How many generations does it take to grow a democracy? I asked this question as I read about Russia and thought of my recent visit to two prisons in Taiwan.
Many people are asking the same question in Russia today. With Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin seeking to extend his rule by subverting democratic elections and other human rights, people have taken to the streets in unprecedented numbers to protest.
A couple of weeks ago, Taiwan’s White Terror era was graphically brought to mind when my old friend, Hsieh Tsung-min (謝聰敏), and his wife took me to visit the Jingmei Human Rights Memorial and Cultural Park, located at the site of the former Jingmei detention center of the Taiwan Garrison Command in Taipei. I had visited the site in 2008, but not with my friend who had been incarcerated there for many years.
Hsieh, who had been arrested a week before me in 1971, took me on a personal tour of the facility, that included the cell he occupied. My former wife and I had been charged with “activities unfriendly to the government of the Republic of China,” put under house arrest and expelled from the country, whereas our friends and colleagues, Hsieh and Wei Ting-chao (魏廷朝), were tried in secret after a year-and-a-half in custody, served long sentences and were horribly tortured. The tiny cell where Hsieh had been held was hard for me to look at and almost as hard to view were the drawings in the museum of the torture he described in a letter smuggled out in 1972.
All of the inhuman treatment of political prisoners and the climate of terror created by Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) and his security agencies came rushing back through the 40 years as if it were yesterday.
Three days after my visit to Jingmei, I visited Taipei Prison in Gueishan Township (龜山), Taoyuan County, where former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) is incarcerated. Cheryl Lai (賴秀如) graciously accompanied me as a translator.
When my family returned to Taiwan in 2003 after 30 years abroad, then-president Chen had been extraordinarily kind to us. He had taken me aside and said that he was sorry that my activities in Taiwan had caused me to be blacklisted by the US government for 19 years. On this visit I wanted to thank him for that.
Being allowed to visit him in prison was a reminder that some things have changed since the beginning of democratization in the 1990s. His buzz-cut hairstyle and orange jump suit underlined the different settings and conditions when we had last met in 2003.
Neither his smile nor his sense of humor had left him. We both chuckled about Peng Ming-min (彭明敏) coming to visit him and bringing a copy of his then new book, The Perfect Escape, published in 2009.
I came away from the 30-minute meeting with questions that continue to puzzle me as I think of Taiwan’s path: Newspaper accounts of his trials invariably point out that Chen is the first former president to be indicted and convicted of crimes in the history of the ROC. What is rarely said is that he was also the only non-Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) president in the history of the ROC. Is that one of the reasons he is in jail?
Although Chen was president for two terms, the KMT controlled the legislature, the judiciary and the central government agencies just as they have from the beginning.
I wonder about his trials, of which outside legal observers have said “due process” was so convoluted it is doubtful that the truth of any of the charges can ever be determined. Chen was emphatic that he does not want a pardon; he wants a fair re-trial.
Chen was an unapologetic advocate of an independent Taiwan, which sent political shivers not only through the KMT, but also through Chinese leaders in Beijing. Is it possible that this is the real reason Chen is in prison? Chen seems convinced of it and I have little reason to doubt it. The manner in which the KMT government has conducted Chen’s trials is enough to question how much Taiwan’s democracy has grown.
Peng heads a new international committee calling for free and fair elections.
“We have only one sincere, but strong demand — that the Jan. 14 elections should be conducted fairly and properly, as fair elections are the minimum requirement for a democratic society and the polls come as a great challenge for Taiwan,” he said.
This is the same plea he and his two former students Hsieh Tsung-min and Wei Ting-chao made in their Declaration of Formosan Self-Salvation on Sept. 20, 1964, a plea that landed all three in prison charged with treason.
This is not 1964 and much has changed since then, but how the Jan. 14 elections are conducted may go far in answering the question in Taiwan: “How many generations does it take to grow a democracy?”
Milo Thornberry is the author of Fireproof Moth: A Missionary in Taiwan’s White Terror. The Chinese edition was released on Dec. 10 by the Asian Culture Co.