Saturday, 13 August 2011

Despatches from Taiwan 3

I recently visited the Chiang Ching-kuo memorial in Daxi, in Taoyuan county. An exhibition of the former President's role in "counter-insurgency" against the "rebel" regime on the Chinese mainland reminded me of my visit in 2010 to Jinmen. Jinmen is an island that belongs to Taiwan but is actually  geographically closer to the PRC. It was the site of fierce battles in the 1950s when thousands of Chinese from both sides of the Taiwan Strait lost their lives. It then became the centre of Taiwan's propaganda efforts towards the mainland, being the home of several large signs painted on the cliffs shouting political slogans at the mainland, and huge speakers from which similar propaganda messages were blast across the water. From Jinmen, Taiwan shelled the PRC and the Communist forces shelled Taiwan in turn. In later years, the shells contained nothing more harmful than propaganda leaflets, and the militaries on opposing sides reached a strange consensus that they would timetable their shelling on alternate days of the week. Propaganda by a gentleman's agreement.

Most interesting for this 'shortwave radio nut' during his visit to Jinmen was the Ma Shan broadcasting station. Although I could not enter, exhibitions in Jinmen and at the Chiang Ching-kuo mausoleum recounted the role that broadcasting has played in the propaganda war between Taiwan and China.  

Taiwan's propagandists take great pride in their confidence that broadcasts found a significant audience within the PRC despite severe punishment if they were caught listening. They claim that listeners wrote to Taiwan's main radio station, the Central Broadcasting Station (CBS), using "hidden messages". This 'refers to the use of a special ink needed for conveying what listeners actually had in mind on paper'. What this special ink was, how it worked and, most importantly, how the Chinese audience obtained it, needs further investigation. What is most interesting about the exhibition is that it admits CBS was involved in 'psychological warfare'; its main audience were Chinese pilots, and CBS broadcast programmes designed to encourage Chinese pilots to defect. While programmes such as 'Three Family Village Nighttime Talk' may have had some impact, more significant perhaps were the financial rewards the pilots were told by the broadcasts they would receive after their defection.

However, the most successful element of this psychological warfare was a singer, Deng Lijun (Teresa Deng). Extremely popular in Taiwan and Japan in the 1970s, Teresa Deng regularly broadcast to the PRC from the Ma Shan broadcasting station on Jinmen in the 1980s. Although her music was considered 'decadent' and 'bourgois' and was banned in China, her broadcasts found a huge audience. This was confirmed when a Chinese airforce pilot defected, claiming that he wanted to meet the singer - which of course found its way back into the propaganda, confirming how propaganda often feeds on itself. It also confirms that the best propaganda is often based on entertainment that has no political content whatsoever; recall the popularity, and therefore importance in Eastern Europe of Willis Conover's apolitical Jazz Hour broadcast by VoA during the Cold War. Teresa Deng's rendition of ballads and Chinese folk songs encouraged a sense of nostalgia among listeners and perhaps reminded the Chinese on both sides of the Taiwan strait of what united, rather than separated them.

It was often said that Big Deng (Deng Xiaoping) ruled China during the day, but Little Deng (Teresa Deng) ruled China at night when he broadcasts could be heard. It is with a hint of irony that the Communist Party of China invited her to perform on the mainland in the 1990s, but she never had the opportunity.

In 1995, Teresa Deng died from asthma tragically young at the age of 42. In 2010 I visted her  mountainside tomb in Jinshan in northern Taiwan. The site features a statue of Teresa and a large electronic piano keyboard set in the ground that can be played by visitors who step on the keys. Her music broadcasts continiously. It is Taiwan's Graceland.

I have become extremely interested in Teresa Deng, and I sincerely hope to supervise a PhD about her work as a propagandist. I hope someone who is bilingual in English and Chinese and is thinking about doctoral research might read this and get in touch ...

I asked some well informed colleagues in Taiwan - I shall say no more - about claims I saw in Jinmen that balloons carrying propaganda from the island had floated deep (and I mean deep) into the PRC. I found these claims a little exaggerated; could the balloons float so far inland? After all, the balloons that were used to carry propaganda over the iron curtain or from South to North Korea (which is still happening) had little distance to travel. The PRC, as we know, is huge. My 'friends in the know' tried to convince me that (a) the distance travelled depends on the type of balloon; and (b) they know they did travel so far inland because they were recovered by pro-Taiwan resistance fighters in the mainland. I am still very sceptical and look forward to investigating further.


  1. Hello there! You have time to write such excellent paper but not to read a little part from my dissertation! Protesting...

  2. "romantic" Ph.D project! investigating Deng Lijun propaganda...