Book review: Political Will and Common Sense

By Bradley Winterton  /  Contributing reporter

Tue, Oct 16, 2012 - Page 12

When I interviewed Shih Ming-te (施明德) in 2002, on the occasion of his candidacy for Mayor of Kaohsiung, what struck me most was the security. I went along with a translator and outside a building in central Taipei we were met by a very muscular security guard; there was another one by the entrance to the apartment, which was accessed by a narrow private staircase.

Shih served 25 years as a political prisoner in Taiwan, and for a long time was force-fed daily by a tube to his stomach painfully inserted through his nose. He must be as aware as anyone alive that he’s living in a land where political violence is a recent memory.

Shih’s always been in essence a radical maverick. He was first imprisoned at the age of 21 for espousing Taiwanese independence, and for this crime remained locked up for 15 years. Then he was one of the leaders of the 1979 Kaohsiung Incident at which the DPP was essentially founded, for which he suffered another 10 years’ incarceration. But he’s never occupied major office under a DPP government (apart from being party chairman), and in 2006 led the Red Shirt Movement protesting against the alleged corruption of his former colleague, then-president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁). (It’s worth remembering that Chen was also often a fellow joker, as when, as Mayor of Taipei, he dressed up for a government-funded student party as a mixture of Michael Jackson and Superman.)

But Shih always appeared a personable and even romantic figure, smiling with his hands in his trouser pockets outside the court in 1980, and posing naked with his two daughters last year to mark his 70th birthday. He’s a political joker who’s been made to suffer terribly for his insolence. He’s twice been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, once by Lech Walesa.

Now, at 71, he’s brought out English translations of two of his works, Political Will and Common Sense. They’re very different. Political Will is a testament he wrote in 1980 to read out at his trial; he ended up handing it to the judges in written form. Common Sense is a short book he published in Chinese last year.

One of the problems for Shih has been that his Red Shirts Movement was enthusiastically welcomed by Chinese media because it sought to discredit a DPP president. But Shih will have no truck with any talk of “unification.” Almost the whole of Common Sense is a defense of Taiwan as an independent nation, and indeed at the time of the Kaohsiung Incident he repeatedly told the judges that Taiwan was already an independent state, and had been so for 30 years.

Shih is quick to point out that “Common Sense” was the title given to a pamphlet published in 1776 by Tom Paine, supporting the American colonists and their campaign for independence. The parallel is not exact because Taiwan never was a part of China, though it might be considered to have been for a time a sort of colony. But the point Shih is making is that knowing what country you belong to ought to be simple common sense, and he can’t understand why so many Taiwanese aren’t sure.

Political Will is the more interesting of the two works, though neither is gripping. In it, Shih makes the crucial claim that democracy in Taiwan would reinforce its status as an independent state, admired by the rest of the world. He’d always claimed that democratization was his key aim, and that Taiwan as an independent state was already a de facto reality. But in linking the two in this manner, Shih establishes a crucial argument that time has seen bear fruit.

These two works can be hard going. Both are based partly on Shih’s study of international law while in prison (and the length of Political Will on Shih’s being allowed a pen and a hundred sheets of paper). That they both read so fluently in English must in part be due to the excellence of the translations. The translators are listed as Angela Hong, Paul Cooper, Perry Svensson and Terry Thatcher Waltz.

In the days of autocratic rule, Shih jokes, the saying went “Winners inaugurated; losers incarcerated.” In a more serious mode he notes that when Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) was first elected president, the US sent a telegram praising Taiwan as a beacon of democracy. “Did Mr. Ma ever stop to think about where this democracy came from?” he writes. “Did he think about … all the refutation letters he himself, serving in the government of Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國), wrote in response to international human rights organizations demanding the release of ‘the political prisoner of conscience Shih Ming-te?’”

One of Shih’s ideas, and it’s a characteristic one, is that Taiwan would benefit from a presidency of all the people. By this he means, presumably, a KMT president with a DPP vice-president, or vice-versa. He’s not the first person I know to suggest that the Taiwanese aren’t by nature suited to confrontational politics.

Contemplating Shih, you’d be justified in thinking that some men are punished for having ideas before their time. Galileo got into trouble for saying the earth went round the sun; this is now taught in schools. In 1962 Shih claimed Taiwan was an independent nation, and today most Taiwanese believe this, and say so as a matter of course.

You glean many incidentals about Shih from this book, such as that his blood type is AB and that he’s been diagnosed as suffering from liver cancer, but is living healthily under the care of his doctors. This is very good to hear. This book may not make electrifying reading, but nevertheless Shih Ming-te is, in D.H. Lawrence’s phrase, one of the great souls.