It is with deep sadness that we learned of the passing of the Reverend Kao Chun-ming (高俊明) in Tainan on Thursday. He will be remembered as one of Taiwan’s leading lights in its early hours of darkness and a beacon in its transition to democracy.
The Reverend Kao was already a towering figure in the 1970s for his role in the three statements by the Presbyterian Church urging the repressive Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) government to move toward freedom, democracy and independence: the “Statement on our National Fate” (1971), “Our Appeal” (1975) and, most famously, the “Declaration on Human Rights” (1977), in which the church urged the KMT government “to face reality and to take effective measures whereby Taiwan may become a new and independent country.”
The Reverend Kao again showed his courage after the now well-known Formosa Magazine incident in December 1979, when thousands of people took to the streets in Kaohsiung to urge the government to end martial law, which had been imposed 30 years earlier in 1949. The government responded by cracking down on the budding dangwai (黨外, “outside the party”) opposition movement and started to arrest all of its major leaders.
One of the Formosa Magazine leaders, Shih Ming-te (施明德), had initially been able to escape arrest, and the Reverend Kao agreed that the church should provide him shelter. This landed Reverend Kao and nine other Presbyterians in prison.
We first met the Reverend Kao and his courageous wife in November 1984 in Taipei, just a few months after he had been released. There had been much international pressure on the KMT regime, and finally then-president Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國) relented and ordered the release of the Reverend Kao and Lin I-hsiung (林義雄), whose mother and twin daughters were stabbed to death while he was in prison.
During our moving visit, the Reverend Kao recounted some of his prison experiences, but he also told us how he had been able to provide comfort and solace to others in prison. The visit cemented a friendship for life.
We kept in touch over the years, but the next major event was the December 2003 reunion of international human rights and church workers organized by the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy. The Reverend Kao gave a moving account of the church’s role in Taiwan’s transition to democracy.
He spoke at the Tainan Theological College and Seminary with his interpreter. We had Japanese, Americans and Europeans in the group, so the Reverend Kao spoke Japanese and the interpreter needed to do only one translation: into English.
We met the Reverend Kao for the last time just two years ago, in Tainan in March 2017, when we were doing research at National Cheng Kung University. We visited him and his wife at their home for a simple meal. Although he was getting weak and frail, he was still full of spirit, talking about how we could advance Taiwan and its future in the international community.
We will fondly remember the Reverend Kao for his warmth, his vision, his courage and his great contributions to Taiwan’s transition to democracy. He was an inspiration to all of us.
Gerrit van der Wees is a former Dutch diplomat. He and his wife, Chen Mei-chin, published Taiwan Communique, which chronicled Taiwan’s transition to democracy.
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