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On Pelosi's Visit
With special attention to Jing-mei Museum and legendary activist Chen Chu
Hello dear readers, it’s been an intense week! Not long after we wrote about Pelosi’s proposed visit last week, news leaked that she was indeed coming. Taiwanese and international media went into hyper-drive, tracking her every move up to Tuesday night’s arrival. At one point, over 700,000 people were following her flight through an online flight tracker, thereby crashing the website.
The Chinese government also reacted, or rather, over-reacted. Besides sanctioning Taiwanese fruit, fish products, biscuits, and pastries, they sent warplanes into Taiwan’s air defense zone and launched four days of “live-fire” military drills. These began the moment Pelosi left. This series of escalating scenarios included missile attacks, a naval blockade, and on Saturday, a simulation of a full-out invasion. The message: we could own you at any second.
The Taiwanese have responded with characteristic nonchalance. People have been going on with business as usual. There’s been no run on banks, no discernible panic. On Saturday, we saw the department stores overrun with shoppers looking for a Father’s Day gift, which is August 8th (a Mandarin pun on “baba”) in Taiwan. Here’s a street photo to give you a sense of the crowds:
Even Albert’s mother, who is anxious about the most minor things, shook her head when we asked if she was nervous about the military demonstrations: “It’s all a ruse,” she said with a wave of her hand. Meanwhile, the Taiwanese internet has been on fire, responding to China’s exercises with memes. On local Taiwanese news, tourists flocked to watchpoints, hoping to see the Chinese missiles fall into the sea:
One of Albert’s friends was among the curious: he joined a tourist sailboat, hoping to catch a glimpse of rockets and instead spotted dolphins. One of Michelle’s law students posted a photo at the beach, having traveled with friends to catch a glimpse of the military drills.
But we don’t mean to be too cheeky. There’s a general sense here that we are in uncharted waters. An app showing the closest air raid shelter has become the most downloaded on the Taiwan iTunes store. Everybody’s talking about it. (We checked—the basement of our building apparently doubles as an air raid shelter. Whew!) One political scientist thinks that we’ve entered a “new norm” of frequent Chinese military drills. Ordinary people who do business in China, or in the waters off of the Taiwanese coast—farmers, fishermen, investors in small Chinese businesses—are the ones who will suffer. And indeed, the Chinese government has not sanctioned any high tech firms, presumably because it still needs chips from TSMC.
Back to the Pelosi visit. In retrospect, much of the Taiwanese nonchalance we detected was preemptive: “We’ll play it cool if you end up rejecting us.” I think many people here—accustomed to being regarded on China’s terms rather than its own—assumed that the U.S. would be too fearful of China’s threats to make a visit. But the moment it was confirmed, most people in our circles started to get excited. And we did too. We watched her speech live, and like others speculated about what she was eating:
The headline of Chen Yu-jie’s op-ed in the New York Times—“I’m Taiwanese and want to thank Nancy Pelosi”—reflects the spirit here. People appreciated Pelosi’s speech at the Presidential office, which communicated in very clear terms the issues at hand and the stakes of a stronger US-Taiwan partnership.
We especially perked up when we saw that her short itinerary included a visit to the Jing-mei White Terror Memorial Park, and we weren’t the only one:
In 2019, when Michelle was pregnant, we brought a class of 20 students at the American University of Paris to Taiwan for a two-week study trip. We received a full-on tour of the museum, thanks in part to our friend Hsin-fang, who had worked there. As Kirk Denton has written in his excellent book on the struggle over historical memory in Taiwan, the museum is the product of a process—for better or worse—in which human rights and democracy “have become central to Taiwan identity.”
The museum houses the Number One Courtroom, a significant site in Taiwan’s democratic struggle. On International Human Rights Day in 1979, the protesters clashed with police in the southern city of Kaohsiung. Organized by the Formosa Magazine, the demonstrations intended to challenge the authoritarian rule of the Kuomintang (KMT) government. The government used the incident to crack down more broadly on the dangwai movement, a loosely organized pro-democracy movement that opposed the KMT. It rounded up more than a hundred fifty people, torturing and beating many of them. The police arrested eight leaders from Formosa Magazine. This courtroom—now preserved for public memory at Ching-Mei Museum—is where they were tried. All eight leaders received jail sentences of over ten years. The ring-leader, Shih Ming-te, was sentenced for life.
The sham trial was a key turning point in the dangwai movement: all of the convicted defendants as well as their lawyers became key figures in the founding of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), the current governing party. (The former president Chen Shui-bian, whom Nick Haggerty has written about for Broad and Ample Road, was a lawyer for one of the convicted.)
When we visited Jing-mei, Yao Chia-wen, one of the eight members of the Formosa Magazine, showed us around the courtroom and shared his experience at the trial and his subsequent imprisonment. He said that he thought he was going to die in prison.
Besides the courtroom, the museum also contains the detention center—ironically named the Benevolence and Love Building (仁愛樓), where many of the Formosa leaders served their jail sentences. Now visitors can see the humiliating conditions that inmates faced. Here’s a picture of a jail cell:
We were particularly stirred to learn that Pelosi met with Chen Chu (陳菊), a household name in Taiwan. Chen Chu was one of the eight convicted leaders of the Formosa magazine. She’ll go down in history as one of the most important figures in Taiwanese politics of the past half century. Currently, she’s the President of the Control Yuan and Chair of the National Human Rights Commission.
Born to a poor farming family in Yilan, Chen became involved with dangwai circles in college, and soon became an essential member in the movement. At Courtroom Number One, she was sentenced to twelve years in prison and forced to write a “last testament.” She wrote:
May all those who are suffering, enslaved, and oppressed be liberated as soon as possible, and may the people of my beloved homeland, Taiwan, enjoy a life of true justice, equality, freedom and democracy. I pray that the law will symbolize justice.
She called prisons a stain on humanity and called for people to fight for their rights:
Prisons are a disgrace to humanity, and political prisons are especially cruel. But it is not the imprisoned who are shameful. I believe to my dying day that encouraging people to fight for their rights is an act of human conscience, not violence.
Chen Chu served six years in prison, where she was subjected to routine torture and humiliation. Upon her release, she became a founding member of the DPP and soon established herself as a legendary campaigner. Many credit her with helping Chen Shui-bian win the mayoral election in Taipei. Here’s a YouTube clip that breaks down her campaigning style:
She herself went on to have a dazzling career in local politics. The first woman to be directly elected mayor in Taiwan, she served as Kaohsiung’s mayor from 2006 until 2018. (She’s never lost an election.) Many credit her leadership for the transformation of Kaohsiung into a global port city in the past two decades. They also credit her with helping to revive the DPP amidst controversy surrounding Chen Shui-bian’s presidency.
In short, Chen embodies and even epitomizes Taiwanese politics. Her style—fiery, witty, unguarded—contrasts with that of her mentee, President Tsai Ing-wen, who is calm, cool, and even after all these years uncomfortable in the public spotlight. But for many in Taiwan, Chen’s is the preferred mode of politics. While many in Taiwan respect Tsai, people love (or hate) Chen. Together they reflect a broad spectrum of Taiwanese politics.
As longtime admirers of Chen Chu, it was thrilling to see her guide Pelosi around the human rights park. Pelosi paid close attention to her story of brave opposition to an authoritarian government. In Chen’s meeting with Pelosi, we saw a recognition of the struggle that her generation had to endure.
One final note. We think it’s worth dwelling on the fact that the trip saw a convergence of female leaders taking the stage—Speaker Pelosi, President Tsai, Chen Chu, as well as Hsiao Bi-kim, Taiwan’s brilliant representative in Washington. As our friend SueAnn Shiah mentioned, the visit has sparked hilarious fan art from the queer community in Taiwan:
When we read stories of the pro-democracy struggles in 1980s, we are reminded of how patriarchal the entire system, including the sexism of the dangwai movement itself. Pelosi’s visit reflected how far the struggle in Taiwan has come against the interlocking systems of authoritarianism and patriarchy. It was nice to know, even just for a moment, that Taiwan has friends in that fight. But the subsequent military exercises, fear-mongering, and patriarchal language emanating from the PRC (Chinese netizens have resorted to calling Pelosi a “witch”) tells us how far we have to go. People like Chen Chu give us a model for how to carry on that fight.
We’re so honored to be a part of a Hyphen roundtable discussion about Taiwan & Taiwanese America. Thanks to Karissa Chen for organizing—we learned so much from our fellow participants.
Welcome to new readers! If you’re new to the list and want to read our pieces on Taiwan-specific politics, we’d recommend these from the past year:
On pro-China media in Taiwan and how it portrays the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
A two-part piece on the legacy of Chen Shui-bian, Taiwan’s former president, written by guest essayist Nick Haggerty
On informants to authoritarian regimes and the need for restorative dialogues.
Book Club: Lisa Hsiao Chen’s Activities of Daily Living and Siobhan Phillips’s Benefit
We had such a stimulating discussion of Siobhan Phillips’s Benefit and covered so much territory: heroic action and paralysis, elite circles and institutions, academia and integrity. Thanks to everyone who came!
We’re looking forward to our book club about Lisa Hsiao Chen’s wonderful book Activities of Daily Living on Friday, August 26th, 4 PM PDT/7 PM EST. Can’t wait! Please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org (or reply to this email) if you want to join.