The Century of Taiwan's Three Elder Statesmen

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Monday March 5, by Jerome F. Keating Ph.D.

A century--one hundred years--certainly seems like a long time. This is true, especially when seen from a historical perspective. A lot can happen in a century.

Yet from the personal perspective of an individual life, where time passes quickly even with an increasing life expectancy, that same lengthy century might seem fleeting, especially if the person feels there is still much to be done.

These long and short views of history have an important relationship to all Taiwanese as their democratic nation develops.

Taiwan has changed a lot in the long view of the past 100 years--there is no question of that. However, from the personal standpoint of three of its key leaders, there is still much to be done.

From 1918 to 2018, the world around Taiwan changed dramatically. World War I came to an end in November 1918. It was supposedly the war to end all wars but it did not. World War II would follow barely two decades later.

The end of World War I brought more change to the map of Europe. The Austro-Hungarian Empire ceased to exist and new nations formed in its place. The Ottoman Empire, which had once stretched from Algeria to Iran and the Persian Gulf was partitioned, shrinking into present day Turkey, which would spark many troublesome Middle East issues.

On the Asian continent, the Russian revolution ended the reign of the czars and gave birth to the Leninist USSR; this ideology would envelop Eastern Europe and China. The Manchu Qing Empire, which ruled not only China but also Tibet, Mongolia and Xinjiang had fought its own revolution in 1911. It continued to suffer through the failed monarchial ambitions of Yuan Shikai. His death in 1916 only fermented a continuing power struggle. China's warlord period followed and its eventual Chinese Civil War. Taiwan, of course, throughout all this, was becoming prosperous as part of the developing Japanese Empire.

Before that first 50 years ended, World War II broke out and brought continued turmoil to the world. Its end brought about a strenuous and tense Cold War period. Then—quite surprisingly in a post-World War II world—the nations of Europe began coming together to form the current EU.

On a different bent, the UK, France, the Netherlands and others lost many of their colonial territories after that war with new nations developing in their place. The map of the world continued to change drastically.

This change even had ironic footnotes. For example, the UK reversed direction and began the process of opting out of the EU—its "Brexit"—finding itself negotiating border crossings between Northern Ireland and Ireland, the same small Ireland that had declared its independence from the UK back in 1918. Ireland is part of the EU, while the UK has chosen to leave.

These 100 years not only saw the map of the world change immensely, but science as well. The simple airplanes that fought in WWI rapidly became the jet planes that evolved to rocket travel and astronauts. Humans walked on the moon and in space and most recently the world's largest rocket was sent towards Mars carrying a roadster sports car.

In that project, Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX, stated that his long-term goals were not just the placing of a Tesla in orbit, but the actual future colonization of Mars. He wants to take humans into their solar system.

The world of communications continues to grow by leaps and bounds as the Internet and then the World Wide Web entered history in the 20th century.

Taiwanese can not only note all these changes but also look at their nation's development in this changing world with new technology.

In 1918 Taiwan had already been part of the growing Japanese Empire for 23 years. In World War II, many Taiwanese would fight to defend that empire. Then after World War II ended, when Taiwanese hoped to be free, they suffered another "colonization."

The 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty stated that Japan would give the island up, but it never specified a recipient. Many Taiwanese like other colonials around the world wished for self-rule, but that did not happen.

Taiwan entered a new stage when the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) lost the Civil War in China, and fled to Taiwan where they would evetually create a one-party state under martial law.

After many decades of struggle and suffering, Taiwanese eventually won the rights of a democracy and its citizens began electing their legislators in 1992 and their president in 1996. By 2018, Taiwan had been through six free presidential elections and four changes of power among the political parties.

That is part of the long perspective, and Taiwanese like those around the world can look back and say: "We've come a long way baby."

However what about the short perspective of a lifetime? Taiwan has three prominent elder statesmen who have lived through this past 100 years—they not only witnessed it but played dramatic parts in its changes.

Su Beng, freedom fighter, activist and author of Taiwan's 400 Year History, was born in 1918; he has already entered his 100th year.

The other two, former president Lee Teng-hui and presidential contender Peng Ming-min, were born in 1923. Turning 95 this year, they also lived through Taiwan's emergence from the Japanese colonial era through the nation's struggles for democracy to where it is now.

These three not only have a shared love for Taiwan's democracy, but have each actively participated throughout to achieve it.

Su is the ultimate rebel, not only training future rebels but even plotting the assassination of then-dictator, Chiang Kai-shek. Peng tried to change the system from within. By openly advocating democracy under martial law, he was arrested and had to flee the country. Lee on the other hand worked within the one-party state system but never became part of it. Each took a different path yet all worked for an independent Taiwan.

Taiwanese can not only learn from the love and respect, that these three have for Taiwan, but also know that if pressed each would say that there is still much more to be done as that democracy moves from one century to the next.