A Nation in Search of its Heroes

  Previous  |  Next  

Sunday February 5, by Jerome F. Keating Ph.D.

Two recent incidents point to continuing issues that Taiwan faces as it progresses both in developing its national identity and in furthering its democracy. These particular issues also raise these questions, namely: Who are Taiwan's national heroes? And how should they be defined?

The first incident took place when Free Taiwan Party Chairman Tsay Ting-kuei stated that instead of paying a fine, he was willing to serve at least part of his prison sentence for removing a statue of Sun Yat-sen from Tainan's Tang Techang Memorial Park in 2014.

Tsay was clear that he was aware that his act was one of civil disobedience and upon his conviction; he was willing to pay the price.

However he also wanted it understood that he did it for Taiwan and its identity.

By his actions, Tsay was raising a specific challenge, namely: What direct relationship, if any, does Sun have to the nation building of Taiwan and its democracy?

Sun of course is considered a founder of the Republic of China (ROC), but that was in China in 1912 and at a time when Taiwan was a part of the Japanese empire. Furthermore, as it is obvious that Tsay knows Sun's pictures are found in all government buildings in Taiwan. He was raising a different question regarding the validity of Sun's pictures: Should they remain in such places?

The second recent incident also involved statues. This incident was the administrative decision by officials at National Chengchi University to remove all statues of Chiang Kai-shek from the university's premises. The origin of National Chengchi University dates back to 1927, again in China and not Taiwan; this university was created to train students for civil service in the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT). When the KMT was driven from China in 1949, this university followed and was reopened in Taiwan in 1954,

Both these "statue incidents" address the unique historical challenges that Taiwan faces as it develops its identity and frees itself from what could be called the Stockholm syndrome mentality that still hangs over it from the White Terror and martial law eras when Taiwan was controlled by the KMT's one-party state.

In short, even though Sun and Chiang might be considered heroes in the pantheon of the KMT diaspora, they obviously are not such in the eyes of Taiwanese. Instead their statues bring back memories of the sufferings, death and horrors of the White Terror period.

If this is the case, who then are or should be Taiwan's real heroes?

Finding heroes in the establishment of Taiwan's democracy is a challenging matter. First because it proved to be a long process with many contributors and second, in the process, a free press developed and has set the bar high.

Unlike media propaganda machines of a one-party state, a free media makes it difficult to hide any individual's faults or mistakes over the years. All people--even heroes--have feet of clay as the saying goes, and a free media rarely lets such things go unnoticed. Few people can remain on a pedestal for too long under these conditions.

Who then might be the actual heroes of Taiwan's democracy? The list of contenders swells. Certainly there were many martyrs who died as a result of the 228 incident and the White Terror era. The names of some but not all are found in the 228 Memorial. Then there is Green Island, which served as the chief political prison of the times. Bo Yang served nearly ten years there for a political cartoon but he was only one of innumerable others. Again, many names though not all are engraved on the memorial wall there.

Of course, Taiwan has had high profile deaths like Tang Te-hang, who was executed in the 228 incident and who Tainan park was named for; Chen Wen-cheng, who was an associate professor from Carnegie Mellon University who was found dead apparently murdered, at National Taiwan University in 1981; and democracy pioneer Deng Nan-jung aka Nylon Deng. These names stand out because death is permanent, but there are so many others who even if they did not die, still made sacrifices.

After the Kaohsiung Incident, Lin Yi-hsiung went to jail and he also lost family members. Kaohsiung's current mayor Chen Chu, and Annette Lu and so many others also went to jail.

One need not even have gone to prison to serve Taiwan's cause. Former president Lee Teng-hui contributed much to move the cause of democracy forward from his office when he required that the president be elected by the people.

Heroes come in all shapes and sizes and are found in each generation since democracy needs continuous step-by-step development. This presents other challenges. A part of this continuous process was when Lee was president and numerous professors, students and others participated in the Wild Lily Student Movement. That movement helped Lee bring about the removal of the formerly permanent members of the Legislative Yuan.

The Sunflower movement also made its contribution. It forestalled the Cross Strait Service Trade Agreement and guaranteed that it would be properly reviewed item by item in the legislature. That helped prevent Taiwan from becoming too dependent on China.

When one looks back over the years, with all the protests and all the participants it becomes obvious that Taiwan's democracy has no one cause and no one contributor; instead it is the product of many people. For this reason, there are no one or two people who should stand on a pedestal like Sun or Chiang.

Taiwanese instead can ask what are the ideals of their democracy and who represents these ideals most? Each person can ask, what he or she has done to move forward the cause of Taiwanese democracy. Each age must find its own way to contribute.

Yes, Taiwan has many unsung heroes and there is a refreshing directness in this reality. Its democracy has clearly been a joint effort.

Time eventually becomes the ultimate test of a hero and not fleeting popularity. Former president Ma Ying-jeou received the highest amount of votes when he was first elected president but this did not prevent him from being called a bumbler with a low approval rating when he left office eight years later.

Democracy remains an ongoing process that calls for new heroes in each age where each must contribute in his own way from the president on down to the lowest citizen.

So too, President Tsai Ing-wen must now ask what legacy will she leave when her term ends? What has she done to move the nation forward in her years as president? Only in this way, can she make her contribution to the list of heroes.