Truth, finding the perpetrator, and recollection:
The 20th anniversary of the Chen Wen-chen incident
（Secretary General, The Chen Wen-chen Memorial Foundation）
Chen Wen-chen during his stay in the U.S. With his hearty and open personality and his willingness
and ability to act, he was determined to return to Taiwan as soon as he could to offer what he had learnt.
The 1960s and 1970s were a time of great changes in world order, and Dr. Chen Wen-chen, who had studied abroad, breathed the air of democracy and freedom that prevailed in western nations. The stifling and closed-off political and academic atmosphere of Taiwan affected him deeply, and he urgently wanted to return home to offer what he had learnt. But just as with the Lin Yi-hsiung family murders, Chen Wen-chen’s ideals met their death in the cold-blooded horror of the White Terror; in the political atmosphere of the times, everybody knew why he had been killed, and yet the case remained unsolved. The end of June this year marks the twentieth anniversary of Dr. Chen’s martyr-like death, and the statute of limitations on the investigation of murder cases also expires after twenty years. The Taiwan News has invited Hu Hui-Lin, secretary general of the Chen Wen-chen Memorial Foundation, to write this week’s “Window on Taiwan,” and describe the life of this martyr for democracy who died a premature death, and the legacy he has left to politics in Taiwan and the influence of international public opinion about his death has had on Taiwan.
The Chen Wen-chen incident occurred on July 2, 1981, and was similar to the Lin Yi-hsiung family murders of February 28, 1980, in that virtually everybody knows who was responsible for the murder, yet the authorities have never been able to find the perpetrators, and thus bring justice to the victims’ relatives and to society. At the beginning of the 1980s, after the Kaohsiung Incident, danger seemed to be lurking round every corner, and people feared there were enemies everywhere, and these two homicide cases left yet another bloody impression on the already scarred psyches of the Taiwanese people. In particular, the case of Dr. Chen Wen-chen’s violent death on a visit to his old home caused countless elders in Taiwan to give stern warnings to the younger generation overseas: never, ever come back to Taiwan.
Born poor, an excellent student with a frank and forthright personality
Chen Wen-chen was born into a poor family in Linkou, Taipei County, in 1950, but he attended Chien Kuo High School and the mathematics department and graduate school of National Taiwan University. He had a real love for studying, was good at sports, and had a straightforward and enthusiastic personality, sturdy, healthy physique, and the nickname “big guy”. He was a character who made a deep impression on the NTU campus. After graduation, Chen Wen-chen married Chen Su-jen, a woman who had studied a few years below him at NTU, and in 1975 they moved to Michigan in the U.S. for graduate school, where Chen Wen-chen performed extremely well, and was awarded his doctorate in 1978. That year, he was employed to teach at Carnegie Mellon University. While studying and teaching in the U.S., Chen Wen-chen remained concerned with political developments in Taiwan, and carried out research into political theory, actively participated in Taiwan students associations and human rights associations, worked to promote democratic foundations, and gave financial support to Formosa magazine, published in Taiwan. Chen Wen-chen’s personality was rebellious and open, and the checks he sent back to Taiwan to support Formosa magazine were signed, in his open and aboveboard style, with his own name, thus sowing the seeds for his future martyr-like death.
The aspirations of an overseas student in the US during a time of great change
From the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s, the entire world order underwent a great reshuffle. From the anti-war movements in the West to the Cultural Revolution in China, old values were questioned, old authority and old cultures were subverted and overthrown, and every day, in every corner of the world, earthshaking transformations were taking place. Only Taiwan was living under the anti-communist, recover-the-mainland myth of unification promoted by the Kuomintang — a silent island which dealt with shifting events by sticking to a fundamental policy — and was totally unaffected by the changing world.
After the mid-70s came the publication of Taiwan Political Review, the beginning of the debate over native literature, the Chungli incident, and even the quasi-party-organizing movement of the Kaohsiung incident which came later. Within the space of a few years, one wave after another began to swell over the whole of Taiwan, marking a transition from rigid to relaxed in culture, politics and society, from stagnation to new life.
During this crucial period of new life for Taiwan, Chen was in his prime. Having been through periods of Western culture shock and deep self-reflection, in common with many other Taiwanese who had moved to the U.S. for further education, he gained deeper understanding and of Taiwan’s history and its fate, and devoted more mental energy and hard work to this cause.
On May 20, 1981, six years after Chen had arrived in the U.S., he returned to Taiwan with his wife and one-year old son to visit family and give some lectures, and also to travel around the home country he had been thinking about for the past six years. He said: “Only in Taiwan are mountains truly mountains, only in Taiwan is water truly water.” He told his sister Chen Pao-yue that he planned to moved back to Taiwan as soon as he could so that he could offer his country all he had learnt.
The KMT took away a living man and returned a corpse
By the end of June, it was almost time for him to return to his job in the U.S., but he was unable to obtain an exit permit. On the morning of July 2, three members of the Taiwan Garrison Command summoned Chen for questioning and took him from his house. His parents, wife, child, siblings and friends never saw him alive again.
After an absence of an entire day, Chen Wen-chen did not return home, and his family searched frantically for him. On the evening of July 2, they called the Garrison Command to inquire about him, and were told “We sent him back to the U.S. at some time after 8 p.m. Why the hell did the idiot come back?” On the afternoon of July 3, personnel from the Kuting Police Station informed the Chen family that Chen Wen-chen had perished in a car accident, and asked them to come and identify the body. The truth was that in the early hours of July 3, Chen’s body had already been discovered on the NTU campus. He was 31 years old.
The unjust death of the young academic Chen Wen-chen unleashed a great uproar, and each day, the Taiwan Garrison Command would issue more untrue statements, one minute saying that they had sent Chen home early on, the next minute setting up false witnesses to say that Chen was out enjoying himself and just didn’t want to return home, then saying that he had committed suicide because he feared punishment. Many years later, the Taiwan Garrison Commander of the time, Wang Ching-hsu, wrote in his memoirs that “Chen Wen-chen was the victim of a sex murder.” He had completely forgotten his own crime: taking away a living person and returning a corpse to his family.
From this moment on, Chen’s family lived in a world of pain and fear. In August, Chen Su-jen returned to the U.S. with her son, where she was met by the magnanimous assistance of Carnegie Mellon’s president Richard Cyert, and the consolation of the local Taiwanese community. Cyert sent Professor Morris DeGroot of the Department of Statistics and forensics expert Dr. Cyril Wecht to Taiwan to carry out an autopsy, and on their return to the U.S., they held a press conference, where they confirmed that “Chen Wen-chen was murdered.” For many years, Cyert wrote letter after letter to Chiang Ching-kuo, requesting that he “return our Dr. Chen Wen-chen.” He also took the initiative to set up a scholarship fund for the Chens’ son, Eric, to study at Carnegie Mellon. The U.S. Congress held a hearing, and Chen Wen-chen’s murder made headline news.
Chen Wen-chen, Chen Su-jen and their son, Eric. Chen was murdered not long after this picture was taken.
Chen Wen-chen’s death brought the international community’s attention to lawless behavior of the KMT, and forced the U.S. government to use firm and resolute methods to deal with habitual informing by campus secret agents, and also brought the bitter struggle for democracy by the people of Taiwan to the attention of the rest of the world.
Chen Wen-chen was a classic example of outstanding Taiwanese youth, but he never wanted to be a hero or a martyr, or be included on the Martyrs’ Shrine. His violent death was an arrestingly bloody symbol of the tail-end of Taiwan’s White Terror. The Chen Wen-chen incident directly and indirectly influenced Taiwan’s international image, and made the KMT reign in slightly their propensity for murder, so that fewer innocent victims died.
Taiwan-US Culture Exchange Foundation, officially called the Chen Wen-chen Memorial Foundation
After Chen’s murder, Taiwanese people both inside and outside Taiwan enthusiastically donated funds to set up a memorial foundation. At the time, the Ministry of Education wouldn’t allow the words “Chen Wen-chen” to appear in the foundation’s name, because, they said, “the case was still unsolved,” as if cracking the case was the duty not of the government but of Chen’s family. The foundation had no choice but to use the name “Taiwan-US Culture Exchange Foundation” and promote its objective as being Taiwan culture. Over the last two decades it has organized academic symposia on the 228 Incident, concerts, exhibitions of historical images, human rights film festivals and other cultural activities to commemorate this old friend who offered so much to Taiwan with his actions and ultimately his body. In July 2000, after the formation of the new government and a lot of effort, the foundation’s “official name” was finally changed to the Chen Wen-chen Memorial Foundation. 19 years had already passed since Chen’s murder.
Investigating the cause of death and restoring the true history
On February 20, 1994, the Foundation, along with the legislator Chai Trong-rong and others, held a public hearing on the cause of Chen Wen-chen’s death, where representatives from the Ministry of Justice and the Criminal Investigation Bureau said that, for instance, the investigation into the cause of Chen Wen-chen’s death could be conducted as with a murder case. In January 2000, the Foundation established the Chen Wen-chen Incident Investigation Working Group, convened by the director of the foundation, Huang Tsung-le, which earnestly requested that the lawyers Lee Sheng-hsiung, Chang Cheng-hsiung and Hung Kuei-tsan, working pro bono, demand (1) restoration of the truth; (2) an inquiry into who was responsible for his death; (3) a request for compensation. In over a year, after many meetings were held to discuss these matters, it was decided that at the end of June 2001, before the expiration of the 20-year legal limit, they would raise lawsuits against five suspects, Wang Ching-hsu, Taiwan Garrison Commander in 1981, Kuo Hsueh-chou, head of the Security Department, division director Tsuo Hsiao-han, and the cadres Wang Wen-bin and Wang Yi-hua.
The whole twenty-year story of the Chen Wen-chen incident represents the battle that has been waged on the road to democracy, and shows how much patience and fortitude is needed on the road to justice. Whether or not the miscarriage of justice in the Chen Wen-chen incident will be redressed will test the conviction and resolve of the new government. Chen’s family has said: “Even fifty years later, the 228 Incident was redressed, and we don’t believe that this is impossible in the case of the Chen Wen-chen incident.”
Edited by Tina Lee/ translated by Elizabeth Hoile