Hollywood highlights Taiwan's "White Terror"

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.

"When it became clear that some Taiwan authorities were willing to export dirty tricks to American soil, that raised alarm bells," wrote Liu in an email. "Taipei's supporters in Washington could not easily defend murder and other violations of American laws when they occurred on U.S. turf."

The U.S. Congress became more active in pressing for human rights in Taiwan, and passed a resolution that Henry Liu's killers be extradited to the U.S. for trial (Taiwan rejected that). Such pressure helped nudge Taiwan toward democracy.

Will Tiao, one of the actors and producers of "Formosa Betrayed," helped raise more than $6 million for the movie from Taiwanese in the United States and Canada. He said the film had touched a nerve in the community.

"Many of the investors and supporters of the film were directly affected by the events of the White Terror period," wrote Tiao, himself a Kansas-born Taiwanese-American, in an email. "Most of them were spied upon or asked to spy upon others. Many were blacklisted. Some
were arrested or their families arrested. And some had worse things happen to them."

"So this film is very personal and emotional to them because it's really the first time they have gotten a chance to tell their story to a worldwide audience. For some, it's been a healing process."

Debating history

In Taiwan, people still can't agree on how to heal. Some in the old KMT's machine of repression have reinvented themselves as democrats. Their supporters say Taiwan should move on. Cynics say past KMT sins are too often used by the opposition to score political points. And for most young people, it's all ancient history.

But the era is still fresh in many people's minds. Social work professor Karleen Chiu recalls how scared she and other students were in 1981 when a visiting Taiwanese-American professor was found dead on her college campus in Taipei, just hours after a marathon interrogation session by KMT secret police. (An official probe ruled the professor's death a suicide or accident, which many found hard to swallow.)

Later, Chiu was a graduate student at Ohio State University when Henry Liu was murdered. Even on American soil, Taiwanese students were scared silent, afraid to talk to other Taiwanese who might be KMT informants.

"You didn't even talk to your roommates about that (Liu's murder) because you didn't know which side they were on," said Chiu. "You didn't want to be blacklisted. You might not be able to come back to Taiwan. The fear was always there."

Historian Chen Yi-shen said that government files that could expose the truth of cases such as Henry Liu's remain sealed; only those pre-1980 have been opened. Chen is among those who aren't willing to simply forget the past.

"Only if you know the truth can you have forgiveness," said Chen, of Academia Sinica's Institute of Modern History in Taipei. "If you don't have the truth, how can you resolve this history?"

Chen said there wasn't enough known evidence to prove that high level KMT politicians ordered Henry Liu's murder. It's possible that over-zealous military officials acted on their own.

"It's like raising a dog to be very fierce," said Chen. "Sometimes you can't control it, and it can run off and bite people."

KMT military intelligence's role in the killing only came to light because one of the gangsters, Bamboo Union leader Chen Chi-li, aka "King Duck", made secret tape recordings to protect himself, and gave them to a friend in Texas. King Duck served less than six years in jail, and later lived high on the hog in a luxury home in Cambodia.

Liu's murder, and similar cases, led professor Chen and a group of others to quit the KMT, and publicly burn their party membership cards.

"We all changed in the 1980s," said Chen. "How could the government kill people like this? We thought staying in the KMT would be shameful."

Pursuing justice

In addition to opening government files, Chen and others have pressed for a national human rights museum funded by the sale of KMT property, not taxpayer money (KMT legislators cut funding for that project, he says). He says Taiwan needs special legislation for trying White Terror abuses as government crimes against the people.

And he points to South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission as a possible model for Taiwan to follow.

He and others had high hopes in 2000 when a government of former democracy activists and human rights lawyers took power, only to be disappointed by that government's inaction. He says the current president, the KMT's Ma Ying-jeou, only pays "lip service" to the subject with ritual apologies. "No power transfer, no transition, no justice," said Chen, shaking his head.

Now, Chen says he's on Beijing's blacklist for his pro-Taiwan independence views. He's barred from visiting China, and says a technician traced spyware on his computer back to Beijing.

"Now the CCP is doing what the KMT did," said Chen. "They're just lagging behind by 30 years."