Peng Ming-min and the End of an Era

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Wednesday, April 20, by Jerome F. Keating Ph.D.

The recent passing of Peng Ming-min marks the end of an era, the era of three Taiwanese colonial greats, namely Su Beng, Lee Teng-hui, and Peng. 

These greats did not grow up in a vacuum and so it is ironically appropriate that the special exhibit, Lumiere, the Enlightenment and Self-Awakening of Taiwanese Culture, is currently touring Taiwan.

This exhibit presents the purpose, goals, and works of the Taiwan Cultural Association, founded on October 17, 1921 and shows the strong developing homegrown Taiwanese identity and desire for democracy (then representation in the Japanese Diet) that Su (11/9/1918—9/20/ 2019), Lee (1/15/1923—7/30/2020) and Peng (8/15/1923—4/8/2022) grew up in.

The exhibit also explains how this diverse trio with their seemingly opposing life choices still found themselves working together to promote a free and independent Taiwan.

Attending separate universities in Japan. each would be further influenced by the liberal democratic ideas flourishing there even while Japan’s militaristic government was launching that nation into World War II.

Su, the oldest, attended Waseda University. He graduated with a political science degree in 1943 and then went to China to fight the Japanese.

Lee went to Kyoto Imperial University, dropped out in 1944 to serve in the Japanese military, returned at the war’s end and graduated in 1946.

Peng attended Tokyo Imperial University but found his studies interrupted by the war. To escape the fire-bombing of Tokyo he went to the countryside outside Nagasaki only to lose the use of one arm in a US bombing raid and also witness from a distance the atomic bombing of the city. After the war, he returned to Taiwan.

Of the three, Su became the undying “rebel with a cause.” In China he fought alongside the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) but did not join it. He found himself first fighting the Japanese and later the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT).When the KMT lost, he followed it to his home of Taiwan where he still worked against its rule.

In Taiwan, Su hoped to assassinate former president Chiang Kai-shek and lead a Taiwanese revolution but when guns were found on his grandmother’s property he had to flee to Japan and claim political asylum.

Undaunted, he did not tire in his efforts. He set up a noodle shop that had training and sleeping facilities above it and from which he could send operatives back to destabilize the KMT regime.

It was there that he also wrote his landmark book 400 Years of Taiwan History. Translated from Japanese to Chinese and English, it helped Taiwanese see the true history and developing identity of their homeland.

Peng on the other hand would be “the idealist who could have had it all.” He returned from Japan after the war and finished his undergraduate degree at National Taiwan University (NTU). He followed that with a masters degree in law at McGill University in Montreal, Canada and in 1954 a doctorate in law at the University of Paris.

Armed with these degrees and publications in international air law, Peng became the youngest full professor and then Chairman of the Political Science Department at NTU. He was also advisor to the Republic of China (ROC) delegation to the UN. Life could not have been more promising.

Unfortunately in 1964, Peng attempted with two students to publish an idealistic “Manifesto to Save Taiwan” calling for the ROC to do away with martial law and implement a democracy for a free and independent Taiwan.

He and the students were jailed under the anti-sedition law. He would later be put under house arrest, from which he would make an amazing escape and flee to Sweden where he sought amnesty.

From Sweden, Peng would then be granted entry into the US with the condition that he promise not to talk about that dreaded “I” word, Taiwan independence. Why? China knew that he supported an independent Taiwan and at that time US secretary of state Henry Kissinger was setting the stage for then-US president Richard Nixon’s visit to China.

Peng remained active in the US and put down his thoughts as well as his escape in his classic work, A Taste of Freedom, published in English.

Lee in many ways proved to be the most complex of the three as he mixed his Japanese kendo and bushido with Christianity. He proved to be one who could “work within the system to reform it.”

After he came back to Taiwan, Lee got a separate degree from NTU in Agricultural Science and flirted with communism. He got a master’s degree in agricultural economics at Iowa State University (1953) and a doctorate in the same at Cornell University (1968). By 1971, he was ready to join the KMT.

Taiwan was a one-party state at that time and by applying his knowledge in agricultural science, Lee made his mark and rose through the party ranks; he became Mayor of Taipei and then Taiwan Provincial governor.

His work also caught the eye of former president Chiang Ching-kuo who appointed him as his vice president in 1984. When Chiang Ching-kuo died in January 1988, Lee weathered the storms and distrust of the old guard KMT and continued as president.

As president, Lee instituted numerous reforms, including doing away with the “iron rice bowl” legislators who had not had to run for election since being elected in China in 1947. He also had the president directly elected by the public and did away with the anti-sedition law. This allowed Su and Peng to return home from exile.

Lee and Peng would square off against each other in the 1996 presidential elections with Lee winning with 53 per cent of the vote to Peng’s 21.1 percent as he ran for the Democratic Progressive Party. Few outside Taiwan would notice but these two “colonial benshengren” had garnered nearly 75 percent of the vote.

Lee’s parting “shock” as president might have come with his expressed “state to state” relationship between Taiwan and China in his July 1999 interview with Deutsche Welle magazine. That was an interview heard round the world.

On a different note, Lee never accepted the lie of the fake “1992 consensus” that allegedly took place during his presidency. In 2000, when the KMT lost the presidential election, Lee who had never quite been accepted by many old guard KMT was blamed for the loss and was expelled from the party.

After the 2000 elections, the trio took more subdued roles. Lee became spiritual father of the Taiwan Solidarity Union and gave commentary. Peng would be advisor to president Chen Shui-bian of the DPP after he won the 2000 election. He also worked with “Hi-On Taiwan”where topics related to Taiwanese identity and politics are continually kept before the people.

Su could still be found at protests and at any event promoting Taiwan identity. As a man who had sacrificed all, he had the respect of young and old and could easily rally supporters as he did with taxi drivers in 2005 going to the airport when Lien Chan then KMT chairman went to visit China.

The question will inevitably come up: Which of these three made the greatest contribution? In this, none should be slighted. Each had his own style, his own way, and left his own mark. They were united in making Taiwan the de facto independent nation that it is today.

Further, in any developing nation most major changes do not take place without the rebel, the idealist and the pragmatist.

However, if I had to use specific milestones for judgment, I would probably credit Lee with the greatest contributions because of what he accomplished after becoming president. He could have settled for less but did not as he steered the country into its democracy.

However that era is done. A democratic Taiwan must now look to the future.

So what new era is developing in Taiwan and what are its challenges? Who will be its heroes? Could there be a new triumvirate?

Taiwan desperately needs to change the Constitution, flag, and name change from their old ROC versions. It also needs to move from its de facto independent status to de jure world recognition. Who will have the diplomatic skills to accomplish this?

Taiwan already ranks high in its democracy in Asia as well as in the world economy. Who can take a leadership role in maintaining this while at the same time always protecting the nation from China, its hegemonic neighbor?  

Who will step up and earn the trust of Taiwan’s voters as the nation further defines itself?