The rally began peacefully enough, with speeches on human rights and songs of the "We Shall Overcome" variety. But soon riot policemen waded into the crowd and declared the demonstration illegal because organizers had not obtained a permit. Tear gas canisters were fired, the demonstration turned into a riot, and hundreds of police officers and demonstrators alike were injured.
Huang Hsin-chieh, a legislator and publisher of the opposition magazine that sponsored the rally to mark International Human Rights Day, was arrested four days later and convicted by a military tribunal of sedition and plotting the violent overthrow of the Taiwan government.
That was nearly eight years ago. Now Huang, who was released from prison May 30 after serving 7 1/2 years, says the political situation here has changed dramatically. "There is much more freedom of speech," he said in a recent interview. "Before, we couldn't say much. Now there are many things we can say."
Sharp differences remain between Taiwan's ruling Nationalist Party, which has tightly controlled the island's political life since the Nationalists fled the Chinese mainland in 1949, and the opposition. But some common political ground has emerged in recent months, together with a new openness marked most dramatically by the lifting of martial law in July.
The easing of political controls "hasn't clearly affected most people's lives, but it has made the entire society more lively," said Li Sheng-feng, a Nationalist Party legislator. "The political atmosphere has changed so that there are no taboos. We can talk and think about anything."
Both sides say that the next step is reform of the political system, in which power rests with parliamentary bodies composed mostly of elderly men who were last elected in the 1940s, when the Nationalists ruled all of China from the city of Nanjing. Many represent provinces on the mainland that they have not seen in nearly four decades.
Ma Ying-chiu, deputy secretary general of the Nationalist Party, said that changes are inevitable because of the advanced age of most members of the National Assembly, which elects the president, and the Legislative Yuan, which writes laws.
"They're getting old, and some are very old," Ma said. "We cannot really avoid the question of mortality. So Parliament must be reinvigorated. The question is how."
Although the party has not made any specific proposal, officials have indicated that some seats will still represent China's mainland provinces.
Mainland Delegates Issue
"The mainland representation issue will always be there," said Shao Yu-ming, director general of the Government Information Office. "The question is, what is the number?"
The opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which was formed last September in defiance of a martial-law ban on new parties, is pressing for elections that would enable people elected in Taiwan to control their government for the first time. To press this demand, DPP leaders have adopted various versions of the Boston Tea Party slogan, "No taxation without representation."
"If you don't pay taxes, you don't have the right to choose your representatives," said Chiang Peng-chien, the DPP chairman, arguing that assemblymen and legislators elected on the mainland should be required to give up their seats.
"This," Chiang said, "is the most basic unequal feature of Taiwan's politics--the Nationalist Party, without needing to elect new members, can control Parliament. The most important work before us now is to take urgent action to push for national elections. We want to change this political structure so that it is fair to the Nationalists, fair to the DPP, fair to everyone, so that a party can become the ruling party through elections.
A Time for Pressure
"Now is a turning point. Taiwan is entering a new age. But if we are passive and wait for the Nationalist Party to change things, nothing will happen. We need to put enough pressure on the Nationalist Party to change this system."
Nationalist leaders insist that their party--and especially President Chiang Ching-kuo--should receive credit for the growing openness of political life and the lifting of martial law, which had been in effect since 1949.
"The opposition would like to have people believe it is their agitation that forced the government to reform," said Wei Yung, chairman of the Research, Development and Evaluation Commission of the Executive Yuan. "That is not true."
President Chiang, 77, son of the late Chiang Kai-shek, "is the major force guiding us toward the current reform," Wei said. "He has been more forward-thinking than many people in the government and the party."
Taiwan's political structure is unique because the island is ruled under a constitution designed for governing all China, of which Taiwan is just one province. While the Nationalists and Communists have innumerable differences, on this point they agree.
Still Claims All of China
Since the Nationalist government took refuge here after its defeat by the Communists, it has insisted that it is still the legitimate government of China and that no political restructuring that would dilute this claim can be allowed.
The three key institutions of Taiwan's political system are the National Assembly, the Executive Yuan and the Legislative Yuan.
Besides electing the president and vice president, the National Assembly has power to amend the constitution. The Executive Yuan--the administrative arm of the government--is headed by a premier who is appointed by the president but is responsible to the Legislative Yuan. If the Legislative Yuan passes a resolution by a two-thirds majority, the premier must either abide by the resolution or resign.
The National Assembly now has 961 members, of whom 84 are chosen through regularly held elections in Taiwan. All the rest were either elected in 1947 or were runners-up in the 1947 National Assembly election who have been elevated following the deaths of incumbents.
Of the 319 members of the Legislative Yuan, 219 were elected in 1948, 27 are overseas Chinese nominated by the president, and 73 are chosen through elections in Taiwan.
Opposition Vote 22%
In elections last December for the available Taiwan seats, the Democratic Progressive Party received 22% of the vote, compared with nearly 70% for the Nationalists, and most observers considered this a surprisingly good showing for the newly organized party.
About 85% of the island's population of 19.5 million consists of native-born Taiwanese whose ancestors came here from southern China a century or more ago. Many resent control of the island by Nationalist Party mainlanders, and some support the idea of an independent Taiwan permanently separated from China.
But the government has always viewed advocacy of independence as sedition.
This view was incorporated in the new national security law enacted last month to replace martial law. Although new political parties will be permitted, the law bans advocacy of communism or "the division of national territory," meaning Taiwan independence.
Restrictive Laws Remain
Other restrictive laws also remain in effect. Strikes are still illegal, and the government is authorized to limit freedom of speech and publication. These controls will now be enforced by the police and civilian courts rather than the military, as was the case under martial law, but oppositionists say they still can be used against critics of the government.
DPP leader Chiang said that a new civic organizations law being drafted for passage this fall apparently will give the Nationalist Party a mechanism by which it could order opposition parties disbanded for alleged violation of the national security law.
"Debate over this law will create sharp conflict in the legislature between the Nationalist Party and the DPP," Chiang said.
The Democratic Progressive Party has skirted dangerously close to advocacy of independence by calling in its party platform for "self-determination" of Taiwan's future by the people on Taiwan.
Focusing on More Democracy
But most opposition leaders now are focused on the practical goal of greater democracy within the theoretical context that Taiwan is still a part of China.
"If you say that Taiwan is part of China, still all that the Nationalists can control is Taiwan," said DPP leader Chiang. "So you can pick representatives in Taiwan to represent all of China."
Huang, the former legislator and publisher, said that in his view, "Taiwan cannot get real independence."
"The president must be selected by the people of Taiwan, and it is very important for us to have national elections," Huang said. "But Taiwan must not declare independence. The mainland won't agree to this. We don't know what they might do. And the United States wouldn't support us."
Such comments from the opposition are not so very different from what Nationalist Party leaders say, raising the possibility that compromise may be possible.
Huang's opinions now are essentially the same as those that landed him in prison. He insisted at the 1980 trial involving the so-called Kaohsiung incident--named for the city in southern Taiwan where the demonstration and rioting took place--that he only supported greater democracy, not independence. But he was imprisoned for allegedly promoting an independent Taiwan.
One Still in Prison
Of the eight leading dissidents who were convicted of sedition in this trial, seven are now free. The eighth, Shih Ming-teh, the only one given a life sentence, is still in custody.
Despite the new national security law's ban on advocacy of independence, there have been times in recent months when oppositionists have publicly expressed support for independence without being arrested.
"People don't have political fears anymore," said Huang Tsung-wen, a special assistant to the 13-member DPP caucus in the Legislative Yuan.
In a solitary protest that reflected the new situation, Yang Hsing-hsiung, a 48-year-old man of Taiwanese ancestry, stood on a Taipei sidewalk a few days ago, a banner draped over his body urging, "Fight for Taiwan independence."
"What I'm doing is dangerous," Yang said defiantly. "But I'm not afraid."
Yang, undisturbed by the police, maintained his vigil for more than an hour outside a university alumni center where Huang Hsin-chieh and another recently released figure in the Kaohsiung incident were giving a press conference.
'Vitality of Democracy'
"We have seen with our own eyes the flourishing vitality of democracy in our society, and felt the vigor liberated from every corner of Taiwan society since political restrictions have been broken," Huang and his colleague, Chang Chun-hung, said in an open letter of thanks to their supporters. "This is what our heroes and democratic martyrs of many generations have been hoping and fighting for."
Huang and Chang announced plans for a monthlong speaking tour of the island. The main point of the tour, Huang said in an interview, is to emphasize the need for more political changes "to comply with Taiwan's real interests and the demands of the people."
Although Huang and Chang are important opposition figures, they have not joined the Democratic Progressive Party, which is divided into various factions, including moderate and radical wings. Huang said he has not joined because the DPP's internal structure is too centralized.
"It doesn't fit for a dictatorial party to lead a democratic system," Huang said. "I hope its structure can be changed to a democratic structure. Then I would join."
DPP leaders say that Huang's criticisms are inaccurate, but they continue to treat him and Chang with respect.
"We esteem their contribution," said Chiang Peng-chien, the DPP chairman. "We hope they will soon join the DPP. But if they don't want to, we also respect their decision."
The lack of cohesion within the opposition has led to widespread speculation that ultimately several small opposition parties will emerge, none of them strong enough to challenge the Nationalists.
"Even though we have big differences within the party, I think we will be united for the near future," said Chiu Yi-jen, deputy secretary general of the DPP and a leader of its New Movement faction, which emphasizes grass-roots organizing rather than a strictly electoral approach to politics.
In the long run, however, "I think maybe we'll split," Chiu said. "It's very possible."
Along with a booming economy and the perception that there is little danger of Beijing's mounting a military attack, the prospect of a divided opposition contributes to Nationalist Party confidence that moving forward with reforms will not bring political instability.
Ma, the deputy secretary general of the Nationalist Party, predicted that what is likely to evolve is not so much a two-party system as a multiparty system resembling that of Japan, in which a single party is consistently reelected to power and the opposition is fragmented.
Currency Restrictions Eased
The general mood of success and confidence is reflected in various related areas of Taiwan's economic and political life. On July 15, the same day that martial law was lifted, restrictions on possession and use of foreign currency were also eased. People may now transfer up to $5 million a year out of Taiwan.
On the following day the government ended a ban, imposed in 1979, on direct travel to Hong Kong. The ostensible reason for the ban had been to prevent a drain of capital, but it had been widely seen as an attempt to keep people from visiting China. Its lifting was seen as evidence of a more relaxed government view toward such visits.
There are also other indications of a softened attitude toward non-official contacts with the mainland. On July 25, the government relaxed the rules for the importation through Hong Kong of traditional Chinese medicines. And the government has announced that it is drawing up rules to permit reproduction--with payment of copyright royalties--of some literary and academic works from China.
A ban on the establishment of new newspapers, which has ensured that the opposition has been unable to publish a daily paper, is also due to be lifted. Shao, the information office director, said this would take place next Jan. 1.
"In the last 30 years, the most impressive achievements have been in the economic field," Shao said. "From now on, political democratization will be the focus. Both the government and the people are confident they can march forward to full democratization without fearing that it will do serious damage to the stability and prosperity of the country."