Taiwan’s recent Sunflower Movement has inspired and given hope to not only those in Taiwan, but also to many Taiwanese supporters overseas. Perhaps not very well known in Taiwan, the struggle for Taiwan’s democracy and autonomy has been carried on by the Taiwanese diaspora around the world for decades. As Taiwan has changed and embarked on the road to consolidating its democracy, the supporting activities in the U.S. must change as well.
In the past, most Taiwanese community organizations in the U.S. at least supported Taiwan’s transition to democracy, if not outright independence and overthrow of the dictatorship by the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) under the Republic of China government. One of the oldest such organizations, the World United Formosans for Independence (WUFI), was established in the U.S. in 1970, and was even rumored to be considered a terrorist organization by the U.S. government.
Back then, even using the very label “Taiwanese” in the U.S. was a politically charged term, and usually denoted a strong pro-independence political bent. Most of the older generation, the immigrants from Taiwan in the 1960s and 1970s, still remember the White Terror period and experienced its effects even here in the United States, as exemplified by the murders of Henry Liu (劉宜良) and Chen Wen-chen (陳文成) at the hands of KMT cronies. As such, they became supporters of the party that would one day become the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), because at the time, it was the opposing force to authoritarian rule in Taiwan. This led to the formation of groups like the Formosan Association for Public Affairs (FAPA), the largest grass-roots organization focusing on U.S.-Taiwan relations. FAPA was established in 1982 by Chai Trong-rong (蔡同榮), who was also a founder of WUFI, and would later return to Taiwan as a leader in the DPP. Hence, one can understand the historical reasons for the diaspora’s political alignments.
In the early years, Taiwanese American organizations flourished as immigration to the U.S. increased and Taiwan’s plight under martial law was very clear and tangible. Groups like WUFI and FAPA did their utmost to support the lifting of martial law and Taiwan’s transition to a democracy with direct elections.
However, as time passed, issues within the Taiwanese American community itself have emerged. With a decreasing immigration rate to the US and an aging population, organizations have turned to the next generation of American-born Taiwanese to carry on the torch. For these second-generation Taiwanese Americans, support for any one party is seen as divisive, as the KMT is no longer solely seen as the party of oppression and the DPP as the pure party of liberty. Both parties have been wrought with scandals in the past decade that have driven away Taiwanese American supporters, and Taiwan’s internal politics frankly do not resonate with the second generation. For many of the second generation, Taiwan is, at best, a vacation spot with bubble tea.
Thus at first, the older, first generation leadership of the organizations was reluctant to pass down responsibilities to the American born, but now most are too old to continue to serve. The lack of transition resulted in a “lost generation” as the majority of second generation are no longer engaged and have since left the community as assimilation in American society took priority. The changing of leadership has now accelerated out of desperation, but the “generation gap” is clearly apparent as now the leadership of Taiwanese American organization, transition from 60 year olds to those in their 20s. Recognizing the diminishing numbers, the older leadership has tried to appeal to the American born and new Taiwanese immigrants by toning down their original political stances and offering financial resources.
One can see how this all brings us to some points of conflict within the current Taiwanese American community. Some first generation leadership has refused to adapt, causing them to be seen as out of sync with current sentiments in Taiwan, or worse, like FAPA, to be accused of fronting for political parties. Although many Taiwanese American organizations may eventually disappear, other organizations with slightly different missions from FAPA’s or that are fully second-generation focused have sprouted up, like Taiwanese American Professionals, the Formosa Foundation, and American Citizens for Taiwan, each excelling in a specific function or goal. Unfortunately, competition over talent, resources, and sometimes even credit as the leadership of organizations has not been able to show solidarity, results in the fragmentation we see today.
The second generation leadership has done a commendable job trying to bury the grudges of old, and collaborate when and where it makes sense. They have also seen the dangers of being too much aligned with any political party, so some have taken politics out of the organization altogether while others are altering the focus of the groups.
But for these organizations to continue to be relevant and to succeed, many more changes will have to occur. First, fresh leadership has to be rotated into place. Next, to prevent further fragmentation, groups need to reach out to the new Taiwanese immigrants and show that they can benefit from existing organizational infrastructure. Third, without the benefit of a growing population, resources will need to be more efficiently utilized so organizations will be leaner but meaner. Recognizing constrained resources, members will need to be better trained, especially to take advantage of second-generation language skills, and better organized. Finally, for those whose core mission has been to support Taiwan’s democracy and self-determination, bridges need to be built with similar groups in Taiwan to stay relevant with current events and present a global united front.
Steps are already being taken in the right direction. For the Sunflower Movement, FAPA members helped coordinate the global 330 rallies and also brought student leaders Wei Yang (魏揚) and Huang Yu-Fen (黃郁芬) to meet with the community and U.S. policymakers. In fact, in the previous year, FAPA had brought Lin Fei-fan (林飛帆) over to discuss the Anti-Media Monopoly Movement. The aforementioned activities serve to generate interest among the new Taiwanese immigrants and second generation alike and to build the foundation for stronger bonds. However, more accelerated steps will have to be taken and the global Taiwanese community has to show unity in order to keep Taiwan free.
Jonathan Lee is president of the FAPA-Young Professionals Group in North California.