Living in a democratic country like Taiwan doesn’t seem to carry much significance these days to us. But there are rare moments when we remember: freedom of speech, and freedom of thought, are precious.

This week marks the 30th anniversary of the end to authoritarian rule in Taiwan, as well as the death of Chinese democracy fighter Liu Xiaobo.

At 5:35 PM on July 14, the tragic news of Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Liu Xiaobo’s death sent shock waves through the world. Liu was imprisoned since 2009 for publicly advocating for basic freedoms in China. He died while in custody.  

To honor the legacy of Liu, a small group of citizens, activists and journalists gathered at one corner of Taipei’s Liberty Square, and held a vigil at 6:00 PM, around the same time as Liu’s passing. At the scene, an empty red chair was placed at the center, just as an empty chair stood in the place of Liu at the Nobel awards ceremony in Oslo.

I can’t help but wonder how lucky have we been as Taiwanese people in the past 30 years, as the seed of democracy has blossomed since the end of martial law. But as we enjoy our freedoms, we rarely realize that for us to exercise the rights entitled to citizens in a democratic country, it takes activists like Liu, one after another, giving their lives to fight.

Many of them, like Cheng Nan-jung and Chen Wen-chen, lost their lives along the way, but yet very few of their names still register in our memory these days. It is only through moments like this that we properly honor those who made this happen, as we should always be grateful for their sacrifices. Instead of taking democracy and freedom for granted, we ought to show them the respect they deserve.

After all, we could have been living the same life as most Chinese people now, if they had not been pushing for democracy five decades ago. One right move that we have made was to change the name of the square, because freedom was the one thing that powered the activists through decades of difficult social movements under the martial law.

The sunset over the archway at Liberty Square—itself the hollow ground of the fight for democracy in Taiwan—looked outstandingly beautiful. As I released my shutter to capture that precious moment, I couldn’t stop feeling grateful for what I am entitled to enjoy today. Thirty years it has been, and what a difference has democracy made in Taiwan.

(Feature photo of vigil for Liu Xiaobo, by William Yang)

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William Yang

William is a freelance writer and photographer based in Taiwan, with a passion for human rights and storytelling. He holds a Master of Journalism degree from Temple University, and has extensive experiences interning at global NGOs such as Human Rights Watch and Mercy Corps.