Illustration by Adam McCauley of a silhouette of a person on the left with their mouth open and hand moving as if speaking and rough ocean waves in the background.
Politics & Law

Strait Talk Across Rough Waters
A student-run program gets young people from China and Taiwan talking.

By Luka Willet ’24 / September–October 2023
August 21st, 2023

In the early weeks of 2005, the cell phone belonging to Johnny Lin ’08 buzzed with daily calls from the Chinese Embassy. No, the California resident wasn’t dealing with visa issues—officials had gotten wind of a project Lin was working on and were pressuring him to stop. Here, at Brown, in the quiet of winter break, the story of Strait Talk began. 

Founded by Lin, the student-run organization is the world’s first initiative that enables direct political dialogue among youth about one of the most sensitive geopolitical issues of our time: the Taiwan Strait. Its ambitious goal? To use non-partisan dialogue workshops to empower young people to collaborate in transforming the tensions between Taiwan and China. 

Talking to real people from the “other side” can be a lot different than discussing the issues with like-minded peers. A couple of delegates from China found this out back in 2007, recounts Tatsushi Arai, a former United Nations senior mediator and Boko Haram rehabilitator who works closely with the program. 

“The most important reason for us, the mainland Chinese, to want Taiwan to be part of One China is that we love you, our Taiwanese people,” a Chinese delegate said. “Yes,” another Chinese delegate added, looking intently into the eyes of the Taiwanese counterparts, “the bottom line of all of this is that we love you and we want you to come back to us.” 

“We don’t want to be part of you. Leave us alone,” a Taiwanese delegate retorted. “Let us become who we truly are as an independent community.” 

As Arai concluded, “All the intellectual analyses of the conflict that the two sides had presented up to this point were thrown out of the window through this emotional exchange.” And perhaps some real learning began. 

In another exchange in 2009, a Taiwanese delegate talked of her regret around her past treatment of non-Han minority students. She started sobbing and the discussion circle fell silent, Arai reports. Soon, one of the Chinese delegates felt compelled to reflect, similarly, “Taiwanese people have their own feelings, and we need to respect them. Maybe the way we have been treating the Taiwanese has not been totally right.” While she spoke, Arai adds, another Chinese delegate, seated next to her, started crying quietly. 

Trust & Conflict

Every year, Brown students host a week-
long symposium that brings together five outstanding delegates with different backgrounds, perspectives, and views on how to resolve the conflict. Recent examples include a Fulbright scholar, a U.S. marine intelligence chief, a Peking scholar, a Tsinghua educator, and a Taiwanese legislative aide. Names are not shared with the press for safety reasons. 

“At Brown we spend so much time thinking about how to solve problems creatively, how to have a liberal, pluralistic viewpoint around complicated topics,” says Lin, now on Strait Talk’s advisory board. “These ways of thinking are in the ethos of Brown.” With the help of professional mediators, the organization facilitates these incredibly difficult dialogues using the Interactive Conflict Resolution method, a technique designed to create personal trust across conflict lines as well as to humanize those in disagreement. 

“What we do at Strait Talk is marry the best of both grassroots level advocacy and tree-top diplomacy efforts,” Lin says. “We bring together young, open-minded people who can speak with one another, learn about each other, and will in time go on to occupy influential positions in government and think tanks working on Taiwan.”

One activity in the symposium required each of the three delegations to meet separately to list and discuss eight historical events they believe have most decisively shaped cross-Strait relations. One delegate noted that the China delegation focused more on security-related events, while the Taiwan and U.S. delegations focused more on events related to value and identity. Yet one event appeared across all three timelines: the 1979 passing of the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA). The TRA guarantees that the U.S. will supply Taiwan with the means to defend itself militarily, an event noted by each delegation, for without the legislation it is highly likely China would have invaded Taiwan many years ago.

For Michael Tian ’20, a former Strait Talk organizer and current student at Harvard Law School, Strait Talk was a defining part of his experience at Brown: the “hours of work going into planning and organizing these symposiums every year bonds us together and builds a close community.” A Chinese immigrant from Attleboro, Mass., Tian says he feels “both hope and helplessness” with the current tensions along the Taiwan Strait only getting higher. 

With Nancy Pelosi’s August 2022 visit to Taiwan sparking a barrage of missiles over the island, Taiwanese democracy and regional security are in a very precarious place. Along with her visit came a series of setbacks, with China announcing a halt to dialogue with the U.S. and Taiwan on a series of issues ranging from military relations to narcotics control and climate change. Strait Talkers see it as a continuous reminder that their work today is more important than ever before. Every year Strait Talk proves to the world that no matter the differences, dialogues can still occur and friendships can be born across rough waters.

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Related Issue
September–October 2023