Portraits of Formosa: Dr. Peng Ming-min on Taiwan’s right to self-determination
What did Dr. Peng Ming-min (1923–2022), a leviathan of Taiwan’s self-determination movement, think about the Taiwan Relations Act in 1986?
Dr. Peng, as president of the Formosan Association for Public Affairs (FAPA), testified before the US House of Representatives in 1986, during his 22-year exile from Taiwan, regarding the implementation of the human rights provisions of the Taiwan Relations Act.
He characterized the efforts as “uneven,” stating that the American government “has not shown much vigor in attacking the structural barriers to majority rule based on respect for individual rights on Taiwan.”
At this point, the Nationalists have ruled Taiwan via martial law for 37 years, not deviating from their “ridiculous claim” of ruling the whole of China from Taipei. Peng noted, the people of Taiwan comprise only 8.15% of the total legislative seats, yet they “pay 100% of the taxes and provide 100% of the military conscripts of the so-called Republic of China.”
He also addressed negative developments regarding religious freedom. Harassment against the Presbyterian Church, the oldest and largest Christian denomination in Taiwan, “continues unabated” for its outspoken stance on human rights, democracy, self-determination, and cultural pluralism.
The KMT regime has threatened to “require the use of Mandarin in church services, and repeatedly proposed legislation forcing pastors to obtain licenses from the Ministry of the Interior.” Taxes were imposed upon impoverished churches in Indigenous areas, rendering them unable to pay their affiliation fees to the Presbyterian Church.
“The authorities have subjected the New Testament Church to similar harassment, expelling its members from the land that they consider sacred. I have with me the pictures of the brutality the police have done to those members of the New Testament Church.”
Dr. Peng argued that democratization is in the interest of both the KMT and the people of Taiwan. “A more democratic society would guarantee the development of great social consensus, which is vital to national security, for the survival of Taiwan in the face of a threat from mainland China ultimately depends on the willingness of the Taiwanese to defend the island.”
On the appointment of two native Taiwanese to the KMT’s central standing committee, he viewed the move as positive but stated that “Taiwanization at the top of the KMT is not the same as the democratization of society from the bottom up.”
Regarding Taiwanese elections, he warned that “we can expect the government to employ officially sanctioned violence, vote buying, bribery, false registrations, and ballot box stuffing to ensure a good showing. Soldiers will again be mobilized to provide a ‘roving vote’ in areas of opposition strength.”
Peng also refuted the KMT’s claims of how the formation of new political parties would “confuse the minds of the population,” saying that “Taiwan is a literate, sophisticated society. Its people are quite capable of exercising mature political judgement if given the opportunity.”
He ended his statement by pointing out how American citizens of Taiwanese ancestry are forced to list China as birthplace on their passports. “We would like to have our passports reflect our actual place of birth, and do not understand why the truth is so inconvenient.”
“The Taiwan Relations Act was enacted [in 1979] to solve an unprecedented diplomatic problem: how to continue our substantive relations with the people on Taiwan even though the United States Government terminated diplomatic relations with the government in Taipei, as a precondition for normalization of relations with the People’s Republic of China.”
The TRA was enacted 7 years by this time, when Taiwan was the United States’ sixth largest trading partner. Dr. Peng joined witnesses representing the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), the State of Michigan, Amnesty International, and the Heritage Foundation in this 1986 congressional hearing.
Dr. Peng died aged 98 on April 8, 2022.
“He was the last of a trio of great Taiwanese men with Lee Teng-hui and Su Beng, who grew up in Taiwan during the Japanese era and did their university work in Japan. Each in their own unique way made significant and diverse contributions to Taiwan’s current independence,” wrote FAPA in his obituary.
He lost an arm during an American bomb raid on Japan, witnessed the second atomic blast that destroyed Nagasaki, lived in Taiwan when it was effectively a police state, was imprisoned for writing a manifesto advocating for Taiwanese self-determination, made a daring escape to Sweden, and lived in exile in the United States for over two decades.
When martial law was finally lifted in 1987, Dr. Peng returned to Taiwan in 1992. While he did not win as the Democratic Progressive Party’s first presidential candidate (with running partner Frank Hsieh) in 1996, his actions and writings have inspired a new generation of Formosans to speak out and seek change, both in Taiwan and abroad.
It is ironic, that his “ultimate preeminence as a spokesman for the younger generation of well-educated Formosans developed principally because of honors and attentions showered upon him by Nationalist Chinese intellectuals, party leaders, and government agents who sought to make him ‘their man,’” noted George H. Kerr, author of “Formosa Betrayed (1965)” and transcriber of Peng’s English memoir “A Taste of Freedom (1972).”
Here are a few select quotes from “A Taste of Freedom”:
Formosan history is largely the record of a search for self-determination and autonomy. Throughout Formosan history, the descendants of Chinese immigrants who settled on this frontier island have struggled constantly to reduce continental Chinese influence in the island’s affairs, and even to remove themselves from continental control altogether.
I urged the Chinese to accept the principle that any group of people, given certain geographical and historical conditions, are entitled to decide for themselves their own political future, and should even be entitled to constitute an independent political entity if they so desire, regardless of their biological, cultural, religious, or linguistic affinities to other political entities.
I also said the Chinese should discard their archaic, almost feudalistic, obsession to claim as a member of the Chinese family anyone of Chinese ancestry, however removed from China geographically or historically.
I emphasized that the real solution to the Formosan problem was in the hands of the Formosans themselves; that is to say, Formosans should be allowed to decide their own destiny. Let them decide their own political future for themselves.
No state has the right to claim sovereignty over a territory based only on some biological, cultural, religious, or linguistic affinities with the inhabitants of the territory in disregard of the will of the people themselves.