Sunday, October 9, 2011

Legacies of Conscience and Courage

(Photo courtesy of Dennis Chen, Oct. 9, 2011)

Legacies of Conscience and Courage: 
Peng Ming-min, Wei T’ing-chao and Hsieh Tsung-min

Presentation to the Annual Meeting
Formosan Association for Public Affairs California-Orange Country 
Atrium Hotel, Irvine, CA October 8, 2011

[This the second half of a two-part presentation to this Annual Meeting. The first half was by my former wife, Judith Thomas, who told how we first met and became involved politically with Dr. Peng. The text for her remarks is not available. Before our presentation, Dr. Peng made a video appearance from Taiwan in which he expressed his gratitude for what Judith and I had done for him and the people of Taiwan in the late 60s. Yes, it was a humbling experience. The following is my part of the presentation.]

I do not have words to describe my gratitude for the honor you have bestowed on Judith and me this evening. The words that come closest to what my heart feels are those a friend of mine in Taiwan is attempting to reclaim as a unique part of Taiwanese culture, “Lo Lat”. Do you know those words? To you I say, “Jin Lo Lat,” (inadequately rendered in English as “I am deeply grateful for all your hard labors on my behalf!”) Would you say it together with the proper tones? “Jin Lo Lat!” Yes, that is what my heart feels for you tonight: for Nick Wu, Chan Wang-Wang, and all of the Working Group; the participating FAPA Chapters, and all of you who came tonight.

Why  Didn’t We Leave?

I have a friend, Ora Custer, ninety-five years of age and still counting. She’s almost blind; at her request I read Fireproof Moth: A Missionary in Taiwan's White Terror to her. Her question, asked several times, is this: “When you knew what kind of a situation you were in there and the danger to you and your family, why didn’t you leave?” In some ways, the book is my answer to that question. My short answer is this: “When you have made close friends and you learn that their lives are in imminent danger, it is easier to do whatever you can to help them than it is to walk away.”

Remembering Matthew and Tony

You have heard from Judith about how our relationship with Dr. Peng developed and how when we learned that he was going to be assassinated we found a way to get him out of the country. There were two other close friends and colleagues: Wei T’ing-chao and Hsieh Tsung-min. We didn’t meet them right away because they were both still in prison when we met Dr. Peng in 1966. These two former students of Dr. Peng at the National University had been arrested with Dr. Peng in 1964 in an attempt to distribute their “Manifesto for Formosan Self-Salvation” calling into question the legitimacy of the Chiang government. Looking back, many say that this was the real beginning point of Taiwan’s struggle for democratization.

Although we couldn’t meet them in person for two years, they were a part of our lives and what we had begun to do with Dr. Peng. Thanks to their courage and creativity, they were able to send out from prison lists on very thin paper with names of political prisoners, their situation and information about their families. We were able to provide the lists to Amnesty International, assuming that even a little public visibility was some protection. Their notes from prison also let us know the desperate plight of the families of political prisoners, and got our aid to families project started.

Wei was released from prison first on September 20, 1968. He hadn’t been out a week when Dr. Peng brought him to our house. The stories about his refusal to be intimidated by the court or his guards were well-known. During his trial, he stood up and dared the judge to sentence him to death.  I wasn’t sure what to expect when he came in the door. Was he hardened and cynical from his experience?

Wei greeted Judith and me. Then, he saw our two and a half year old Elizabeth hiding behind a chair. Before we knew it, Wei was sitting on the floor talking with a delighted Elizabeth in both Mandarin and Taiwanese (and as far as I knew maybe a bit of his native Hakka too). Within weeks, Wei was tutoring me in preparing my history lectures at the seminary. We were also making plans for aiding families of political prisoners.

Hsieh got out of prison exactly a year later in 1969. Like Wei, he came to the house within a week of his release. Wei had already talked with him about the plan to aid families. He said he was ready to begin distribution of the funds immediately. I couldn’t believe it! Here he was, just out of prison and yet ready to assume the dangerous (and under martial law a capital offense) task of delivering money we smuggled into the country (money raised secretly by the American Friends Service Committee in Philadelphia) to families all over the island. He and Wei both laughed at the danger; and rightly pointed out that they were the only ones with the credibility and knowledge to get money to these families.

The distribution began within the next week. In order to avoid using their real names in talking together at home or anywhere else, we gave them English names as we had to Dr. Peng, who was and continues to be known to us as “Peter.” Wei we called “Matthew” and Hsieh we called “Tony.”

Working with them was consistent with what we had decided two years earlier when we determined to do what we could with Dr. Peng. Because Judith and I were foreigners we assumed that we could do things for which the worst that could happen was to get kicked out of the country, while Taiwanese doing the same things risked prison, torture, and even death. Because they took a great risk with working with greenhorns like us, we decided we would only work with Taiwanese who knew what the real costs were and had been in prison. There would be times in the coming days when we would have reason to wonder if our assumption about being “fireproof moths” and subject only to deportation was a false assumption, but we were right. We were also tragically right about what would happen to Taiwanese associated with us.

Dr. Peng escaped in January of 1970. Until the fact of Judith’s and my role in the escape was announced in the mid-1990s (how we did it wasn’t announced until 2003), neither the KMT nor the U.S. State Department, nor even Beijing’s vast security network, ever knew we were involved. And they all wanted to know. Neither Wei (Matthew) nor Hsieh (Tony) knew about the escape. We decided that even though they would be prime suspects, we could not add to their vulnerability by their actual involvement. It was not a matter that we didn’t trust them; it was a recognition that we were such rank amateurs at such things that we didn’t want to put them more at risk than they already were.

A year later on February 23, 1971, a week before Judith and I were arrested, Matthew and Tony were arrested. We had been right about what would happen to Taiwanese associated with us. It was over thirteen months after their arrest that they were tried secretly and sentenced to fifteen years in prison, terms later commuted by half. Both were tortured horribly. We know details of the interrogation and torture because Tony was able to smuggle out a letter that got to Judith and I in the U.S. On April 24, 1972 we were able to get the letter published as an op-ed piece in the New York Times.

After their release from prison the second time, Hsieh went into exile and lived here in southern California for a while. Wei was rearrested for his involvement with the Formosa Magazine in the Kaohsiung Incident on December 10th, 1979 and was sentenced to another eight years. With the end of martial law in 1987, Hsieh and Wei continued to provide great service to the people of Taiwan. Although forever scarred by his torture, as a Congressman and advisor to the President, Hsieh has worked tirelessly both to document the casualties of “White Terror” and work for reparations to political prisoners. Wei did likewise; in 1997 he published the Taiwan Human Rights Report 1949-1996. After spending most of his adult life as a political prisoner, on December 28, 1999 on his morning jog, Wei’s great heart stopped beating.

Peter, Tony, and Matthew and the Genovese Syndrome

Peng Ming-min, Hsieh Tsung-min, Wei T’ing-chao, although not ostensibly religious, demonstrated to me with their lives the justice and mercy I associate with the highest Christian ideals. They were living examples of the core Christian teaching I had learned as a child as expressed in Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan. 
On March 27, 1964, I was in Boston preparing to go to Taiwan. In the Boston Globe I read the story of the murder of Katherine (Kitty) Genovese in Queens, New York two weeks earlier. Why a murder story in New York would make the papers in Boston was that this woman had been stabbed repeatedly for thirty minutes as she screamed for help in front of her house. Her cries had been heard by many of her neighbors, but only after the killer left in his car and returned ten minutes later to finish the job did one person call the police. It became a national story of shame for those who heard and did nothing.

The “bystander effect” or the “Genovese syndrome” became the name for the social psychological phenomenon in which individuals do not offer help in an emergency situation when other people are present.

New to the urban northeast, it was easy for me to blame the neighbors in Queens; but my own conscience warned, “they” could be “me.” I was haunted by the picture of Kitty Genovese’s face. I wondered if I was the “they” by leaving the U.S. in the midst of the struggle for civil rights and the beginning of the anti-war movement. I didn’t change course, and I went on to Taiwan. In the reality I encountered there, I couldn’t understand how so many missionaries, American students, U.S. military, and embassy personnel who heard the cries of the Taiwanese people could rationalize their inaction in ways not dissimilar from the neighbors of Kitty Genovese.

Judith and I were told, “You are guests in another country,” as the reason for not getting involved in the political affairs of a country not your own. The principle has some merit in international relations, but it is a principle that serves the status quo. As desirable as that may be in the world of nations, the principle may also be an immoral rationalization.  In Taiwan, a brutal and corrupt government was enabled to stay in power due in no small measure to the support it received from the United States. I love my country and I loved the work the church sent me to Taiwan to do, but my conscience didn’t allow the luxury of being politically uninvolved. By doing nothing, Judith and I believed we were putting our stamp of approval on what the U.S. government was doing there. As an act of faith, we chose otherwise.

I doubt that Peng, Wei, or Hsieh had heard of Kitty Genovese, but they would understand the tragedy of the neighbors’ inaction. They would also understand the story from several weeks ago when a group of bystanders in Utah risked their lives to lift a burning car off of a man trapped underneath saving his life. Dr. Peng, Wei, and Hsieh have spent their lives trying to help others at great personal risk. Their legacy will live on and continue to bear fruit because I believe such conscience and courage is never lost. Such a legacy has never been needed more now in Taiwan, the United States, and the rest of the world.

-  Milo Thornberry

1 comment:

dan said...


re: the entire post adn this

"My short answer is this: “When you have made close friends and you learn that their lives are in imminent danger, it is easier to do whatever you can to help them than it is to walk away.”