Back to the 80s: Taiwanese-American Intellectuals’ Views on Taiwan Relationship in Two Oversea Magazines

Written by Sui Lam Cheung.

Image credit: 会談 by SHIMA kuniichi/Flickr, license CC BY-SA 2.0

Taiwan’s international status and sovereignty have always been closely related to US international policies. As a result, the US-Taiwan relation has always attracted widespread attention and discussion. Thus, scholars have begun to pay attention to the American aid culture in economic and cultural fields. For instance, Wang Meihsiang and Chen Chienchung have analysed the US aid literature system from a sociology of literature perspective to explain how Taiwanese intellectuals received direct or indirect economic assistance from the United States. This assistance was used to introduce or develop related cultural production literary works and cultural phenomena. In addition to examining the development of Taiwan’s literary field, US aid culture can also be another perspective to examine non-official views other than the official discourse of the US and Taiwan. This revealed how American intellectuals or Taiwanese-American intellectuals recognised the US-Taiwan relation and Taiwan’s sovereignty at the time. What role did these unofficial views play in the democratisation of Taiwan?

Since the 1950s, major universities in the United States have fostered several experts on China to use their expertise to influence the US Government’s China policy. Many Taiwanese students have also studied in the United States, forming a group of Taiwanese intellectuals who resided in the US for a long time. Therefore, this study aims to examine the discourse of American intellectuals, who are local Americans and Taiwanese intellectuals living in the US, in the two overseas Chinese magazines, The Chinese Intellectual(《知識份子》) published in New York and The Nineties (《九十年代》) published in Hong Kong. The same group of Taiwanese-American intellectuals like Peng Weni (彭文逸), Chin Yenhsiang (金延湘), Chang Peihai (張北海) had been writing in both magazines’ columns for years. They sometimes wrote in different pen names, but their views kept changing in response to local voices and current political events. We can find distinctive stances when they encountered different audiences, American intellectuals and readers in “Free China,” i.e., Taiwan and Hong Kong.

The Chinese Intellectual quarterly publication started in October 1984 and ceased in 1988. This is a highly academic magazine with the engagement of many overseas experts on China. The publication undoubtedly focused on contemporary China issues from various perspectives like politics, economy and culture. Still, it is worth noting that many of the authors, critics, and writers are Taiwanese or Taiwan-related intellectuals living in the US. Moreover, the Taiwan issue has been one of the main topics where China issue experts have always paid attention, so the discussion about the political situation of Taiwan appeared from time to time in The Chinese Intellectual. 

I have tried to summarise the perspectives of several American scholars in this magazine. Although the discussions by American intellectuals and Taiwanese intellectuals involve different issues related to US-Taiwan relations and its current situation, some common points can still be seen. China experts in the US have recognised the strong national consciousness of the Chinese. These Taiwanese intellectuals still had a certain degree of national consciousness. This is regardless of whether or not they witnessed the destruction of the ideal of the Baodiao movement (保釣運動), which was first launched by Chinese students studying in the US in 1970 to assert Chinese sovereignty over the Diaoyu Islands and protest against American colonialism over Taiwan. For example, in the April issue of 1986, Shui Pingho – a Taiwanese writer – wrote a piece entitled “Reviewing the Defence of the Diaoyu Island’s movement.” He pointed out that modern Chinese have an intensive national consciousness, so Chinese students studying in the United States at that time were motivated to participate in the Baodiao movement. However, the persuasion of the movement vanished after the Tiananmen Square incident in 1976, but he alleged that the occurrence of Baodiao movement had created a public space for Chinese intellectuals.” This kind of discourse, to some extent, was in line with the US government’s “One China” statement found in several US-China joint communiques.

However, the foci of concern between American and Taiwanese intellectuals are poles apart. For example, John Fairbank was pressured to handle the Taiwan issue from the perspective of US interests. The goal was to maintain peace in the Taiwan Strait and the entire Asia-Pacific region. On the other hand, Arthur Doak Barnett agreed that China and the United States should implement the commitments outlined in the Taiwan Strait of Peace communiques. These Taiwanese intellectuals attached more weight to the island’s political situation or relations with China. They were concerned about Taiwan’s political reform and democratisation process, which also focused on Barnett’s statement that “considered the strong feelings of the people of Taiwan.”

Lee Yee and others founded the Nineties magazine in Hong Kong in February 1970. At the beginning of the publication, the magazine independently decided to report on the overseas Baodao movement, which attracted Zhou Enlai’s attention, so it had a somewhat close relationship with the Chinese Communist Party. However, the editors withdrew from the left wing in 1981. The Nineties became a critical publication focusing on China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, with Chinese readers mainly in Hong Kong and Taiwan being the target audience.

Furthermore, a column entitled “Under the Statue of Liberty” was added in 1982. This was written by several intellectuals in New York to express their views. Despite the authors of the column claiming to be “Chinese writers and social critics,” they were actually Taiwanese intellectuals. Thus, the column discussed from time to time the current situation in Taiwan regarding US-Taiwan relations. Compared with The Chinese Intellectual, the aforementioned column was closely related to the current affairs of the United States and Taiwan. I attempted to sort out the column’s thread from 1982 to 1986, portraying some representative discourse for reference.

Although Chinese national consciousness still existed among some Taiwanese intellectuals, it has also begun to be reflected and amended. Intellectuals have considered the limits of nationalism in solving the Taiwan issue, as well as criticising the assessments of Chinese nationalism proposed by China issue experts in the United States. In response to the Chiang Nan Case (江南), a Taiwanese writer was assassinated in California as part of a Kuomintang Government plot. This took place in 1984 and shocked US and Taiwanese society. In response, Taiwanese-American intellectuals criticised the Kuomintang rule to a much greater extent.

For example, in February 1986, an article entitled “I Want Two Suns in Taiwan’s Party Formation” proposed another solution to Taiwan’s predicament. The author Yen Huimin implied that changes in the external situation could generate enough pressure to induce the KMT government to forsake the restriction of tang-wai party formation. As the Asian policy of the United States has shifted from China containment policy to the alliance of the United States, Japan, and China, the US Congress would no longer ignore the democratisation of Taiwan based on the urgency of anti-communist defence. The change generated power of public opinion, which advocated Tang-wai (黨外,anti-KMT dissidents) activists to persuade US Congresspeople of the new generation, showing a connection between tang-wai democratic activities and those outside the island, as well as voices in American society and Congress. 

The United States and Taiwan

Due to the long-term authoritarian rule of the KMT government, there was only a grain of tang-wai magazines to express dissent on the island. Many intellectuals thus needed to contribute to overseas magazines to express their opinions without obstruction. In the 1980s, The Chinese Intellectual in New York and The Nineties in Hong Kong provided Taiwanese intellectuals with a platform to express their perspectives on given situations in Taiwan. They also expressed their opinions on US- China-Taiwan relations. The magazine also played a role as a cultural field where overseas intellectuals exchanged their ideas. Although Taiwanese-American intellectuals in Taiwan might keep some distance from probing current island situations, they still represent unofficial voices trying to respond to the gaze emanating from American intellectuals and counterparts in the Chinese world. Their expression should be seen as a democratic exercise and public participation following the Baodiao movement.

To conclude, this article shows how Taiwanese-American intellectuals contributed their perspective for Taiwan’s future and benefit. Moreover, it also explored their role as a bridge between voices inside and outside the island. By analysing the discourse in The Chinese Intellectual and The Nineties, overseas Chinese kept scanning for the issue of national reunification, which provided a space for the reflection of national consciousness.

Cheung Sui Lam is currently a master student in the Graduate Institute of Taiwan Literature at National Taiwan University. Since she is a Hongkonger, her research is interested in comparing Taiwan and Hong Kong literature, especially the magazine publication and writers’ relationship across the two cities from the 50s to 80s.

This article was published as part of a Special Issue EATS 2021: Narrating Taiwan

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