How Taiwan Became “Unsafe”: The forgotten moment of crisis during Taiwan’s democratisation

Written by Sam Robbins.

The 1990s in Taiwan was truly a transitional decade. Democratisation was under way: it begun with the dominant Kuomintang (KMT) continuing its five decades of dominance against mounting opposition and ended with the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) winning the presidency for the first time in 2000. Civil society grew in size and power, protests were common, and a range of progressive causes (such as feminism and the LGBTQ+ movement) made progress in a way they had not in Taiwan’s East Asian neighbours. At the same time, the media was liberalising, expanding, and coming to terms with a system in which KMT patronage was no longer enough to ensure financial sustainability. The links between some of these phenomena are fairly clear. For example, the legalisation of independent cable TV in 1993 allowed the media sector to expand dramatically. That opposition parties could gain ground was the result of a lifting of a ban on opposition parties in the 1980s and an increase in electoral opportunities as more and more positions became directly elected. The first presidential election was held in 1996.

This article aims to shed light on a forgotten moment of crisis during this decade of transition. I have called this period Taiwan’s “danger wave”, denoting the period in which a consensus arose that Taiwan had become unsafe. This period took place between roughly late 1996 and 1998. Several events encapsulate this moment of fear: Two large protest movements were organised on May 4th and May 18th 1997; the ruling KMT apologised repeatedly for the perceived crisis of law and order; newspapers across the political spectrum became convinced of a deterioration of law and order; and both the KMT and DPP responded by focusing on crime, safety, and violence in their election messaging in 1997 and 1998. A consensus emerged that Taiwan was no longer safe for many groups in society, even if not too much had changed empirically.

It should be stressed that I am referring to the emergence of ideas about safety rather than changes in crime rates in Taiwan more specifically. I am not suggesting that the end of authoritarianism lead to an increase in crime and that Taiwan was in fact actually particularly unsafe between 1996–1998. Instead, I want to consider the reasons that lead people to begin to feel that Taiwan had become unsafe in this period. Liberalisation and reform did lead to changes in the actions of criminal gangs in Taiwan, but, of course, gangs had existed long before 1996. Similarly, statistics suggest crime was rising in the early 1990s, but why did it take until 1997 for people to march in large numbers? In short, why did people become so worried about safety in this period when they had not been before?

The short-term causes for the emergent of this consensus were three famous murder cases that shook the public. Two politicians were murdered in November 1996. The cases were unrelated but happened in quick succession. The first was KMT magistrate for Taoyuan, Liu Pang-Yu 劉邦友, and the second was director of the DPP Women’s affair department, Peng Wan-Ru 彭婉如. The third murder was of Bai Hsiao-Yan 白曉燕, the 16-year daughter of the famous Taiwanese singer, Bai Ping-Ping 白冰冰. She was murdered in late April 1997.

My research is trying to uncover the longer term causes of these sentiments in order to tie this event back to the larger context of Taiwan’s democratic transition. These murder cases could have happened at any time: why were they able to change public opinions so dramatically when they did? Why did the KMT have to apologise after the tragic murder of a young girl when it had never done so over a similar murder before? I thus believe the wider context of Taiwan’s democratic transition is essential to our understanding of what happened. The “danger wave” arose when the KMT lost the ability to convince the public that it could deliver on “being tough on crime”. The KMT had been pushing the idea that it was able to tackle crime since the mid- 1980s. “Operation clean sweep” 一清專案, was launched in 1984 to try to limit gang activity. Premier Hau Pei-tsun 郝柏村 (1990-1993) was well known for his “tough on crime message” that became associated with the KMT brand more broadly. A combination of bad timing of these cases and broader trends meant that these murders fundamentally undermined this message. The murders of Peng and Liu came shortly after a large and very public KMT measure to arrest prominent gang leaders, “operation peaceful state” 治平專案, launched in 1996. Perhaps if they had not been so keen on demonstrating their ability to tackle crime, these murders would not have seen like such a KMT failure.

It was civil society protests that really challenged the KMT message and forced them to apologise, and the messaging of the DPP confirmed this. These new political forces were much more able to mobilise and promote alternative messages than they had been before. Large protest movements that took place in May 1997 organised by a combination of civil society groups made the KMT’s failure much more visible and forced them to apologise. Indeed, it was not just bad timing, but the presence of new social forces that changed the narrative from “the KMT can secure law and order” to “the KMT has failed to keep Taiwan safe”.

At the same time, the media’s reaction to the murder cases was unprecedented in Taiwan. The media followed each of the cases closely; Murders sell papers and attract viewers. In a market in which competition was rapidly growing and monopolies being challenged, these murder cases, especially Bai’s, were covered to an extent that homicides had not received before. Cable TV also meant that the development of each trial could be followed constantly. Since a similar situation had not happened before in Taiwan, there was no “script” of acceptable reporting standards. In fact, the way the cases were reported on—specifically the over-exposure of and perceived lack of respect for the victims—led to criticism from human rights organisations, and many outlets apologised later in response.

The media was also now freer to critique the KMT and its record. References to issues of law and order in Taiwan map onto the decoupling of the media from the KMT. As the two institutions became less entangled, the space to criticise the KMT grew. Alternative feminist publications could also create a counter narrative in a way that would not have been possible years earlier. As well as sensationalising these murders, there was also an increased space to focus on KMT policy and discuss the issues facing Taiwan. It can thus be said that this extensive coverage might not have been possible five years earlier and, due to new legislation and changing standards, such excessive reporting would not have been possible five years later.

The tragic cases of Liu, Peng, and Bai happened at a critical intersection in Taiwan’s transition from authoritarianism. This said, the lasting impact of the “danger wave” these cases caused was relatively limited. The sentiment seemed to pass some way into 1999, and occasional references to violent crime continued into the twenty-first century. The sentiment seemed to fizzle out as other social concerns came to feel more pressing. Taiwan was not suddenly “safe” on January 1st, 1999, but still fewer people seemed to openly worry about its “unsafety”. The long-term consequences of this moment were that the KMT’s position was weakened, and a standard on how to (or how not to) report on murder cases was set for Taiwan’s rapidly expanding media.

I hope to ensure that the effects of these three cases had on Taiwanese society in the 1990s is not forgotten and that we can place this “unsafety moment” back into our narrative of Taiwanese democratisation. This is not because I believe democratisation makes society less safe, but rather because it can show us how people may begin to think about safety and mobilise around these ideas in a rapidly changing society in that is adjusting to a new political system and an expanding mediascpae.

Sam Robbins is a 4th-year undergraduate student at SOAS, studying Chinese. His undergraduate studies have focused on Taiwan and modern Taiwanese history, with his dissertation examining the idea of “crime waves” in a Taiwanese context. He currently hopes to study sociology at graduate school, and continue to examine Taiwan through a comparative, global perspective. This paper is part of EATS 2019 conference special issue. Photo credit: Flickr/ Brandon Anderson.

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