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An interview with Professor Ming-Min Peng:
Founder and Honorary President of the Taiwanese Society of International Law
Educational Background and Work Experience
Ming-Min Peng was born in Taiwan during the Japanese colonial period, moving to Tokyo for his secondary education. Brought up speaking Japanese as his first language, Professor Peng likes to describe himself as a mixture of Japanese, Taiwanese and Chinese. He went on to study law and political science at Tokyo’s National Imperial University, before returning to Taiwan after the second world war in 1945.
With the war having left him unable to complete his undergraduate degree in Japan, he enrolled for a bachelor’s degree in political science at National Taiwan University’s law school, where he stayed on as an assistant professor after graduation.
Professor Peng subsequently won a scholarship to McGill University in Montreal, Canada, where he completed a Master of Law degree at the Institute of International Air Law before going to university in Paris in 1954 to study a Doctorate degree in international law. While studying in Japan, Canada and France, his publications on international air law marked him out as a pioneer in this new field.
He later returned to Taiwan to teach international law at National Taiwan University, becoming the University’s youngest full professor in 1957, and serving as chairman of the department of political science from 1961 to 1962.
A legendary figure in Taiwan’s modern history
Professor Peng’s prominent academic position in Taiwan attracted the attention of the then president Chiang Kai-shek, who appointed him as advisor to Taiwan’s United Nations delegation.
His time in New York provided Professor Peng with the political conviction to challenge Chiang Kai-shek’s government and demand reform. Back in Taiwan, he wrote a manifesto calling for the replacement of the Chiang regime with democratic government, for which he was arrested in September 1964. After spending 14 months in jail, international pressure forced Chiang Kai Shek to pardon him, although he was subsequently put under house arrest for life.
Describing the constant surveillance as intolerable and suffocating, after five years he risked his life and escaped to Sweden where he was given asylum for a year. He was later invited to attend the University of Michigan Law School in 1970 where he stayed for 22 years in exile, notwithstanding the objections of Chiang Kai-shek. During this time Professor Peng wrote his autobiography entitled “A Taste of Freedom”, while continuing to serve as a leading political figure in both the United States and Taiwan.
In 1992 Ming-Min Peng at last returned to Taiwan, where he became the opposition candidate for the Democratic Progressive Party in Taiwan’s first presidential election in 1996. With Taiwanese independence at the centre of his manifesto he won 21% of the votes, second only to incumbent Lee Teng-hui, who won the election due to the KMT’s overwhelming financial resources. Although this first challenge was unsuccessful, it nevertheless had huge significance in Taiwan’s history.
When Chen Shui-Bian was elected in 2000 he appointed Professor Peng as senior presidential advisor, under which capacity he worked for 6 years before retiring. In 2009 the publication of Peng’s “A Perfect Escape” revealed the details of his escape to the Chinese speaking community, further increasing public support and admiration.
He now runs a small nonprofit educational foundation in Taiwan, and continues to contribute to political discourse in Taiwan with guest publications and lectures.
Insights from the Chairman
Expectations for Taiwan’s new government:
In Professor Peng’s view, Tsai Ying-wen’s election is a huge step for the Democratic Progressive Party. Although not the first DPP president, he points out that when Chen Shui-Bian was elected in 2000 it was only through a relatively low percentage vote. This gave many people the pretext to say that this was a minority vote. In contrast, this time it can be seen that the Taiwanese voted overwhelmingly for their native candidate, making it an epoque-making event in Taiwan’s history.
However, he has certain reservations, worrying that President Tsai is going to have difficulty ruling Taiwan after the former Ma government’s catastrophic financial policy, resulting in huge national debt and making it extremely hard for Tsai to meet the expectations of the voters in the short term. Unemployment, low salaries and a declining economy are certainly not things that can be changed overnight. Those who expect immediate results and economic turnaround, therefore, risk being disappointed.
The question is, therefore, how long people are prepared to be patient. Professor Peng remains confident that this presidency will be extremely significant in Taiwan’s history; one in which the Taiwanese people begin to speak up and decide their own future. The only thing stopping them is, of course, China. Knowing how to resist the mainland’s pressure and continuous threats is not easy. This is complicated by the fact that the previous Ma government, in an attempt to unify the two sides of the Taiwan Strait, further increased Taiwan’s economic dependence on China. Even for those with no background in economics, it is not hard to see that while such a high percentage of Taiwan’s national income continues to be dependent on investment with China, Taiwan will continue to be threatened.
The Professor certainly does not envy Tsai Ying-wen the task of solving these issues.
Taiwan’s development and relationship with China:
On the subject of its relationship with China, Professor Peng points out that even before the Japanese took over in 1895, Taiwan could not be termed colonial China in the ordinary sense. Although there is no denying that many Taiwanese people have their ancestral roots in the mainland, these ancestors did not come to Taiwan as colonists but as refugees escaping from a life of misery to start a new life on the island.
At the core of China’s claim over Taiwan is the period of Qing rule that extended from 1683 to 1895. However, Ming-Min Peng points out that throughout this period of rule China was not in control of the whole of Taiwan, as on one occasion it notably denied responsibility for the deaths of Japanese fishermen on the east coast of the island. When Japan’s government protested, China insisted that the area was not their jurisdiction. The head of the aboriginals in the east concluded a formal treaty with the states to this effect, which can be found in the treaty collection of the state department.
Indeed, Professor Peng believes that it was not the Chinese but the Japanese who were the first true colonists, as not only did they very systematically rule Taiwan, they also became experts on Taiwan’s problems, tropical diseases, agriculture and so on. Therefore, they really started “rule” in the modern sense of the word. This was a first for Taiwan.
As to the continuation of Taiwan’s current economic dependence on China, Peng points out that businessmen, as long as they can make money, go everywhere. Many Taiwanese businessmen have invested heavily in China, and therefore it will be hard to change this relationship in the short term.
In an attempt to counterbalance this reliance, President Tsai is now saying that Taiwan should direct more investment to the south, to Vietnam, Indonesia and Sri Lanka.
Trans Pacific Partnership
By its very nature, the Trans Pacific Partnership will involve opening up Taiwan’s economy to international competition, including agriculture, rice and pork. In this respect, Professor Peng remains uncertain as to whether the positives outweigh the negatives, thinking in particular of Japan’s rice farmers. Japanese rice is very expensive, meaning that if they started to import cheap rice from abroad all the nation’s farmers would be ruined.
The same goes for Taiwan, as many of its agricultural products would not be able to compete in international markets, and are sure to suffer should Taiwan begin to import products from abroad such as American poultry and corn. Professor Peng remains unsure about what the new government plans to do about these issues, as it finds itself caught between the need to reduce its economic dependence on China and the problems of international competition.
Rationale behind the establishment of the Taiwanese Society of International Law
With years of experience working in law both in Taiwan and abroad, Professor Peng continued to openly lament the lack of what he calls “honest” international lawyers in Taiwan during the years of KMT rule. By this he means that almost all of them acted as tools of the KMT government.
This is due in part to the strong political undertones of many international legal problems in Taiwan, especially relating to Taiwan’s status and its relationship with China. This means that very few international lawyers act independently in the spirit of true academia to objectively analyse Taiwan’s international status and China’s claim over it, choosing instead to take the government line.
While there is already a Chinese Society of International Law in Taiwan, Professor Peng dismisses it as yet another tool of the government, going so far as to call it a “shameful organisation”. It was this lack of a forum for politically independent international legal study and discussion that led him, together with the current society president Professor Ching-Chang Yen, to found the Taiwanese Society of International Law. He hopes that this will lead to a more widespread and unbiased study of international law in Taiwan.
Having spent the majority of his career in international law abroad at the University of Michigan, Professor Peng believes that his lectures are able to convey an objective analysis of international legal matters in Taiwan. This refreshing approach was one of the reasons that his talks at National Taiwan University attracted such a wide attendance, with students from many other faculties outside the law school coming to listen to his views on topics such as Taiwan’s international status.
This universality in appeal is something that is very important to the Professor, as he believes that education is a tool which can be used to empower Taiwan and its people. He hopes to replicate this through the Taiwanese Society of International Law in inviting the participation of people from all fields of study.