On May 17, 1979, a member of the Kuomintang (KMT)’s Republic of China (ROC) army in Taiwan committed the ultimate betrayal against comrades and fatherland. Company Commander Lin Zheng-yi grabbed two basketballs, dived into the sea and swam across the frontline to defect to communist China. Today in 2011, Lin Zheng-yi, now called Justin Lin Yifu, is a chiefeconomist and senior vice president of the World Bank, but the Taiwanese Defense Ministry still threatens him with execution.
In an era in which Taiwan was terrorized on the one hand by KMT martial law and on the other by the prospects of a communist invasion, the young Lin could take an excellent career for granted. On a defense scholarship, he entered the MBA program at Taipei’s prestigious National Chengchi University in 1976 and
quickly ascended to the position of the chairman of the students’ union.
But after Lin voluntarily gave up a very promising future to be stationed on the frontline outlet island of Kinmen, he became a national hero. This was because to the KMT regime, Lin’s decision came right on cue. Back then, the military was all but totally isolated from society, a phenomenon detrimental to the KMT’s efforts to mobilize the masses to reconquer mainland China. Idols like Lin were good for bringing the people and armed forces together.
But Lin defected from ROC-occupied Kinmen to communist-controlled Xiamen. He left behind his pregnant wife and his three-year-old child. A year after he defected, the Taiwanese declared him missing in action and paid out the equivalent of US$31,000 to his wife as war hero’s pension.
The KMT regime propagated that Lin Zheng-yi was worth enshrinement. What the public wasn’t told was that he took with him piles of secret documents. And what the public wasn’t told either was that due to Lin’s defection, the army had to change its defense positions abruptly, and that droves of his comrades were severely punished.
Why did the ROC military cover up the defection? Likely because Lin wasn’t the only serviceman who committed treason. A number of ROC air force pilots had done what Lin did, and they were turned by the communists into powerful propaganda ammunition, encouraging the mainland population while demoralizing the Taiwanese one.
Why the mainland Chinese side refrained from turning Lin into a propaganda tool is a question yet to be thoroughly answered. According to Taiwanese scholars interviewed by Asia Times Online, it might have had to do with the circumstance that China had been standing right at the junction between Cultural Revolution and the era of Deng Xiaoping.
It wasn’t until many years later that it began to dawn on the Taiwanese public what really happened. Lin’s wife and their children suddenly traveled to the US, rejoining him there. It came out that Lin – who by then had become Justin Lin Yifu – wasn’t torn to pieces by artillery shrapnel somewhere in the Taiwan Strait but instead obtained a master’s degree in Marxist political economy from Peking University in 1982, and a PhD in economics from the University of Chicago in 1986, making him one of the first PRC citizens ever to receive a PhD in economics from Chicago.
Being thrust in the spotlight, the Taiwanese military reacted like a cornered bull. In 2000, the Defense Ministry issued an arrest warrant against Lin because of treason, demanded the war hero’s pension plus interests to be paid back, and furthermore accused Lin’s wife of fraud. When in 2002 Lin’s father died in Taiwan and Lin wanted to attend his funeral, the Defense Ministry declared that though 23 years had elapsed since his crime, Lin would still face either the death penalty, life imprisonment or a 10-year sentence. Unsurprisingly, Lin chose not to come.
In 2008, Lin wasn’t just some Peking University professor any longer. World Bank president Robert Zoellick announced his appointment as World Bank chief economist and senior vice president, development economics. “Mr Lin guides the bank’s intellectual leadership and plays a key role in shaping the economic research agenda of the institution,” states the international financial institution’s official website.
More than three decades after the defection and despite warming cross-strait ties, the Taiwanese military hasn’t given in up to this day. As recent as on April 18, Vice Minister of National Defense Lin Yu-pao once again stressed that Justin Lin Yifu was a traitor who could face execution and that there was no expiry date on his prosecution. The official’s statement came regardless the matter that in 2009 the Control Yuan, which is Taiwan’s supervision commission for administrative inquiry comparable to the US’s Government Accountability Office, censured the military, saying the warrant for Lin’s arrest was only valid for 20 years and thus had expired.
Also the Taiwanese experts Asia Times Online interviewed hold it that it’s about time to let the World Bank’s chief economist and senior vice president set foot on the island.
“In 1979, the Defense Ministry’s covering-up of the defection was illegal and politically motivated,” expounded Wang Jhy-perng, an associate research fellow at the Association for Managing Defense and Strategies.
“The issuing of the arrest warrant years later was illegal, too, and also politically motivated.”
Wang then shed light on the military’s flawed legal reasoning. The Defense Ministry had applied the criminal law of the armed forces which stipulates that treason shall be punished by either the death penalty, life imprisonment or a sentence of more than 10 years. On the lapse of time, it cited criminal law article 80, which provides that for crimes that might carry capital punishment, the limitation shall be 30 years.
“But the 30-year limitation came into being in 2005; before that it was 20 years, so according to the principle of non-retroactivity, in 2002 when he wanted to attend his father’s funeral, Lin couldn’t have been prosecuted for a crime that he committed in 1979,” said Wang.
But the Defense Ministry employs yet another indeed startling argumentation. It points out that Penal Code Article 80 Paragraph 2 provides that “the limitation time shall be counted from the end of the criminal activity”. To define whether or not Justin Lin Yifu still continues committing the crime of treason, the Taiwanese military cites Grand Justices Interpretation No 68 from 1956.
“Rebels who didn’t admit guilt or cannot prove that they have renounced ties with the rebel organization are to be regarded as participating in a rebellion.”
This means, according to Taiwan’s Defense Ministry, the World Bank’s chief economist and senior vice president still carries out a rebellious activity.
Wang, however, made plausible that also this reasoning is untenable. “From 1991, ROC law regarded the communist rebellion as ended, and mainland China ceased to be defined as a rebel organization.”
According to Chen In-Chin, professor at National Central University’s Graduate Institute of Law and Government, the Defense Ministry had covered up the Lin case for years so as to hide its own incompetence. He nonetheless pointed out that there was a partner in crime.
“His family pocketed the pension and played along in the political drama. Then, they refused to pay it back, even brought a law suit against the Ministry of Defense. To me, that is morally despicable,” said Chen.
To Chen, Justin Lin Yifu’s story could possibly turn out to be a never-ending one. He said that nobody in the Defense Ministry has so far been held responsible in Lin’s case, and that Lin’s return would harshly force the military to come up with answers.
Chen reasoned that if Lin could freely return under spotlight, it would be a humiliation of those comrades who were punished because of his treason or the loyal army.
“Politicians from both government and the opposition hold it that Lin has rights to come back. But regardless who is in power, the Ministry of Defense will always object,” said Chen.