Written by Mei-Fen Kuo.
A recent exhibition mounted by Australia’s government office in Taiwan––“40 years, 40 stories”––highlights the importance of people-to-people ties linking Taiwan and Australia since the office opened in Taipei in 1981. These are timely stories. In an exhibition of its own, Beijing recently lobbed missiles over Taiwan’s people’s heads to show that its territorial claims to Taiwan will not be slighted. Australia does not challenge those claims, but it does maintain close relations with people in Taiwan through trade, education, technology, and cultural exchanges, which have flourished despite the lack of official recognition.
While the most recent Australian Census indicates that there are 50,860 Taiwan-born Australians, there may be the same amount of Taiwanese descent who were born in Australia and classified simply as “Australians.” The majority of this Taiwanese community has settled in Brisbane and Sydney.
Taiwanese Australians have a lot to offer this country. However, the capability of the Taiwanese diaspora and their networks throughout Asia is often overlooked when, for example, it comes to enhancing Australia’s engagements across Asia. More importantly, their stories and engagements show that people-to-people ties help to promote peaceful coexistence. Behind these engagements lies the active agency of the Taiwanese people.
“Give Taiwan a Fair Go”: Storytelling through the Exhibition
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the Taiwanese community in Australia urged the government to “Give Taiwan a Fair Go” when China was being particularly aggressive. They asked Australia to reassess its Taiwan policy and to allow Taiwan officials to visit Australia. From the late 1990s to 2005, members of the Taiwanese diaspora in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne demanded that Australia alter its approach to Taiwan and recognise its official relationship with Taiwan. While there was little response from Australian authorities to those appeals at the time, the exhibition suggests that the mood in government is changing in relation to people-to-people ties.
The stories of the Taiwanese diaspora demonstrate why Taiwan matters to Australia. Australia’s long relationship with the Republic of China in Taiwan began with the anti-communist alliances of the Cold War period. In the 1960s, right-wing politicians such as the prominent councillor for the city of Manly, Douglas Darby (1910-1985), sponsored the establishment of Taiwan’s first Lifesaving Association. After Gough Whitlam recognised the People’s Republic of China in 1972, the Free-China Society in Australia was established in 1973 to conduct economic and cultural exchanges between Australia and Taiwan until 1981.
In addition, the late Dr Tsai Jui Yueh’s story illustrates how Australians connected with the Taiwanese through their shared interests in human rights issues and the arts. The late Dr Tsai was a contemporary dance pioneer in Taiwan who had been a political prisoner under the KMT’s White Terror. She and her friends were involved in Taiwan’s democracy movement and social protests. In 1971 the Australian Dance Theatre reached out to Dr Tsai. Her life experience influenced her dance performances, which inspired modern Australian dancers, including Dr Elizabeth Cameron Dalman.
From the 1980s, people-to-people contacts moved beyond the old Cold War framework of exchange between Taiwan and Australia. Lifting Taiwan’s Martial Law in 1987 was a starting point, enabling Taiwan’s people to travel freely and live abroad. Since the late 1980s, the Taiwanese diaspora in Australia has contributed to flourishing trade, investment, education, cultural ties, and broader community life in Australia. With support from the Australian Dance Theatre and assistance from Dr Dalman, Dr Tsai and her son migrated to Australia in the 1990s. During her late years, Dr Tsai significantly promoted cultural exchanges between Taiwan and Australia.
Stance Beyond the Cold War Legacy
Members of the Taiwanese community in Australia who appealed to “Give Taiwan a Fair Go” stood in opposition to the old Cold War legacy. They represent Taiwan’s democratisation, the result of years of struggle among activists in Taiwan and abroad. The late Prof Chwei-Liang Chiou was a democracy activist who migrated to Australia in 1971. He urged his Taiwanese fellow to ask Australia to assist their motherland against KMT authoritarianism. Since the 1990s, organisations such as the “Taiwan Association in Australia” and “The Australian Federation of Overseas Taiwanese Associations”, led by Prof Chiou and others, urged Australia to give Taiwan a fair chance, just as Australia supported democracy elsewhere in the region.
They also appealed to the Taiwanese government. For example, Taiwanese in Brisbane pushed for the opening of the Taipei Cultural and Economic Office in Brisbane and the Queensland Taiwanese Centre in 2006 and 2008, respectively, to promote increased economic, educational, and cultural exchanges between Taiwan and Australia. The Taiwanese diaspora’s success in reaching local authorities for a fair go is evidenced in sister-city relations between Brisbane and Kaohsiung.
Together with other associations, Taiwan Australia Business Association facilitated an agreement between Brisbane and Kaohsiung in 1994. In 1997 the mayor of Kaohsiung Wu Dunyi signed a sister city with Brisbane. In 2006, while Mayor Ye Julan visited Brisbane, the late Prof Chiou and others assisted in erecting the “Kaohsiung Landmark” in the South Bank Riverside Park along the Brisbane River. Their success in sister-city relations has been highlighted and recommended by a recent Australian Strategic Policy Institute report for further partnership between Australian cities and cities in Taiwan.
These stories of Taiwanese diaspora matter for biliterate relations and are sharply contracted with PRC’s strategic partnership for Australia’s states and territories through united front operations. People-to-people ties between Taiwan and Australia are rooted in the spirit of Fair Go which promotes democratic values, friendship, and peaceful coexistence.
Actions Before the Political Recognition
Although “Give Taiwan a Fair Go” is a slogan from 20 years ago, the sentiment behind it goes beyond political recognition. Since the 1990s, the Taiwanese diaspora has not waited for Australian authorities or other world powers to recognise them to begin helping Taiwan.
In 2020 Taiwan became Australia’s 12th largest trading partner. Taiwanese Australians have made many significant contributions through business, tourism, education-related industry and Australia’s Working Holiday Maker Scheme. Today ten Taiwanese banks are operating to strengthen investments. During the COVID-19 pandemic in 2021, the Taiwanese community organised public gatherings in Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra to appeal for Taiwan’s membership in the World Health Organisation (WHO) and to tell Australians to tread claims of the Taiwanese people. Recently Taiwanese in Australia have been lobbying for membership in the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership to support Taipei’s strategic policy in the Indo-Pacific region.
To enable the continuation and further engagement between Australia and Taiwan, greater attention will be needed to develop a sustainable strategy. When we read stories of late Prof Chiou and others, we are reminded that personal relationships and networks remain central to people-to-people ties. The personalisation of relationships can bring a depth of cultural knowledge and expertise to push a fair go. But the personalisation of relations without a strategic plan may risk further success. To reach Australia’s authority for a fair trial, the Taiwanese diaspora and Taiwanese government could not only rely on the personalisation of relationships like before.
Members of the Taiwanese diaspora in Australia have long argued for Australia to give their homeland “A Fair Go.” Giving Taiwanese Australians a fair go means giving people in Taiwan a fair go as well. Strategic planning is also necessary to bring Australia closer to Taiwan.
Mei-fen Kuo is a Contemporary Chinese Culture and History Lecturer at Macquarie University in Sydney. She teaches and researches modern Taiwan and Chinese history, focusing on diaspora identity and transnational mobility. She is the author of Making Chinese Australia: Urban Elites, Newspapers & Chinese-Australian Identity 1892-1912 (Monash University Publishing) and Unlocking the History of the Australasian Kuo Min Tang 1911-2013 (Australian Scholarly Publishing). Her current project is to rethink Chinese Australians’ Cold War and identity politics.