Editor’s note: As anyone who watched NFL games this weekend knows, players across the league registered various forms of protest against Donald Trump and his loaded tweets and remarks essentially calling players who kneel “sons of bitches.” Hoo boy. No matter which side of the debate you embrace, it’s important to remember the value of political protest in society—and the very real sacrifices many people have made in the name of justice. With that in mind, here’s a pre-election piece Sean Cunningham wrote about his father-in-law, a Taiwanese political prisoner, that may help put things in perspective. Best read with an open mind, thanks!

Historic events can have savage side effects. When Mao and the Communists took over China in 1949, Chiang Kai-shek and his defeated Nationalists fled to the island of Taiwan. They imposed martial law, only lifted in 1987 after 38 years. To this day, Taiwan wrestles with this brutal chapter of its history (know as the “White Terror”)—while the people already in Taiwan when the Nationalists arrived struggle to gain some control of their country.

My father-in-law, Ting-kuei Tsay (call him T.K.), has long supported efforts to ensure the natives of Taiwan have a say in their government—in particular, there is a deep frustration with its disturbing levels of corruption—often through political protests. He had specific objections to the government continuing to pay for a nuclear power plant: “It’s been under construction for more than 30 years,” says T.K., a civil engineer with a Ph.D. from Cornell University. “The consensus of society is that because the quality of construction is very bad, this power plant, even after they finish, won’t be put into operation.” He and other protesters went to Taiwan’s Congress to make their voices heard in a non-violent action.


For his efforts, T.K. was arrested. Technically, the arrest was not for protesting (“officially, you can protest”). Instead, “they accused me of blocking the execution of a policeman’s job.” He was given the choice of paying a fine or serving 30 days in prison.

“I decided to be jailed. I prepared myself. I brought Bibles, I brought books about Gandhi.”

He took prison, wanting to make his objections known to how the government continues to operate. He also had a second reason I’ll explain momentarily…

This protest actually happened back in 2013, but through appeals and the delays associated with any judicial system, T.K. only served his sentence this fall. Upon his release, we scheduled around the 12-hour time zone difference to chat about his incarceration.


Imprisonment turned out to be an exercise in isolation. Whether the prison did it for T.K.’s own protection or if they simply wanted to limit his chances to communicate with and potentially influence anyone else, he was confined to a cell located in the clinic, where he spent 23-and-half hours each day by himself, with lights that never went off so they could monitor him and food delivered directly to the cell.

The only chances for contact with other: 30 minutes of outdoor exercise with a group of eight to ten inmates every day and “one visit a week for fifteen minutes, limited to close relatives.” He also received a special visit from legislators to check on his condition.


While T.K. had some general complaints about prison (“overcrowded in Taiwan—general sanitary situation is not good”), on the whole he was surprisingly positive about the treatment he received. He said his cell was “relatively spacious”, measuring roughly eight feet by nine feet, with some additional space for the toilet and a faucet. He had limited interactions with guards, but thought some of them recognized him from media coverage he’s received: “They tried to take good care of me. I appreciate their help and assistance… In general, I think they probably do more bad things to other inmates. I am in a better situation than other inmates.”


T.K. said he had been as ready for giving up his freedom as a man could be: “I decided to be jailed. I prepared myself. I brought Bibles, I brought books about Gandhi. I tried to find out how to handle this situation. I know it’s only 30 days. Stay stable and healthy.”

He said it was harder on my mother-in-law: “I wish I could have more visits, because I was alone. Mama is living alone too. The most concern I have is how safe Mama is. Whether she’s at ease. She worries very much about my situation. She worries about whether they will hurt me or poison me, because that has happened before.”

“If those in power can imprison a strong competitor, then they can do even worse things to ordinary people.”

While martial law has ended in Taiwan, the government still often behaves in troubling ways. Notably, not long after he left office in 2008, former President Chen Shui-bian was imprisoned and sentenced to life for corruption. T.K. said the other reason he chose to accept imprisonment was to gain a better understanding of what Chen experienced: “In my case, I am curious what happened so in a way I went into the jail to investigate the situation.” Many believed Chen’s incarceration had far less to do with any crimes than with his support for Taiwanese independence from China and full statehood.

This really requires a second article to explore fully, but in short: China supports a one-China policy, whereby Taiwan is part of it. With Taiwan having a population under 24 million people and China boasting 1.3 billion, the U.S. is inclined to favor China over its island neighbor. Indeed, the State Department describes America and Taiwan as having a “robust unofficial relationship”—emphasis on “unofficial.”—T.K. has expressed frustration over the U.S.A.’s reluctance even to risk offending China over Taiwan: “When Taiwanese people want our own sovereign state, that’s our right.”

Whether or not Chen deserved to be imprisoned, it’s hard not to be troubled by the fact that the moment a new party came in power, the leader of the previous one was locked up. Particularly for a nation still struggling to adapt to democracy, it suggested a party should cling to power at all costs, because to lose it could result in a loss of everything, including your freedom.


This situation parallels a development from our second presidential debate, when Donald Trump announced his intention to, if elected, do his darnedest to get Hillary Clinton imprisoned. Using presidential power this way would almost certainly be a violation of the Constitution, and there’s every reason to think, if elected, Trump will change his mind. (Here’s what he said about Hillary as recently as 2008.)

Even so, I asked T.K. for his opinions on this campaign promise. He needed to be briefed on the U.S. presidential election (“In the past 30 days, there’s no TV, radio, newspaper for me”). After comparing Trump’s vow to Taiwan’s experience with President Chen, he noted locking up opponents means the “judicial system has broken down” and pointed out, from his own experience in Taiwan, what he believed to be the most troubling aspect of a leader jailing a rival:

“If they can do that to a strong competitor, then they can do even worse things to ordinary people.”

We ended the conversation by discussing a visit to Taiwan over the holidays (my first). T.K. welcomed it but asked to be given some advance notice, as he is now facing another 40 days jail time. “I plan to serve,” he emailed me last night, “under the same idea of protesting [with] nonviolent resistance.”


Images courtesy of Ting-kuei Tsay