The past week has been devastating for those of us who support freedom, equality, and tolerance around the world.

The renewed brazenness of violent white supremacists and neo-Nazis in America was on full display in Charlottesville, Virginia, enabled by an ignorant and crass President Trump leading the country. An out of control protester rammed his car through a crowd of counter demonstrators, killing the 32 year-old Heather Heyer.

In Hong Kong, political activists and a duly elected representatives of the people were sentenced to prison for “unlawful assembly” in connection with their involvement in the Umbrella Movement in 2014, protesting Beijing requiring pro-China views from candidates for Hong Kong’s top executive. Nathan Law, Joshua Wong, and Alex Chow had already been sentenced to community service, but the court re-sentenced them on the grounds that the “original punishment was too light.”

Not that much longer ago, China’s first Nobel peace laureate Liu Xiaobo died of cancer while on medical parole; he was still under arrest by the Chinese government as a political prisoner for promoting the 08 Charter, a document advocating for basic human rights in China.

Seems, somehow, that everything we as a collective civilization has decided was undesirable, the darker and more selfish reflexes of the human nature, steadily grew fangs and are itching to poison the world as we know it. Although in one case the poison comes in the form of individuals and organizations within a democratic system and in another case it is the state holding all the means to military might, the desire for power is analogous. Intolerance and hatred towards people who are different led to self-superiority; subjugation and authority over the governed turned into senseless oppression of dissent. 

All this will be familiar to those in the Taiwanese society who remember the Formosa Incident of 1979 and the ensuing court trial. Taiwan was then ruled by the Chinese Nationalist Party, whose leader Chiang Kai-shek instituted martial law in Taiwan after World War II, creating an authoritarian regime with himself as dictator. By the late 1970s, grassroots opposition to the regime had become more vocal, culminating in a demonstration on Human Rights Day, 1979, in the port city of Kaohsiung.

The military police and armed forces cracked down on the march, and its leaders as well as marchers were arrested. Eight prominent organizers, including Annette Lu, Chen Chu, and Shih Ming-te, were tried in military court and sentenced to prison terms ranging from 12 years to life; 37 other participants were also locked up in prison. They were beaten and tortured, deprived of sleep, or had water injected into their veins.

To everyone living through those times, it must have also seemed that there was no hope for the fight against oppression. The trial was put on public display, as if the ruling class was telling everyone: “we won, and this is what happens when you dare defy us.

Right now, looking at what’s happening in Hong Kong and Charlottesville, we can’t help but feel the same chill down our spines. We are headed for darker times, people say.

But that’s not what happened in Taiwan. By 1987, in a short span of eight years, Taiwan’s dictator Chiang Ching-kuo announced the end to martial law. In the years that followed, Taiwan took great pains to create a new democratic society, through non-violent protests without a military coup or a bloody revolution.  

This would not have come about had it not been for the persistence of the opposition movement—once the Formosa Incident leaders were jailed, their spouses stepped in and fought to run for local office. After that, their defense attorneys joined the cause and ran for office themselves, which inspired more people to join their cause. 

Just as importantly, increasing foreign pressure also pushed Taiwan’s leaders, in the form of action by United States senators and the work of advocates for Taiwan’s democracy in the US, among them Taiwanese Americans who organized to raise awareness of the issue. The United States took a stand then, and helped the course of a nation struggling against injustice.

Look at the people standing at the podiums today, espousing the most shameless statements with straight faces. China’s foreign ministry spokesperson Lu Kang said on June 30 that the treaty signed with Great Britain over the future of Hong Kong “no longer has any practical significance,” outright belittling a formal contractual promise it made to the international public. Similar in its brazenness, the president of the United States said this week that the people who associate themselves with the tradition of mass murders are “fine people.”  

The struggle for democracy and equal rights is different in each situation, but to all of the people fighting injustice, either in America or in Hong Kong, I will say: we are all fighting limbs of the same monster. It’s time for American equality activists to be more vocal about the abuses of China, and it’s time for democracy advocates in Asia to denounce what is happening with racial injustice in the United States. It’s time to take a stand again. 

And amidst all this, Taiwan, as a society that had experienced violence and intolerance, and still just beginning to make sense of it all, does it have something to offer to the world as a beacon of light in these dark times? I believe the answer is yes.  

(Feature photo of Mong Kok “Fishball Revolution,” by Donald Chan, on Wikicommons)


Chieh-Ting Yeh

Chieh-Ting Yeh is the co-founder of Ketagalan Media. After working in think tanks and political parties in London and Taipei, he earned his law degree from Harvard. He has been a long time thinker of Taiwan's history, politics, and nationalism. He is currently based in Silicon Valley.