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The Kaohsiung Incident

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The Kaohsiung Incident (高雄事件; gāoxióng shìjiàn) of December 1979 was a political watershed, often regarded as the beginning of Taiwan’s democratic revolution. Opposition to Taiwan’s one-party state had been growing in the 1970s and, in an apparent concession, President Chiang Ching-kuo had agreed to hold legislative elections in 1979 – but at the last minute, he cancelled them. On Human Rights Day (Dec 10) a rally was organized in Kaohsiung in protest, the activists spurred on by the arrest the night before of two workers for Meilidao (“Formosa” in English), a clandestine publication that was a focus for dissidents. Things quickly got out of hand as police were brought in to disperse the crowds, and violent scuffles ensued. In the aftermath, almost every member of the unofficial opposition was arrested, culminating in the trial, in 1980, of the “Kaohsiung Eight” for sedition. Most were jailed for lengthy periods, but the trial was widely publicized and as a result the defendants garnered a great deal of sympathy, ultimately creating a wider base for democratic reform.

Today, the list of those involved reads like a “Who’s Who” of Taiwanese politics, many becoming leaders of the Tangwai (dăngwài; Outside Party) movement and later the Democratic Progressive Party: Chen Shui-bian (president 2000–08) and Frank Hsieh (former Kaohsiung mayor and premier) were lawyers on the defence team, while Annette Lu (vice-president 2000–08), Lin Yi-hsiung (former leader of the DPP) and Shih Ming-teh (ex-DPP chairman and political activist) served five to ten years in jail. Although no one died during the incident, Lin’s mother and twin 7-year-old daughters were murdered while he was in prison, a case that remains unsolved.

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