VOTE 2016: Soong Was a Scourge of Press Freedom and Native Culture

As a presidential candidate, Soong should apologize for his past actions and explain why citizens should trust him with their future

In his announcement of his 2016 presidential candidacy, James Soong (宋楚瑜) of the People First Party (PFP) promised to uphold Taiwan’s freedom and democracy and claimed he had made many contributions to the nation’s democratization over the past 20 years, including helping to phase out the “100-year National Assembly” (in which representatives held their positions for decades), amend Article 100 of the Criminal Code which had criminalized sedition (interpreted to include advocacy of Taiwanese independence), do away with criminalization of certain thoughts and political beliefs, and promote direct election of the president.

It certainly is encouraging to see a protégé of former president Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國) jump into the race to run a democracy-positive blue campaign against crypto-Martial Law nostalgist Hung Hsiu-chu (洪秀柱) of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), setting aside the question of how much Soong himself actually drove the reforms he champions.

That said, to truly convince voters that he is Mr. Democracy, Soong will have to address and disavow numerous influential actions that he took in his decidedly undemocratic past as a party-state bureaucrat.

As professor Jim Lee (李筱峰) has written in 1994 and 2003 essays (which have recently gone viral on the PTT board and make up the source material for this article), Soong played a major role in suppressing freedom of the press and freedom to use the Taiwanese language during his five-year-and-seven-month tenure as director-general of the Government Information Office (GIO) from 1979-1984. At the GIO, Soong played a major role in suppressing democratic publications and free journalism in an era that included the Formosa Incident, pressure on emerging dangwai (黨外, “outside the KMT”) and democratic movements, and apparent secret police murders of “enemies of the state” like Professor Chen Wen-chen (陳文成) and the family of Lin I-hsiung (林義雄). He also helped implement the elimination of the Taiwanese language from broadcast media.

Press restrictions

Under KMT authoritarianism, four laws were used to suppress freedom of the press in order to consolidate the party’s political power. They were:

  1. The National General Mobilization Act: Under Article 22, when deemed necessary the government could order newspapers and news agencies to carry certain stories. Under Article 23, when deemed necessary the government could restrict freedoms of the press, publication, writing, communications, assembly, and association;
  2. Martial Law;
  3. The Publication Act: All newspapers and magazines had to register with the government and be approved by the GIO, which could prevent certain articles from being published and revoke the license of a publication; and
  4. The Enforcement Rules of the Publication Act: This detailed the stipulations about applications to register as a newspaper, magazine, or publisher, as well as how to change operations and conduct business. The most important article of this code was the restriction on the number of newspapers and magazines the country could have, allegedly kept in place because of a paper shortage.

The GIO and Taiwan Garrison Command (the secret police) had overlapping jurisdiction over relevant cases and broad authority to mete out punishment. Although magazines were more often singled out for elimination by the Garrison Command, the weekly meeting on publications was also attended and contributed to by the GIO, the Investigation Bureau, the Military Police Command, the National Police Agency, and the KMT culture department.

Publishers whose publications were halted rarely had the chance to apply for restitution and could not make a legal challenge, so the KMT had effective monopoly control over the press. These actions gave Taiwan low rankings in world freedom reports and severely harmed its international image.

From 1979-1982, the following 20 dangwai publications were halted (English names translated by the author): Formosa Magazine (美麗島), Voice from the Fort (官堡之聲), Summer Tide (夏潮), This Generation (這一代) (1979), Long Bridge (長橋), Drumbeat (鼓聲), Village News (村里鄰快訊), Spring Wind (春風), The Asian (亞洲人), Warm Current (暖流), Bell and Drum Towers (鐘鼓樓), Sea Tide (海潮), Great Generation (大時代), Green Cloud (青雲), This Generation (這一代) (1981), Progress (進步), Spring Tide (春潮), Midstream (中流), National Commentary (國是評論), and The Politician (政治家). Over 10 more were halted during the remainder of Soong’s term.

Soong was active in preventing Taiwanese from knowing too much about the outside world as well. The GIO was very strict about which foreign publications could be imported. During his tenure, several first-rate Japanese publications were blocked from coming to Taiwan, and instead papers like the fascist, anti-Communist World Report (世界日報) were permitted. For those major Western publications that were allowed, “inappropriate” material would literally be cut out of the magazine or blackened before getting to subscribers and newsstands. Sometimes particular issues would be blocked, and the subscribers would receive this kind of notice in its place:

Dear subscriber,
Last issue was not on sale due to sensitive contents.
Subscription Department
Formosan Magazine Press Ltd.

Soong would also slander dangwai press to foreigners. He received criticism from numerous activists for telling one Japanese journalist stationed in Taiwan that “dangwai magazines are all slanted and talk about issues that are not appropriate for discussion.”

Soong was firm in holding the restrictions on the number of publishers and publications in place, sticking to the official line about paper restrictions. Asked by Legislator Hsu Jung-shu (許榮淑) about abolishing it, Soong replied, “Our nation has 31 newspapers, and every day they publish more than 3.5 million papers total. Considering our population, these publisher and publication counts are our nation’s saturation point.” Under Soong’s leadership of the GIO, the longevity of the KMT’s restrictions on freedom of the press in Taiwan surpassed the “record” that had been set by the Japanese colonists. It is possible that one reason Taiwanese read so little today (two books a year on average, according to one study) is because there was so little interest in reading for so long.

The Formosa Incident

After the Formosa Incident on December 10, 1979, Newsweek reported comments by citizens that the activists had been entrapped by the KMT authorities. In response, Soong in January publicly denounced Newsweek for “distorting the facts” and only listening to one side for its report. Then in March he held a press conference to criticize The Associated Press’ (AP) reporting of the incident and said that unless it reported “fairly” he would “consider suspending this news source.”

The death of Chen Wen-chen

Soong also played a major role in the Chen Wen-chen murder scandal. While visiting Taiwan during summer vacation in 1981, this Carnegie Mellon professor was told not to leave Taiwan on his scheduled departure date, and then interrogated for 12 hours by Garrison Command on July 2, 1981. His body was found on the National Taiwan University (NTU) campus the next day, and the official autopsy stated he died due to a fall. The Garrison Command denied responsibility and said their “meeting” with Chen had been “cordial.”

On July 22, AP Taiwan-based reporter Tina Chou Ching-yueh (周清月) quoted a remark from Chen’s father that the night before, Carnegie Mellon professor Morris DeGroot and forensic pathologist Cyril Wecht had conducted their own autopsy of Chen. Soong harshly reacted to the use of the word “autopsy” in the report, saying that it “damaged national sovereignty and legal dignity.” The GIO informed AP that Wecht had merely “observed” Chen’s body and demanded a correction within 2 hours. AP said it could not immediately do so because it needed evidence. On the night of the 23rd it then carried a byline that Wecht had “reviewed” the body rather than conducting an autopsy, but Soong was not satisfied and maintained that because Chou had reported falsely he needed to write a “letter of repentance” (悔過書). AP told Soong that would be unacceptable. Soong revoked Chou’s journalist credentials on the 26th, forbidding her from conducting future interviews. But two days before, on the 24th, Wecht had already held a press conference in the U.S. stating that he had indeed conducted an autopsy, and a very complete one at that, but he couldn’t admit it while he was in Taiwan, as it did not take the open attitude to second autopsies that the U.S. did.

Legislator Kang Ning-hsiang (康寧祥) asked Soong about the affair in legislative interpellations October 6, 1981. Soong took a domineering attitude toward Kang, refusing to answer his questions, saying he was to “report” rather than interpellate and repeatedly demanding he “correct” the wording of his statements. While Soong’s attitude won the applause of the old legislators, the newer ones were very upset, and one, Chang Teh-ming (張德銘), while raising a procedural question stated that Soong could not treat a legislator the way he treated news agencies and journalists.

The publication Newsdom (新聞天地) went on to write, “Because of [Soong’s] family background, since leaving school everything has gone smoothly for him. Thanks to the appreciation and care of President Chiang, he is a very self-satisfied youth, and in many venues he cannot keep himself from becoming furious and getting carried away. Last year, when Legislator Kang Ning-hsiang asked him about his handling of the AP’s treatment of the Chen Wen-chen case, Soong was too overbearing, too headstrong, and did not take measure of propriety.”

The conservative publication Cleansweep (掃蕩) in turn wrote “Director-General Soong demanded several times that Kang Ning-hsiang ‘correct’ the vocabulary of his questions, obviously exceeding the limits on a government official. During legislative interpellation, officials can only answer and explain. They have no right to demand corrections. Director-General Soong repeatedly asserted that the legislator’s interpellation was ‘reporting.’ How could a public representative ‘report’ to an official? He has put the cart before the horse.”

Realizing his actions were inappropriate, Soong further overstepped his authority in his attempt to “correct the record.” He visited the Legislative Yuan, told it he had said inappropriate things during interpellation, and illegally took the oral record of his interpellation away, telling them he would return a corrected version later. Normal procedure is to include the original text in the record and add corrections as appendices. As a result of Soong’s actions, the following legislative gazette was missing pages.

Taiwanese language restrictions

The GIO had jurisdiction over all media, not just the press. While Soong was director-general, the Radio and Television Act was amended to stipulate that Mandarin be the chief language for radio and that the use of “dialects” (like Taiwanese and Hakka) be gradually reduced year by year. During legislative interpellation in 1980, Soong stated that “we” would indeed carry out this policy, with the ultimate goal of all-Mandarin broadcasting.

One example of the effect of this directive was the collapse of televised glove puppetry (布袋戲) shows, which had been among the medium’s most popular programs. Glove puppetry has been performed in Taiwan for hundreds of years, and as was tradition, the shows were always performed in the Taiwanese language. But when their language was forcibly changed from Taiwanese to Mandarin in 1984 — the last year of Soong’s GIO tenure — too much was lost in translation, and the programs flopped and lost their market.

Soong was already very powerful when he was at the GIO. He was its youngest director-general ever and one of the few individuals who could freely enter President Chiang Ching-kuo’s compound. When he left the office in 1984, he was promoted: to director of the KMT’s culture department, with virtual control over all cultural affairs because the party came before the state at that time. From there he continued his efforts to Sinicize national culture.

If he were elected president next year, Soong would arguably have more influence than any other individual over the direction of the nation’s democratization and culture. Given the degree to which he repressed it in the past, as a presidential candidate Soong should offer an apology for his past actions as well as explain how he has changed and why freedom-minded citizens can trust him with their future.


Anonymous is a Taipei-based translator.

4 Responses to “VOTE 2016: Soong Was a Scourge of Press Freedom and Native Culture”

August 12, 2015 at 9:59 am, AR said:

Thank you. Now I know. Please keep up the good work informing people, especially the outside world, as to these candidates’ backgrounds and past track records. Your article is excellent.


August 12, 2015 at 3:56 pm, Torch Pratt said:

Yes! IMHO, this is the (new) best article ever posted at Thinking-Taiwan. Totally thought-provoking, with a brilliant insight into history and these strange things that are typically referred to as THE FACTS, with quotations to back them up, about our most recent candidate to join the race.

What a despicable snake. Magazines, then radio, and he even went after GLOVE PUPPETRY. I’m like, taxpayers are paying him to be an asshole. If he wins, I’m leaving.

Anon, please write more often.

On the lighter side, one might also say that in political races, he’s the Donald Trump of Taiwan.


August 13, 2015 at 12:31 pm, Tim Maddog said:

And never forget this about James Soong (宋楚瑜):


August 18, 2015 at 4:26 pm, fnrj997 said:

He will only explain to you how he will incorporate Taiwan into his fantasy Great China!


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