In a speech transmitted over the Internet to a gathering of the World Federation of Taiwanese Associations in Tokyo on Aug. 3, Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian proclaimed the island an independent sovereign state whose future should be determined by a popular referendum.

The crowd — Taiwan independence activists from around the world — gave Chen a standing ovation for his toughest rhetoric since taking office in 2000.

“No one really expected him to make such a remark at this moment,” said Alice Mei-lin Kin, 68, an adviser to the Taiwanese government.

As an active member of the Japanese branch of World United Formosans for Independence, Kin has led the Taiwan independence movement in Japan since she enrolled at Waseda University in 1959.

“I thought that the remark was partly an expression of gratitude by Chen to Taiwanese residents in Japan and other countries, who have led the independence movement of Taiwan to date,” she said.

The recent growth of Taiwanese nationalism and calls for independence as a new republic do not sit well with Beijing, which regards Taiwan as a renegade province.

Soon after Chen’s remark, Beijing warned him to “stop any activity to promote the division (of the island and China).” He then toned down his rhetoric, possibly to avoid upsetting the current economic and military situation across the strait. The two economies have increasingly intertwined, with China becoming Taiwan’s largest export market.

Before the 1990s, Taiwan independence activists faced persecution by the Nationalist administrations of Chiang Kai-shek and his son, Chiang Ching-kuo, led by people who arrived on Taiwan from mainland China following Chiang’s civil war defeat to the communists in 1949. Their ultimate goal had been to regain control of the mainland.

Taiwan’s top positions in the government, military and business circles came to be monopolized by post-1949 Chinese immigrants and their descendents, who today comprise only 13 percent of the island’s 23 million people.

According to Kin, Taiwanese students who enrolled at Japanese universities in the 1960s were the first to launch an independence movement. It then spread to the U.S. and other countries where their compatriots had settled.

“There was no freedom of speech in Taiwan until 1992, and the leading role of the independence movement was solely entrusted to Taiwanese students overseas,” Kin said.

In 1960, Taiwanese students at the University of Tokyo formed Taiwan Seinen-sha (Association of Young Taiwanese), a clan calling for the island’s independence, and began publishing the monthly magazine Taiwan Seinen in Japanese to strengthen their ideological foothold and to win Japanese sympathizers.

In those days, Japan accepted many native Taiwanese students. Japan’s colonial rule of the island between 1895 and 1945 had left them with fluency in the language and personal connections with the country. Many are believed to have fled to Japan to join the independence movement.

While Japanese student activism heated up, the students from Taiwan indulged in freedom of speech, which had been denied them back home.

Their activities encouraged the creation of secret societies in the United States and other countries that, in 1970, came together to form World United Formosans for Independence.

Independence activism was strictly banned in Taiwan, and many overseas activists were arrested when they returned home, Kin said. Until the last of its members was freed from jail in 1992, members of the group were blacklisted.

“I could not enter my home country for 31 years, until 1992, and missed both my parents’ funerals,” Kin said. “One of my relatives told me that I’m greatly responsible for my father’s ‘early’ death, because my activity here caused a lot of problems for my parents in Taiwan.”

Publication of Taiwan Seinen was suspended in June because the independence movement had become firmly entrenched in Taiwan. It has developed into a legitimate political activity amid the democratization pushed by Chen’s predecessor, Lee Teng-hui, who in 1988 became the first native Taiwanese president of the island.

“Japan was once a crucial venue for Taiwan’s independence movement,” said Takayuki Munakata, a sympathizer who long served as chief editor of the magazine.

“The suspension of the magazine is sad, but it represents a positive turning point in the movement” because it means the campaign has shifted to the island, he said.

World United Formosans for Independence now has numerous branches in every city on the island and claims tens of thousands of members, Munakata said.

But Taiwanese residents here should continue efforts to win the Japanese public over to their cause, said Dr. Lin Jiann Liang, 44, from Imaichi, Tochigi Prefecture. Lin has been engaged in independence activities since he enrolled at the University of Tokyo 15 years ago.

“(Until Tokyo normalized ties with Beijing in 1972,) Japan lived with the myth that Taipei represented all of China. Since then, it has lived with another myth — that Beijing represents Taiwan,” Lin said. “If the Japanese people and government continue to ignore the voices of Taiwanese residents, they will lose the friendship of the most sympathetic people in Asia toward Japan.”

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