TAIPEI — A foreign journalist based in the United States is murdered at the behest of a foreign government. An outcry ensues, throwing diplomatic relations into crisis. The White House wants the case wrapped up because of arms sales and national security interest. But Congress, reluctant to continue business as usual, intercedes.
This sounds like the case of Jamal Khashoggi, but it also describes the context around the assassination of Henry Liu, a Chinese American journalist who was gunned down in the driveway of his California home on Oct. 15, 1984, by members of the Taiwanese gang Bamboo Union.
It is unclear what effect Khashoggi’s death might have on Saudi Arabia, the kingdom’s relations with the United States and the fate of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. But the Liu case provides some hope that the fallout from the murder of Khashoggi could be positive, if Americans and Saudis rise to the challenge.
Liu’s murder shocked many in the United States and Taiwan. But it also hastened the end of authoritarian rule in Taiwan, paving the way for the birth of one of Asia’s most vibrant democracies.
Chiang Ching-kuo, the son of Taiwan’s longtime dictator, had been president since 1978. He had run Taiwan’s brutal security apparatus since the 1950s. As Taiwan’s economy began to grow, a middle class emerged and mobilized to demand more freedoms. Chiang’s first instinct was to crack down and in 1980 martial law courts began sentencing scores of lawyers, professors, businessmen and journalists. Liu’s murder was part of the crackdown.
Liu, 52, had had contacts for years with officers from Taiwan’s intelligence agencies who had warned him to soften his criticism of Taiwan’s leaders. Liu ignored their demands and even revealed in a tell-all biography that Chiang had fathered sons out of wedlock. According to investigative journalist David E. Kaplan, in August 1984 a top intelligence officer instructed the leader of the Bamboo Union criminal gang to send foot soldiers to the United States to kill Liu. Following the murder, the National Security Agency picked up incriminating calls from gang members in the United States to Taiwanese intelligence officers in Taipei.
Both the Reagan White House and Taiwan’s president worried that the investigation could affect U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, which in 1984 had soared to more than $1 billion. The White House also wanted Taiwan to contribute to Oliver North’s campaign to fund the contras fighting the Sandinista-led government in Nicaragua.
Unlike President Trump’s bizarre comments on Khashoggi, Reagan never addressed Liu’s murder in public. But American congressmen began to link Taiwan’s human rights practices to U.S. arms sales. Leading the charge was Rep. Stephen Solarz, a Democrat from Brooklyn. As chairman of the House Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific, Solarz used congressional hearings to publicize an extensive network of Kuomintang spies in the United States who were monitoring dissidents from Taiwan. Solarz added an amendment to the Arms Export Control Act, banning weapons sales to countries that engage in “intimidation and harassment” of people in America. He threatened to block arms sales unless FBI agents investigating Liu’s death were given access to a leading Taiwanese intelligence official.
Chiang ultimately consented, and in April 1985, the official, Vice Adm. Wang Hsi-ling, was convicted in Taiwan of ordering the murder and sentenced to life in prison, although he was released after six years.
Liu’s killing had a profound impact in Taiwan. Chiang moved to end the political careers of his sons, one of whom was suspected of actually ordering the hit. Chiang’s advisers used the incident to push for political reform. In May 1986, Chiang directed his vice president, Lee Teng-hui, to draw up plans for direct elections for the mayors of Taiwan’s two biggest cities, Taipei and Kaohsiung. And when the opposition Democratic Progressive Party was founded on Sept. 28, 1986, something extraordinary happened: No one was thrown in jail.
On Oct. 7, 1986, just a few days shy of the second anniversary of Liu’s murder, Chiang announced that he would be ending 38 years of martial law. Chiang revealed his plans in an interview with Katharine Graham, chairman of the board of The Washington Post Co. The changes that followed were extraordinary. Chiang lifted bans on independent organizations and speech. Taiwan’s media became one of the most vibrant in Asia.
Chiang died of heart disease in 1988; he was replaced by Lee Teng-hui. In 1990, months after the Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing, a pro-democracy student movement called for new elections in Taiwan. Lee had just been “reelected” by the rubber-stamp National Assembly. Lee did not follow the path of mainland Chinese authorities. Instead, he promised to hold the next election in 1996 by popular vote. He won it in a landslide.