Sun, Apr 03, 2016 - Page 12 News List

Taiwan in Time: One-hundred percent activist

Deng Nan-jung, editor of a magazine dedicated to freedom of speech, set himself on fire 27 years ago as police were about to arrest him for sedition

By Han Cheung  /  Staff reporter

Deng Nan-jung, political activist and editor-in-chief of Freedom Era Weekly.

Photo courtesy of Deng Liberty Foundation

Taiwan in Time: April 4 to April 10

Deng Nan-jung’s (鄭南榕) magazine had 18 licenses, 22 publication names and was shut down by the government 44 times over five years — but it always hit the shelves on time. But this time, they got him.

On April 7, 1989, armed police broke their way into the office of Freedom Era Weekly (自由時代) on Minquan E Road (民權東路) in Taipei. Amid the confusion, Deng, who had barricaded himself in the building for the previous 71 days, slipped into his private office, where he had stored three cans of gasoline and a lighter.

By the time someone noticed, Deng had already locked the door from inside and set the room on fire. He did not survive.

He earned many monikers in the media aftermath: “madman,” “martyr,” “lone ranger,” and “the weirdo from the philosophy department,” courtesy of United Evening News (聯合晚報).

The mission of Deng’s magazine was to “fight for 100 percent freedom of speech.” Today, the street where it happened is officially named Freedom Lane (自由巷) and in December last year, Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je (柯文哲) designated April 7 Freedom of Speech Day.

Deng was well-known by the government as an outspoken democracy activist who claimed he had no fear of arrest or death. From the day he publicly declared his support for Taiwanese independence during a speech at Jinhua Junior High in Taipei, he would keep testing the government’s limits.

He finally committed the ultimate political taboo by publishing a draft of the constitution for a Republic of Taiwan in its entirety on Dec. 10, 1988, Human Rights Day. Penned by Japan-based independence activist Koh Se-kai (許世楷), the first article called for a free, independent Taiwan, “made up of people who have decided to recognize Taiwan as their motherland for eternity.”

Even though martial law had been lifted the previous year, it was still a crime to advocate “splitting the country’s territory.” The ruling Republic of China government’s claim on both Taiwan and China was not to be questioned, and publishing the draft was the ultimate call for freedom of speech, which Deng considered the “most basic right in a democracy” and something that needs to be fought for even when “facing the barrel of a gun.”

Deng did not found the magazine until 1984 at age 37, but his rebellious side could be seen early, as he is said to not have graduated from college because he refused to take a course on Sun Yat-sen (孫逸仙) thought.

The magazine often ran negative articles about president Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國), criticized martial law as well as repeatedly brought up taboo subjects under martial law such as the 228 Incident. It serialized Henry Liu’s (劉宜良) unauthorized biography on Chiang after the writer was murdered, allegedly under government orders. The “100 percent freedom of speech” mission was printed on every cover.

Ho Chien-ming (何建銘) writes in the study Freedom Era Weekly and Taiwanese Democracy Movements in the Late 1980s (自由時代系列雜誌與1980後期台灣民主運動) that Deng was one of the few activist magazine publishers who also organized events. Deng was one of the masterminds behind the Green Movement protests on May 19, 1986, calling for the lifting of martial law on the 36th anniversary of its declaration, as well as the first 228 Incident march on the event’s 40th anniversary.

In 1987, Deng made his famous (or infamous) declaration, which historian Hu Hui-ling (胡慧玲) writes in the Taiwan Historical Society’s (台灣歷史學會) Window on Taiwan (台灣之窗) column that it was the first time someone dared to publicly do so in Taiwan.

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