Taiwan's first political protest under martial law: The 1979 Ciaotao Incident

Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen attended an event commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Ciaotou Incident on Sunday and praised the courage of the protest participants at that time.


(CNA photo)

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) – On Jan. 22, 1979, hundreds of Taiwanese people took to the streets, in protest of the court ruling that sentenced the former Magistrate of Kaohsiung County, Yu Tung-fa, and his son Yu Ruei-yuan, to eight years in prison on espionage charges. Today, some of the participants have become political leaders in the country, even though they had endured prison, torture, and persecution in the first ten years or more after the incident.

In 1978, Yu Tung-fa (余登發) and Yu Ruei-yuan (余瑞言) were both arrested and charged with espionage, as prompted by the authoritarian Kuomintang government's groundless accusations of concealing the whereabouts of Chinese communists and campaigning for communism. In 1979, the two were sentenced to eight years in prison, thus sparking anger among local politicians and activists who were concurrent friends of Yu to demand justice and democracy.

The major actors pushing for the release of Yu included Hsu Hsin-liang (許信良), Huang Hsin-chieh (黃信介), Chen Chu (陳菊), Ho Chun-mu (何春木), Chang Chun-hung (張俊宏), and Shih Ming-teh (施明德).

On Jan. 22, 1979, Hsu and other activists issued a joint statement asking the government to release Yu and his son. Also, they organized a lecture in front of the Chiaotou Railway Station, raising banners and delivering a speech decrying human rights abuses. The seeds of Taiwan’s democracy were sown as the event gathered more than one hundred supporters, marking the first political protest under martial law, during a time when free speech was not allowed.

(Note: The Jhongli Incident in 1977 was the first riot during the martial law period after a voter reported witnessing an officer manipulating a local election in Jhongli​ of Taoyuan in order to help a Kuomintang-favored candidate win the race.)

Known as the Ciaotou Incident (橋頭事件), the event is believed to have united political dissidents across Taiwan at that time, and paved the way for the Kaohsiung Incident (美麗島事件), on Dec. 10 of the same year, which disturbed Taiwan's dictatorship and ultimately contributed to the country's democratization.

Now, 40 years later, Hsu Hsin-liang, who had once been banned from returning home following the Kaohsiung Incident, is the present-day Chairman of the Foundation on Asia-Pacific Peace Studies (FAPS) after he resigned from the posts of Chairman of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and Senior Advisor to the President.

Shih Ming-the, who was tortured and jailed for 25 years, published his own memoir after his failed attempt to run for Presidential election in 2016. Chen Chu, who spent six years behind bars, served as Mayor of Kaohsiung between 2006 and 2018, and she is the Secretary-General to the President today.

Hsu told the Central News Agency recently that the major participants of the Ciaotou Incident later took the lead role at the Kaohsiung Incident, and he would have remained in great remorse if he hadn't stood up against the oppressors.

Hsu also described the Chiaotou Incident, as well as the Kaohsiung Incident, as the two most important movements in the country; among all those which sparked a political awakening among the Taiwanese people.

On Sunday, President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) attended an event commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Ciaotou Incident. She praised the courage demonstrated by the protest participants at a time when freedom of expression was not allowed. So much so that over 200,000 people or political elites are believed to have been killed or persecuted during Taiwan’s Martial Law period in effect between 1948 and 1987.

Tsai hoped the audience would remember the history and the spirit of those pioneers of democracy, urging people to preserve Taiwan’s hard-earned democracy.

(Image courtesy of Presidential Office)