Shih Ming-teh, a lifelong campaigner for democracy in Taiwan who spent over two decades in prison for his cause and later started a protest movement against a president from his former party, died on Jan. 15, his 83rd birthday, in Taipei, the island’s capital.
The cause was complications of an operation to remove a liver tumor, said his wife, Chia-chiun Chen Shih.
Mr. Shih helped lead a pro-democracy protest in 1979 that was brutally broken up by the police and that is now viewed as a turning point in Taiwan’s journey from authoritarianism to democracy. When he stood trial over the confrontation, he smiled defiantly to the cameras, although his original teeth had been shattered years before under police torture, and delivered a groundbreaking argument for Taiwan’s independence from China, an idea banned under the rule of Chiang Kai-shek and then his son, Chiang Ching-kuo.
“I was imprisoned for 25 years, and I faced the possibility of the death penalty twice, but each time I came out, I instantly plunged back into the whole effort to overthrow the Chiang family dictatorship,” Mr. Shih said in an interview with The New York Times in 2022. “I’m someone who never had a youth.”
He began a life of protest while he was a teenager. He was first charged with illegal political activities at age 21. His two spells in prison — including, he calculated, 13 years in solitary confinement — seemed only to harden his defiance.
He was honored as a hero when Taiwan emerged as a democracy in the 1990s and became a leader in the Democratic Progressive Party, the island’s first major opposition party of the new era. But in 2006, he led mass protests against Chen Shui-bian, the Democratic Progressive president of Taiwan, whom Mr. Shih had once endorsed.
Mr. Shih died two days after Taiwan held its eighth direct democratic vote for a president. After his death, many Taiwanese, including some who had fallen out with him, praised his role in Taiwan’s democratization. Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, who earlier had her own strains with him, visited him in the hospital the day before he died.
Mr. Shih “dedicated himself to the democratic movement in authoritarian times, and was a pioneer for Taiwanese democracy and human rights, with a far-reaching influence,” Ms. Tsai wrote in a tribute to Mr. Shih.
Shi Ming-teh was born on Jan. 15, 1941 in Kaohsiung, a port city in southern Taiwan. He was the fourth of six children of Shih Kuo-tsui, a doctor, and Shih Chen Ying, who oversaw the home. The family was well off, but Mr. Shih’s childhood was overshadowed by war and repression, and Mr. Shih said those memories had shaped him throughout his life.
Taiwan became caught in the warfare between Japan, who had occupied the island as a colony for over half a century, and advancing U.S. forces. Mr. Shih recalled U.S. bombers striking Kaohsiung. After Japan’s defeat, Chinese Nationalist troops took control of Taiwan and ruthlessly eradicated opposition. Mr. Shih recalled watching Nationalist troops gun down students at Kaohsiung’s train station.
He later said his early years had set him on his path as a rebel against the waves of colonialists who had ruled Taiwan for centuries; he counted the Nationalists fleeing from China, defeated by Mao Zedong’s Communist forces in 1949, as the latest in their ranks.
“Taiwan is not a part of China,” Mr. Shih wrote in a book published in 2021. “On the contrary, China is nothing more than one part of Taiwan’s history.”
By the time Mr. Shih was in high school, the Nationalists had built Taiwan into a fortress against Mao’s China, and he and some classmates formed an amateurish secret society dedicated to winning independence for Taiwan. He signed up for a military academy, telling his mother that he had done so only to learn how to mount an armed insurrection against the Nationalists.
Ms. Shih was an officer on Little Kinmen — a Nationalist-held island perilously close to the Chinese coast — when police officers came to arrest him in 1962. Investigators had uncovered his role in the independence society, and they appeared convinced that the group was part of a much larger plot. They beat Mr. Shih for evidence, and his teeth were shattered or later pulled out.
Mr. Shih was surprised when the judge sentenced him to life imprisonment on a charge of sedition, he said, and not the death sentence he had expected. When he was given an early release, in 1977, he threw himself back into opposition activities, despite the risks of being found in violation of parole conditions and being sent back to prison.
“I could see that he was working like a man on fire to challenge the authoritarian rule,” Linda Gail Arrigo, an American scholar and pro-democracy campaigner in Taiwan, who was married to Mr. Shih from 1978 to 1995, said in a recent interview with the Formosa Files podcast. “He expected to die in prison — by execution.”
By the late 1970s, the Nationalists’ grip on Taiwanese society had started to loosen, and opposition groups began spreading. Mr. Shih and other activists founded a magazine, “Formosa,” as a vehicle for their cause. It set up offices across Taiwan, recruited supporters and held meetings.
The United States’ decision to switch diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979 galvanized the opposition, and Taiwan’s Nationalist government clamped down, leading to the clash in Kaohsiung in December of that year in which hundreds of police officers broke up the march organized by Mr. Shih and others.
Many of his colleagues were quickly arrested, but Mr. Shih eluded the police for nearly a month before being captured and tried with seven others. An arrest photo showed his jaw covered in bandages, the result of a hasty attempt at plastic surgery to alter his appearance.
The trial drew yet more attention to their calls for democracy, especially because the government — eager to prove its case to the Taiwanese public and the wider world — let journalists and international observers into the courtroom. Tall and lean, Mr. Shih smiled for the cameras, his hands tucked in his pockets, in what he said was an effort to convey insouciant confidence.
He used the trial to attack the Nationalist government’s position that Taiwan was part of China. Instead, he argued, Taiwan had been separated from China for decades and had in effect become independent, even if Taiwan’s rulers would not accept that reality. That argument would enter the island’s political mainstream.
“Nowadays these claims seem nothing out of the ordinary, but at the time they were a breakthrough,” Mr. Shih wrote in an account of the trial published in 2021. “My smile and my political counterattack were the reason that the tyrants did not dare to execute me.”
Sentenced to another life sentence for sedition, he continued his defiance from prison, even as the society outside began to open up. He held hunger strikes to protest the assassination of opposition figures and their family members and was force-fed some 3,000 times, from 1985 to 1990, his former longtime assistant Huang Hui-chun said in an interview.
In 1987, Taiwan’s president, Lee Teng-hui, offered to release the so-called Kaohsiung Incident prisoners, but Mr. Shih refused. He would walk out of prison, he said, only if he was fully exonerated. That step came in 1990, and Mr. Shih re-entered a Taiwanese society in ferment.
His long fight for democracy gave him wide influence, and he became a lawmaker and chairman of the Democratic Progressive Party, which emerged as the central opposition to the Nationalists. But after decades of imprisonment, Mr. Shih was not always at home in Taiwan’s new politics.
When Chen Shui-bian, the Democratic Progressive Party’s candidate, won Taiwan’s presidential election in 2000, many supporters of self-rule for Taiwan were elated by his surprise victory. But Mr. Shih was more guarded. He resigned from the party to emphasize his political independence and later turned against Mr. Chen, angered by growing allegations of corruption.
In 2006, Mr. Shih organized the “Red Shirt” movement that drew hundreds of thousands of people to protests outside the presidential palace in Taipei calling for Mr. Chen’s removal from office. (Mr. Chen stepped down in 2008 and was later convicted on corruption charges. He was released from prison in 2015 on medical parole.)
Mr. Shih appeared to revel being back in a political struggle, and he mixed with the crowds, sometimes wearing a shirt that proclaimed him to be a “commander in chief” of the movement.
“If I look young, it’s because I was frozen for 25 years,” he told The New York Times at the time, referring to his years in prison.
But his renewed prominence alienated some friends who were aligned with the Democratic Progressive Party and unhappy that he had worked with Nationalist Party politicians. Mr. Shih argued that he had been trying to protect democracy and that effort had been more important than partisan ties.
He married Chia-chiun Chen Shih, his second wife, in 1996. He is also survived by their two daughters, Mino Shih and Jasmine Shih. Mr. Shih also had two daughters from an earlier relationship.
In his later years, Mr. Shih promoted proposals for finding common ground between China and Taiwan, ideas that some of his former friends saw as naïve. He published three volumes that recounted his trials and decades in prison. Ms. Chen Shih said he had remained haunted by those times.
“He told me that during the day he knew how to let go of his hatred, but those things would come back to find him at night in his dreams,” she said. “All that left a deep mark on him.”