYC, says that the controversy over CIPAS stems from the different historical memories in Taiwan. He believes that transitional justice is divisive. For Cheng, it is wrong to see everything coming from the martial law period as a historical injustice without acknowledging its context. “At the time, the government’s policies were focused on bringing together all social forces to protect Taiwan. Today, Taiwan’s democracy and progress only exist because at that time, everyone united as one (团结一致 tuánjié yīzhì), securing our current prosperity and development.”

As for the agreement with CMPC, assets will be transferred to the government’s Transitional Justice Fund (促转基金管理会 cù zhuǎn jījīn guǎnlǐ huì), where they will be used to compensate victims of the martial law period and pay for programming related to human rights and transitional justice. As for the 330 films, beyond being transferred to the fund, there are no plans on what will happen to them. According to correspondence with CIPAS, though the case against CMPC will be closed, it will continue to be known as one of the KMT’s associated organizations.

In an interview with the United Daily, Lin Fong-cheng (林峯正 Lín Fēngzhèng), chairperson of CIPAS, said he expects that the committee will only exist for three more years. In that time, he believes it will be able to complete all cases opened against the KMT and associated organizations, transfer their ill-gotten assets to the state, and disband. Whether that means CIPAS will agree to a settlement in these cases or use its full executive authority to complete the cases is still unknown.

But that doesn’t mean the process of transitional justice will have been completed. Akita, the researcher at Waseda University, believes that as the development of Taiwanese national identity continues, transitional justice will remain at the forefront. “Taiwan’s problems are very complex. Not only does it have to deal with the effects of the KMT’s authoritarian rule, but also Japanese colonialism, the Chinese Civil War, and the indigenous question. All of these require a transitional justice process.”