39-Year-Old Murder Mystery Corroborates Congressional Concerns

39-Year-Old Murder Mystery Corroborates Congressional Concerns

39-Year-Old Murder Mystery Corroborates Congressional Concerns

Taiwan’s Transitional Justice Commission (TJC) just released a report on a murder mystery with US ties, vindicating the US Congress’ historical alarms about violations of human rights under Taiwan’s past martial law. The TJC found that pro-democracy activist and US professor Chen Wen-chen (陳文成) probably was murdered in 1981 with the involvement of the Taiwan Garrison Command (the past powerful internal security force). Today, some US officials newer to military-to-military (mil-to-mil) engagement or civilian work with Taiwan can be surprised to learn of its past egregious experiences. On this day of President Tsai Ing-wen’s second inauguration, senior US officials (especially in the State Department) congratulate the Taiwanese on their democracy. This gain comes after a tortuous route. What are the issues for policy?

Murder Mystery

In May 2018, President Tsai presided over a ceremony to establish the TJC. Around that time, she defined transitional justice as an important effort for national unity, so all Taiwan’s people recognize a shared past and face a shared future. She said that transitional justice would reach reconciliation by telling the truth about cases of repression under martial law (1949-1987). 

Dominated by Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) and then his son, Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國), the Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang (KMT), had ruled Taiwan in that authoritarian period. The KMT imposed and later lifted martial law. Historically called Dang Wai (黨外, or “outside the party,” namely, the KMT), Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) was founded in September 1986. President Chiang Ching-kuo allowed the opposition DPP to form, even before he ended martial law in July 1987.

On May 4, 2020, Taiwan’s TJC reported on its investigation into the case of pro-democracy activist Chen Wen-chen. Using evidence from newly declassified files, the commission found that Chen was likely murdered in 1981. Previous reports claimed the cause of death was a suicide or an accident. The TJC implicated the now-disbanded internal security force called the Taiwan Garrison Command (TGC).

In 1981, Chen was a 31-year-old US professor of mathematics who taught in Pennsylvania. The TJC recounted that Taiwan’s government carried out surveillance of Chen and his family for a year before his death, even in the United States. The government monitored Chen’s activities to foster freedom in Taiwan, including donations to the pro-democracy publication called Formosa Magazine (Formosa is a historical name for Taiwan). Then, when he was back in Taiwan, the TGC interrogated him on July 2. The next day, his body was found at National Taiwan University in Taipei, his alma mater. However, he died elsewhere and his body was moved, according to the TJC. A forensics expert concluded that a blunt object caused two wounds on Chen’s back, injuries not consistent with a fall, as previously claimed.

American Soil

Today, the Republic of China (ROC), commonly called Taiwan, is a beacon of democracy, particularly as a model to the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Some US officials and others relatively new to mil-to-mil, diplomatic, or other work with Taiwan can be surprised to learn of its past egregious experiences. Agents even perpetrated abuses on American soil. Struggling against authoritarianism, liberalization occurred due to actions partly by the KMT, DPP, and the United States (particularly Congress).

Congress has played a significant role in fostering freedom in Taiwan as a part of US policy. Starting in 1977, Congress placed pressure (including the leverage of arms sales) on the moderate part of the KMT’s authoritarian regime to liberalize the political system. The regime’s actions even on US soil against Taiwanese activists prompted greater congressional concern before and after Washington switched diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing and the passage of the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), P.L. 96-8, in 1979.

Representatives Stephen Solarz and Jim Leach as well as Senators Claiborne Pell and Edward Kennedy paid particular attention to repression in Taiwan. Beyond these four Members, the Congress carefully crafted the TRA to cover human rights. Section 2(c) states: “Nothing contained in this Act shall contravene the interest of the United States in human rights, especially with respect to the human rights of all the approximately eighteen million inhabitants of Taiwan. The preservation and enhancement of the human rights of all the people on Taiwan are hereby reaffirmed as objectives of the United States.” [1]

Considered by Congress as outrageous operations on US soil, the KMT’s activities included the suspected surveillance of professor Chen before his death in 1981. After Chen’s death, Representative Solarz said, “what happens in America is primarily the business of the Congress of the United States, and we cannot and will not tolerate any act to intimidate or harass Taiwanese or other people living in our country. It is high time for the United States to make clear to the world that our soil will not become a playing field for international hoodlums.” [2]

In July and October 1981, the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittees on Asian and Pacific Affairs, and Human Rights and International Organizations held hearings on “Taiwan Agents in America and the Death of Professor Wen-chen Chen.” The hearings found that Chen, a Taiwan-born professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, died in Taiwan on July 3, 1981, while under detention by the TGC that entailed surveillance of him by Taiwan’s security agents operating in the United States. An American forensic scientist testified that Chen was beaten before he was thrown to his death from the fifth floor of the library at National Taiwan University. Reportedly, the TGC interrogated Chen for 13 hours for alleged anti-KMT activities by using tape recordings of his phone calls and speeches in Pittsburgh as well as photographs of his letters written to a jailed dissident named Shih Ming-teh (施明德). Representative Leach said, “at issue is the infiltration of American universities by informants who, directly or indirectly, report to the Taiwan Government.” Leach added, “it would appear that massive violations of US law have been made by Taiwanese officials in this country. It would also appear that information gathered in Pittsburgh is directly responsible for a death in Taiwan.” [3]

Even after this controversy, another high-profile case concerned the murder of author Henry Liu (劉宜良) in California in 1984.

Current Issues

The congressional actions have reaped results. On this day of Tsai’s second inauguration, Members of Congress and other senior US officials congratulate Taiwan’s people for their hard-fought democracy. Nonetheless, new findings about Chen’s murder mystery remind US officials in mil-to-mil and civilian partnerships of Taiwan’s lingering political sensitivities.

Congress was correct to cite comprehensive concerns that covered human rights. Congress was brilliant, without benefit of hindsight or precedent. The TRA has helped to achieve US objectives. Lester Wolff, then Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asian and Pacific Affairs, continues to credit the unique TRA (in my interviews and his writings). He wrote, “Taiwan has become an economic success and the most vibrant democracy in that part of the world.” According to Wolff, the TRA does not attempt to determine Taiwan’s destiny, “except to support self-determination for the people of Taiwan.” [4]

Chen’s case invokes an important investment of US policy in Taiwan’s freedom, with returns also for the interests of the United States and other countries. How might US policy treasure and sustain this asset to help protect Taiwan, as it counters the PRC’s threats of coercion and force as well as disinformation and interference?

How is Taiwan contributing to strategic competition with the PRC, as discussed in the National Security Strategy and Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy? How might the United States and other countries support Taiwan as it faces PRC attempts to discredit democracy? 

How significant is democracy to US interests in helping Taiwan’s sufficient self-defense, as the TRA stipulates? Since 2018, US officials in the Defense Department have articulated expanded interests to include democracy in assisting Taiwan to deter China.

What are Taiwan’s current challenges? The State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (DRL) reports to Congress on numerous countries. The report on Taiwan in 2019 expressed US concerns about the PRC’s efforts to censor Taiwanese media outlets based on the conflicting interests of their parent companies in the PRC.

To what extent is Taiwan promoting human rights, particularly in Hong Kong, Xinjiang, Tibet, and other places? Are any of Taiwan’s companies undermining such rights anywhere?

How can the US-Taiwan partnership promote democracy and good governance globally? For example, in March 2019, the US Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom visited Taipei to discuss religious freedom in the Indo-Pacific. In April 2020, the Assistant Secretary of State for the DRL Bureau spoke at a virtual workshop on the Global Cooperation and Training Framework (GCTF) on countering disinformation about COVID-19.

Should foreign countries support Taiwan’s right to self-determination? The legislative history of the TRA showed that the definition of human rights for Section 2(c) referred to the Helsinki Declaration of 1975. That Declaration included respect for human rights as well as the right of self-determination in accordance with the United Nations’ Charter.

The main point: Chen’s case confirms congressional concerns. As testament to the TRA, a free Taiwan shares US values and stands with democratic countries.

[1] Shirley Kan, “Democratic Reforms in Taiwan: Issues for Congress,” CRS Report R41263, May 26, 2010.

[2] Richard Bush, At Cross Purposes (New York: M.E. Sharpe, 2004).

[3] Bush, At Cross Purposes; United Press International, July 14, 1981; Newsweek, August 3, 1981; Associated Press, September 12 and 14, 1981; Pittsburgh Post, November 9, 2001.

[4] Lester Wolff, Jon Holstine, and John Brady, A Legislative History of the Taiwan Relations Act (Vol. 4), Pacific Community Institute, Inc., 2004.