Chen Wen-Chen (陳文成) was found dead on the campus of National Taiwan University on July 3rd, 1981.
Mr. Chen was an assistant professor of mathematics at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) until he was taken away by Taiwan Garrison Command (台灣警備總司令部) without his family’s knowledge, and they were not informed of his whereabouts until the police asked them to identify his body.
As a result, the case was doubted by the Taiwanese media, and society at large, but did receive attention overseas.
And despite all the initially unanswered questions, an autopsy attributed his death to a fall, which led Garrison Command at the time to quickly announce his death was a case of suicide.
The next day, the press described the case as ‘mysterious’ because of a belt fastened on the outside of Chen’s shirt, which they assumed meant his body had been dragged – as the body was also missing socks and while the left shoe was on his foot, the other had also ‘fallen’ at the site.
Links to political movements
Chen’s last known whereabouts before his body was discovered was with the police – his having been taken into custody by police officers investigating the operation and sponsorship of Formosa Magazine.
Garrison Command targeted Chen for his participation in political movements overseas as he was a known member of the Taiwanese Association in Pittsburgh from 1978, and had provided financial support to democratic movements inside the island since 1979.
When Formosa Magazine was established in the Autumn of 1980, in Los Angeles, Chen had feared that the magazine would soon face a shortage of funds and thus started promoting conscriptions amongst those he knew in the U.S.
However, Chen’s name never appeared on any official blacklist of protesters.
The record of Chen’s engagement in political activities in the U.S. was primarily based on narratives given by his relatives.
They believed that Chen was reported to the government by ‘professional students’, which ultimately led to his death in 1981.
‘Professional students’ in this sense generally refers to those who studied abroad on KMT scholarships and effectively worked as campus spies for the party, reporting on pro-independence Taiwanese students.
Controversies surrounding death
On July 6th, 1981, Garrison Command stated that Chen had committed suicide to avoid punishment after a friend named Deng had also been interrogated.
The following day, Wang Jingxu explained to scholars at the National Development Seminar that Chen was involved in the establishment of the Formosa Magazine Foundation in the United States, and branches in more than ten other American cities.
Chen had also advocated for the independence of Taiwan along with Hsu Hsin-liang, another officially recognized ‘traitor’.
Furthermore, it was known that Chen also directly contacted Shin Ming-teh, the general manager of Formosa Magazine and offered a monthly sponsorship of US$1,500.
However, Morris DeGroot, chair of the-then CMU Statistics Department, traveled with Cyril Wecht, a forensic pathologist, to Taipei in September 1981, to conduct their own investigation.
Wecht concluded, following a visual examination, and later published in The American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology, that Chen had been murdered, but no further action was taken by the KMT government at the time.
Transitional Justice Commission findings
There are a number of major findings newly discovered since the Transitional Justice Commision (TJC) started their most recent investigation.
Chen was tracked by the National Defense Bureau from the second half of 1979, when the government was already focused on contacts made by Formosa Magazine.
To prove this, the TJC unveiled monitoring methods and records kept in the case of Chen Wen-chen.
His conversations were listened to, and his letters were monitored while he was in the United States, but it was communication with Shin Ming-teh deemed the most important, and a link which made him a traitor in the eyes of the government.
However, no direct evidence has shown that he was reported to authorities by ‘professional students’.
Another finding stated that there is no solid evidence to support the conclusion made by Garrison Command that Chen wanted to escape after being taken away.
The interrogation on July 2nd was recorded, but not fully, and the transcription was not complete either.
Therefore, the safety and free will of Chen could not be confirmed, and the question as to whether Chen was still being monitored after leaving Garrison Command could not be answered.
The investigation also found that the crime scene where the body was discovered was not the primary scene of death; thus, it is highly possible that Chen was murdered elsewhere.
However, with a lack of information and solid evidence, this hypothesis cannot be proven.
The TJS also discovered that the interference of the Garrison Command in the criminal investigation at the time had hindered the pursuit of truth.
Based on martial law then in force, Garrison Command was entitled to set up their own ‘70 Task Force’ to supervise the criminal investigation.
‘70 Task Force’ guided the police department, interfered in the primary interrogation, and even manipulated those involved into ‘finding’ their own precise cause of death.
They soon declared that Chen had committed suicide, blocking all other possibilities.
But this case happened almost 40 years ago now.
The fact that witness memories are fading, and that evidence is disappearing limited the investigation of the TJC.
However, with the evidence found at the crime scene, and advanced scientific technology, the TJC still came to the conclusion that Chen was possibly murdered, and that Garrison Command was linked to the death of Chen Wen-Chen.
Editor’s note: This is the second in a three part series by our writer Yu Shen Cheng, on Taiwan’s addressing of ‘Transitional Justice’ – an issue linked to the past still reverberating throughout Taiwanese society today.
Part 1 can be read here.