Twenty-four years ago on April 7, Freedom Era Weekly (自由時代週刊) editor-in-chief Deng Nan-jung (鄭南榕) sacrificed his life to defend freedom of expression. Protesting the then-Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) administration’s repression and the sedition charges it filed against him for publishing a draft “Taiwan Republic Constitution” in the magazine’s December 1988 issue, Deng set himself ablaze in his office in Taipei as heavily armed police attempted to break in and arrest him following 71 days of self-imposed isolation.
Deng’s heroically tragic death planted a seed of democracy in the hearts of Taiwanese that subsequently paved the way for the social movement two years later 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 KMT regime.
Regrettably, other than commemorative speeches delivered by Deng’s widow, Yeh Chu-lan (葉菊蘭), and some pan-green politicians reaffirming their support for Deng’s struggle at each anniversary of his death, Deng’s name is rarely mentioned, let alone remembered among many young Taiwanese today.
It is therefore comforting to see that a student organization at National Cheng Kung University named the 02 Group (零貳社) — a phonetic translation of “protest” in Hoklo (commonly known as Taiwanese) — will, on its own initiative, hold a candlelight vigil on Sunday evening in memory of the sacrifice made by Deng and to pledge their pursuit of the democratic causes and values that Deng laid down his life for.
The initiative undertaken by the young 02 Group members to pay homage to the late democratic activist deserves to be applauded and certainly ought to put Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Management Office to shame for being insensitive to history by holding an inappropriate design competition recently aimed at celebrating the life and marriage of Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) and his wife.
It is also encouraging to see the Yilan County Government following in the footsteps of the Greater Tainan Government, which last year took the lead in designating April 7 as the city’s “Freedom of Expression Day,” announcing on Tuesday that it will also designate April 7 as its “Freedom of Expression Day.” However, the Yilan County Government added that it will hold human rights-related lectures for the county’s residents, in a bid to deepen their concepts and understanding of democracy.
Without Deng’s sacrifice, the nation would be unable to enjoy the freedom of expression and democracy it has today. Continuous efforts are needed to ensure that the values of democracy, human rights and freedom of speech are passed on generation after generation. To avoid any regression of the nation’s hard-earned democracy, the public needs to be constantly reminded of the blood, sweat and tears shed by Deng and other democratic pioneers.
It may be fair to say that the local governments’ designation of April 7 as “Freedom of Expression Day” is not solely to honor Deng, but rather a pledge to support the fight to uphold democratic values.
President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) has taken pride in his administration’s efforts to protect human rights by touting how it was under his watch that the nation signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in 2009.
Should the Ma government follow Greater Tainan and Yilan County by designating April 7 as the nation’s “Freedom of Expression Day,” in Deng’s honor, Ma’s commitment to human rights and democracy would come across to Taiwanese as more convincing.