It is always hard to say goodbye to good friends, especially the kind who have stood by you through thick and thin. Gerrit van der Wees and his wife, Chen Mei-chin (陳美津), are such people, and Taiwanese at home and abroad owe them a huge debt of gratitude now that they have decided to retire from the Taiwan Communique.
One of the things that makes the 71-year-old Van der Wees’ contribution rather unique among this nation’s foreign proponents is that he has spent very little time in Taiwan. He was born in The Hague, but grew up in what was then the Dutch East Indies. He graduated from Delft University of Technology in 1970 with a degree in aerospace engineering, and started graduate school at the University of Washington in 1971, from which he earned a doctorate in 1981. It was at the school in Seattle that he met Chen, who was from Taiwan, and developed an interest in Taiwan.
The couple began the English-language Taiwan Communique in 1980 in the wake of the Kaohsiung Incident and the arrest of all the dangwai (黨外, “outside the party”) leaders. As they wrote in June 2003, they felt there was an “urgent need to inform the American Congress and the international community that Taiwan was essentially a police state under martial law and the [Chinese Nationalist Party] KMT authorities trampled human rights.”
The analysis and view that their publication gave to the democratic opposition movement in the 1980s and 1990s led the then-KMT government to blacklist Van der Wees from Taiwan.
The Communique, which for most of its existence has been published five times a year, has truly been a labor of love for the couple, who devoted their spare time to it. Having moved back to the Netherlands in 1981, Van der Wees worked for the Dutch government on aerospace policy before becoming the science and technology attache at the Dutch embassy in Washington, a post he held from 1994 to 2000.
In the late 1990s, as Taiwan democratized, the couple shifted the focus of the publication toward Taiwan’s position on the global stage, calling for recognition by the international community and of the need to pay attention to the military and political threats that China posed to this nation.
A sign of the changing times came in 2000, when the couple were invited to attend former president Chen Shui-bian’s (陳水扁) inauguration. Van der Wees later wrote that Taiwan’s transformation into a democratic country was like a dream come true.
Three years into Chen Shui-bian’s term the couple decided to suspend publication, saying that Taiwan had a fully democratically elected government and a more vibrant English-language media that could address current issues. However, two years later, the couple resurrected the Communique under the aegis of the Formosan Association for Public Affairs in Washington, saying there was a renewed need for Taiwanese and the Taiwanese-American community to have a voice, given the pan-blue-pan-green stalemate and tenuous international support for Taiwan.
The pair’s final issue, No. 155 for February/March, covered Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) and the Democratic Progressive Party victories in the Jan. 16 elections and the success of candidates from smaller groups, such as the New Power Party.
Van der Wees and Chen Mei-chin said that those victories meant the goal of a full transition to democracy had been achieved and gave them the impetus to move on. They said they hoped the younger generation would pick up where they left off, but admitted that they did not know how or when the publication would be continued.