History Lessened: Why Hong Kong protesters called PRC the White Terror

Technically, Hong Kong’s heroines and heroes are wrong historically because the White Terror and 228 Incident happened in Taiwan.  But in regarding the accuracy of comparing oppression and brutality and what they’re fighting for, it’s spot on.  The Formosa Indicent of December 10, 1979 is even more apt.

Depending on who’s counting, the White Terror began in 1947 or 1949.  Most historians point to the 228 Incident as the moment when Taiwan turned into a fascist police state under dictator/president Chiang Kai-shek (CKS) and the Kuomintang party (KMT).  The KMT considered themselves to be the legitimate government of both Taiwan and mainland China, and so did most of the world.  CKS and his forces were still fighting the civil war in China through World War II, ceasing in 1949 with the full retreat of the KMT.  In fighting full-fledged brutal communism, CKS and the KMT resorted to full-fledged brutal fascism.

On February 27, 1949, cops working for the State Monopoly Bureau assaulted a woman for selling cigarettes without a permit (pistol whipping, not Eric Garner-style). Bystanders gather round and challenged the cops who then shot into the crowd, injuring one man.  He died the next day, leading to demonstrations in the streets.  The government cracked down using military force, murdering thousands over the next nine days (estimates run between 5,000-28,000 dead).  All radio and press were brought under full government control.

This was the beginning of the White Terror, a fascist martial law government that lasted until 1987, the second longest martial law regime in history surpassed only by Syria’s.  During the White Terror, over 140,000 dissidents were imprisoned, tortured and some killed.  All movements and groups that in any way threatened the regime – political opposition, pro-democracy activists, independence movements – were labelled “communists”, the movements and their leaders banned.

In 1979, pro-democracy activists began to organize, creating independent print news and pirate radio (*) critical of the government.  Formosa Magazine organized a rally on December 10, 1979 which was met with force by police, though with far less brutality and few (less than ten) deaths.  Approximately 150 people were arrested, but it stirred citizens into political awareness and to demand change.  By 1987, the government had given up autocratic rule and the first elections were held.  Taiwan remained a mostly one-party state for the first decade under KMT rule, but former president Chen Shui-bian (2000-2008) and current president Tsai Ing-wen (2016- ) are members of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

(* Pirate radio has always been illegal in Taiwan.  Stations may come and go, but pirate radio has been broadcast for decades and receive advertising revenue from businesses.  The government issues fines and seizes equipment, but the only large scale crackdown came a few years ago when medically unsafe “supplements” were being advertised.)


Interestingly, Taiwan and South Korea changed from dictatorships to democracies at almost the same time – the Formosa Incident in Taiwan and the Gwangju uprising in South Korea, followed eight years later by free and democratic elections.  May 27 is Gwangju Democratization Movement Day in South Korea, similar to Taiwan’s 228 Memorial Day.  One has to wonder if the changes were symbiotic, one feeding the other to happen faster.

If worst did come to worst and Beijing did choose to invade, it would not be easy.  Taiwan does not have a US military presence now (it did from 1954-1979), but the US has active bases on Luzon and Okinawa.  Both are less than 800km from Taiwan, less than 1500km from the mainland, and would be capable of immediate retaliation.  China has no allies in the region, while Taiwan has potentially many.  Taiwan has several military bases capable of housing foreign soldiers and equipment.


  1. Bruce says

    I wonder if the Hong Kong protesters deliberately made an analogy to the 228 events in order to make a subtle insult to the Beijing government by implying that they are similar to fascists in their approach?