Taiwan’s Green Diplomacy and the 1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis: The Legacy of Penny Kemp’s Taiwan Visit

Written by Dafydd Fell.

Image credit: Penny Kemp 1996 trip to Taiwan, due to courtesy of Kao Cheng-yan.

Twenty-five years ago, Taiwan was amid the 1995-1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis and its first direct presidential campaign. It was not only the closest China and Taiwan had come to military conflict since the late 1950s but also the moment that Taiwan was first internationally recognised as a full democracy. At this crucial moment in Taiwan’s modern history, the Green Party of England and Wales issued a press release with the headline ‘Penny Helps Taiwan Greens Win Seat.’

Although much of the focus of studies on Taiwan’s international relations is on the state level, Gary Rawnsley has highlighted the critical role civil society can play in its public diplomacy. He notes how Taiwan’s ‘non-governmental sector can forge and sustain meaningful long-term relationships with groups and individuals overseas.’ One of the best examples of Taiwan’s civil society led diplomacy has been the international engagement of the Green Party Taiwan (GPT) with the Global Greens network of political parties. Penny Kemp’s visit to Taiwan in March 1996 can be taken as the starting point of Taiwan’s Green diplomacy.

The GPT had been established by an alliance of civil society groups on 25 January 1996, less than two months before the Presidential and National Assembly elections. The press release explained that Penny Kemp was a member of the Executive of the Green Party of England and Wales and that she had come to Taiwan ‘in response to a plea for help from the Taiwan Green Party.’ But why did the visit of this British environmentalist leave such a lasting legacy?

That Kemp was willing to come to the aid of the new GPT attracted much media attention and also admiration from her Taiwanese hosts. Originally another senior European Green figure was due to come with Kemp but eventually decided to cancel the visit due to safety concerns during the Taiwan Strait Missile Crisis. Kemp even met the then Taipei mayor Chen Shui-bian, who specially wore a green suit for the occasion.

In my interviews about the early history of the GPT, Penny Kemp’s name was frequently mentioned with great affection. While the party founders had read much about the international Green movement, this was the first time they had met a representative from a European Green party, and it appears to have had a lasting impression. She told them much about European Green parties and what it meant practically to be an environmental party. Although Kemp’s visit to Taiwan in March 1996 was relatively short, these discussions would be extended as many younger party figures came to visit her in England in the summer of 1996.

Almost 24 years later, the GPT’s founding Secretary-General Hung Yu-cheng recalled how ‘we did not do so well in that election, but we had connected with the European Greens and Penny Kemp had recognised us. She told us a lot about European Green Parties. I still remember this very clearly today.’

An example of this connection with the international Greens network during Kemp’s Taiwan visit was during 19 March 1996. The European Federation of Green Parties issued a press release stating that it ‘wholeheartedly supports the promotion of these Green ideas by the Taiwanese Green Party and the Taiwanese people’s right to determine their future. All intimidation and threats, denying the Taiwanese people these basic human and democratic rights, must be condemned. The European Federation of Green Parties hopes that the present tension will be solved by peaceful means. The Federation wishes the Taiwanese Green Party great success in promoting the Green ideas in the forthcoming parliamentary elections and in the referendum on nuclear power.’

Kemp’s visit represents the start of the GPT’s active international Green’s engagement. A mark of the importance the party placed on such diplomacy was during 1997 when the GPT recruited Linda Arrigo to be the party’s International Affairs Officer. During the next few years, the party would strengthen its ties with European Green Parties and play a leading role in creating the Asia Pacific Greens network. In relation to the many people I interviewed in the research for my Taiwan’s Green Parties book, the international Greens diplomacy was the most memorable and meaningful aspect of their GPT experience.

In December 1998, the GPT performed poorly in its second election and appeared to be on the verge of collapsing in 1999. However, at this low point, the GPT pulled off one of its first significant diplomatic achievements. With less than a month’s preparation, party founder Ann Chang was able to work with Penny Kemp and a France based Taiwanese student on arranging a GPT European visit. On 11 May 2000, the European Federation of Green Parties and the GPT held a joint press conference in the European Parliament in Brussels calling on Taiwan’s new President Chen Shui-bian to fulfil his pledge to scrap the controversial Fourth Nuclear Power Station. During this visit, the European Federation of Green Parties even passed a resolution supporting Taiwan becoming a nuclear-free country.

Several GPT figures that Penny Kemp first influenced in 1996 have continued to lead or advise the party through until its most recent elections in 2020. Moreover, those initial international connections laid the foundation for what remains Taiwan’s most international political party. While Taiwan is often excluded from so many international organisations, the GPT can engage in the Global Greens network as a full member. A GPT party member, Keli Yen, served as Convenor of the Asia Pacific Greens Federation and later the Coordinator of the Global Greens.

The GPT’s international diplomacy is a case that reveals the potential for Taiwanese civil society to go where the state cannot reach and to ‘forge and sustain meaningful long-term relationships with groups and individuals overseas.’ Thus one of the most moving moments in my nine years studying the GPT was hearing how twenty-five years later, some of those GPT founders had reconnected with Penny Kemp in March 2021.

Dafydd J. Fell is the Reader in Comparative Politics with particular reference to Taiwan at the Department of Political and International Studies of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. He is also the Director of the SOAS Centre of Taiwan Studies. His book Taiwan’s Green Parties: Alternative Politics in Taiwan was published in March 2021.

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