Praying for independence

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 December, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 27 December, 2009, 12:00am

The Presbyterian Church in Taiwan is the island's oldest and biggest Christian denomination, with 220,000 members in 1,200 congregations. It is also one of the fiercest advocates of independence and entry into the UN, and a strong supporter of the Democratic Progressive Party.

'They told us that we are all Chinese and asked when we will come together. We told them that our motherland is heaven, not China, the home of our religion is Britain and the origin of mankind is Ethiopia,' said the Reverend Lyim Hong-tiong, the church's assistant general secretary, describing a meeting last month when a delegation from the mainland's official churches visited them for the first time. The two sides did not speak the same language.

'Their God is not God but the Communist Party. They are officials and their church political,' he said. 'The Communists do not allow any other party. This is an affront to human dignity and the image of God, to whom all men are equal. Everyone has the same human rights - the president and the common person.'

This uncompromising stance and opposition to Kuomintang and Communist is rooted in the history of the church, one of the building blocks of modern Taiwan.

Established in 1865 by a British medical missionary, it founded the island's first western hospital, school and newspaper. It runs three major hospitals with 6,500 beds, medical and nursing schools, two universities, three secondary schools, three seminaries and welfare centres that serve the elderly, the disabled, aborigines, and foreign workers from Indonesia, the Philippines and elsewhere.

Each Sunday, its ministers conduct religious services in 18 languages. It belongs to the World Council of Churches and other global Christian organisations, sends missionaries abroad and supports aid projects. It has played a major role in building the democracy and freedoms that the island's 22 million people enjoy.

A Scottish Presbyterian missionary, Thomas Barclay, translated the Bible into the Taiwanese language, inventing a form of Romanisation still used in schools today. The PCT has maintained the use of Taiwanese in its churches despite the attempts of the Japanese and Kuomintang governments to make it switch to the official language. It sees itself as one of the main guardians of Taiwanese identity.

'Except for the brief interlude from 1945 to 1949, Taiwan has been effectively separated from China since 1895,' it says on its website. 'Taiwan and China have developed along separate lines, resulting in different political, economic and cultural conditions. It is neither necessary nor desirable to join them together.

'Beijing claims so adamantly that Taiwan cannot be 'separated' that it will not give up the use of military force to achieve 'reunification'. These facts make the PCT and many others prefer the independence option and support the sovereign rights of the people in Taiwan to choose their own future without outside interference.'

Taiwan has made an astonishing transformation from a military dictatorship that killed and imprisoned its political opponents into a boisterous democracy with one of the freest media in Asia. It has achieved many of the goals that the PCT set out in a series of public declarations in the 1970s. For making them, many of its ministers were arrested and imprisoned.

The best known is Kao Chun-ming, 80, who served four years and two months in prison from 1980 for assisting participants in the Kaohsiung incident, an anti-government protest in 1979. He was general secretary of the PCT from 1970 to 1989.

Lyim said the reforms were not all they seemed and there was much unfinished business. 'We have the appearance of democracy, but people buy and sell votes. Some constituencies are larger than others, so not all votes are equal. The Kuomintang still has hundreds of billions [of Taiwanese dollars] of assets. People are threatened, their telephones are tapped and cut off. We must deepen our democracy. We do not have a full civil society.'

He also called for a public apology and detailed accounting of the names of those responsible for executions in 1947, when Kuomintang police and soldiers killed an estimated 20,000 Taiwanese after a rebellion. Many were of the elite, including lawyers, doctors, professors, teachers and ministers, and many were Presbyterians.

In 1995, the Kuomintang president made a formal apology on behalf of the government and declared February 28 a national holiday to commemorate the victims. On that day, the president bows to family members of the victims. In addition, it has set up a compensation fund.

But Lyim said this did not go far enough. 'As ministers, we should forgive. But forgive who? The guilty ones must confess their faults and express their willingness to change.' He said Taiwan should follow the example of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, during which people learned of the causes and circumstances of their loved one's execution, and often faced those responsible for carrying it out.

Lyim said that the Kuomintang had played only a minor role in Taiwan's prosperity today. 'Most important is the foundation laid by the Japanese, in health, education, the economy and other fields. Second is the aid we received from the US after the second world war, which we did not have to repay, and the location of light industry. Third is the diligence and hard work of Taiwan people. Only fourth is the economic policies of the Kuomintang.'

These views echo the sentiments of many native Taiwanese, especially those who lived through the martial-law era. But many young people born since the 1970s who have grown up in a peaceful and more comfortable environment find them too hardline, too political and out of tune with the Taiwan of today.

Chang Ying-jie, 77, a retired lawyer in Kaohsiung and a Presbyterian for 60 years, said his congregation was increasingly elderly. 'This is a serious problem. Old Presbyterians are simple and have an ideal. They are conservative.'

A survey this month in Commonwealth magazine found that 11 per cent favour a rapid independence declaration and 78 per cent favour the status quo. Of the second group, 35 per cent want the status quo to be permanent, 33 per cent want it to lead gradually to independence and only 10 per cent want it to lead to unification. So the PCT's views reflect those of a substantial part of the population.

'We are well aware of our different backgrounds and even conflicts, but now we are more aware of our common convictions and deep hopes,' the church said in a 1971 declaration that remains its policy.

'We oppose any powerful nation disregarding the rights and wishes of the 15 million people (the then population) and making unilateral decisions for their own advantage, because God has ordained and the United Nations charter has affirmed that every people has the right to determine its own destiny.'

It could not be more clear.