Episode 3.9: Henry Liu

Hello, and welcome to this episode of Assassinations Podcast, in which we will be looking at the case of Henry Liu, a journalist from Taiwan, living in the United States, who was assassinated by a triad hit squad in 1984.

Before we get started, just a wee bit of housekeeping. 

First of all, I’d like to let our lovely Patreon supporters know that we have a special bonus episode available for you - more details about that at the end of the show. If you’d like to support Assassinations Podcast and gain access to bonus material then please go to patreon.com/assassinationspodcast

We received an email from one of our listeners in Northern Ireland about last week’s episode on Martin O’Hagan. The listener asked if indeed O’Hagan had killed a policeman in 1972, as I said last week when describing his years as a member of the IRA before he renounced violence and became a journalist.

To be clear, Martin O’Hagan was not convicted of killing Police Constable George Chambers. The claims that he did so are only allegations, though based on circumstantial evidence and statements made by others who were involved.

Thanks very much for raising that question with us. I really do appreciate all questions, comments, and general feedback from all of you.

Finally, I’d like to ask you all to stay tuned after the episode to hear about a show we’ve been enjoying lately - Beyond Bizarre, a true crime podcast.

This episode is brought to you by Quavaro, makers of meticulously crafted bags, inspired by a passion for military aviation.

And now, without further ado, let’s launch our investigation into the assassination of Henry Liu. 

[Intro music]

On Thursday the 7th of February, 1985, the subcommittee of the United States House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs met at 1.40pm in Room 2172 of the Rayburn Office Building. The chairman, The Honorable Stephen Solarz, called the meeting to order.

This was the first hearing in the 99th session of Congress of the Subcommittee on Asian and Pacific Affairs. After a few formalities and pleasantries, the chairman got down to the business of that day.

Henry Liu was an American citizen of Chinese ancestry. He was a journalist who wrote on the politics of Taiwan, where he had lived for almost 20 years after fleeing from Communist mainland China in 1949. One might quarrel with what Mr Liu had to say, said Chairman Solarz, but no one could dispute that fact that his right to communicate as he wished was protected by the American Constitution. Unfortunately, this freedom of speech was not protected enough, for on the morning of October 15, 1984, Liu was found shot to death inside his garage at his home in Daly City, California.

The subsequent investigation revealed that the crime had been carried out by a notorious criminal organization from Taiwan - known as the Bamboo Gang, one of the three big triad associations that dominated the seedy Taiwanese underworld of smuggling, protection rackets, prostitution, and murder. Two members of the Bamboo Gang had been charged by the State of California with the killing of Liu. Even more startling, according to Chairman Solarz, was the recent announcement by the Taiwan Government that three officials in its Military Intelligence Bureau were involved in the killing, apparently responsible for recruiting the assassins for this reprehensible assignment.

The chairman expressed his outrage that officials of the Taiwan Government might have been involved in the murder of a United States citizen on American soil. The genius of the American system, he opined, is that it offers broad opportunities for people of differing political viewpoints to think, speak, and act as they wish.

The subcommittee was reminded that this was not the first time the nefarious activities of the Taiwanese government had come to its attention. Some three years earlier, they had considered the case of Professor Chen Wen-cheng, a member of the faculty of Carnegie Mellon University, and a permanent resident, who had been detained, tortured, and killed while on a visit to Taiwan, apparently in consequence of criticisms he had voiced at public meetings in the United States.

Several sympathetic statements were made by sub committee members, each expressing sympathy for Mr Liu’s family, and stern disapproval of the apparent actions by the Taiwan Government. Until, that is, Representative Gerald Solomon used his time to excoriate the subcommittee for voicing such criticisms of the Republic of China - which is the official title of Taiwan.

“There has been some undue criticism of our allies in this subcommittee before,” Solomon stated. “And whether it is Taiwan, whether it is South Korea, whether it is the Philippines or any of our many friends we are talking about, we as Americans should remember … we need allies that can depend on us.”

Solomon bemoaned that this hearing - on the subject of the assassination of a US citizen by agents apparently acting at the behest of officials of the Taiwan Government - had not begun with a statement condemning the Soviet KGB for its espionage activities in the United States. The honorable member stated that he had been in contact with the Taiwan Government, and had found them to be completely cooperative and going out of their way to help solve the case. He told his fellow Representatives that, “If it ends up that perhaps some low-echelon member of the Republic of China Government may have been involved, certainly I am going to do everything I can to bring those people to justice.”

Well, it would soon come out that a very high-echelon member of the Government of Taiwan had orchestrated the assassination. And it is doubtful than anyone has ever really been brought to justice for the murder of Henry Liu.

Henry Liu was born on the 7th of December, 1932, in Jiangsu Province in what was then called the Republic of China. A nationalist movement called the Kuomintang ruled most of the country, though warlords held sway in some parts, the Communist Party had its strongholds, and Imperial Japan controlled most of the northeast and important coastal cities.

When he was nine years old, his father was killed during the conflicts that were wracking China; and when he turned sixteen, he was drafted into the Nationalist Army, which was then fighting the Communist armies under Mao Zedong for ultimate control of the China.

With the victory of the Communists in the 1949 Revolution, Liu, like many, many others on the Nationalist side, left for the island of Taiwan in 1949. On Taiwan, the Nationalists, led by Chiang Kai-shek, claimed to be the true, continuing government for all of China. And, for many years, much of the international community, especially the United States, continued to recognize only the Nationalist government on Taiwan as the de jure government of China as a whole.

This fundamentally changed in 1971. Under President Richard Nixon, the United States started to work with the Chinese Communist government in Beijing as the de facto government of China. The Nationalist government of Taiwan then lost almost all of its international diplomatic recognition, including its place on the United Nations Security Council, which was given to the Beijing. Finally, in 1979, the United States formally recognized the Communists as the legitimate government of China. Nonetheless, the Nationalists continued to call themselves the true government of all China, and Taiwan continues to have as its official title, the Republic of China. 

From its exile to Taiwan in 1949 up until the end of the 1990s, the Kuomintang ruled the island as a one-party state. Chiang Kai-shek ruled until his death in 1975, and many of the top positions in government were held by members of his family or close allies. 

Though Taiwan experienced rapid economic development from the 1960s onwards, becoming one of the most prosperous countries in the region, the island was governed by a strict regime in which loyalty to the ruling party and the ruling family was expected. This applied to journalists, too.

After leaving the military, Liu worked for Taiwan’s state-run radio broadcaster before becoming a reporter for the Taiwan Daily News. In this role, he was sent on assignment to Hong Kong, Manila, and Vietnam, where he reported on the war. 

In 1967, he was posted to Washington, DC. While still working for the Taiwan Daily News, he attended graduate school and worked as an interpreter for the US State Department. 

In 1973, he, together with his wife, became US citizens. At this time he ceased working for the newspaper. Liu had grown increasingly critical of the government of Taiwan - its corruption and nepotism, and the lack of democratic rights on the island. He embarked on a series of articles, essays and books that were critical of the ruling family, especially Chiang Ching-kuo, the eldest son and heir of Chiang Kai-shek, as well as the clique of cronies that occupied key positions in the government and also in big business.

Published in 1975, his unauthorized biography of Chiang Ching-kuo was heavily criticized for its not entirely flattering picture of the Chiang family. He was warned by people close to the government in Taiwan that it was unwise to have written this book. A man named Wang Sheng, a general in the army of Taiwan, asked him to think twice before publishing, to consider the greater good of Taiwan, and to “move cautiously”. Liu wrote back to the general, telling him: “I’m living in America and I am independent. No one can tell me what I should write about.”

He was given another warning from a top government official in 1977, when he received a visit from Admiral Wang Shih-ling, the military attache at the Taiwan government office in Washington, DC. Admiral Wang, about whom we will hear much more later on, told Liu that he was free to write about whatever he want - so long as he didn’t write about the Chiang family. Again, the journalist rebuffed this non-too-subtle threat, stating that the Chiang family was precisely the subject that he intended to write about.

Despite his bravado in the face of authority, Liu understood that it was a risky business to criticize those at the top in Taiwan. There was a something approaching a cult of personality around Chiang Kai-shek, who had led the Nationalist movement since the 1920s, and this had metastasized into an officially encouraged dynastic reverence for his family. Many people, both in Taiwan and in the emigre community in the United States, had been warned, threatened, or attacked for voicing criticism of the government, and the Chiang family in particular. 

The stakes were as high as you can get for those who didn’t tow the line. In 1980 the mother and daughter of an imprisoned Taiwanese legislator, who had fallen afoul of the authorities, were stabbed to death in their home while it was supposedly under police guard. And then there was the killing of Professor Chen Wen-cheng in 1982. So, it did not come as a total surprise to Liu when, in 1983, while he was planning to release a revised edition of the book, he received a warning from a former colleague at the Taiwan Daily News, who said that it would be better for him if he toned down some of the things he had written about the Chiang family and its acolytes. 

Another friend of Liu, an academic, warned him simply not to republish the book: “But Henry said, I’m not worried. This is the United States. If someone tries to kill me, I'll call the police.” The academic added, “The trouble was, Henry began to take things in America for granted … This might have cost him his life.”

The thing is, Liu did eventually heed these warnings. He revised the manuscript of his biography of Chiang Ching-kuo, removing some of its criticisms. And, it seems, this concession satisfied the powers that be in Taiwan. For he was paid $17,000, allegedly by Taiwanese military intelligence, for making the edits.

Giving evidence to the House subcommittee hearing in 1985, Liu’s wife stated that this payment had not been solicited by her husband, but was supposedly a sign of gratitude for his toning down the controversial biography. She said that while her husband had accepted the payment, he had on several previous occasions spurned financial inducements offered by agents of the government of Taiwan to not publish critical works. In particular, she recalled him being offered $40,000 to shelve his biography of Chiang Ching-kuo in 1975. In addition, Liu’s publisher was also allegedly offered money to not publish his work. Curiously, Mrs Liu said that, somehow, the Federal Bureau of Investigation had gotten wind of the payment of $17,000 that her husband had accepted. She said that agents from the Bureau had visited Liu just one week before he was killed.

Despite the revision to the biography of Chiang Ching-kuo, and the money payment he’d received, Liu continued to carry out work that would put him on a collision course with the Taiwanese government. He wrote an article about a former senior Kuomintang official named Wu Kuo-cheng. This piece, published in a popular Chinese language magazine in New York in 1983, contained highly damaging comments about the government in Taiwan.

Wu, who had been one of the highest ranking people in the Kuomintang since the 1920s, had moved to the United States in 1954, following a dispute with the Chiang family over what he described as their Soviet-style methods of rule. 

In the article, Wu claimed that Chiang Ching-kuo wanted him dead and may have already sent assassins to America to murder him. Perhaps Wu made this statement as a sort of insurance policy. At a time when other critics of the Taiwan government were being intimated or silenced, it wouldn’t be surprising if Wu - who had once been the right-hand man of Chiang Kai-shek - would want to make it more difficult to assassinate him merely by publicly stating that there was a target on his back.

While the article might have helped Wu’s chances of survival, it is possible that it was this relationship that proved to be the final nail in Liu’s coffin. He wanted to write a biography of Wu Kuo-cheng. Wu had agreed and, to that end, had offered him exclusive access to his personal archive. This agreement had been finalized just weeks before Liu’s assassination. Given the fact that Wu Kuo-cheng had for three decades been a close confidante of Chiang Kai-shek and a political heavy hitter in his own right within the Kuomintang, I think it’s fair to say that he knew - both literally and figuratively - where one or two bodies were buried. 

It was only a matter of time before the government in Taiwan would get wind that Liu had been given access to potentially damaging, perhaps even explosive, archival material in order to write a biography of Wu. A biography of a well-known figure by a well-know writer using potentially highly sensitive material - well, that was going to set alarm bells ringing at the highest echelons of the Kuomintang regime.

In September, 1984, a Taiwanese magazine reported on Liu’s collaboration with Wu Kuo-cheng, reprinting the interview in which Wu claimed that his life was in danger. The government seized the entire printing of that edition of the magazine, and shut down the publication entirely soon thereafter. 

Mr Liu was most definitely rocking the boat. And his actions were starting to have repercussions not simply among the emigre community in the USA, which was bad enough, but within Taiwan itself. For the Chiang family, this criticism that they had long sought to suppress was all getting far too close to home.

The surreptitious dance between Henry Liu and the government of Taiwan was over. The time for bribes, cajoling and veiled threats was through. Battle lines had now been drawn. And the borders of the United States of America would prove no defense against the onslaught that was to follow.

Let’s take a quick break. We’ll be right back

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Just before 9am on the 15th of October, 1984, Henry Liu was shot to death in the garage of his home in Daly City, California. His body was discovered by his wife, Helen. He had been shot once the head and twice in the chest.

Local police quickly ruled out robbery as a motive for the crime. Helen said that she had seen two Asian men riding bicycles in the neighborhood on the morning of her husband’s death and on the morning before. Daly City officers pursued these inquiries, but there was little they could do, for the men responsible for the crime had fled the United States and returned home to Taiwan.

Given Liu’s history and the nature of his ongoing work, it was perfectly obvious, especially to those within the Chinese community who were quite familiar with the methods of the government in Taiwan, that he had been a ripe target for assassination. 

The Taiwanese authorities moved swiftly into damage-control mode, of a most heavy handed nature. A newspaper in Taiwan was shut down for reporting the killing, and a Chinese-language publication in the USA also suddenly closed not long after it had reported on the case in such a way as to suggest that Liu might have been murdered because he was a critic of the Chiang family. 

Given the politically sensitive nature of the case, the Federal Bureau of Investigation soon got involved. In November of that year, the FBI identified four members of the Bamboo Gang, a powerful criminal organization, as having been the hit squad sent to assassinate Liu.

The Bamboo Gang was - and remains - one of the main Chinese mafia, or triad, organizations operating in Taiwan. Though in many respects it was, and is, a typical criminal operation, carrying out all the usual unpleasantness that one would expect from a mafia, the Bamboo Gang is in one important respect quite unique.

It has historic ties to the Kuomintang, going back to the period immediately after the Communist Revolution in 1949. The gang was formed largely of young men who had fled mainland China in the early 1950s. They viewed themselves as patriots, and initially they were more of a self-preservation society than a mafia. But criminal enterprises soon followed, and, indeed, became highly lucrative during the years of the Vietnam War.

Taiwan was an important strategic ally of the United States during the war, acting as a staging post. In addition, thousands of US service personnel took their R&R leave in Taiwan, often spending their pay in the less salubrious quarters of the the capital city, Taipei, in which the Bamboo Gang ran nightclubs, gambling dens, and other nefarious activities. 

As Taiwan experienced rapid economic growth from the 1960s onwards, the Bamboo Gang, with its close links to the Kuomintang government, was able to cash in. There were new businesses that needed protection, bustling dockyards in which smuggling and theft could take place, and rising standards of living for ordinary Taiwanese people, creating a healthy market for the sorts of goods and services that any mafia would be well-placed to provide.

The Bamboo Gang, and the other triad organizations, also carried out illicit trade between Taiwan and mainland China, skirting the restrictions placed upon trade by the deep political and diplomatic divisions between Taipei and Beijing. It would not be churlish to suggest that both regimes might have turned a blind eye to some of this illicit trade, which was often mutually beneficial.

In other words, the involvement of the Bamboo Gang in the assassination of Henry Liu provided a pretty clear indicator that the hidden hand of the Kuomintang had been pulling the strings.

Liu’s death attracted significant media attention in the United States, not least because he was a naturalized citizen with many contacts in the Asian American community. And perhaps it was as a result of the relatively high profile of the case that the US State Department pressured its allies in the Taiwanese government to pursue the matter with some vigor. 

In the face of this pressure, and some pretty obvious signs of official involvement, the government of Taiwan charged two members of the Bamboo Gang with the murder of Henry Liu. In January, 1985, Officers from Daly City Police Department were allowed to travel to Taiwan to interview the men. Speaking to the cops, one of the accused confessed that the purpose of the assassination was to, quote, “teach a lesson” to Liu because of his writings about the government. Another accused member of the gang confessed that he had received instructions to kill Liu from Admiral Wang Shih-ling, then serving as the chief of military intelligence. This would be the same Admiral Wang who, as military attache in Washington, had warned Liu to stop writing about the Chiang family back in 1977.

A plan to deal with Liu - in an as yet unspecified manner - was hatched, according to the confession, in July 1984. Then, in August, the head of the Bamboo Gang met with Admiral Wang to discuss the operation, though it was allegedly still unclear at this stage if this was going to be a hit or merely a warning, such as a beating. Four members of the Bamboo Gang then travelled from Taiwan to the United States in mid-September. On September 25th they attended a reception in Houston, Texas, hosted by the head of the Taiwanese state-owned National Press Bureau. From there they travelled to Los Angeles, before driving north to San Francisco, just a few miles from the home that Henry Liu shared with his wife. By this stage, everyone involved was fully aware that this was going to be an assassination.

With this information now in the hands of US law enforcement, it was clear that the government of Taiwan had to do something rather more than throwing a few triad mobsters to the wolves. For here was evidence of a high-level politically motivated plot to end the life of a US citizen on US soil. And so, the government of Taiwan took the exceptional step of arresting four senior officers of its own military intelligence department, including Admiral Wang.

Wang was court marshaled and found guilty of having orchestrated the assassination. This was quite a scalp, the admiral being one of the highest ranking and most powerful people in Taiwan. It certainly seemed like a very strong response by the Kuomintang government. However, in practice, Wang got off pretty lightly. He only served a couple of years in prison; and, frankly, it would be a stretch to even call the terms of his incarceration prison-like; rather, he was housed in a comfortable compound with his family, who were free to come and go. 

The two members of the Bamboo Gang who had been arrested for the murder received harsher sentences. Convicted and given life sentences in 1985, they were given clemency and released in 1991.

Many people in the Chinese American community believed that responsibility for the death of Liu did not stop at the desk of Admiral Wang. “The only conclusion you can come to is that it was the Kuomintang government,” said Robert Lee, one of Liu’s friends. “They either wanted to punish Henry for his writings or they wanted to scare the Chinese community.”

There was a feeling - already sensed but magnified by Liu’s assassination - that emigres from Taiwan were not truly free to speak within the United States, lest the government in Taiwan should seek retribution. Or, as Admiral Wang had put it to Mr Liu back in DC - people were free to talk about whatever they wished, so long as they didn’t talk about the Chiang dynasty.

Addressing the 1985 Congressional subcommittee hearing on the assassination, Representative Norman Mineta, an American of Asian ancestry, stated that the Reagan administration seemed indifferent to what he called “terrorism” directed against Taiwanese emigres. The Congressman added that the administration had significant leverage upon the government of Taiwan, which relied upon support from the United States, especially in the realm of defense equipment procurement. $760 million worth of arms had been sold to Taiwan in the previous year - that’s the equivalent of $2.2 billion in today’s money.

Mineta stated that US law prohibited the sale of military equipment to foreign countries that engaged in a systematic pattern of intimidation or harassment against US citizens. He also noted the apparent ease with which Taiwanese agents operated within the United States, and he called on the Reagan administration to, quote: “tell the so-called friends of ours to take their intelligence operatives and recall them home.”

The Assistant Deputy Secretary of State for East Asian Affairs appeared as a witness before the subcommittee, which posed to him the question of whether or not he would characterize the assassination of Henry Liu as an act of terrorism. The State Department official demurred, stating that he would prefer not to characterize it as such. The official also made clear that the administration had repeatedly made formal requests that the government of Taiwan send the Bamboo Gang suspects to the United States to face justice in California. However, a major barrier stood in the way, in that there was not an extradition treaty between the US and Taiwan.

Mrs Liu gave evidence to the subcommittee. She was adamant that her husband had been murdered on the orders of the highest government officials in Taiwan, and that he had been killed for three reasons:

  1. To punish him for writing about the Chiang family;

  2. To prevent him from writing any more about them; and

  3. To intimidate other journalists from writing about this family and its history 

Mrs Liu stated to the subcommittee that she believed that the Reagan administration was colluding with the government of Taiwan in order to cover up the full story of her husband’s murder, in order to protect the Chiang family and, therefore, the longstanding strategic relationship between the two countries. In particular, she pointed out that the administration had failed to categorize the assassination of her husband as a terrorist act, and that the US Justice Department had not sought civil rights indictments against any of the killers. That is to say, she objected to her husband’s murder being treated as a common crime instead of a politically motivated assassination.

Now, might there have been some other motive for Henry Liu’s death? Some additional factor, perhaps? Well, there were certainly some indications at the time that there just might have been more at play than his criticisms of the Kuomintang regime. There were reports in the media - both the Chinese-language and English-language press - that Liu had been an agent of one or more foreign intelligence services, including, allegedly, those of Taiwan, mainland China, and of the United States itself. 

Further, it was claimed that Liu might have been an FBI informant. Might this explain the visit he received from the agents just one week before his death?

None of these allegations were proven. In fact, Mrs Liu suggested that the claim that her husband might have been an agent of the Communist government in Beijing was a smear job cooked up by the government of Taiwan.

Nonetheless, it is fair to say that Mr Liu did have connections to senior people inside Taiwan, as shown in the warnings he received regarding his work and further indicated by the payment of $17,000 that he received for modifying his work. And, as a long-time foreign correspondent for a state-controlled newspaper, he must have had connections - direct or indirect - with people in Taiwanese intelligence. Objectively, he would have been a desirable intelligence asset, given his links to many people within the Asian American community. That is not to say that Liu was a spy or any other sort of agent, but it is one more curious aspect of the case that he was widely suspected at the time of his death as having been one at some point in his career.

What we do know is that Henry Liu was critic of a very powerful and rather dangerous family, a dynasty that jealously guarded its image as the heirs of the great Chiang Kai-shek and the rightful rulers of Taiwan. Possessed of information from the archives of Wu Kuo-cheng, Mr Liu could have been more than just a thorn in the side of the House of Chiang - he could possibly have been a threat. So, he was taken out. And in a world of Cold War alliances and geo-strategic considerations, I’m afraid that Henry Liu’s death was never likely to result in what might properly be called justice.

Thank you so much for tuning in to this episode of Assassinations Podcast.

Next week, we’re beginning a two-part investigation into the killing of Anna Politkovskaya, a Russian journalist who was murdered in Moscow in 2006. She was a prominent critic of the administration of President Vladimir Putin, having written exposes of government corruption, crimes, and cover-ups. The brutal and brazen manner of her death - she was shot multiples times in the elevator of her own apartment building - brought attention to the rights of journalists, and human rights in general, in Russia.

We mentioned Ms Politkovskaya in episodes on Alexander Litvinenko last season, as he was looking into her assassination at the time of his own demise. Her murder remains a case with great significance, relating, as it does, to the very character of life in Putin’s Russia.

Please stay tuned after the credits to hear about a podcast we’ve been enjoying lately - Beyond Bizarre, a true crime podcast.

This episode was researched & written by me, Niall Cooper.

Lindsey Morse produces and edits the show. 

Our theme music was created by Graeme Ronald. To hear more of Graeme’s music, check out his band, Remember Remember.

I’d like to thank our program sponsors, Quavaro, makers of meticulously crafted bags, inspired by a passion for military aviation. If you go to assassinationspodcast.com then you’ll see that we have details of our special listener offer and a link to their website in our show notes. If you’d like to support the show, then check them out.

You can also support the us by making a pledge through Patreon at patreon.com/assassinationspodcast. If you’re already one of our patrons then I’m glad to let you know that we have a bonus episode available for you. In it we take a look at the assassination of Canadian journalist cum politician Pierre Laporte, who was killed by members of a Quebec nationalist militant group in 1970. 

Thank you so much for tuning in, and we look forward to seeing you next week. 

Until then, goodbye.