What you need to know
'For the modern political gadfly armed with Skype and an internet connection, distance and geography are diminishing barriers to activism.'
A group of about a dozen is meeting in a coffee shop to discuss their strategy for mobilizing to oppose the agenda of U.S. President Donald Trump.
As their conversation progresses through the balmy winter evening in mid-February, they take on questions of strategy one by one: Will they hold a full-blown strike on International Women’s Day, or merely a demonstration? How can they best coordinate their efforts with those of other groups? Should they have a Twitter account?
This scene of grassroots activism could perhaps have taken place in any number of cities throughout the U.S. after Trump’s election galvanized thousands of people into political action and protest. But this particular coffee shop meeting is not in the U.S. It is instead tucked away into the underground level of a Mass Rapid Transit station in Taipei City, Taiwan.
“Even though we’re expatriates, we still have a loyalty and an interest in how our country behaves and how it’s shown to the world,” says Mary Goodwin, a longtime Taiwan resident and one of the group’s leading organizers.
Goodwin along with many other Taiwan-based expatriates is alarmed by Trump’s rhetoric and actions toward a number of groups, including women, Muslims, and Mexican immigrants. She says some in Taiwan’s expatriate community have even considered returning to the U.S. to assist in activism back home or to run for office. She did not. “That can’t happen for some of us who are deeply embedded in Taiwan, but I think that we still have a role to play,” she says.
Now Goodwin and a growing number of likeminded U.S. expatriates in Taiwan and elsewhere in Asia are trying to puzzle through how they can make their opposition felt all the way back in their home country. “We’re not in the thick of it, but in some ways that is an advantage because we can see more things from here, and we’re not beaten down on a daily basis by thinking there’s no escape,” she says.
As the saying goes, all politics is local. Apparently this is true, even when “local” happens to be 10,000 kilometers away.
Goodwin, like many others who gathered that evening, was not politically active before the recent U.S. election cycle. The push into activism came following the Women’s March, a massive demonstration that took place in cities in the U.S. and around the world on January 21st, the day after Trump’s inauguration. On that day millions within the U.S. and hundreds of thousands outside took to the streets to protest the new presidency and demonstrate in support for women’s rights, migrant rights, religious freedom and environmental causes.
With marches organized from Washington D.C. to Seoul, South Korea to Antarctica, Goodwin was dismayed to see a complete lack of activity in Taiwan. So a day after the official march, she announced on Facebook plans to stage an impromptu demonstration near the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, the sprawling monument to Taiwan’s former autocratic leader in the heart of Taipei. Originally her intention was to bring over a sign, snap a few photos and stick them online, but to her surprise, her post had picked up enough attention that in the end several dozen joined her demonstration with their own signs.
Even more surprising, many of those who assembled wanted to meet again, and one week later, they did. “The first week was a get together at Chili’s because they had two-for-one drinks,” says Goodwin. The meetings continued led by Goodwin and a handful of other key organizers, attracting more interest and more attendees.
They now organize themselves along the lines of Indivisible, a movement founded by former congressional staffers who have taken the tactics of the Tea Party movement that were so effective in opposing the Obama agenda, and adapted them for use by activists now mobilizing against Trump. Under these tactics, voters apply direct pressure to their elected officials through calling, letter writing and in-person mobilization.
Of course, a few tactical tweaks are needed for their group, which they now call Indivisible Taiwan. They will not, for example, be storming any U.S. town hall meetings anytime soon, but as Goodwin points out, much of politics now takes place online, and for the modern political gadfly armed with Skype and an internet connection, distance and geography are diminishing barriers to activism.
US politics, outside the US
Taiwan is not alone in East Asia as a home for U.S. expatriate activism.
Back in January “Sister Marches” to the Women’s March were held in countries and regions throughout Asia. They ranged in size from the few dozen that held signs in Hong Kong to the estimated thousand or so that hit the streets of Seoul. As in Taiwan, activism in many countries has continued after the Women’s March itself, with expats around the continent organizing their own letter writing and phone banking campaigns.
Among these countries, Japan has turned out to be one of the most active.
Thanks to time zones and early mobilization, Tokyo activists actually staged their Women’s March before the official event even began in the U.S. with a demonstration that managed to attract more than 600 people to Hibiya Park. The march was soon followed with further activism including a hastily organized protest in front of the U.S. embassy in late January and a several hundred-strong demonstration only a few weeks later dubbed the March for an Inclusive America. The demonstrators attending the latter rally largely focused their ire on the Trump administration’s ban on travelers from seven majority-Muslim countries and separate measures that have seen immigration authorities stepping up raids on undocumented immigrants.
With an eye to applying some order to Tokyo’s energetic expat activism, U.S. expat and longtime Japan resident Ric Fouad along with a few others formed the Alliance for an Inclusive America, which he describes as a non-partisan clearinghouse for activism related information in Japan. This information is largely distributed through their Facebook group. Fouad, an attorney and law professor, says the Alliance has already received half a dozen requests to help promote events such as the upcoming March for Science in April, a Tax Day protest aimed at pressuring President Trump to release his tax returns, and a series of lectures on race and justice organized by a locally based law school.
“We’re not in New York City or in San Francisco or Chicago where you would expect large numbers. We’re in Tokyo, so we’re very heartened that so many people came and joined us,” says Fouad who also helped organize the March for an Inclusive America. “It matters that everyone around the world wises up, and begins to speak with one voice where needed.”
An expat's view on activism
U.S. expatriates are of course a diverse group of individuals, but they report a similar set of motivations for getting involved.
First and foremost, there is simple election math: Americans living overseas number in the millions and represent a whole lot of votes when mobilized. According to the American Institute in Taiwan, which unofficially represents the U.S., on any given day about 75,000 U.S. citizens are present in Taiwan alone. One Democratic Party organizer interviewed by The News Lens pointed out that many U.S. congressional elections in recent memory have been close enough that the expatriate vote could have played a decisive role. The Democrats have also enjoyed an uptick in participation among American expats since Trump’s election, and with the above numbers in mind, organizers say they are focusing much of their overseas efforts on voter registration.
Other expatriates pointed to security concerns as a prime motivator for political engagement. With the future of U.S.-China ties increasingly uncertain, many believe their adopted homes in Asia could become the front line of a future conflict, and they believe a number of statements made by Donald Trump both during the campaign and afterwards have made the security situation even more precarious. Those include statements during the campaign that seemed to indicate only conditional support for treaty allies South Korea and Japan, and more recently, Trump’s Dec. 2, 2016, phone call with Taiwan president Tsai Ing-wen and his subsequent comments questioning the U.S. commitment to its “One China Policy.” All of this has put many expatriates on edge, and created even greater doubt about the intentions of the U.S. in the region.
Meanwhile, many feel that the triumphs of their adopted countries hold relevant lessons for the U.S. electorate, whether it be Taiwan’s universal health care system, or Japan’s extensive public transportation network. “Americans tend to see themselves as doing everything better than the rest of the world,” says Goodwin, who in addition to her activism also serves as a professor at National Taiwan Normal University’s Department of English. “It’s just ridiculous to anyone who has traveled, and this is what I think they need to be able to see.”
Finally, many are getting involved simply to fight the creeping sense of isolation experienced by many expats who have left behind more familiar communities back home. “The point is if we let ourselves start to feel like we’re atomized and divided and disunited and are not part of a collective better conscience of America then the white flag might as well go up,” says Fouad. “But if we let people know that there is really a community of decency here and that you can become a part of it, we help people to overcome their own skepticism, cynicism, and feelings that there’s nothing we can do.”
Indivisible Taiwan continues to organize. Last week they held a larger meeting attended not just by U.S. expats but also by a number of local Taiwanese activists interested in the possibility of working together to advocate for women's rights and local gender related issues.
Jennifer Su, a Taiwanese student studying English at National Taiwan Normal University who also attended the January Women’s March, explains that she believes U.S. domestic politics hold a great deal of significance for Taiwan. For example, she says the 2015 Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage in the U.S. helped to energize Taiwan’s own debate on the issue, a debate that last year led to the introduction of several legalization bills to Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan. “Even though we don't have completely identical issues with the U.S., the desperate need of open, conscious, and informed discussions on various important social issues are mutual and long overdue,” Su says.
The group has also managed to set a full calendar of events for itself in the coming months, which includes a demonstration on Women's Day in March (by their second meeting they seem to have backed of the strike idea in favor of a march from Taipei’s Daan Forest Park), their own event to mark Tax Day, and the Global March for Science set to coincide with Earth Day. They are also planning calling parties to lobby U.S. legislators on environmental conservation issues, to push for an investigation into President Trump’s suspected ties with Russia, to oppose Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch, and to promote various liberal politicians.
As they progress though, they will need to grapple with a number of potentially divisive questions. Some of these questions are also faced by organizers back in the U.S. as well: Should they adopt a more direct anti-Trump stance or keep the focus strictly on policy issues? Should they work with the Democratic Party, or, would doing so alienate independents and Republicans?
Other challenges are distinct to Taiwan's own particular situation: There is the pressing question of just how much Taiwan itself should figure into their activism with some calling for the group to adopt an explicit stance on U.S.-Taiwan ties while others fear wading into Taiwan’s complicated and heated political situation will only stoke distracting controversy.
Then, there is even some confusion about whether or not foreigners in Taiwan are legally permitted to take part in public demonstrations at all, a question for which they are now seeking legal counsel.
As activists around the world continue to organize and deepen their engagement in U.S. politics, they will grapple with these questions and many others, but for Mary Goodwin and the group’s other organizers, success can be defined rather simply. “It’s not about the numbers that they attract in the virtual world or even to the events. It’s about maintaining commitment to a set of concrete actions,” she says. “I’ll measure success by whether or not we’re still together in a year. Numbers don’t matter to me so much as this ongoing commitment to doing this thing that we think is right.”
Editor: Edward White