Most Canadians have never heard of Cheng Nan-jung. But the pro-democracy activist, who died in 1989, is well-known in his home country of Taiwan. That’s because he did something unforgettable in pursuit of free speech, democracy, and independence.
According to the book From 0 to 100%: The Fight for Freedom of Expression in Taiwan, Cheng published his Freedom Era weekly magazine under a different name each time the Kuomintang government suspended it in the 1980s.
“Cheng Nan-jung was fearless when it came to breaking taboos, making him a pioneer in the Tangwai opposition movement, someone consistent in his ideas, speech and actions,” the book states. “Freedom Era had the courage to expose the myths of the [ruling] Chiang family, the malpractices of the military, and internal struggles within the KMT, constantly pushing and furthering the boundaries of stifled media reporting in Taiwan but also setting a record for the most journal bans and suspensions.”
Cheng repeatedly raised new issues. This included mentioning Taiwanese independence in a public speech for the first time. He also roused public support for political prisoners. Plus, he sought justice for the victims of a mass slaughter on February 28, 1947, even though their families had been silenced for decades.
After Cheng published a draft proposal in 1989 for a constitution for Taiwan, he was subpoenaed on “suspicion of insurrection”. Cheng publicly vowed that he would not be taken alive. He barricaded himself inside his office and continued publishing Freedom Era for two more months.
When police tried to break into the premises, Cheng committed suicide by setting fire to himself and his office, attracting international attention.
Paying a high price for freedom
The National Human Rights Commission of Taiwan published From 0 to 100%: The Fight for Freedom of Expression in Taiwan in English to raise awareness about the country’s human-rights history. In the preface, the chair of the National Human Rights Commission, Chen Chu, points out that Cheng “gave his life fighting for absolute freedom of speech in Taiwan and protesting against the draconian laws of authoritarianism”.
“His sacrifice accelerated Taiwan’s path to freedom and democracy, brightening the future of Taiwan,” Chen states.
The commission’s book provides a deeply informative and photo-filled documentation of Taiwan’s journey to freedom. It links the evolution of international human rights and the development of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to the struggle and sacrifices of Taiwanese people in pursuit of free speech.
Ironically, a respected Republic of China diplomat, P.C. Chang, was vice chairman of the UN Human Rights Commission when the Universal Declaration was drafted in the 1940s.
“He also played a key role in establishing the universality of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights,” From 0 to 100% states.
Martial law came after February 28 massacre
When Chinese nationalists lost the Chinese Civil War, they moved their capital to Taipei in December 1949.
Earlier that year, the government led by Chiang Kai-shek imposed martial law on the island. This came more than two years after government troops had massacred thousands in the notorious February 28 incident.
The fight for freedom in Taiwan continued in spite of martial law. Many Taiwanese-born intellectuals saw their influence diminish sharply because they had been educated in Japanese during Japanese colonization from 1895 to 1945. They couldn’t write Traditional Chinese. That gave Chiang the upper hand because he forced the country to adopt Mandarin as the official language.
According to the book, intellectuals from China also advocated for democratic constitutionalism in Taiwan. The most prominent was Lei Chen, director and co-founder of the Free China publication. Lei also founded the China Democratic Party.
However, when Lei publicly objected to Chiang remaining in power in 1960 in violation of a constitutional term limit, he was arrested. Chiang ensured that Lei received a 10-year prison sentence for “spreading communist propaganda” and “harbouring communists”.
These were common charges during the White Terror period, the book notes. And they violated Article 19 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, which protects freedom of expression.
In 2019, the Transitional Justice Commission posthumously exonerated Lei.
Others made enormous sacrifices for freedom
Lei wasn’t the only one to suffer for speaking out. In 1964, three activists—Hsieh Tsung-min, Peng Ming-min, and Wei Ting-chao—were all tortured and sent to jail after issuing a “Declaration of Formosan Self-Salvation” in 1964.
Among its three goals was the overthrow of the Chiang regime and a recognition that the re-conquest of China was impossible. It also called for a new constitution to protect basic human rights. They were sentenced to prison terms of between eight and 10 years.
In the 1970s, Taiwan-born elites created a new magazine, Taiwan Political Theory. This infuriated the dictatorial regime because the editors pushed for democratic elections. By this point, Chiang’s son had risen to president and under his rule the publication was shut down.
Chen, the current chair of the National Human Rights Commission in Taiwan, also played a key role in the fight for freedom. She was one of eight human-rights activists arrested in the 1979 Kaohsiung Incident. This came in the wake of publication of a magazine called Formosa, which described itself as the “voice of Taiwan’s democratic movement”.
After four issues were published, supporters of the movement held a public event in the southern Taiwanese city of Kaohsiung on International Human Rights Day (December 10) in 1979. According to From 0 to 100%, police swooped down and arrested 152 people.
“This was the largest political purge since [the] 1960s,” the book states. “Due to martial law, there were no demonstrations to support those arrested in Taiwan, but Taiwanese associations overseas mobilized like never before, doing everything in their power to speak out, to save and support those arrested.”
Trial increased support for democracy
That same year, a group of Taiwanese Canadians in B.C. travelled to Seattle to demonstrate outside a Taiwanese government office. One of the leaders was Dr. Charles Yang, now a retired physician.
Chen and her fellow activists faced a possible death sentence. She ended up spending nearly six years in jail. Two decades later, she was later elected mayor of Kaohsiung, serving from 2006 to 2018. Chen also served as secretary general to the president from 2018 to 2020.
In October, Chen visited Canada with other National Human Rights Commission members. During her trip, Chen attended a conference in Ottawa and visited the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg. She also met Taiwanese Canadians in Vancouver, including MLA Katrina Chen.
Meanwhile, another detainee in the Kaohsiung Incident, Lin Yi-hsiung, was the leader of the democratic movement. Police beat him severely. While he was in jail, his mother and two young daughters were murdered. This happened on February 28, 1980, on the anniversary of the infamous government massacre 33 years earlier.
The trial of the eight democracy advocates “galvanized young intellectuals with independent ideas”, according to From 0 to 100%.
“After the military court trial, these youths actively supported the opposition movement, even joining elections and rating an unstoppable wave of pro-democracy movements and street demonstrations,” the book reports.
Taiwanese media covered Freedom of Speech Day when it was announced in 2017.
Fight for freedom follows lifting of martial law
One of the most fascinating sections covers the period from 1987, when martial law was lifted, to the amendment of Article 100 in 1992. This amendment ensured that non-violent acts would no longer be considered seditious. This offered far more freedom of expression.
It was a turbulent five-year period in Taiwanese politics. Then president Lee Teng-hui navigated between hardliners in his Kuomintang party and those in the Democratic Progressive Party seeking a liberal human rights regime. There were countless demonstrations, driven in part by Cheng Nan-jung’s martyrdom.
Hu Yuan-hui, a professor at National Chung Cheng University, writes in the book that it took about 15 years for Taiwan’s media ecosystem to make the transition to democracy.
“On April 7, 1989, Cheng Nan-jung embodied his cause through self-immolation,” Hu writes. “On the next day, Independence Morning Post published the same Draft Proposal for the Constitution of the Republic of Taiwan. I remember how tense and cautious the paper was about this decision, showing that there were still a lot of taboos when it came to speech.”
Since then, Taiwan has experienced the peaceful transfer of power on three occasions. And in 2017, the Executive Yuan designated April 7—the anniversary of Cheng Nan-jung’s death—as “Free Speech Day”.
The next Taiwanese national election will take place on January 13, 2024.