The Soil of the Sunflowers, 4 decades, 4 books

  Previous  |  Next  

Friday June 20, by Jerome F. Keating Ph.D.

The Occupation of Taiwan's Legislative Yuan (LY) by the Sunflower Movement is past. As the Ma government regroups, what repercussions there will be on those involved remains to be seen just as how much government transparency there will be in the Trade in Services Agreement (TiSA) also remains to be realized. Both are issues to watch. One thing is clear, however, Taiwan has come a long way and is a different Taiwan from that of the Sunflower's immediate ancestors. From the end of World War II (1945) to the end of Martial Law (1987) those ancestors had had to endure both the White Terror and Martial Law of the one-party state of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT). How bad and how undemocratic was it? Four pivotal books, one for each decade, tell the story of the struggles, sufferings and deaths that nourished the soil out of which today's Sunflowers grew.

Formosa Betrayed by George Kerr is the first. It treats the period immediately after 2/28 and documents the brutality, murders and corruption of the KMT rulers as they first exploited Taiwan and then were forced to retreat there. We see the extent of the killings in the "March Massacre," the broken promises and treachery of Chen Yi who ironically would later be executed not so much for what he did on Taiwan as for planning to switch to the Communists in China. All this brutality was evident in reports to the US, which does not shine in the dilemma its officials faced in supporting the brutal undemocratic Chiang regime. The information and was there but went unheeded; so went the end of the 1940s.

The repressive climate of the 1950s especially in the prisons is found in Tehpen Tsai's Elegy of Sweet Potatoes: Stories of Taiwan's White Terror. This award winning semi-autobiographical work has been published in three languages (Japanese, Chinese and English). Tsai was arrested in 1954 one month after he returned to Taiwan from a one year grant to study in the USA. He would spend the next year and one month in prison to prove his innocence. Here one comes to understand prison life and the saying that one hundred were killed rather than let one communist escape. The Leninist method of interrogation with forced biographies would cast a wide net implicating many intentionally as well as unintentionally. Too many innocents, both mainlanders as well as Taiwanese would have their lives disrupted if not ruined here.

The 1960s present a different flavor in A Taste of Freedom by Peng Ming-min. Peng, Taiwanese by birth, was initially favored and groomed by Chiang Kai-shek's regime for higher office. Peng could have risen high in the KMT ranks if he had gone along with the system and not attempted to publish a manifesto on Taiwan's democracy and freedom. He was arrested in 1964 for that. He would be lucky and not be tortured, unlike his two student accomplices. His dramatic escaped to Sweden in early 1970 comes late in the book. Little detail is given to it in order to protect those who assisted him since the work was originally written when Martial Law still was in effect. This work tells more of the development of one man's (Peng's) democratic beliefs from his early education in Japan to becoming Chairman of the Political Science Department at National Taiwan University on up to his arrest.

The final work, A Borrowed Voice, Taiwan Human Rights through International Networks, 1960 - 1980, overlaps the previous period and takes the reader up to the pivotal Kaohsiung Incident (1979) and its subsequent trials. This aggregate work, written and edited by Linda Gail Arrigo and Lynn Miles includes personal accounts of some twenty plus supporters of human rights in those times. What makes this work so crucial is that most of the people, locals and foreigners, are still living and involved in Taiwan politics and democracy. Many of these would be blacklisted by the KMT government up until the early 1990s. This is a period where we see how Amnesty International entered from the outside to help force open Taiwan's windows and let the light of human rights shine in. The harshness of the one party state could no longer be hidden. The Taiwanese would still suffer but their case would be broadcast more and more to the outside world and democracy would finally come.

Martial Law and the KMT's one-party state officially ended of course in 1987. Free Legislative Yuan elections and the disbanding of the Garrison Command would be in 1992. In 1996, the president of Taiwan would for the first time be elected by all the people; this was the time when the Sunflowers were just entering the world and an irony that some may not realize is how many KMT stalwarts who had supported Chiang Ching-kuo with his “three noes of no contact, no compromise, and no negotiation” with the People's Republic of China (PRC) now trip and fall over each other as they run to profit in China.

There are many books on Taiwan, but in reading these four works as a composite of four decades one gains a sense of the many lives that were ruined in Taiwan. Much of what happened in these books happened before the Sunflowers were born, but the rights fought for then are what they are fighting for now. These works cannot be called past history; they are immediate history. They represent the price that was paid and the blood that was shed to nourish the soil of Taiwan's current democracy. Knowingly or not this is the soil that the Sunflowers were nourished in and strive to protect.

Many questions follow. Who are the real heroes both then and now? Who are those that profited both then and now? Who are the real criminals that still walk the streets? The questions are innumerable, even that of why is the KMT not just the richest party in Taiwan, but even perhaps one of the richest political parties in the world? Taiwan's current president, Ma Ying-jeou was nurtured by KMT favor in Taiwan as was Peng Ming-min, but he turned out differently. Will he write a book? Perspective is sought on all sides including the immediate past events. An answer may be found in Lee Teng-hui's The Road to Democracy, Taiwan's Pursuit of Identity written near the end of Lee's presidency (1999). One can wonder in light of recent events, perhaps it is the Sunflowers and not Ma Ying-jeou who have become the real "new Taiwanese" that Lee Teng-hui spoke of in that book.