Amira El Ahl: Welcome to a new episode of "Die Kulturmittler:innen", the ifa-podcast on foreign cultural policy. My name is Amira El Ahl, and I'm very glad you're joining us today. Lately, Taiwan has been covered quite frequently in the news. Mostly, however, it is being discussed in relation to China or in terms of its economy and semiconductor industry, which currently dominates the global microchip sector. Therefore, ifas magazine "Kulturaustausch" has dedicated an entire magazine to Taiwan, offering insights into different perspectives on the island state without, of course, ignoring the strained Taiwan-China-relation and its impact on international politics. In addition to the magazine's take on Taiwan, we invited the journalist Emily Y. Wu to our podcast to talk about Taiwan's democracy, cultural identities and its foreign policy. She is the CEO and co-founder of the multilingual Taipei based podcast network Ghost Island Media. Welcome to "Die Kulturmittler:innen", Emily Wu
Emily Y. Wu: Thank you so much. Thank you, Amira. Thank you for having me on. Hello from Taipei.
Amira El Ahl: Yes, hello. We're so happy you could join us. Emily, could you introduce yourself and your work shortly to our listeners to give a little bit of a background of where you come from and what you do?
Emily Y. Wu: I'm Emily Y. Wu, co-founder of Ghost Island Media. And as you said, we are a podcast network based in Taiwan. We started at about 2018. End of 2018 was when we started prepping for this. At one point it was a project and then it spun into a network. We wanted to look at urgent social issues that Taiwan has in common with the world. Now we launch about three new podcasts every year. By the end of this week, we're at podcast number 14. The shows are in English, they are in Mandarin, there's one in French. Topics have ranged from sustainability to cannabis to feminism, gender, looking at emerging leaders, looking at Taiwan in the world, looking at China influence. There's another one dedicated to our interns for emerging creators and cultural diplomacy. Whether for Mandarin language podcasts or for English, we look at these social issues. We look for emerging voices in these grassroots movements, we try to empower these voices. But then we also work with institutions, a couple of the de facto embassies here in Taiwan to have greater dialogue between Taiwan and the world.
Amira El Ahl: Okay, that sounds great. So that's a real big portfolio and a potpourri of different topics that you're offering, which is fantastic. You also have a podcast together with your colleague and the politician Freddy Lim, who created a playlist for the new Kulturaustausch magazine. And you host the podcast "Metalhead Politics", where you talk about music and politics in Taiwan. I mean, this is really an unusual combination. Why did you choose these two aspects?
Emily Y. Wu: So this is what we love about working with hosts: we bring something to the table and they bring another angle that is just surprising and unexpected. The thing is with metalhead music, there's often this sense of rebellion and a different attitude that you view the society from and there's such a strength to this. And Freddy Lim, he created the playlist, but he comes from metal music, he comes from activism as well. And then he was a member of the parliament. So we got together, I think it was middle of 2020, right at the beginning of the pandemic, a part of it was also since his band couldn't tour anymore because of the pandemic. We wanted to find a way of combining these two. But also there's been a place for music in social movements. So we thought this actually is a really interesting way of combining both audiences. But the spirit of the way we examine history, the way we talk about our present circumstances, it just lends itself to a really nice listening experience.
Amira El Ahl: Is it also maybe that you reach a completely different audience that you would usually reach? Metal listeners that maybe wouldn't listen to other kinds of podcasts?
Emily Y. Wu: Yeah, absolutely. Eventually we would start receiving emails from people, a lot of them in Europe, actually, also a lot in Japan who said: "Oh, I'm a fan of metal and everything you said makes a lot of sense to me because of this attitude. But I never looked at Taiwan before and now I'm learning about Taiwan." So that was a really interesting feedback from them. Yeah, absolutely. Later on we would do more in cultural diplomacy and kind of using culture and art to look at Taiwan and found it to be a really effective way.
Amira El Ahl: Interesting. So you have all these different podcasts and you said you started this in 2018, but podcasts weren't really popular or widespread in Taiwan before that or a few years ago. So why did you believe that podcasts were a good format that you would like to pursue in particular to talk about politics and relevant social issues?
Emily Y. Wu: The funny thing was when we were prepping for Ghost Island Media at the end of 2018, I started telling colleagues and friends that this was the new project I'm about to embark on. And in Taiwan at the time the question was always: "Wait, what? What is that? What is even podcast?" So initially a lot of the communications is just I have to explain what this is. I said it's radio on demand. It's like radio, but you listen to it on the Internet. And then they would say, but how do we listen to it? So we had to walk them through: Do you have Apple, do you have Spotify? Sorry, are you Apple or are you Google? Because at the time Spotify hadn't ventured into podcasting yet and that really changed everything. At the time I was listening to a lot of podcasts and I loved the medium. I come from documentary, I come from visual documentary and then news and animation, always on the visual side. But at some point, I think for myself it was in 2014 when I started listening to podcasts. I love how accessible it is. I love how it can be so niche, right? You can be listening to something from halfway around the world and there's a community. I really believe in the power of podcasting. So, we kind of took a risk to say: Well, in the podcasting space, which is so influential, there's a void in terms of talking about Taiwan. So, let's fill that void. And we knew eventually it would start being more popular in Taiwan. We just didn't know how soon it was going to come. So we launched our network in April 2019 with new shows and more shows to come. And the month before that was when Spotify acquired two companies and that changed everything for everybody. So then for Taiwan, it turned out during that time there were other teams and they were also preparing in Taiwan at the same time. All of this, through the work from different creators and app providers, service providers, ended up influencing it so that 2020 became the podcasting year for Taiwan. So, it was really good timing.
Amira El Ahl: You said in an interview once that, and I quote you, "we need to protect more Taiwanese voices and perspectives". As you just said, podcasts have this power because you have the whole world in your pocket anywhere you are and wherever you are. What has been your experience so far when it comes to Taiwanese perspectives and stories in podcasts, but also in the media globally?
Emily Y. Wu: There was a time when I felt that it was really difficult to get Taiwanese voices and perspectives out there more.
Amira El Ahl: But why?
Emily Y. Wu: You know, there's always been Taiwanese who were working on media, whether it was documentaries or movies, but eventually, especially in the last years around 2010, was when I started looking at what was around: the China story just overpowered everybody. The best journalists at the time, the best writers of our time, they were all flocking to China for really important reasons. China was a really important story but it meant that Taiwan just got lost. And everybody's fighting for a front page newspaper space. And Taiwan just kind of got left out. But there were so many people still back home who were trying their best in writing books, in launching news sites. And eventually we realized that we could not rely on foreign journalists writing about us and that this was something that we needed to do much more on our own. I started looking up, also got really good advice from other colleagues who have been doing Taiwan storytelling and perspectives but in other mediums. And trying to get a sense of, okay, well now it's 2018. Now is 2019. What is the fresh perspective here? What should we be talking about? What could we be bringing? And that is a forever evolving thesis and it changes every year. And I would say that nowadays there's so much more eyeballs and attention on Taiwan than ever before. It's really relieving to see that because for a while it just seemed like we're trying so hard to get our voices out there and nobody was listening.
Amira El Ahl: As I already implied in the introduction of this episode, a lot of the Western media discuss Taiwan mostly in terms of the Taiwan-China conflict or its globally dominating microchip industry. But what other topics do you believe should be debated in international media? What do you believe the world should know about Taiwan, its people, its culture, its history?
Emily Y. Wu: In terms of Taiwan being talked about only in the Taiwan-China conflict or chips: In 2020 something shifted because of Covid. Taiwan's response to Covid was incredibly well. And during that year there was a lot of news articles looking at Taiwan's model, looking at what we did right and looking at how it is that we were faring fairly well compared to a lot of places, unfortunately. During that year, it was probably the first year in so long that coverage about Taiwan had nothing to do with China. That same year, a number of American journalists who used to be based in China got kicked out of China and then came to Taiwan. And more press would come eventually. When they came to Taiwan they still had to cover stories and they began to see a variety of stories coming from them culture, tech, transportation, things that are not just China related. So, I would say that, yeah, this does exist and we still have to dig a bit more, dig through the surface a bit more. But these are a lot more available than ever before. But for us – and also for me – China is really important. Chips are really important. Our elections, missiles, we have airplanes flying through every day. All those are really important to look at. But to me, what makes Taiwan amazing, what I love about Taiwan is all the people here who are working so hard and making a difference in their fields, whether that be arts or technology or science or space or social impact, education. That to me is what makes Taiwan. This year I started curating this list of emerging leaders in Taiwan. And it is precisely to make that point that there is such a variety of talents here. Everybody already has a global footprint. And this is why we should love Taiwan. Yes, we're important strategically, but also it's for Taiwan's role in the world.
Amira El Ahl: It's wonderful to hear how enthusiastic you are about this. This is fantastic. And you said that people are making a difference in their fields. And I think this is probably also because the general climate in Taiwan is so good. According to the Democracy index 2022, Taiwan ranks 10th out of 165 and is considered one of only three full democracies in Asia, the other two being Japan and South Korea. So even Germany is listed for a place lower than Taiwan. What is special about Taiwan's democracy or what is Taiwan doing better maybe than other countries? For example Germany? Although your past hasn't been always a democratic one, and I refer here to the period of the white terror. But what makes it today?
Emily Y. Wu: I think a lot of people don't realise that. Well, first of all, we're quite a young democracy. We only came out of martial law in 1987 and it was only in 1995, 1996 when we had our first general presidential election. But I think very few people knew that when we came out of martial law in 1987, that 38 years of martial law at the time was the longest martial law in modern human history at the time, and that the people here fought so hard to get to where we are today. And part of this is because the narrative that China, the People's Republic of China, tells the world. They would like the world to think that, first of all, Taiwan is a part of them.
Amira El Ahl: Maybe just for a better understanding for the people, because you just said it: Taiwan's official name is Republic of China. And the official name of mainland China is People's Republic of China. Not everybody maybe knows this, but that's just to make everybody be on the same page here. So sorry for interrupting you here.
Emily Y. Wu: People's Republic of China, the Chinese Communist Party, the way they and the world think Taiwan is a part of them. They like to think that. Sometimes they take advantage of the fact that people are not familiar with the difference between Hong Kong and Taiwan. So, what we heard during 2019, during 2020, when the Hong Kong situation was front centre, was that people said, "Oh, well, Taiwan is the same, right? Taiwan is one country, two systems, right? You are a part of China and now you're fighting for independence, right?" A lot of people don't realise that we've been an independent nation for so long. And yes, at the time it was dictatorship, like many countries in the world at the time. But that through all those 38 years or even under Japanese colonisation before that, there had been people, pro-democracy activists, who have sacrificed so much just so that we today can live in an independent free nation with freedom, freedom of speech, freedom of expression, and full democracy. This is what people have chosen. People stood up. People lived under martial law, decided they didn't want this and spoke up and fought so hard. And this is how we came here today. So I think that history was similar to others. Something that in 'Metalhead Politics', my show with Freddie, some of the Eastern European writers wrote in to say: "I don't know much about Taiwan, but it appears so that we have very similar history. And so I think I understand Taiwan a little bit better now."
Amira El Ahl: Because you fought so hard for it.
Emily Y. Wu: Correct, yes. And I found that when we finally explained that to people again to say this is our path, then it clicks in. People say, oh, this is why you don't want to have anything to do with China. What China is offering makes no sense to us. Why would you go back to authoritarian state? We fought so hard for this and we're not going back to that. So that's one of the things. The other thing is Taiwan is an incredibly diverse society. There's multi-ethnic and a lot of dual identities in Taiwan, aside from Taiwanese. There's the Hakka group, there's Taiwanese who came from a pre-Chinese-nationalist, pre-KMT-era who were here before the Japanese, and there's the indigenous communities here. The indigenous culture is thriving here. It's a very small percentage of the population, about 2.5% of the population only. But among them it's about 16 different indigenous nations. And they're part of the Austronesian indigenous communities of the world, which is something that we also have in common with the world, and we're really proud of that. And nowadays you can see how young artists, young musicians and young illustrators, they're really embracing their multicultural identity. That to me is also what makes Taiwan amazing. It's not this homogeneous society that China, the Communist Party, claims that Taiwan is and hence that's their narrative.
Amira El Ahl: But maybe to go back what you said earlier: You are an independent nation, you're a free nation and you're very proud of this. However, although your rates are so high in the democracy index and you have this thriving democracy, not every country has accepted Taiwans national sovereignty because of this history that you have and that is so complex and that you tried to explain. What impact do you believe does that have on you as a country and your people?
Emily Y. Wu: It can be a very lonely state, a very lonely state of mind. I don't mean a lonely nation. It can be a very lonely state of mind, I think. Taiwan has really robust partnerships with these nations that supposedly do not recognise Taiwan, but they do not recognise Taiwan only because China has made it a condition that if you are diplomatic allies with the People's Republic of China, then you shall not be also allied with Taiwan. This is not something that the countries have chosen to say, it's because the pressure of China that they have to make these decisions. That's just a very lonely reality. That's a very frustrating reality. The number of our diplomatic allies dwindle every year. I think we're down to about 13 allies. And psychologically, it bums us out, for sure it does every time we lose an ally. However, our own official partnerships, economic partnerships, trade and other forms of collaborations and exchanges with other countries remain strong and have strengthened even more in the last several years. And that's something that gives us so much more confidence. We're figuring out ways of continuing Taiwan's partnerships with the world outside of the framework that each country has their own One-China-policy or their policy, which may be called One-China-policy.
Amira El Ahl: So you just mentioned the One-China-policy. In ifa's KULTURAUSTAUSCH magazine, Taiwan's diplomatic representative in Berlin, Shieh Jhy-Wey, explained in an interview that this is the main reason that limits Taiwan's diplomatic relations with other countries. Could you shortly explain what this One-China-policy is? Because also in Germany we don't speak of a Taiwanese embassy. We speak of a Taipei representation.
Emily Y. Wu: I think in the simplest terms: countries with One-China-Policy usually acknowledge China's claim that there's only one China. And by that it means People's Republic of China versus Republic of China. And because of this One-China-Policy they're not able to have diplomatic allies with Taiwan. One-China-Policy is okay because there's still a lot of things you can do outside of this framework. But the problem comes when China takes in this One-China-Policy, but then they try to confuse it by claiming that there's a One-China-Principle. And the One-China-Principle is something that belongs to China completely only. It means you're acting on the principle that there's only one China and Taiwan is a part of China. And now you agree with such principle. China uses that to confuse everybody, when in reality the different nations, different countries in the world have a One-China-Policy that only says we acknowledge this. In broader terms is that. We also try to make that clear because there's a lot of things that are possible outside of One-China-Policy that Taiwan can engage with the world. But when China then says, no, it is the One-China-Principle, then you are negotiating under China's terms.
Amira El Ahl: Yeah, because the One-China-Policy also implies that China sees Taiwan as a part and wants to reunify Taiwan to the mainland, which as a matter of fact, Taiwan was never part of the People's Republic of China because it was only a Republic of China since 1949. But anyways, it's a very difficult topic. This brings me to another thing I wanted to ask you because President Joe Biden has repeatedly stated that the US would actively defend Taiwan in case of a Chinese invasion, which is always imminent in a way. The French President, Emmanuel Macron, on the other hand, said that Europe should be more independent from the US in its relation to China and should avoid to be trapped in this conflict. And I quote him here, he said: "[...]in crises that are not ours". How are these different stances perceived among the Taiwanese people?
Emily Y. Wu: It really shocked me and confused me when democratic values become equated with an American agenda. We've never thought of it in that term. When we're looking at partnerships around the world, friendships around the world, or allies around the world, it's with the same values, right? These pro-democracy values, these values of equity, values that it should be a fairer society. So it was really disheartening to hear that from President Macron. The impact of China, the influence of China is so great, it's so complicated that every country has different calculations and different considerations. And Taiwan has its own ways of dealing with China, our own challenges when it comes to China. But I've always thought and believed that democratic nations should stand together because this universal value is what we all have in common.
Amira El Ahl: And it's interesting because looking at the Russian invasion in Ukraine one could draw certain parallels between China and the situation between China and Taiwan. But why do you believe that politicians such as Macron see this conflict through such a different lens and come to such different conclusions when they look at the Ukraine and Taiwan? Because it's so much closer to them? There must be a reason.
Emily Y. Wu: Yes, I think it's proximity. And this is why I think for a long time when Taiwan was so isolated internationally, we didn't have to. A lot of countries that were not used to have so much dealings with Taiwan, it was just so unfamiliar. And so I think everybody's reevaluating this. And I do hope that President Macron would start that was a temporary...
Amira El Ahl: Evaluation of the situation maybe?
Emily Y. Wu: Yeah, yes, it is tough.
Amira El Ahl: It is tough, but maybe to look at it from another angle: How real do you think is the threat that China might invade Taiwan within, let's say, the next 5 to 10 years? And, this comes back to what Macron says with the proximity, has maybe Russia's war and Western support for Ukraine changed China's perspective in this regard? Because they see countries will defend and will stand up against an invasion like this?
Emily Y. Wu: Yes, I think the more that global leaders and global partners express the concern for China's aggression, it puts China off more to what they may or may not be planning. But look, the potential threat of China is something that we've always lived with. I remember there was an island blackout in 1999. It was July 1999. Nothing terribly dramatic happened. There was an electric pole that tumbled and it cut the power to the whole island, which was a big crisis on its own. But at the time, everybody looked up at the sky and thought, is this an attack coming? It was very real and we have drills every year on scenarios. And even though the threats are always there, it is really scary with the countdown. People are talking about different years. And the scary thing is that dictators are unpredictable. But I think the more support everybody has around the world – today it is Ukraine – and if it comes to a time that's us, then we need that international support. Everybody needs that international support to strengthen that, support alliances for us.
Amira El Ahl: And what would you expect concretely from the international community and especially from European countries such as Germany in such a situation?
Emily Y. Wu: Weapons help, for sure. Weapons help. For now, we are strengthening our own at the moment. We're talking about civilian resilience. We can get better training . Do citizens know what to do if something were to happen? So a lot of that preparation is on our side. It is really scary to think about this scenario because when it comes to security, it's not just Taiwan, it's the entire region. And that is what's really scary about it. What will neighbouring countries do? Recently, there's businesses in Taiwan or also international businesses that are doing risk analysis. And I'm not a part of that analysis, but I hear of people doing that analysis and they ask: Is this risky for Taiwan? Over the last couple of years in those discussions, what I've always said is that it's not a Taiwan issue. This is a regional issue. This is a global issue, and that it takes everybody to make China realise that they need to slow down their aggression. They need to stop.
Amira El Ahl: Let's go back maybe to what you said about this thriving democracy. You described it, what a beautiful place it is, this free nation. And let's go back to this positive feeling. But although Taiwan is often perceived as this prime example of Asian democracy by the West, but you also explained it, how you feel about this, the Taiwanese author, Li Ang, claims that many taboos are still limiting the public debate in Taiwan. In her article in the current issue of the magazine Kulturaustausch, she explains that one of the controversial topics is the division between the supporters of the Taiwanisation and those of the pro-China-faction, which has, as she says and I quote her here, "already cut a deep notch in society. This issue often divides families and circles of friends so we don't talk about it". Do you agree with this? And could you explain why this is the case, why this is such a big divide for the society?
Emily Y. Wu: It's getting a little bit better. And that's another positive side that this divide is thinning. And historically, a big part of this comes because you have a group of Taiwanese who have been here for centuries. They have been here since the 1700s or the 1800s before the arrival of the Japanese government. And then they were here before the Chinese nationalists came, Chiang Kai-shek came. So, this camp, this group identifies very much so with Taiwan, the island of Taiwan. This is where we're from. This is where we're born. This is the history. We should know the people. And then you have the others who came with Chiang Kai-shek's army at the end of World War II. So, for a long time you know, they emigrated to Taiwan and they believe fully that they were Chinese. And they were. They were born in China and then they immigrated here. And it is that second generation then all of a sudden they have this dual identity that they are both Chinese, also Taiwanese. Culturally, they were Chinese. Their parents were born there. But what does that mean for me? Kind of that identity experience. But now for the very first time, most of the people in Taiwan are born in Taiwan, so that Taiwanese identity is natural. There's actually a word for it which is called natural, naturally independent. In that context I would say that the divide that you just spoke about amongst families and friends on whether these are Taiwanisation or pro-China, it's thinning out. It still exists for sure, but it's thinning out. And that's all just relative history.
Amira El Ahl: So that's because of the new generation and it's because time is playing for Taiwan in this case.
Emily Y. Wu: Yes, but what we still have now are some parts of the community who have businesses in China, their stakes are very much invested in China and that is still a bit of the pro-China faction. Not because of historical memories but because...
Amira El Ahl: Economic ties.
Emily Y. Wu: Companies are in China, their livelihoods. Yes, correct. And some have spent so much time there that their children also grew up in China. So, there is that as well. And that is also still front and centre when it comes to elections here. They will say, well, what about what about them? What about the people who have such deep business ties in China? What does that mean?
Amira El Ahl: We're slowly coming to the end of our talk. But I would love to come back to one thing you said earlier which I found very interesting, it's about strengthening this identity in Taiwan. You talked about the indigenous groups in Taiwan. There's like 16 officially recognized indigenous groups and I'm not sure if I pronounce them right. Tau, Taroko or Paiwan, please correct me if I'm wrong, and you said that the people are very proud of that and that these exist. How are these groups represented in today's society, in Taiwan and also in politics? You said that people are proud of this. Is this a general thing or how are their cultures perceived and integrated in Taiwan today?
Emily Y. Wu: Yeah, also very complex history as well. Very complicated. And I think, of course, racism still exists as it does in a lot of different places. But what I've been told by my friends who are part of the indigenous communities is that there's been a lot of progress throughout the years on particular laws, for example, that gave them recognition, gave back the recognition of their land. For example, indigenous communities have the right to hunt on their land that others do not. And this is the recognition of the way that this is a traditional way of life and that we need to recognise that and still honour that. At some point our national ID-laws were rectified so that it allowed indigenous individuals to change their names from a forced Mandarin name back to their tribal name as they wish. And these are very small changes. But what I hear what it does is that it's a reclaiming of the indigenous identity and indigenous status. So over time there came more and more of these laws that were in place. And culturally, these are special policies. Culturally, there's a push to preserve the language. There's an indigenous TV-station that was set up that broadcasts in all the different languages. Indigenous activists who are building schools to try to preserve the languages for the young children who in the last generation didn't really grow up knowing indigenous language. Because when the nationalist army, Chiang Kai-shek, came here they inserted Mandarin on everybody. That became the official language. And you're not supposed to speak anything other than Mandarin. So a lot of these languages were oppressed. In terms of political representation: There's a special election that's reserved for indigenous representation, so that guarantees a number of indigenous seats in every parliament. But even that, that it is from my friends who are from the Indigenous community, knowing the progress that has been made but of course there's also how each person reclaims their identity. In my interview series with the Game Changers of Taiwan, one of them is this indigenous woman who grew up mixed, half and half, so half Taiwanese and half indigenous. And because she grew up in Taipei, her indigenous identity wasn't something she embraced when she was younger. And we would see this in Taiwanese identity too back in the days. You want to conform to Mandarin and so on. Eventually she got introduced to the global network of indigenous communities and then she started to reclaim her identity, realising how important it is and that these are the ways to reclaim back your identity. So definitely a work in progress. But the really cool thing is right now the biggest pop star in Taiwan is this woman who sings in her indigenous language. Her name is Abao. And that is something that just could not have happened 20 years ago. 20 years ago, there was also another indigenous woman who was the biggest pop star, but for a long time, while she mostly sang in Mandarin at the time, she used her Taiwanese name. So she also went through a change where she said, you know what, I'm changing my name back to my indigenous name.
Amira El Ahl: But that's wonderful. That there is so much progress made, it sounds super interesting. And as you said, it's a work in progress, but which democracy is not? Thank you so much, Emily Y. Wu, for taking the time to talk with us today. It's been such a pleasure and it's so interesting. There's so much to learn about Taiwan. And we could talk for hours but unfortunately this is all we have time for today. Thank you for being with us.
Emily Y Wu: Thank you so much for having me. This has been a pleasure. Thank you so much.
Amira El Ahl: That leads us to the end of this episode on Taiwan. If you enjoyed it, please feel free to recommend "Die Kulturmittler:innen" to others. And if you haven't listened to them yet, feel free to check out our special episodes on Ukraine. "Die Kulturmittler:innen" is available on all common streaming platforms like Spotify, Apple Podcasts or Deezer. And if you want to get more perspectives and facts on Taiwan get the latest issue of ifa's print-magazine called "KULTURAUSTAUSCH". You can find a link to order in the show notes. If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to email us at podcast(at)ifa.de. For more information on our organization ifa – Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen, visit ifa.de. With that, I say goodbye. My name is Amirah El Ahl. Thank you for listening. Bye bye.