Peng Ming-min dies at 98

Source: NYT (4/16/22)
Peng Ming-min, Fighter for Democracy in Taiwan, Dies at 98
He endured Japanese imperial rule, a lost limb in World War II, Chinese martial law and decades in exile to become a leading force for Taiwanese self-determination.
By Chris Horton

Peng Ming-min delivering a speech in 1995, when he was running for president of Taiwan. He did not win, but his candidacy was a turning point in Taiwan’s democratic journey.

Peng Ming-min delivering a speech in 1995, when he was running for president of Taiwan. He did not win, but his candidacy was a turning point in Taiwan’s democratic journey. Credit…Andrew Wong/Reuters

TAIPEI, Taiwan — Peng Ming-min, a victim of World War II who endured Japanese imperial rule, brutal Chinese martial law and decades of exile to become a leading fighter for democracy and self-determination for his native Taiwan, died here, the nation’s capital, on April 8. He was 98.

His death, at the Koo Foundation Sun Yat-Sen Cancer Center, was confirmed by Lee Chun-ta, director of the Peng Ming-min Foundation.

Mr. Peng pressed his case for a democratic Taiwan over the years as a lobbyist, author and academic, both in Taiwan and in exile in the United States.

As a young Japanese subject in 1945, near the end of the war, he lost his left arm during an American bombing raid on Japan. Days later, while convalescing at his brother’s home near Nagasaki, he witnessed the atomic bombing of that city by the United States.

Mr. Peng returned to Taiwan after Tokyo’s surrender ended its 50-year colonial rule of the island, with the Republic of China under Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek taking control. In 1947, he lived through what came to be known as the 228 Massacre, in which Chiang’s government executed as many as 28,000 members of the Taiwanese elite, effectively killing off a generation of leaders. Mr. Peng’s father narrowly escaped the government roundups in the southern port city of Kaohsiung.

Half a century later, in 1996, after the end of four decades of martial law under Chiang’s Chinese Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang, Mr. Peng was a candidate in Taiwan’s first direct presidential election.

In a televised debate before the election, Mr. Peng, dispensing with the customary Mandarin, memorably spoke in the Taiwanese language, which had been suppressed under martial law, as he called on the Kuomintang to take responsibility for its harsh treatment of Taiwan. Chiang’s government fled to the island in 1949 after being overthrown by Mao Zedong’s communist revolution in China.

Mr. Peng lost the election to the incumbent president, Lee Teng-hui. But his candidacy, under the banner of the Democratic Progressive Party, once outlawed but now in the majority, was a turning point in Taiwan’s democratic journey, helping to inspire a generation of Taiwanese to enter politics.

“Peng Ming-min showed Taiwanese by example that even though we had been under dictatorship for half a century, democracy was still within our reach,” said Kolas Yotaka, a spokeswoman for President Tsai Ing-wen and a former legislator. Younger generations still look to his words today, she said, as Taiwan struggles to maintain its sovereignty in the face of a growing threat from China, where the ruling Communist Party claims Taiwan as Chinese territory.

Peng Ming-min was born on Aug. 15, 1923, with the Taiwanese name Phe Beng-bin. He grew up in a doctor’s family in the central Taiwanese town of Dajia, known as Taiko during Japanese rule.

He excelled academically. After studying at Tokyo University and National Taiwan University, he obtained a master’s degree in 1953 at the McGill University Faculty of Law in Montreal. The next year he earned a doctorate in law from the University of Paris.

Information about survivors was not immediately available.

Mr. Peng’s calls for Taiwanese independence — through the removal of the Republic of China government that had dominated the Taiwanese people’s lives since 1945 — had a major impact on the politics of his country of 23 million, said James Lin, a historian of modern Taiwan at the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington in Seattle.

“Peng’s willingness to call for Taiwanese independence early on, and especially in the 1990s as part of his presidential candidacy, was a noteworthy position in Taiwanese history,” Professor Lin said. “Advocating for independence was then an uncommon position that made him a public target of a large number of Kuomintang supporters and politicians.”

The Kuomintang was not always Mr. Peng’s enemy. In the early 1960s he was chairman of the political science department at National Taiwan University. And as an early contributor to the new field of international air law, he attracted the notice of Generalissimo Chiang, who appointed him an adviser to the Republic of China’s delegation at the United Nations in New York.

The appointment caused Mr. Peng to lead what he called a “double life” — torn between his loyalty to Taiwan and his duties for the Republic of China, which claimed to be the sole legitimate government of both Taiwan and China and imposed a Chinese identity on the Taiwanese people.

In 1971, the U.N. General Assembly voted to expel “the representatives of Chiang Kai-shek” from the China seat on the Security Council. The seat was then given to the People’s Republic of China government in Beijing, setting Taiwan on a path of increasing international isolation.

By that time Mr. Peng had been blacklisted from returning to Taiwan, after a military court in 1964 convicted him of sedition over his involvement with two of his students in the printing of a manifesto calling for the overthrow of the Republic of China government and the establishment of a Taiwanese democracy. American pressure on Chiang Kai-shek to release Mr. Peng had led to his transfer from an eight-year prison sentence to house arrest in 1965. With help from Amnesty International, he escaped in 1970, fleeing to Sweden.

The United States was the next stop for Mr. Peng, who took up a professorship at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. While there, he wrote what would prove to be an influential autobiography, “A Taste of Freedom” (1972). In 1981, he co-founded the Formosan Association for Public Affairs, a lobbying group that remains active today. (Formosa is another name historically used for Taiwan.)

In November 1992, following the end of 38 years of martial law in Taiwan and the death of Chiang’s son and successor, Chiang Ching-kuo, Mr. Peng returned to Taiwan, where he was welcomed at Chiang Kai-shek International Airport by a crowd of about 1,000. He joined the Democratic Progressive Party two years later, before his failed presidential bid.

In the 2000 election, Taiwan chose the Democratic Progressive candidate Chen Shui-bian as president. He was the country’s first president who was not a member of the Kuomintang. Mr. Chen made Mr. Peng an adviser in acknowledgment of his contributions to Taiwan’s democratic struggle.

Decades earlier, as frosty relations between Washington and Beijing began to thaw under the Nixon administration, Mr. Peng had urged the world to pay attention to the concerns of the Taiwanese people.

In a 1971 opinion essay in The New York Times, he refuted China’s claim on Taiwan while arguing for closer ties across the Taiwan Strait between Beijing and Taipei.

“The Chinese,” he wrote, “must learn to distinguish ethnic origin and culture from politics and law, and to discard their archaic obsession to claim anyone of Chinese ancestry as legally Chinese, however far removed from China.”

He continued: “The real issue is not independence for Formosa but self-determination for the people there. And the Formosan people want to live in the most friendly association with the Chinese people and would spare no effort to establish the closest economic, commercial and even political ties with China.”

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