After the passing of Taiwanese democracy pioneer Peng Ming-min (彭明敏) on Friday last week, tributes have poured in, memorializing Peng’s enormous contributions and lifelong dedication to Taiwan.
Perhaps the greatest influence Peng had on Taiwan was his 1964 manifesto A Declaration of Formosan Self-salvation (台灣人民自救宣言), in which he proposed the concept of a Taiwanese nationhood.
Peng’s second-greatest contribution to Taiwan came six years later in 1970. Although by then Peng had been placed under strict surveillance, he fled Taiwan right under the noses of the Chinese Nationalist Party’s (KMT) state security apparatus. Peng’s daring escape caught the attention of the international community and left officials within the then-KMT government severely shaken.
Two years later, Peng made his third-greatest contribution to Taiwan, with the publication of his English-language autobiography A Taste of Freedom. For many Taiwanese, the book is an inspirational work that sets out the idea of a “Taiwanese consciousness.”
Whether in exile or after his return to Taiwan, throughout his life Peng engaged in a ceaseless struggle for democracy and human rights for Taiwanese. He will be remembered as a consummate intellectual and a towering figure in Taiwan’s resistance movement against the authoritarian KMT regime.
A Declaration of Formosan Self-salvation was a collaborative effort between Peng — then a professor at National Taiwan University — and two of his students, Hsieh Tsung-min (謝聰敏) and Wei Ting-chao (魏廷朝). However, before the 10,000 printed copies could be distributed, Peng and his students were arrested and tried for sedition by a military court.
In 1970, the New York Times published a summarized version of the manifesto, titled Formosa for the Formosans, in which Peng emphasized that there is only one China and one Formosa (Taiwan), that retaking the mainland was an impossibility, and that Formosans must put aside ancestral distinctions and unite as one people to establish a new nation. The article also called for the creation of a new constitution and for Taiwan’s readmission into the UN Security Council as a nation independent of, and separate from, China.
Sixty years on, the perspicacity of Peng’s manifesto is remarkable. Unfortunately, Taiwan has yet to achieve Peng’s ideal of “Formosa for the Formosans.”
Peng was sentenced to eight years in prison for writing the manifesto. Under intense international pressure, the KMT regime granted Peng a special pardon 14 months into his sentence, but he was placed under house arrest with security agents surveilling his every move 24 hours a day. Despite the elaborate surveillance regime, after putting on a disguise, Peng gave his minders the slip and boarded a plane at Taipei’s Songshan Airport with a forged passport.
Peng’s audacious escape, although planned by Peng himself, was assisted by several foreigners and international organizations, including US missionary Milo Thornberry, Japanese nationals Takayuki Munakata and Kenichi Abe, and the Swedish chapter of Amnesty International. It was only after international media reported that Peng had safely arrived in Sweden that KMT officials learned he had fled the country.
The international community took a great interest in Peng’s case. Peng was introduced to former US diplomat George Kerr, the author of Formosa Betrayed by US publisher Houghton Mifflin, who assisted Peng in completing his autobiography. On its publication, A Taste of Freedom received positive reviews, was translated into Chinese and Japanese, and was widely read by overseas Taiwanese. Although the book was banned in Taiwan, underground channels secretly published and sold the book.
Peng’s memoir has become a key resource for historians studying Taiwan’s post-World War II political history, in particular, the germination and early development of Taiwan’s democracy and independence movements.
A Taste of Freedom begins in the Japanese colonial period and takes the reader through the post-war period. Peng vividly narrates the five decades of struggle, sacrifice and pain under martial law in the pursuit of freedom and democracy by a succession of brave Taiwanese warriors, who one after another stepped into the breach as their comrades fell by the wayside.
While living in exile, Peng settled into university life in the US, teaching and conducting research, yet his mind was always on the political situation in Taiwan and the nation’s future. Peng delivered many speeches to the overseas Taiwanese community in the US, as well as universities, societies, members of Congress, the media and lobby groups. Peng was invited to a congressional hearing to give evidence and explain the true political situation in Taiwan.
All of Peng’s speeches were focused on uniting Taiwanese and foreign friends who could work toward promoting democracy and freedom in Taiwan. While the democracy that Taiwan enjoys today is the fruit of many hard battles fought by pioneering Taiwanese, the selfless efforts of many overseas Taiwanese and foreign friends played a vital role, and their contributions should not be forgotten.
With Taiwan gradually transitioning to a democracy and the blacklist of overseas Taiwanese dissidents having been lifted, Peng returned to Taiwan in 1992 and devoted all of his energy toward pushing through further political reforms, which included contesting the nation’s first direct presidential election in 1996.
In his twilight years, Peng founded the Peng Ming Foundation, which sought to establish a Taiwanese consciousness through the promotion of Taiwanese culture. He also continued writing, frequently publishing articles for the Chinese-language Liberty Times (the Taipei Times’ sister paper) and other publications, and attracted a loyal and dedicated readership. A collection of Peng’s articles and writings have been compiled into two books — A Memorandum for Taiwan (寫給台灣的備忘錄) and Swan Song (絕筆集). For many Taiwanese, Peng will be fondly remembered as “Professor Peng.”
With Peng’s passing, the nation has lost not just one of its intellectual greats, but also another towering figure from the “Doosan” generation (多桑世代) — Taiwanese who grew up during the Japanese colonial era and were schooled under the Japanese education system.
Peng was born during the reign of Japanese emperor Taisho, and received an education that placed an emphasis on the cultivation of personal character, a rounded and liberal curriculum, and foreign languages. Peng studied by reading books in French , and went on to read politics and law at university. In addition to French, Peng was proficient in Hoklo (also known as Taiwanese), Japanese and English — and it was this mastery of languages that gave him a multicultural understanding, unparalleled depth of knowledge and a truly international perspective. However, Peng was not just an erudite and broad-minded academic, his Japanese education cultivated an elegance of character, too. Peng was also an extremely generous man, full of integrity and a true gentleman.
It is vital that the next generation of intellectuals, those with an active interest in Taiwan’s future, and especially Taiwan’s politicians and civil servants, remember Peng’s vision and ideals.
Peng once wrote that the basis for the foundation of a nation lies in a consciousness of a shared destiny and a sense of common interest. This subjective feeling is generated from a shared historical background, and is not necessarily related to objective factors such as race, language or religion, he wrote.
On foreign policy, Peng wrote that “one China, one Taiwan is already an iron-clad reality.” Thus, Taiwan’s interaction with China must be based upon the principle of equality and reciprocity: Whatever China is allowed to do in Taiwan, Taiwan should also be able to do in China. Conversely, whatever Taiwan cannot do in China, China should not be allowed to do in Taiwan, he wrote.
Peng also believed that Taiwan would inevitably have to move closer to the US and Japan: “Whatever happens, Washington will not allow Taiwan to fall into China’s sphere of influence, so as to guarantee the US’ national interests in East Asia. Tokyo is also keenly aware that if Taiwan falls into China’s hands, Beijing would place its foot on Japan’s economic windpipe.”
Throughout his life, Peng firmly believed that the most pressing task for Taiwan was to cast aside distinctions between “local Taiwanese” and “mainlanders,” and unite as one people to found a new nation, with a new constitution that could rejoin the UN as an independent country.
Unfortunately, Peng was unable to witness Taiwan’s normalization as a bona fide nation state, nor experience the wholesale coming together of Taiwanese society during his lifetime. In honor of Peng’s memory, Taiwanese have a duty to keep the torch of freedom and democracy burning, put aside their differences and finish the job.
Translated by Edward Jones
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