What you need to know
Restorative justice is not the only method for dealing with situations where trust has been broken.
This essay originally appeared, in slightly altered form, in A Broad and Ample Road, a weekly newsletter written by a couple, Michelle Kuo, a writer, lawyer, and activist, and Albert Wu, a historian. This essay is written by both of them.
What would you do if you found out, thirty years after the fact, that one of your closest friends had secretly reported on you to the regime you had both — or so you thought — worked to overthrow? You invited him to your home and introduced him to everyone you knew; you regarded him as a comrade, and this is how he repaid you?
Informers occupy a special class of the despised. They don’t fit easily into ready-made legal categories like perpetrator or victim, and social hostility tends to fill the gaps left by the law. They’re called rats, dogs, snitches, squeakers, squealers, traitors: the lowest of the low. They’re burned alive, disappeared, tortured, and exiled by the people they betrayed. As a former paramilitary member of the IRA in Northern Ireland once famously said, “I would rather be called a pedophile than an informer.”
In Taiwan, high drama around betrayal and espionage has been playing out in the nightly news this past week. On October 17, the New Tide faction of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) held a press conference. Perhaps the Party’s most powerful bloc, the New Tide is a kingmaker, having launched the careers of a former president and the current vice president. It is discreet and strategic and rarely holds its own press conferences, so when it does speak as an organization people listen.
The news, in this case, was a bombshell: the New Tide had expelled the legislator Huang Kuo-Shu (黃國書) from its ranks. The grounds for expulsion were even more shocking: in the 1980s, as a college student, a young member of radical pro-democracy activist groups that would later evolve into the New Tide, Huang was an informer for the country’s security apparatus. According to some reports, he was paid NT$10,000 a month ($US359), double the average salary of a civil servant at the time, to give the state information about his comrades’ activities.
In short, Huang was a snitch. The news was all the more shocking because Huang is widely respected as a “cultural legislator” (文化立委), known for his understated, modest personality. One of his reelection platforms was the restoration of sites of cultural and historical importance in his native Taichung, the country’s third largest city; his 2020 campaign video shows him visiting local eateries and admiring local monuments. Until now, many pegged him as a mayoral candidate in Taichung. Now his career in politics is over.
How did the New Tide find out? Details are still being uncovered, but here’s what we know so far: in 2018, the Taiwanese government established an independent Transitional Justice Commission. Its broad mandate is to “promote transitional justice and implement a liberal democratic constitutional order,” but its primary goal has been to investigate the legacies of the Kuomintang’s (KMT) authoritarian grip on the country from 1945 to 1992. In 2019, it launched an initiative to declassify historical documents—using the Stasi Records Archive as a model—allowing victims of the KMT state apparatus to read their own surveillance files. You can see a short documentary featuring several high-profile pro-democracy activists who were heavily surveilled here:
Among those invited to review their surveillance records was Yang Bichuan (楊碧川), a famous dissident and intellectual firebrand. Known as Taiwan’s Trotsky, Yang spent seven years in prison at Green Island for political sedition in the 1970s. After his release, his activism only intensified. He helped found the New Tide and was perhaps its most radical voice, staking out a leftist pro-independence position. When the DPP was founded in 1986, he refused to join, believing it wasn’t radical enough, and instead of running for office he went on to publish over thirty books, including a biography of Che Guevara and a book titled simply Revolution.
As Yang went through the surreal process of reading secret reports on his daily life, one page stopped him in his tracks: intricate floor plans of the house of his close friend Li Jingxiang (利錦祥), now the Director General of a think tank affiliated with the New Tide. How could security officers have had such detailed knowledge of Li’s intimate quarters? One of their close friends must have been a rat.
Li is what Taiwanese people call a “big-old” (大老), an elder in the pro-democracy struggle who has spent his career working behind the scenes. Insiders describe him as a truly nice guy. (They use the phrase nai fan, which difficult to translate, but think unflappable, all-enduring, accepting.) Li got his start as an activist in 1978, when he opened the Formosa bookstore (三民書局) in Fengyuan, Taichung. A year later, after the government cracked down on the anti-KMT Formosa Magazine and arrested its staff, he began stocking pro-democracy literature. Situated in the center of Taiwan, right next to the train station, his bookstore became a hub for anti-authoritarian activism. Writers, students, dissidents, and political prisoners visited, leafing through banned books and magazines or meeting in a room hidden by a secret wall.
“Every day people came to my house to drink, talk politics, and talk shit about the KMT,” Li said in a 2016 interview. “We’d fall asleep drunk, and the next day we’d get up to do more organizing. Those ten years were the most passionate and intense years of my life. Every day I felt like I was doing something for Taiwan. Nobody had a position; we all had just one shared goal, which was to overthrow the KMT government.”
When Yang told Li about the detailed floor plans in the state surveillance files, they wondered who the rat could be, and clues in the documents pointed to Huang. So, earlier this year, Li confronted his old friend, asking: Did you inform on me? Huang confessed that he had.
The New Tide faction met and voted to expel Huang from the party ranks. When the news came out, Huang issued a statement on Facebook (the convention for politicians in Taiwan), explaining that he had indeed worked with the state. He was a young man of twenty when officers brought him in for questioning and told him he and his loved ones would be spared harm if he cooperated with the state. He agreed out of fear, he wrote, for himself and for his friends. He apologized and said he would serve out his term and not seek reelection.
Huang’s story has both sympathetic and damning elements. On one hand, he was a twenty-year-old college student who, like most people under an authoritarian regime, was afraid. His attraction to the New Tide faction had been sincere; he didn’t enter intending to infiltrate it, he just admired the literary circle that frequented the Formosa bookstore, where he was quickly noticed for his talents — for organizing, among others — and cultivated by elders such as Li.
On the other hand — and this is what many find shocking — he kept informing even after the regime transitioned to democracy. The surveilled outlaws had become major players, and Huang was groomed for future political posts. New Tide elders recommended him as an assistant to Michael Tsai, a dissident who had been blacklisted for democratic activism and returned to Taiwan to join the DPP in the 1990s. As late as 1995, eight years after martial law officially ended, documents show that Huang was still informing on Tsai—a betrayal that cuts particularly deep.
As the KMT becomes increasingly disconnected from Taiwanese public opinion, the DPP’s future — including its internal power struggles — is perhaps the most important story in Taiwanese domestic politics. The Huang case surfaces its fractures and fault lines, as old-school radicals like Yang Bichuan grow more vocal in their dissatisfaction. Yang’s message in particular is explicit: right old wrongs, provide justice, don’t forget the past.
But the case also raises painful questions about what justice looks like for former authoritarian regimes. How many people were involved in the state security apparatus? Who issued the orders to target and threaten whom? From mundane instances of surveillance to the horrific murders of Chen Wen-chen, Nylon Deng, and Lin Yi-hsiung’s twin daughters, a clear accounting of the daily terror and fear the KMT imposed on the Taiwanese people remains elusive.
The case also illustrates how critical informers are to the functioning of a regime. “Nothing is more demoralizing to insurgents,” advises a United States counterinsurgency manual, “than realizing that people inside their movement or trusted supporters among the public are deserting or providing information to government authorities.” In the Polish People’s Republic in the 1980s, the government’s main objective was to turn the nine million dissidents in the Solidarity movement into informers. “The implementation of martial law, which began with the internment of fifteen thousand Solidarity leaders, was instrumental in advancing this infiltration,” legal scholar Ron Dudai writes; indeed, at least 1,500 turned snitch.
The Taiwanese slang for an informer is much milder than rat or dog, though it still conveys contempt: back scratcher (抓耙仔 liàu-pê-á). Reprisals against them are also less violent here. Still, the intensity of the mixed reactions to Huang’s betrayal suggest a country coming to terms with its history. Reports now claim that at its height in 1983, at least five thousand students throughout the country were informers. As in Poland in the 1980s, the KMT’s files reveal a paranoid regime that understood it was asserting minority control over a majority, one that viewed infiltrating the university as an absolute necessity. One surveillance officer noted that National Taiwan University, “the most prestigious academic institution in the land,” had been infiltrated by communism and other forms of free-thinking. If these ideas infiltrated the rest of society, “our rule in Taiwan will be over.”
But hostility toward informers also belies a fundamental human ambiguity. Those of us who grew up in democratic societies can’t really know how we would behave under authoritarian rule. We can place Li and Huang side by side and cast easy moral judgments about who is nobler: Huang compromised, Li didn’t. Huang put others at risk, Li himself and his loved ones. But until we’ve faced a knock at the door from the police because we were, say, seen reading Orwell, we can’t say we would never have informed on our friends. We’d like to believe we’re incorruptible and principled, but we can’t really know.
Yet in democratic politics, embracing such ambiguity and gray areas, acknowledging your own weaknesses, won’t win you an election. You can hardly confess ambivalence or plead with voters to do the same. (Imagine a politician saying, “Maybe I would’ve been a rat; maybe you would’ve been a rat.”) Politics needs winners and losers. And a quick way to a voter’s heart is to condemn a rat.
It’s tempting to think that democratization ends hostility toward informers, but Dudai found that in Northern Ireland the peace process actually intensified ostracism, even as violent reprisals and expulsions from the community disappeared. Why? The republican mainstream needed to consolidate its voter base, preserving the loyalty it enjoyed as an insurgent rebel group under siege. In a democratic society of loose bonds, a quick way to strengthen cohesion and express values of loyalty is — you guessed it — to condemn a rat.
To their credit, Taiwanese commentators and democratic legislators have been mild and compassionate in their condemnation of back scratchers. Multiple high-ranking DPP members have stated that they hope Huang will remain in the political arena. Michael Tsai has already publicly forgiven him. But some advocates clamor for a more retributive approach. Identifying collaborators, confiscators, and thieves who thrived under authoritarian rule is a real, urgent task, especially in cases of unsolved murders, and we support such efforts, as well as those that have so far paid out US$240 million to victims of state-sponsored massacres.
At the same time, we caution against saddling this work with rhetoric around truth and healing. These processes of looking into the past have a tendency to individualize evil, to further the belief that it can be isolated in a single person. Individuals can be evil, certainly, but they are also recruited, manipulated, led and misled by operatives representing a system. Or they stand by, fail to speak up, fail to offer shelter, find ways to leave the country—they save themselves. There is no limit to the forms complicity can take. Guilt is by degrees. Social evil, collective fear, and collective failure are complex processes that deserve our fullest attention. There are few heroes in a totalitarian society, and few of us come out with our hands clean.
When questioned about these revelations, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen has directed attention to the systemic problems of KMT rule. “The true purpose of transitional justice,” she wrote in a statement, “is not retribution or political struggle,” but to bring to light the wrongs of the authoritarian system and offer the victims “clear historical truth.” Only after our society understands the trauma and the pain of history can we “find a collective path forward.”
As political theorist Mahmoud Mamdani wrote, “When does the claim to truth breed self-righteousness, the secular version of the claim that ‘God is on our side?’” A political community, he concluded, cannot be based on humiliation. “No doubt the search for truth — understood as a shared memory, history — is important in proving a durable basis for a political community,” he writes. “But truth alone cannot provide that basis. Unless it is joined to a form of justice other than punishment, the recognition of truth is likely to breed outrage in victims and fear in beneficiaries.”
What would it look like for the Huang incident to be a restorative moment? What if Huang and the people in his circle sat down together and asked one another: Why did you do it? How do you feel now? What do you know now that you wish you knew then?
There are virtually no public examples of restorative justice addressed toward informers. In Northern Ireland, where such dialogues are more progressive and developed than anywhere in the world, Dudai observes that informers have “remained the last unforgiven category.” One former IRA paramilitary said he had participated in restorative work with ex-British soldiers and police officers, but that the “supergrasses”—British slang for informers—were off the table for him. “I just can’t see them returning to this community,” he said. “Just can’t see it.”
Meanwhile, new governments in the former Eastern European bloc—Poland, Czechoslovakia, Lithuania, Bulgaria, Hungary, and Albania—have implemented so-called lustration laws, identifying collaborators with authoritarian regimes and denying them high-level public office. In South Africa, where the African National Congress feared that releasing the names of informers would demoralize citizens and spark retribution, informers have appeared in truth and reconciliation hearings as victims, not perpetrators. In one highly publicized case, a woman described how her sister, suspected of being a snitch, had been “necklaced”: a tire was hung around her neck, drenched in petrol, and lit on fire.
It was in part due to the brutality of such reprisals that Nelson Mandela embraced a strategy of reconciliation and amnesty. He knew that if he arrested the murderous members of the apartheid regime, he would also have to arrest those who had murdered informers.
Huang has turned out to be a pretty good guy. By all accounts he has been an honorable and devoted legislator for the past thirty years, a model public servant. In some ways he is a poster child for “rehabilitation,” representing the possibility of life after informing, a way to live together in the wake of authoritarianism. His track record is also an argument against the more punitive lustration processes of Eastern Europe, which some advocates believe Taiwan should adopt.
Restorative justice is not the only method for dealing with situations where trust has been broken. (“What,” one skeptic told us, “you’re going to sit down with a Nazi who murdered your family?”) But Huang’s might be a good test case, in part because it’s not so polarizing: no physical harm came to the circle he informed on; nobody died, nobody was maimed. Moreover, since he’s not a KMT legislator, charges of political motivation are harder to sustain. A restorative dialogue here might have a stronger chance of healing schisms within the party and helping the public see a bigger picture of how an authoritarian system preys on informers: it could redirect public scorn from the individual traitor to the broader culture of suspicion and distrust that regimes create.
And perhaps it could provide a spark for future acts of resistance. As we write this, the Chinese takeover in Hong Kong has created its own culture of informing: only six months after its launch, the National Security hotline now receives over 550 calls a day. Restorative work between informers and victims would be more than just an object lesson in history; it would be an opportunity to truly use the freedom that is in our possession, that is the pride and joy of Taiwan.
In dialogues like these, older members of a society remember the choices they felt they had to make, the people they feared losing, the decisions they now regret or still stand by. They talk about people they let down, the lifelong moral debts they feel they’ve incurred. Listening in, the rest of us can better understand how authoritarian power works, how it creeps into every corner of society. And, from within the looming shadow of a future takeover, we can think about the sort of people we hope to become.
READ NEXT: Moving to Taiwan
TNL Editor: Bryan Chou (@thenewslensintl)
If you enjoyed this article and want to receive more story updates in your news feed, please be sure to follow our Facebook.