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  • Refuting the Silences of Taiwanese/American History:The Case of Chen Yu-hsi
  • Wendy Cheng (bio)

On January 16, 1969, the University of Hawai'i (UH) issued the "Statement on Rights and Freedoms of Foreign Students on the University of Hawaii Campus," which began by affirming a commitment to academic freedom: "the freedom to teach and the freedom to learn." As "full participants in the educational process," foreign students, the university asserted, "have the right to pursue formal knowledge … in whatever directions and with whatever legitimately appropriate associations as are necessary, without fear of reprisal." However, the statement continued: "For its part, the University of Hawaii guarantees all students the freedom of silence. No student is required to engage in research on any topic or to make statements of any kinds, unless it is his wish to do so" (emphasis mine).1

What was this statement about, and what do "freedom" and "silence" have to do with each other? Historically, the statement was issued in response to the 1968 arrest, conviction, and subsequent imprisonment of Chen Yu-hsi, a Republic of China (Taiwan) national and a former student at UH's East-West Center.2 Chen's arrest and conviction of subversion were based on Republic of China (ROC) spy reports about his activities in Hawai'i and later Japan; he was one of scores of Taiwanese who were targeted and surveilled by the ROC state while they were in the US from the 1960s to the early 1990s. In other words, the "freedom of silence" emerges from a particularly (if not uniquely) Taiwanese/American story. In this essay, I argue that freedom and silence are important both as historically grounded ideological concepts and as critical metaphors through which to understand Taiwanese/American history and its broader epistemological implications for American studies.

From 1964 to 1991 (peaking in 1976–81), there were scores of instances of Kuomintang (KMT) spying on Taiwanese students on twenty-one US campuses.3 These were reported extensively by campus and local newspapers, and to some degree by national and international media. At the campus and [End Page 343] local level, a KMT "informant" form, turned over to UC Berkeley's Daily Californian by a former spy in 1976, was widely reprinted.4 These reports were part of a widespread ROC government surveillance infrastructure called the "rainbow project," so called because rainbow ("caihong") is a homonym for picking or stamping out the red, that is, what the regime called "communist bandits." A report on an individual could mean anything from intimidation, threats of injury or death, harassment of family in Taiwan, to being blacklisted from returning to Taiwan. Many cases culminated in arrest and imprisonment upon return to Taiwan, and even death, in the well-known 1981 case of a thirty-one-year-old Carnegie Mellon professor, Chen Wen-chen.5

Community and popular narratives of such persecution (scholarly treatments are notably absent, at least in English) typically treat these individuals as either innocent victims of KMT brutality or—in cases in which there was actual political activity—martyrs for the cause of Taiwanese independence. While there is truth to both characterizations, they obscure the larger institutional, structural, and ideological conditions through which such persecution occurred—in particular, the role of the United States. Especially since the 1980s, liberal individualist narratives focused on human rights and democracy usually downplay, excuse, or even heroize the United States—the US state, its related institutions, and its relationships to other states—in shaping the politics and subjectivities of Taiwanese Americans. Because of several factors—including the purging of the left in Taiwan and abroad, pro-US indoctrination, limited ability to access to non-Chinese-language political material and organizing, and Taiwanese immigrants' tendency to become well positioned in Cold War social and class hierarchies of immigration and opportunity—many Taiwanese Americans came to espouse broadly liberal, centrist, or even right-wing politics. As a result, dissenting, left, and radical politics within Taiwanese-identified communities have been largely ignored or forgotten. In fact, far from being neutral or benevolent, the numerous cases of Taiwanese students spied on by other Taiwanese on US campuses illuminate the role of US educational institutions...