National Cheng Kung University (NCKU) in Greater Tainan City set a bad example on democracy last week when the university’s School Affairs Committee overruled a vote last year in which 3,500 students, faculty members and staff chose to name a campus plaza “Nan-jung Square” (South Banyan Square, 南榕廣場) in honor of the late democracy activist Deng Nan-jung (鄭南榕).
Deng, then-publisher of Freedom Era Weekly (自由時代週刊) magazine, committed suicide in 1989 by self-immolation at the age of 43 as police tried to arrest him for printing a proposal for a constitution for the Republic of Taiwan in his magazine.
His death planted a seed of democracy in Taiwan that subsequently paved the way for the social movement that called for the removal of Article 100 of the Criminal Code, which allowed charges of sedition to be filed against people suspected of plotting to overthrow the then-Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) regime. His contributions to Taiwan’s democratic movement received recognition gradually in the process of power transition. Among recent efforts to recognize his legacy, the Taipei City Government in 2012 renamed a lane in the city where Deng committed suicide in defense of the freedom of expression to “Freedom Lane (自由巷)” in his honor. At the university’s committee meeting last week, however, some faculty members questioned Deng’s contributions to Taiwanese democracy and expressed concerns about the political implications of the proposed new name. Later, in an extempore motion, student and faculty representatives voted 70-21 in favor of not naming the plaza at all.
While the university administrator’s move to dismiss the vote betrayed the spirit of democracy, the arguments of history professor Wang Wen-hsia (王文霞) in expressing her opposition to the naming of the plaza underestimated Deng’s efforts and ignored the importance of the power transition in Taiwan’s democratic development. Wang had described Deng’s self-immolation as a radical way to cope with challenges in life, and compared him to Islamist bombers who “end their lives and put others’ lives in danger when things did not go their way.”
“To me, what Deng Nan-jung did was completely against freedom and the spirit of democracy because he hurt his own life,” she said.
As a history professor, Wang should know more about the countless lives that have been sacrificed in the fights for freedom and democracy in many parts of the world. Taiwan has come a long way since the lifting of Martial Law in 1987, and the nation would not have developed into a full-fledged democracy without the sacrifice and continuous efforts made by democratic pioneers like Deng.
Her response to mounting criticism over the remarks, in which she insisted that she was examining Deng’s self-immolation from the perspectives of “education” and “respect for life,” were misleading, as she simplified Deng’s struggles and sacrifice for freedom as disrespecting life. Universities should be the last places to suppress freedom of speech and democracy. They should encourage different opinions from students and offer an open environment to cultivate critical-thinking abilities.
The university administrators in Tainan should stop the heavy-handed repression on campus and honor the naming of the plaza as Nan-jung Square, which was chosen democratically.