It was declared a “watershed moment in its democratization”, but there was no jubilation or dancing in the streets. The Nationalists Kuomintang (KMT) still had a strangle hold on Taiwan’s political system, but this was the beginning of political liberalization and the roots of Taiwanization.
Chiang Ching-kuo lifted martial law over Taiwan in July 1987, 38 years after his father, Chiang Kai-shek, removed all power from the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government in May 1949. The KMT government and 2 million troops had fled to Taiwan after losing the Communists during the Chinese civil war.
During this period of martial law, there were no political parties, no human rights, and no free speech. Civilians were tried in military court, people’s thinking and reading were controlled, and no freedom of expression. The secret police, known as the Taiwan Garrison Command, arrested anyone critical of the government and were blacklisted.
Taiwan in the early 1960s was very militarized, but as time went on, the people started to slowly break down the restrictions of martial law. By the 1980s, after Chiang Kai-shek’s death in April 1975, opposition forces and citizen protest movements were in full swing. An opposition party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) was established in September 1986. Martial law was lifted a year later.
Even after martial law was lifted, some restrictions still applied because the National Security Law was passed, which limited freedom of assembly among other things. However the transition was peaceful compared to the violent martial law transitions of South Korea and the Philippines. “To survive, the party had to identify with this land, this people – so democracy was the only way for Taiwan to survive.”
There are mixed views about this time period, but it was the start of democracy even if
the democracy was “immature, lousy, chaotic”. Taiwan started to have “vital media, a strong opposition, lively party politics, and judicial independence… there [was] no turning back now.” Even the KMT, who adopted Taiwan as their home, started to see themselves as Taiwanese rather than Chinese after 40 years of no contact with the mainland.
Who knows if martial law was never imposed, would Taiwan be where it is today?