As the archives are opened, we are learning more about the extent of the party-state’s intelligence-gathering inside people’s homes and on university campuses. Recently released files and video documentaries help tell that story of Taiwan’s dark past. Alison Hsiao reports.
The Transitional Justice Commission, officially established in May 2018, weathered a political crisis that nearly blew it out only three months into its operations and undermined public confidence in its ability to meet its objectives. But recently, it has received positive attention for its success in piecing together the full picture of the surveillance efforts targeting the Taiwanese during the authoritarian era.
‘A diary kept by others’
Reading through stacks of files that recorded their lives more than three decades ago, the activists-turned-scholars/lawyers/historians were separately being monitored once again through the lens of a video camera, this time as part of a short documentary released by the Commission at the end of May.
The files were kept by the intelligence agencies during 1980s to keep close tabs on those who the regime regarded as possible “disruptors” on university campuses. Among other things, they found letters sent by a mother to a son doing his mandatory military service, the floor plans of the apartment where he once lived, and details of their entertainments that they had almost forgotten.
“We often found that our activities were being preemptively targeted,” Lin Kuo-min, professor of sociology at National Taiwan University, said of his campus life when he was a student activist. Historian Yang Pi-chuan, jailed in the 1970s for his political views and who worked as a club instructor of Taiwanese history at NTU after his release from prison, found photos of his apartment and rooms in his files.
The informers appeared in the files under code names, but using various details, Lin and Yang were able to identify them. They could be the nanny who once babysat your child, or one whom you’ve considered a good friend to this day.
“I know all the people in the files from front to back,” said Yang. “Of course I’m much saddened by the fact that they…” he did not finish the sentence.
According to the files collected by the Commission, more than 5,000 informers were co-opted or installed on university campuses around the country by 1983.
The Commission said it will invite more of those who were targeted by government surveillance, and if possible, informers, to read the archives. There has been, and surely there will be a more heated, debate on whether these files should be made fully open to the public. Although some informers appeared under code names, there were real names, too. The approach to make transparent these political surveillance files varies across post-authoritarian countries, with some making them fully open to the public while others have chosen to limit access to those who were directly involved only.
“No one enjoys being a snitch. They were either lured or threatened,” Yang said. According to the Commission, the techniques used to recruit informers included the agents heaping debts on a person by taking him/her to a gambling den, where underhanded measures ensured the target would accumulate substantial debt.
On June 1 the Commission released another 18-minute film written by Hung Tzu-ying, the screenwriter of On Children, and directed by award-winning director Lo Ging-zim (who was also behind the ghost month commercial that sparked discussion with its underlying historical innuendos). The short film depicts a dying man who asks his son to return copies of a “diary” he had written, under the military instructor’s cajoling and intimidation, to his college friend.
Based on the archives collected by the Commission, the film shows not only the informer’s betrayal but also his conundrum. It also points to the fact that the information could be partly fabricated for the sake of reporting on a targeted individual.
“The surveillance records could be mottled with agents or informants’ misinformation generated with biases and deliberate exaggerations, as other countries’ transitional justice experiences have shown. Judgments therefore cannot be made based on surveillance files alone,” the Commission said.
Education-intelligence-party surveillance complex
By the 1980s, surveillance activities against students and schools had been a fact of life for quite a while already. As early as the 1950s, the Kuomintang (KMT) had set up “anti-communist struggle research teams” at universities to execute political investigative tasks. In the 1970s, the KMT transferred the work to the intelligence agencies, but continued to oversee the coordination between the agencies and the Ministry of Education (MOE).
“Chun Feng Briefing” (春風會報; Chun Feng, literally “spring wind,” can be used to describe the “positive influence” of a teacher) was a national campus security briefing against “disturbing” elements first set up in response to a student movement driven by the cause of “protecting the Diaoyutai Islands” in the 1970s. The briefing mechanism consisted of party units, government agencies (MOE, Investigation Bureau, and National Police Agency), as well as military units, taking charge of information-gathering and decision making pertaining to campus security.
When Huang Erh-hsuan, a founding member of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and former associate professor of political science at Soochow University, died in February, the university’s student body and political science department filed a petition to the Commission, in the hopes of finding the truth behind the sudden sacking of Huang by the university in 1983. According to the Commission’s investigation, Huang’s removal from his position was listed as a major achievement of the campus surveillance system overseen by the regime.
The KMT ramped up its effort in 1983 by setting up a “Campus Stabilization Work Briefing” that convened bi-weekly so that the regime could respond to the “abnormal” incidents and quickly crack down on dissent.
NTU was a particular thorn in the regime’s side, according to the files collected and investigated by the Commission. Student activities at NTU were suspected to be linked to the tangwai. It was against this backdrop that the three men who are featured in the video, among hundreds, were placed under surveillance.
“NTU is the country’s best university. If the free academic atmosphere continues to spread, the survival of the Republic of China could be threatened,” Arthur Shay, the activist-turned-lawyer featured in the video, read from a file by the Investigation Bureau.
The survival of the Republic of China apparently also hinged on local elections that were permitted with reluctance during the authoritarian period.
“Chin-tang briefings” (金湯會報) were regularly held by the Investigation Bureau during the Martial Law era for “security and counter-espionage.” Participants included representatives from the security agencies such as the Taiwan Garrison Command, the Ministry of National Defense, military police, police departments, and the 2nd section of personnel offices (人二室; in charge of surveillance in public offices and schools) from the related administrative units. The presence of the KMT’s local chapters was often recorded, and the party’s hierarchical status was demonstrated by the fact that its representatives were always listed in front of those from other agencies.
In meeting minutes in 1981, it was revealed that the party was trying to collect journalists’ handwritings. In another, attention was drawn to the fact that school educators were corresponding more frequently with their families in “bandit-occupied-areas” (i.e., the People’s Republic of China) by taking the letters overseas to be mailed.
With local elections approaching, the briefings also turned into campaign planning. There were no clear lines separating government and party, with the former urging others to ramp up support for KMT candidates, collecting information about rivals and identifying who was assisting the tangwai candidates so they could be “handled” by the security agencies.
Much as the Chinese Communist Party intensifies its persecution and silencing of dissidents on the eve of the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, the KMT regime, the Commission revealed, would tighten its surveillance on former political prisoners, dissidents and families as the anniversary of the February 28 Incident approached.
In a disclosed file from 1970, for example, special measures were planned by the Garrison Command, MND Political Warfare Bureau, the Military Police Headquarters, the Investigation Bureau, the Taiwan Provincial Police Agency and the KMT Central Committee Sixth Taskforce, to prevent “overseas traitors” from using families of 228 victims to “initiate illegal activities.” Agents were asked to more closely watch families of the victims, political prisoners who had served out their terms, and anyone who was suspected of being a possible “rioter.”
A Hualien Chin-tang briefing in 1971 documented how a name list of 228 victims and their families was requested for surveillance, while intelligence agencies were also ordered to monitor how society was reacting to the incident.
“This regime was in fear that it might get overthrown,” Yang said in the video. Out of fear, they in turn sowed fear in the people, and that was “the most destructive aspect of the [authoritarian] system.”