How do dictatorships and secret police connect?

Bwog Staffer and a Taiwanese student who can not wait to get the heck back to his country, Timmy Wu, shares his experience at a talk at Weatherhead Asian Institute, on the topic of dictatorship and secret police of authoritarian regimes in Taiwan and the Philippines.

Taiwan has not always been a democratic boba tea fairyland under the constant pressure of a giant authoritarian neighbor. While it has been portrayed in the medias as the first Asian “country” (if I may call it so), to ever democratized (and in a month from now, perhaps to legalize same-sex marriage), it was not without incidents of massacres, bloodshed and shady disappearances of pro-democracy activists that it finally came to be what it is today, a country more free than the land of the free. In fact, I have always considered it quite a miracle, how within the time span of thirty years, Taiwan would be able to transform from a society that was infiltrated by probably the highest density of intelligence personals from an authoritarian regime of Chiang Kai-shek, to a full-fledged democracy. In the talk today with Sheena Chestnut Greitens, Assistant Professor in the Political Science Department of the University of Missouri, on her book: Dictators and their Secret Police: Coercive Institutions and State Violence, I was able to get a fresh take on how such drastic transition from authoritarianism to democracy might have gone down.

Attempting to answer the question of whether different variations of coercive institutions could lead to different patterns of state violence perpetrated by authoritarian regimes, Greitens laid out her argument in three steps: Threats, Coercive institution, and State Violence (the use of police force); then she assigned two major characteristics to these coercive institutions — fragmentation and exclusivity. When a autocrats believe that the threat to his/her security of power is among the elites, the coercive institution would be designed accordingly to be rather fragmented and exclusive so to avoid a coup. However, a fragmented and exclusive coercive institution is more likely to lead to state violence as these fragmented, policing institutions compete malignantly against each other. In the other case, when an autocrat identifies the popular dissidents as the threat to his/her legitimacy and security to power, such autocrat is more likely to design a more centralized and less exclusive coercive institution that would lead to less state violence due to a more well-established, communicative infrastructure.

By providing the paralleled examples of the Philippines and Taiwan, both of which shares similar political conditions of authoritarian leaders that instrumentalize anti-communist sentiment, alliance with the U.S. and a rise in popular protest during the cold war period, Greitens made the case that while the two countries share similar conditions, they have very disparate patterns of state violence as time progressed. People jailed in Taiwan decreased significantly, while in the Philippines, the number rose. Counterintuitively, with popular protest gradually rises, the incidents of officially recorded state violence decreased in Taiwan. Such behavioral abnormality, Greitens argues,  boils down to the policy change that Chiang Kai-shek made in the post-1949 era. After the Chinese Civil War, Chiang, as Greitens pointed out, gradually shifted his focus to controlling popular discontent, in a time when his Chinese-government-in-exile took over the island during a political vacuum left by the Japanese who, by then, had returned Taiwan back to China due to major defeats in the WWII. In short, applying Greitens’ formula, Chiang believed that his legitimacy to power was threatened by popular protest. He designed his coercive, policing institution accordingly (centralized and more inclusive), thus allowing state violence to gradually decrease as the centralized coercive institutions had better communication within. In Greitens’ theory, the coercive institution that Chiang had set out to repress popular protests, paradoxically, turned out to “contribute” to the gradual democratization of Taiwan, and the curtailment of Kuomintang political power.

As a Taiwanese who recognizes the atrocity with which Chiang had repressed his political dissidents, who had read memoirs about midnight disappearances of those pro-democracy scholars and activists, Greitens’s argument is certainly a hard pill to swallow. As Taiwan made its way to recognize the monstrosity of its national history, the hidden, shameful past of its deified authoritarian ruler, there is certainly no deniability for the need of transitional justice, to recognize and to repay its past debt. As a political scientist, Greitens could propose her observation, her theory; however, it would ultimately be up to the Taiwanese people to decide, as we topple and behead Chiang’s statues, how to move on constructively and collectively, and decide, with how much mercy should we confront ourselves as these ugly records strewn poignantly before us.

Book Cover via Google Books