[BOOKS] Convergence or Conflict in the Taiwan Strait: A Journey

[BOOKS] Convergence or Conflict in the Taiwan Strait: A Journey
Photo: J. Michael Cole

What you need to know

Published by Routledge today, ‘Convergence or Conflict’ shows why Taiwan matters, where it is headed, and why ‘peaceful unification’ is illusory.

As I write this, Typhoon Megi is unleashing its fury outside the window of my study. It’s the first real one to hit Taipei this typhoon season, which has seen four such monsters approach the island-nation. Megi is appropriate: today, my book Convergence or Conflict in the Taiwan Strait has been published in the U.K. by Routledge, and among many other things it argues that unless the Chinese government completely changes its approach to Taiwan, no possibility of peaceful coexistence will ever exist. So it is a book about conflict, much more than it is about convergence. And that conflict is a very real and palpable thing to me, as China now threatens me directly and personally as a journalist and writer.

Convergence or Conflict has had an interesting journey. It was first conceived, if only as a general research idea, as part of an application to renew my position of associate researcher with the French Center for Research on Contemporary China (CEFC). So my first note of gratitude must perforce be extended to Dr. Stéphane Corcuff at CEFC’s office in Taiwan, a good friend and generous supporter of my work.

Then, sometime in May 2015, I was contacted by Business Weekly, one of the largest publishers in Taiwan. They wanted to obtain the rights to translate Black Island, my book on Taiwanese social movements, into Chinese. What I didn’t know until we met at a small coffee shop near the Executive Yuan in Taipei was that Business Weekly also wanted me to write a new book for them, one that would be published in Chinese first.

Luckily, that book already existed conceptually; it was the very project I had proposed to CEFC.

As the publisher initially hoped to release the book before the general elections in January 2016, that did not leave me much time to produce a 110,000-word manuscript, which furthermore, since I am not as linguistically talented as my friend Dr. Corcuff, had to be translated into Chinese from my English-language draft. Rather fortunately I was employed by the Thinking Taiwan Foundation at the time and had enough freedom to reorganize my work and concentrate, almost full time, on my book. I gave myself ten weeks to produce the first draft, and during those ten weeks that is all I did, writing from 8 am until 6 pm with half an hour for lunch. It all poured out onto the page, and since I had had this project in the back of my mind for several months, a lot of it was already formed and coherent. Some chapters, the one where I explore definitions of democracy and the one on Hong Kong, in particular, took more time as they necessitated large amounts of reading and referencing. Others, such as the impact of the Sunflower Movement phenomenon on identity and politics in Taiwan, flowed out in torrents, much like the rain that is lashing at my window as I write this.

Ten weeks later, I’d handed in all four sections of the book. That entire period is a blur now, dream-like, as if I had been possessed by an impatient muse.

After that, the good people at Business Weekly, with Hsia Chunpei spearheading the whole effort, took over and worked their magic. As translation progressed, the publisher reversed its initial strategy and decided to wait until after the elections so that we would have a better idea of the direction that cross-Strait relations would take after January. Luckily, even as I was drafting my book in July and August 2015, I had a pretty good idea which candidate would win in 2016 and how Beijing would react. The eleventh-hour decision to await the result of the elections therefore didn’t mean a lot of extra work and adjustments. I did nevertheless write four different versions of the chapter that analyzes the election results, one for every possible outcome.

With miraculous proofreading and editing by my wife Ketty literally days before it went to print, 《島嶼無戰事:不願面對的和平假象》was published on Feb. 5, about two weeks after the general elections that had swept Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) Democratic Progressive Party into power. Its reception in Taiwan has been nothing short of amazing, and I am humbled by the kind reviews it was given by people who, Taiwanese themselves, understand this place far better than I ever will.

Sometime in August 2015 and while the English m.s. was still being translated in Taipei, I contacted Taylor & Francis in London and as I had retained the rights for the English version of my book, proposed they take a look at it. Dr. Dafydd Fell of SOAS, for whom I had contributed a chapter in an upcoming volume on civic activism during the Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) era, had facilitated contact with the editor and was very supportive of the idea. I did not expect a favorable response, given that this was my first-ever submission to the prestigious academic publisher and moreover am not an academic per sé, hailing instead from the journalistic side. But to my surprise a favorable response I did get, and this was soon followed by equally positive assessments by a pair of anonymous peer reviewers (thank you, whoever you are). Both recommended publication with only minor suggested changes, which also was rather unusual for a first submission and a book that, in all honesty, I had written mainly for a general Taiwanese audience.

Then followed several months of back and forth, editing, rewriting, updating, trimming, answering queries from the editor, preparing the index and so on. Fortunately I was dealing with pros, and the process was a painless one. Today, after a long journey, the book is out, both in hardback (the famous blue series) and, somewhat rare for Routledge, also in paperback, which means it will also be accessible to a general audience. As a summation of my decade of research on Taiwan and China, I believe Convergence or Conflict contains a very important message and hope it helps more people in academia, government and other walks of life better understand what Taiwan is all about, why it matters, and why “peaceful unification” on Beijing’s terms (it has offered no alternatives) will forever be elusive, the illusion in the title.

I hope you find it useful. Writing it certainly was, and I could not have done it without the generous support of countless extraordinary people.