As Taiwan’s presidential election results came in on the evening of Jan. 16, long-time editors of the Taiwan Communique, Gerrit van der Wees and Chen Mei-chin (陳美津), felt like marathon runners who had finally crossed the finish line.
Founded in 1980 during the Martial Law era and one-party rule, the publication aimed to promote democracy and combat the Chinese Nationalist Party’s (KMT) rhetoric. With the Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) victory, the couple decided it was time to move on, bidding their readers farewell in their March edition — their 155th in 35 years. They say that the publication is not closing but do not have a timetable when there will be a new editor.
“Our life-long mission to see Taiwan become a true democracy had been achieved,” van der Wees says.
A month later, J. Michael Cole, editor-in-chief of the English-language version of Thinking Taiwan, a news analysis and commentary outlet run by president-elect Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) foundation of the same name, announced via Twitter that the site was to close on May 20, the day of Tsai’s inauguration.
“Not my decision,” Cole, a former deputy news editor at the Taipei Times, tweeted.
A formal announcement was made May 9.
In two months, Taiwan had lost two widely-read English-language political publications.
THE DARK SIDE OF TAIWAN
Van der Wees’ interest in Taiwan began in 1974 when he founded the Amnesty International chapter at the University of Washington, when he was told by a Taiwanese student about the political prisoners and lack of democracy and human rights.
Around that time, he met Chen and the couple became increasingly active, inviting exiled activist Peng Ming-min (彭明敏) on campus to lecture and starting the Newsletter of the International Committee for Human Rights in Taiwan.
The turning point came after the Kaohsiung Incident, when the KMT conducted a mass arrest of political dissidents calling for democratic reforms. Van der Wees says that there was very little international news coverage, and what was published was “solely based on KMT sources.”
“We decided that it was important to let an alternative voice be heard,” he says. Taiwan Communique was born, directed toward Western policy makers, news media, academics and think tanks — continuing even after the couple relocated to the Netherlands and later to Washington, DC.
“The counter-message we sent out was that the large majority of the people in Taiwan were not happy with the state of affairs in the country,” van der Wees says.
The couple only visited Taiwan occasionally — and were blacklisted by the KMT from 1986 to 1993. But van der Wees says that as long as Taiwan was not fully democratic, it was necessary to keep publishing.
It was difficult to obtain information under strict government control. Instead, they relied on letters from friends in Taiwan and international phone calls — at one point racking up a monthly phone bill of NT$25,000. They also subscribed to opposition magazines, which were often banned and shut down by the KMT.
Van der Wees says that he “contributed significantly” to an international awareness of Taiwan’s plight, influencing US and European politicians to start urging Taiwan to move toward a multiparty democracy.
He says that last year, former US assistant secretary of state Kurt Campbell publicly commented on how much his office appreciated the insight that Taiwan Communique provided.