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Hollywood highlights Taiwan's "White Terror"

Political hit-jobs. The mob and the military in cahoots. Welcome to 1980s Taiwan.

James Van Der Beek as FBI Agent Jake Kelly in a crowd of Taiwanese protesters. (Courtesy Screen Media Films)

TAIPEI, Taiwan — Gangsters kill a Taiwanese-American professor in cold blood in the U.S., then flee back to Taiwan.

An FBI agent follows the killers' trail across the Pacific to Taipei, where he's shocked to discover the perpetrators had links with the government.

It's the plot of a new political thriller called "Formosa Betrayed." But the movie based on real events, including the 1984 murder of Taiwanese journalist Henry Liu in his home in Daly City, Calif., by thugs acting on orders from Taiwan military intelligence.

The film, released in the U.S. on Feb. 26,  shines a spotlight on a troubled chapter of Taiwan's history that's little known beyond its shores.

"Formosa Betrayed" brings to the screen the early 1980s peak of the White Terror. That's Taiwan's name for the authoritarian Kuomintang's monitoring, harassment, imprisonment and in some cases execution of its political enemies during the martial law era from the 1940s to the 1980s.

Taiwan threw off martial law in 1987 and democratized. But it has yet to confront all the ghosts from its past.

In many cases the truth remains buried, with government files sealed and perpetrators still walking the streets unpunished.

Taiwan's experience mirrors those of similar countries wrestling with the sins of autocratic fathers. Think Chile's Pinochet, or South Korea's Park Chung-hee.

It also holds lessons for today's authoritarian China. Beijing uses methods straight out of the KMT's playbook, and has updated White Terror techniques for the 21st century with widespread cell-phone tapping and cyber-snooping.

Turning point

Before the mid-1980s, Washington turned a blind eye to the KMT's harsh methods because it was a staunch World War II and anti-communist ally — the supposedly "free" China.

But Henry Liu's assassination was so brazen it couldn't be ignored, said veteran American journalist Melinda Liu, who covered the story for Newsweek.