Michael Y.M. Kau is a senior fellow at Taiwan Foundation for Democracy, a nonprofit national think tank that he was the founding president of, which is devoted to the study and promotion of democracy and human rights based in Taipei. Previously, he served as Taiwan’s Representative to the European Union, and as Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs. He was also a professor of political science and director of the East Asian security program at Brown University for more than 30 years. Before speaking at a Zócalo/Global Forum on Modern Direct Democracy event, titled “Should Global Democracy Be More Direct?,” he talked in the virtual green room about how winter builds character, why he misses Rhode Island, and what inspired his dreams for Taiwanese democracy.
What’s the last book you read?
Most recently, I’ve been particularly concerned with political science, and the interactions between Taiwan and the U.S.—because U.S. leadership is very critical for Taiwan. The last book I read is John Bolton’s The Room Where It Happened.
What is the biggest misconception that Americans have about Taiwan?
The misperceptions have been changing. I’d like to see the American public opinion be more positive toward Taiwan—that Taiwan can play a more positive role in democracy and human rights in Asia and the world. But when you have Xi Jinping come to power, the whole threat to Taiwan’s security becomes really, really serious. Every day, there are Chinese jet fighters circling around Taiwan. And the U.S. focuses on that.
What’s your biggest pet peeve?
Did you experience that yourself?
This is part of the story of my life. My emphasis is on human rights and democracy. This is related to my background in Taiwan. Under the authoritarian suppression of KMT [the Kuomintang or Nationalist Party], when I was at National Taiwan University, I even served as the president of the student union for one semester. During that period, I just felt political oppression, denial of freedom of expression, denial of freedom of the speech—very much annoying. This was in the 1950s.
The student union published certain fun things … without political significance. But there was a curriculum office, which was a political control unit. All the publications of the students had to be submitted for their approval in advance. And we decided we weren’t going to do that. And so our student union staff members were questioned and humiliated by the university authorities. There was a lot of that sort of thing.
You did your PhD at Cornell. How did a Taiwan kid survive upstate New York winters?
Winter is challenging, true. But I discovered it’s fun. Taiwan is semi-tropical. I’m a positive-thinking person, and I believe you should experience cold weather. It was a good experience for us.
We had three kids, all on the East Coast, at Ithaca and then in Providence, Rhode Island. I emphasized to them when you have four seasons, it’s good for building character. Of course, now two of our kids are in California, and one is in Washington state [in the San Juan Islands].
What teacher or professor from your schooling do you think about most, and why?
When I was at Taiwan University, professor Peng Ming-min was in the school of law. He was the one who organized some students to work with him to issue the declaration of Taiwan’s autonomy and independence in the 1960s … I met him in the U.S. later on; he was part of my political awakening in pursuit of democracy and human rights.
And in the U.S., I learned from John Lewis at Cornell. He later moved to Stanford, and we kept in close contact. He was more a political scientist in international relations, developed Asian studies programs, and was interested in China and Taiwan.
Why did you found the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy?
It starts with my rebellious nature. And my political experience in Taiwan. And when I was in the U.S., and I was teaching at Brown University, I began to really think about what I could do to help Taiwan. … I ran into the chairman on the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia, and I also met Sen. Claiborne Pell from Rhode Island, and he gave me some stimulation.
I believed in Taiwan’s democratic reform. And in the 1990s, I returned to Taiwan, to see friends and relatives, and to participate in more liberal conferences, making the DPP (the opposition party) notice my liberal role. And after Lee Teng Hui came to power in 2000, I was invited by him to come back to join his government, and that’s the beginning of my actual political involvement in Taiwan. And I moved back to Taiwan.
When I visited Washington for conferences, I would talk with Carl Gershman, the president of the National Endowment for Democracy, which is really the American national democracy foundation. Carl visited Taiwan and helped persuade our government to fund its own national democracy foundation for Taiwan. That happened in 2003. Taiwan doesn’t really have a lot of rich businessmen who can contribute to a democracy foundation, so we have to rely on the government budget for support.
What do you miss most about Rhode Island?
Aside from Brown University, which is very good, with so many good students—we really enjoyed Narragansett Bay. The America’s Cup was in Newport while I was there, and I had lots of colleagues at Brown who were interested in sailing. I was taken along with them occasionally.
What’s the hardest thing about diplomacy?
It’s a tough question. As you know, my background is as a scholar, and as a scholar you can publish as you wish … When you serve in a huge government bureaucracy, and you have to deal with diplomatic issues, you have to make a lot of compromises. And that sometimes bothered my conscience.
What place on earth that you haven’t visited would you most like to visit?
The North Pole and South Pole. That’s the kind of dream place. I served in the foreign ministry, and so I traveled to many places, but I never got to the North Pole or South Pole. I’ve never been on any cruise trip. That’s a shame.
What’s your favorite place to eat in Taipei?
My wife is a dietician. I argue with her often. She emphasizes nutrition. Beef and chicken are not really allowed. So for me it is whatever she puts on the table. If a man would like to enjoy eating, he should not marry a dietician.
You don’t have a favorite Taiwanese dish?
One dish from my childhood is called sesame oil chicken. When you cook [black sesame oil] together with chicken, the taste is very good … I would add another thing—from when we lived in Rhode Island, lobster is very popular for good reason.
Where do you go to be alone?
We have a small apartment here in New Taipei City, and we are right near the riverfront, and we look at the mountain, with the ocean on the other side. It’s a small place, but it is so nice to sit here and look at the view.
You served as Taiwan’s representative to the European Union. What’s the most important factor in keeping a political union together?
I was there from 2004 to 2008 [before Brexit]. … What impressed me is the kind of political movement to integrate and unify a continent in the direction of democracy and human rights. Of course, in Brussels, there are a lot of petty politics going on, but to me, it’s an inspiration that countries should and can work together.
I have a political dream: If the E.U. can do it, why not Asia?