July 24, 2001

July 24, 2001 | Commentary on Asia

Death Threats

Every high-profile person receives death threats. It's no big deal. So, why should a death threat against former Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui be any more alarming than usual? After all, that's why the man has a bodyguard detail.

 

Last month, the pastor at Lee's Presbyterian congregation in Tahsi, Taoyuan, received a postcard in the mail signed by a group called the "Liquidation Brigade of the General Self-Strengthening Committee" (Ziqiang Zonghui Chujian Tuan) warning the church not to let Lee attend, worship or deliver sermons there, lest "Lee Teng-hui be killed-in-action."

 

The pastor informed the police on June 29, and immediately Lee's bodyguard detail was doubled and round-the-clock surveillance was placed on the church. The threats were only reported in the Taipei papers on July 17, no doubt by journalists curious about the persistent presence of plainclothes policemen at the church.

 

The death threat is credible, and it stirs nightmares from the recent past. To be sure, the former Taiwan president has been the target of violence. And Beijing has been loosing its vitriol on Lee for nearly a decade.

 

At home, Lee's outspoken advocacy of Taiwan "localization" has angered the old-line mainlander minority that had ruled the island for 54 years through the Kuomintang (KMT) party. Last year, those mainlanders rioted in Taipei, smashing cars, roughing up top ethnic-Taiwanese KMT officials and calling for Lee's resignation in the aftermath of the KMT's ignominious defeat in the March 18, 2000, presidential elections.

 

Lee, they thought, had ruined the KMT's chances of winning by ostracizing the party's top vote-getter, former Taiwan governor and mainlander, the independent presidential candidate James Chu-yu Soong.

 

Lee, they were sure, would do anything to keep a mainlander from winning the elections. See, for example his current political alliance with Taiwan's new president, Chen Shui-bian of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

 

But would they really…like…you know…kill somebody?

 

The bad old days

 

On Feb. 28, 1980, in broad daylight, someone snuck into the house of Lin Yi-hsiung in Taipei and slit the throats of his two twin daughters and their grandmother. A third daughter survived the brutality but lost all memory of the incident.

 

The children's father was then in prison, and on trial, for his part in a pro-democracy protest in Kaohsiung. His house had been under round-the-clock surveillance by police looking for yet another defendant still at large. The murderer was never found.

 

In the early morning of July 3, 1982, Carnegie Mellon University professor Chen Wen-cheng was found dead at the foot of a tower at National Taiwan University. He had apparently fallen from a great height.

 

Professor Chen's death was suspicious because the night before his death he was in the custody of the Taiwan garrison command. A noted Pennsylvania state criminal forensic pathologist pronounced the death "probable homicide" after a laborious review of the autopsy.

 

Finally, on Sept. 14, 1984, Taiwan's spymaster in Washington, Adm. Wang Hsi-ling arranged the assassination of Chinese-American writer Henry Liu, who had penned an unflattering biography of Taiwan's President Chiang Ching-kuo. By Oct. 20, two Taiwan gangsters had murdered Liu in his garage in Daly City, on the outskirts of San Francisco.

 

When the FBI presented U.S. President Reagan with a tape recording of Adm. Wang's orders to the assassins for Liu's murder, Reagan demanded Adm. Wang's arrest, trial and conviction. Otherwise, Reagan would abide by the so-called "Solarz Amendment" and cease all arms sales to Taiwan. Wang was convicted in a Taiwan court and got a life sentence.

 

Holding it together

 

Make no mistake. Death threats from the troglodyte-wing of the KMT are breathtakingly credible. That's a key reason the KMT hasn't been very popular in Taiwan these past years.

 

The party would have been even less popular if it hadn't been for Lee Teng-hui. Lee's "localization" made the party relevant to Taiwan's majority and he remains committed to his cause-emphatically not the cause of the KMT' s pro-China militants.

 

But the 78-year-old President Lee Teng-hui has chronic heart trouble, and while he could live for another 10 or 15 years, he might not. His passing would have a traumatic impact on Taiwan's politics whenever it comes. But the prospect of violence is too much to contemplate.

 

Fortunately, I don't have to. But policymakers in Taipei, as well as Washington, should steel themselves for an unexpected snap that could turn the island upside down.

 

John Tkacik is a research fellow in China policy at the Heritage Foundation's Asian Studies Center.

About the Author

John J. Tkacik, Jr. Senior Research Fellow
Asian Studies Center

Reprinted with permission of China Online