Saturday, May 13, 2006

Syd Goldsmith's Talk on Taiwan in 60s and 70s (May 6 Meet Up)

Our recent Swenson's meet-ups have been highlighted by talks given by knowledgeable and interesting foreigners about some aspect of Taiwan they know well. In April we were privileged to hear Jeff Martin discuss Taiwan's police and their relationships with the community. This month is was former Foreign Service Officer and author of Jade Phoenix Syd Goldsmith, who gave a short presentation on life and politics in Taiwan during the late 1960s and early 1970s.

[Note: I have slightly disturbed the order of the material to make it more readable. Photos are courtesy of Michael J. Klein at The New Hampshire Bushman in Taiwan and The World, and many thanks to him for providing them]

Syd began by describing life as a foreigner in Taiwan in those days. The big airbase outside of Taichung with all the US servicemen and their families. The low prices of things. The rickshaws on the streets, bicycles instead of cars and scooters. The poor quality of the roads. The massive gap in comparative wealth between the Americans and the locals. Life under KMT rule....and the changes. As Syd said, in the bad old days he drove a huge Chrysler and the locals all drove bicycles. Now he drives a beat-up Opel Corsa, and the locals all drive BMWs and Mercedes-Benzes. The TV had better programming in the bad old days too, he observed.

After this discussion, Sid moved on talk about the political atmosphere in Taiwan, beginning with some comments about being foreigners, corruption, and local politics. Syd observed that if you didn't have political opinions, it didn't bother you that MPs were found on every street corner in those days. Certainly foreigners were very secure, he said. At the time there were some 5,000 Americans at the airbase in Taichung, and another 5,000 in Taipei with a huge PX on Chungshan N. Rd. [MT: see Taipei Air Station at for some amazing photos, comments and other stuff on US serviceman living in Taiwan in those days.]

According to Syd, the giant PX allowed most of the African and South Ameerican countries that recognized Taiwan to maintain their embassies, because the US allowed other embassies to use the US PX. They then bought goods there, which they sold on the booming black market. For example, Syd said that the Haitian ambassador supplemented his income by buying several refrigerators at once, which he sold on the black market, and which became part of the "black gold" system which Syd observed was "probably more inhibited in its presence than it is today." Essentially, Syd observed, that PX served a lot of purposes, most of which were illegal and were winked at.

In those days the US presence was large but it was confined, so Americans were unknown outside of the few places where they hung out. Syd talked about how he would walk around small communities in Tainan and people would come out of their houses to gawk, and to pet his son's sandy blonde hair. Syd's novel, Jade Phoenix, is set in Tainan at this time. The American presence was important to the government, but it was "rather well-contained." Few Americans spoke Chinese or had the guts to go out on their own if they didn't. Most stayed in the border area along the Da Ya strip, which was the border between the US town and the real Taiwanese area. Syd said in answer to the question that most American presence was military, about 10,000 of them. There was only a small diplomatic presence, and a small presence of US businessmen. Syd said that despite the low level of development, you could actually fly on WWII surplus C-46s at that time around Taiwan.

He was asked about KMT involvement in the black market. Corruption was everywhere, he answered. US military personnel also purchased stuff to sell on black market, for example. Electricity was expensive, so people often sold air conditioners to make money, rather than pay for expensive electricty to cool the house. Telephones were a 6 month wait, plus $600, "plus an unspecified bribe." People with connections to get phones had important resource to sell to foreigners. Syd said that foreigners were so rich they didn't realize or perhaps didn't care how overcharged they were.

A questioner mentioned that Li Ao was in the business of re-selling refrigerators. "Li Ao was friends with everybody," replied Syd. Since you could disappear at any time, he explained, one of the ways you protected yourself was by establishing as many connections as you could. "During my time at the embassy I was approached by a lot of people whom I sure were working both sides." Syd said that they professed to be democratic activists, but the only way you could be a democratic activist and stay alive was to tell stories about those people you dealt with in the foreign community. "It went both ways - there was a lot of trading of information," Syd said.

Syd then went on to describe the situation in more detail. The political atmosphere started out with military police on major intersection in major cities. The physical geography of Taiwan politics was that the KMT headquarters was usually right across the street from the mayor's office in every city. The Investigation Bureau was usually not very far away. The KMT had a very interesting set of relationships with the folks in the countryside. The KMT was a power from elsewhere which came over and controlled the island. They had political and military control. Hence, to run for office, you had to buy your nomination from the KMT. Local factions and faction leaders for the most part dealt with the KMT because the Party had the power. There were many things that could not be done without government permission in Taiwan's environment -- licenses, permissions, everything came down from the KMT.

The KMT created thus created a symbiotic relationship with local society so that it could could suck the money out of the economy. The first step in this was taking over the assets from the Japanese. Nominations in elections were bought because you made an investment in getting elected because if got elected you could recoup the money through corruption. [MT: Lawrence Eyton's piece is a good introduction to this system as it currently operates.]

Things got intense with the escape of two political prisoners, Peng Ming-min (who would later run for President) and Lai Mao-hua (?). Lai called the US embassy and the call went to Syd, who was responsible for local politics at the embassy. Syd met him at a hotel and Lai asked for asylum. Unfortunately the request could not be granted, as it would be embarrassing to the US to grant asylum to the citizen of an allied state!

Lai was at large for 6-7 weeks. He even came to Syd's house. He was eventually caught and did a few years, getting on in 1978. Linda Arrigo confirmed this, saying she met him at that time.

Syd returned to the Peng Ming-min case. The reality was that Peng had escaped with the aid of US missionaries. The government in Taiwan blamed the US because it did not want to admit it own incompetence. Peng had simply walked through ROC customs disguised as a Japanese on a Japanese passport, assisted by US missionaries in Taiwan. [MT: a good letter about Peng's escape from the people who arranged it is here . An account of the ROC and US government diplomatic responses is here]

Syd said that at the time the CIA did relatively little collection of information because they were focused on mainland China. He did mention later that ROC intelligence was good at biographies of mainland leaders, since the US information sources on the mainland had been cut off in 1950. Taiwan was important to the US war effort in Vietnam. US military jets were routinely sent to the airbase at Tainan for repair. Hence the conduit for US knowledge of Taiwan was Syd himself in his capacity as Foreign Service Officer responsible for Taiwan politics. Syd noted that you gained much more trust if you spoke some Taiwanese, and that local democracy efforts focused on the US Congress, because the US embassy itself was so useless.

In those days, said Syd, whenever he traveled around Taiwan he had to first call on the local Foreign Affairs police. He also had to make a courtesy call to the local KMT office, the mayor, and perhaps other important politicians. Syd said that he was followed very closely, since the government was paranoid that the US might be dealing with the opposition.

Despite KMT control there were many local families who had independent power bases and were willing to challenge the ruling party. Syd exampled a woman who was the mayor of Chiayi from the powerful local Hsu family. He said at one point she was invited to go to some kind of council meeting, but fortunately didn’t go – everyone at the meeting was shot.

Syd also described how the KMT built up its strong local base by co-opting promising young locals into the party. Many of these young people had all been independence-oriented, but tended to feel that the KMT was the best route to obtaining influence. The China Youth Corps, led by the popular KMT politico Lee Huan, who was a champion of Taiwanization of the KMT, was one of the ways that young people were guided into the KMT. According to Syd, Lee Huan felt that the KMT could only retain power if it was Taiwanized. Wu Poh-hsiung, a Hakka politician who is currently the Vice Chairman of the KMT, was one of these people. Syd mentioned that the KMT had castrated his uncle.

These promising young people all went on to become county chiefs in their 30s. They came from locally prominent familes. By contrast, the tangwai politicians were generally from poor families and came up through the educational system, which ran on merit. Since they had no money, they were of no interest to the KMT. Hence only a few of these politicians came from wealthy families.

In the early 1970s there was no strong Taiwan independence movement, said Syd, echoing what Linda Arrigo had stated in her presentation in January. Either the KMT obtained pragmatic support through co-opting people through economic growth, or “people knew their place.” “There was a strong ‘know your place’ mentality,” said Syd. For most people the risk-return ration did not favor participation in Taiwan independence and democracy activities. The risks were just too great.

One oddity of the period Syd pointed out was that for the two weeks prior to elections, people could say pretty much what they wanted. Apparently this functioned as a way for people to let off steam.

Linda Arrigo asked some questions about US Taiwan policy, noting that the US had for a brief period in the early 1970s considered supporting Taiwan independence. Syd replied by saying that during the 1960s our policy was that the status of Taiwan was unresolved, “infuriating Chiang Kai-shek.” Syd, who wrote the human rights report on Taiwan, said that the US pushed for more democracy. Not a revolution – the US always prefers to deal with governments in place. US policy was to push Chiang Kai-Shek to reduce spending on the military and spend more money developing Taiwan.

I asked at that point about the claim that Taiwan independence is simply an invention of the US and Japan to weaken and destroy China. This absurdity circulates among leftists, libertarians, and some progressives, and is an article of faith in China. Syd pointed out, however, that Taiwan independence long predates American intervention on the island.

Syd then went on to note that the KMT blamed the US for its failures of the 1960s and 1970s, but the reality was that the regime was simply too corrupt. Taiwan independence did not become a movement at this time because people were simply too afraid for their lives. The modern PRC is much Taiwan in the early 1970s. Syd then told the story of the time when he had been a student studying Chinese in Taiwan in the late 1960s, prior to taking up his diplomatic post, and they had been taken on a a tour of the cells for political prisoners in Taipei, led by the head of the Political Warfare College at the time. Syd asked him what the difference was between the way social control was carried out in Taiwan and in the PRC, and he replied: “Hardly at all.”

The US strategy was to get Taiwan to democratize. It saw building up the economy as a way of building democracy in Taiwan. Like many other places, US investment in Taiwan followed military interest. The US couldn’t promote democracy because there was no organized local democracy movement, no widespread support for it, and no access to media for such ideas.

Linda Arrigo commented that another issue was that US military and CIA personnel were canned and court-martialed for contacts with Peng Ming-min and involvement in local politics. Syd wasn’t familiar with the particulars, but he knew the cases. Because of this, US missionaries in Taiwan, some of whom supported the democracy forces, distrusted the US Embassy and did not cooperate with it on democracy movement affairs.

Had there been a Taiwan independence movement in those days, and had it overthrown the KMT, the US almost certainly would have recognized it, as the US prefers to deal with governments in place, Syd observed. Linda and Syd then moved into a discussion of Kissenger’s sellout of Taiwan to China in the 1972 Shanghai Communique, when he got completely bamboozled by the Chinese, giving up Taiwan and getting nothing for it. Kissinger didn’t know anything about Asia, recalled Syd. After expressions of disgust all around, the presentation was over.


STOP_George said...

Thanks again, Michael, for this insightful report on yet another enlightening presentation about Taiwan's history.

Anonymous said...

Sounds awesome.

I am hoping to live in Taiwan again next year for an extended period, so hopefully will get to come along to some of these meetings.

You should collect these and write them up into a book!

Anonymous said...

KMT *ahem* castrated Wu Poh hsiung's uncle?

Details please. Don't leave your readers hanging out in suspenseful angst. Did KMT strip the uncle of his political power? humiliate him ponderously? or really really literally carry out a life altering act on him?

Michael Turton said...

I assumed Syd meant it the life altering act.


Anonymous said...

Wu Poh-hsiung's uncle (father's older brother) was tortured to death during 228. His name was Wu Hung-chi (吳鴻麒) and he was a lawyer. You can find a entry about him in Chinese Wikipedia.

He is also listed here (Chinese):

Anonymous said...

By the way, Wu Hung-chi got his law degree from a Japanese university and worked for a Japanese court in Taiwan.

According to some accounts I read online, "castration" is way understating what was done to him.

Joel Haas said...

I agree with Mark, you should collect these longer bits of history along with some of your best posts on local life now, and post them all together in a separate blog or even a "blook."

Michael Turton said...

Actually, I started the blog as the precursor to a book. But the information here is Syd's, not mine.


Anonymous said...


Thanks for reporting what seems to have been a long and interesting presentation.

From my readings, i have the feeling that this period while sometime terrible in terms of political repression, has never really been cleaned up through a thorough exposure of who did what, who got what, and through a "truth and reconciliation" style commission, as it has been done in other countries (even morroco has one!).

All i see seems to be the same players nowadays as 20 or 30 years ago. And it shames my feeling of belonging here as a healthy political life is really what this place lack.