JPRI Working Paper No. 123 (October 2015)
Strait Talk: Youth-Led Civil Society Dialogues Across the Taiwan Strait
by Tatsushi Arai


This essay explores lessons learned from the twelve weeklong dialogues that this author has facilitated between 2005 and 2012 among young civil society delegates from Mainland China, Taiwan, and the United States.[1] Established in 2005 by a group of student volunteers at Brown University in Rode Island, USA, these interactive dialogues, termed Strait Talk, have annually brought together five participants from each of the three societies to experience a joint analysis of the historical conflict over the Taiwan Strait, explore long-term visions of conflict resolution, and build sustained relationships. In addition to the Brown-based dialogues, another series of US-based annual dialogues was added in 2009 and sponsored jointly by the University of San Francisco and the University of California, Berkley. Dialogue participants are mostly university students and often include young professionals. They are annually selected from a pool of candidates who voluntarily respond to a public call for application within each society. Selection criteria include academic and social skills, commitment to cross-Strait relationship-building, and proficiency in English.[2] The goal of this initiative is to create an informal, nonpartisan forum of civil society exchange that welcomes diverse perspectives on cross-Strait relations, humanizes these perspectives with empathy despite disagreements, and explores practical yet imaginative visions that transcend the disagreements over time. Strait Talk holds no political agenda on Taiwan’s status yet advocates peaceful cross-Strait relations by supporting the next generation of peace builders from the three societies.

The basic framework of thinking that guides this initiative is conflict resolution. As a field of interdisciplinary research and practice that has expanded globally over the past several decades, conflict resolution provides a participatory, interactive process of understanding the sources and dynamics of social conflict in a systematic, multi-angled manner and using that understanding to develop sustainable ways of nonviolent coexistence. At the heart of this process is a philosophical and methodological commitment to seeing conflict parties as human beings, identifying interdependence inherent in their relationships, and acting on the interdependence to build a culture and structure of reciprocity, equity, and nonviolence. [3] As demonstrated shortly, Strait Talk applies these principles to the conflict across the Taiwan Strait through a series of highly experiential, interactive exercises.

Over the past seven years, in-depth dialogues guided by these principles have enabled this author, as their facilitator, to observe repeated patterns of group dynamics across twelve cohorts of fifteen participants. These patterns suggest useful hypotheses as to how highly-educated young people across the Taiwan Strait experience: (a) contested worldviews on the history of cross-Strait relations, both experienced firsthand and inherited from past generations, (b) the negotiability of Chinese sovereignty, (c) the enduring relevance of their deep-rooted large-group identities and their emotional attachment to them, and (d) their capacity to empathize with each other, sometimes to the point of crossing the boundaries of political correctness.

The emerging trends in cross-Strait relations – from the advent of direct two-way flights, to the growing number of tourists from both sides – provide an unprecedented opportunity for civil society exchange to deepen and expand. Weeklong conflict resolution dialogues among young delegates from Mainland China, Taiwan, and the United States in US-based impartial academic settings present a potentially useful model of cross-Strait relationship-building that may be replicated in the region and utilized to activate peace potential inherent in the deepening civil society ties between the two sides. At the same time, these dialogues also offer a window of opportunity through which one may observe how the young civil society delegates, who have grown up nearly three generations after the end of the Chinese Civil War, negotiate the contested meanings of this historical conflict. Lessons learned from these cross-Strait dialogues, therefore, are likely to contain valuable insights into the future of the conflict that may not appear frequently in the growing literature on the formal diplomatic relations over the Taiwan Strait. [4]

To define the scope of this inquiry, two points deserve mention at its outset. First the term civil society is used here in its broadest sense. The concept commonly refers to realms of social interactions that are not led by the government or by the forces of the market. This working definition is more of a vision of an ideal state than an empirical reality, especially in current cross-Strait relations regulated by the two governing authorities and driven by the powerful forces of the market. The position adopted in this paper, however, is that despite all these constraints established by the government and the market, there exist emerging realms of people-to-people encounters whose intent and consequences cannot be reduced to single-minded pursuits of official government agendas or market-driven, profit-seeking activities. Examples of such encounters include educational and scholarly exchange, voluntarily organized tourism, and exchanges in sports and arts. This study will focus on the ever-evolving, dynamic boundaries of civil society’s influence on both sides of the Strait, pushing and pulling the spheres of countervailing force created by the government and the market. It will contextualize the on-going dialogues among young delegates within this broad conceptualization of civil society, and attempt to draw potentially generalizable lessons.

The second point worth noting is the geographic scope of the analysis. The fifteen delegates undergoing a forty-hour dialogue include not only five Taiwanese and five Mainland Chinese representatives, but also five Americans committed to learning about this conflict and taking action to generate positive impact on cross-Strait relations. Although their contributions to the dialogues are significant, especially as informants of American society as a critical stakeholder in cross-Strait relations, this essay will view the US participants in the supplementary background of the inquiry and place the two-party relations between Taiwan and Mainland China in the foreground. This analytical focus is intended to keep the discussion manageable in scope while it also seeks to provide a basis for a future inquiry into the role of the US government, business communities, and civil society in cross-Strait relations.

With this scope of inquiry in mind, the discussion that follows will be organized in three parts. First, a brief analysis of the conflict across the Taiwan Strait will be presented. Second, the rationale and the method of Strait Talk will be outlined as a potentially useful model of civil society exchange across the Strait. Third, a series of four working propositions, enumerated above as (a) to (d), will be discussed as they represent recurring themes in the dialogues that may hold a key to the future of cross-Strait relations.

Conflict Analysis in Brief

The unique contribution that Strait Talk aspires to make in cross-Strait relations is explored in the macro-historical context of the conflict. Despite the informal, unofficial nature of the dialogue process, its participants, together with this author as their facilitator, are constantly confronted by the fundamental question that those holding the highest political positions on both sides have been grappling with for decades: In a nutshell, what is this conflict about at its very core? Part of the answer, informed by the cumulative experience of Strait Talk, is summarized as follows:

For Mainland China, the stated goal of reunification under One China ultimately finds its roots in the collective commitment to building and restoring a historical coherence of its nationhood and its inviolable territorial integrity. This commitment, in essence, is a search for a rightful place that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) seeks to occupy and consolidate in the contemporary world, while at the same, it continuously strives to cope with both unforgettable historical traumas and glories that it is driven to re-enact in times of crisis and hardship. Such collective traumas, some more conspicuous than others, include the “Century of Humiliation” spanning from the mid-nineteenth century, when China lost the Opium War to the British and started falling on the slippery slope of Western and Japanese invasions and colonial exploitation. [5] The most salient national glories, on the other hand, include the establishment of PRC in 1949 under the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), having defeated the Japanese imperial army and driven out the Chinese Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang (KMT), from the mainland. Failure to achieve One China due to the independence movement in Taiwan – the island to which some two million KMT soldiers and followers had fled – would mean a failure to acknowledge CCP’s historical victory in the civil war in the late 1940s. Such a failure, by implication, is tantamount to a denial of the rightful status of PRC, a state built on the unspeakable suffering and sacrifice sustained by its founders, who had paid the ultimate price to save their beloved motherland from colonialists, imperialists, and domestic oppressors.

From the Taiwanese perspective, the conflict is not only about the highly-popularized official positions such as reunification under One China, Taiwanese independence, and the status quo of the Taiwan-based Republic of China (ROC) maintaining the unsettled status of diplomatic ambiguity with the mainland. More fundamentally, the conflict is about how twenty-three million inhabitants of diverse ethnic and historical backgrounds – either immigrants from the mainland during the Chinese Civil War in the 1940s or descendants of historical Taiwanese communities that preceded the civil war – can choose their political future on their own, without interference from the mainland. While the search for a contemporary meaning of the Chinese Civil War and the flight of KMT leaders and followers to the island is still alive and will continuously evolve in the Taiwanese national consciousness, the distinct Taiwanese identity – or multiple Taiwanese identities, to be precise – that distinguish themselves from Mainland Chinese are more salient and decisive today than ever before in terms of shaping and reshaping their outlook of the nation’s destiny. Because of such a decisive nature of their evolving local identities, many Taiwanese communities of diverse backgrounds – and most certainly the young Taiwanese delegates joining the Strait Talk dialogues – view CCP’s reunification policy fundamentally incompatible with the Taiwanese reality on the ground and simply unrealistic. The historical evolution of Taiwanese multi-party democracy, its ever-deepening immersion in the Western-style free market, its dependency on the bilateral security ties with the United States, and the enduring legacy of Japanese colonialism and post-colonial ties have all contributed to crystallizing distinct Taiwanese identities striving for freedom of political choice and greater security from perceived threats, imagined or real, from the mainland.

A deeper look into the root causes and dynamics of the conflict over the Taiwan Strait, along this line of thinking, invites us to transcend the oversimplified image of the conflict’s essence, which is often reduced to a binary way of pursuing either Taiwanese independence or reunification under One China. A more fruitful way of exploring future scenarios opens up when we ask: How can we envision the kind of cross-Strait relations in which both the Mainland Chinese quest for coherent nationhood and territorial integrity on the one hand, and the Taiwanese aspiration for the freedom of political choice and security from perceived Chinese threats on the other, may be fulfilled at the same time? Put another way, what would an acceptable, sustainable mechanism of cross-Strait relations look like that can flexibly accommodate and effectively facilitate these parallel search processes until they come to a mutually respectful way of coexistence? [6] Weeklong dialogues between young civil society delegates from both sides of the Strait, joined by their American counterparts, tackle these questions squarely in a way diplomats and government officials might have been unable or unwilling to tackle them. And here lies the significance of Strait Talk’s visions and the unique method it employs.

Strait Talk: Its Rationale and Methodology

Strait Talk, as mentioned earlier, was established in 2005 by student volunteers at Brown University in Rhode Island, USA. [7] It has been held every fall on the Brown campus, and since March, 2009, expanded to include an annual spring workshop at the University of California, Berkeley. The latter is cosponsored by the Japan Policy Research Institute (JPRI). Between 2005 and 2012, there have been twelve workshops conducted, eight at Brown and four at Berkeley.

For each event, Strait Talk, which subsequently became a US-based non-profit organization in 2008, recruits highly-qualified English-speaking university students, five from each of the three sides, through open advertisement and rigorous selection. Selected participants typically come from top-ranking universities. Special care is taken to assure diversify among them in terms of gender, regional background, and self-reported political orientations in each of the three societies. Selected participants also include recent university graduates already working as young professionals – for example, as business consultants, lawyers, and journalists – who aspire to contribute to cross-Strait relations through their own professions. In the absence of sustainable official talks across the Taiwan Strait, especially before 2008, the vision of Strait Talk has been to bring together carefully-selected, highly-qualified young civil society delegates with significant academic and professional potential as “pre-influentials” – namely, people with the best chance of becoming influential contributors to such fields as civil society exchange, business, academia, and government service in a near future. [8]

The fifteen delegates go through up to forty hours of intensive confidential dialogue that seeks to create a safe, inviting atmosphere for an honest, authentic exchange of ideas and feelings. The dialogue incorporates comparative case studies [9], in-depth conflict analysis, role reversal between parties, joint brainstorming of future visions, and the use of metaphors, rituals, and storytelling. The weeklong dialogue is interwoven with occasional intervals featuring informal activities for socialization, as well as speakers’ series and expert panels on cross-Strait relations. Immediately after these public events, each of the speakers and expert panelists is invited to an additional small-group session that is usually open only to the fifteen delegates and the dialogue facilitator. The delegates may pose questions to these subject experts about pressing issues and controversies that they may have been debating in their conflict resolution dialogue.

Though the dialogue process itself is confidential to create a safe and mutually supportive atmosphere, its immediate end results include producing a final consensus document with concrete proposals for the future of cross-Strait relations. The final consensus document, which typically consists of political, security, economic, cultural, and civil society components, is presented jointly by the fifteen delegates in a public forum at the end of the event and made available for broader circulation afterwards. [10]

Finally, Strait Talk’s contribution to the theory and practice of interactive conflict resolution (ICR) is explored. Following Saunders (2000: 225), ICR is defined as “a well-defined and systematic approach used in small unofficial meetings of persons in tension or violent conflict to stimulate their task together about the problems that divide the groups they identify with and the relationships that underlie those problems.”

Among a number of different functions that ICR has been used to practice, Strait Talk focuses on the following three[11]:

1. Relationship-building [12]: This task is achieved by bringing potential youth leaders from the two sides of the Taiwan Strait, along with their American counterparts, and forming informal tri-national networks for sustainable relationship-building.

2. Capacity-building [13]: This task consists of introducing basic skills in conflict analysis and resolution through exercises of experiential learning and encouraging the participants to practice the acquired skills in other contexts of civil society exchange

3. Learning and transfer of new insights for long-term macro social change [14]: This process involves enabling the participants to learn new ways of understanding and tackling the cross-Strait conflict and assisting them in their long-term application of new insights to influence a broader scope of stakeholders through final consensus documents, public presentations, their own vocational commitments, and other civil society activities they may choose to undertake.

As a youth-led civil society movement, Strait Talk is primarily concerned with relationship-building (Function 1). As a secondary goal, it provides opportunities for capacity-building (Function 2). Its contribution to policy-oriented learning and its immediate transfer to influential decision makers (Function 3), on the other hand, is limited in scope because its participants, as university students and young professionals, are not engaged in policymaking or large-scale social change. Learning and transfer, therefore, is a long-term aspirational goal of Strait Talk.

Having described the expected impact and scope of Strait Talk with caution and pragmatism, it must also be emphasized that this movement of civil society exchange that started in 2005, against the backdrop of China’s anti-secession law, is far from insignificant. A less conspicuous meaning of this exercise comes to light when one recognizes that Strait Talk, as of 2005, was most probably the only systematic application of ICR to an in-depth discussion on the cross-Strait conflict. With the expansion of cross-Strait interactions in business, education, and cultural affairs since 2008, the year in which Ma Ying-jeou assumed presidency in Taiwan, the social climate has shifted considerably in favor of the kind of civil society exchange that Strait Talk had advocated since 2005. Consistent with the political atmosphere of détente, there has since been a steady presence of Chinese Communist Party members joining each of the Strait Talk dialogues held at Brown University and at the University of California, Berkeley. Moreover, Strait Talk held the first dialogue in Hong Kong in 2011 based on the preparation carried out by a mainland participant in the 2009 Berkeley dialogue. This Hong Kong dialogue, in turn, inspired its Taiwanese participants to organize an annual Taipei-based Strait Talk symposium in 2012. Strait Talk has thus grown into a civil society movement comprised of four concurrent annual dialogues that take place in the United States, Mainland China, and Taiwan.

Four Emerging Trends Observed in the Dialogues

Each of the twelve workshops was moderated by the same facilitator following more or less the same method. Because the participants were different each time, the present author, as the facilitator, has observed differences and similarities in group dynamics across these twelve tri-national groups. This section will highlight four recurring themes that reflect repeated patterns of behavior and attitude demonstrated by the participants over the years. These themes are:

1. The participants’ contested perceptions about which historical events matter most as decisive turning points in the history of cross-Strait relations.

2. Their readiness to question and unpack the seemingly non-negotiable basis of sovereignty, including the rationale of One China.

3. The enduring relevance of collective historical attachment to both Chinese nationhood and distinct Taiwanese identities.

4. The participants’ ability and willingness to empathize deeply with seemingly incompatible narratives of the other side, often to the point of defying their own worldview of political correctness and challenging their own taboos. It is hypothesized that these patterns summarized in the four themes are not random occurrences and that they are likely to have their social roots and reasons for recurrence. These recurring phenomena, it is further hypothesized, are likely to reflect some larger, deeper trends among the younger generation of well-educated Mainland Chinese and Taiwanese people – who constitute the third to fourth generation of the population that experienced the Chinese Civil War firsthand in the 1940s – in terms of how they view cross-Strait relations today.

The presentation of each theme that follows builds on concrete episodes of group dynamics observed during the dialogues. Though these episodes are context-specific, they illustrate broader conceptual themes recurrent over the years. Having said this, it is duly noted that the empirical validity of these four themes should not be elevated uncritically beyond the status of a practitioner’s fieldnote, which must be subjected to rigorous empirical examination. These themes are nonetheless promising, one may argue, as areas of social scientific inquiry that merit attention.

Theme 1: Perceptions of Conflict History

A careful observation of the dialogues enables one to hypothesize patterns concerning how young Mainland Chinese and Taiwanese delegates conceptualize the history of their conflict. These patterns have manifested most clearly in terms of which historical events they choose to highlight when they explain why and how their conflict has come to be shaped the way it is today.

One of the exercises introduced at a relatively early stage of the weeklong dialogue is a “walk- through history,” a method of experiential learning popularized by Joseph Montville [15] and used widely by practitioners of conflict resolution. The way it is applied to Strait Talk is summarized as follows: (a) Mainland Chinese and Taiwanese delegates each form a national team of five individuals, and separately come up with seven to eight significant historical events which in their collective judgment, have shaped the nature of the conflict over the Taiwan Strait; (b) each team will write in large characters the nature of each event and the year of its occurrence (e.g., “1949 the People’s Republic of China established”) on a notebook-size sheet of paper; (c) seven to eight sheets recording the events selected separately by each team are placed in chronological order on the floor along a single line, with Mainland Chinese delegates’ version of events on one side of the line and Taiwanese delegates’ version on the other. The purpose of this display is to show two conflict histories side by side, with a physical distance between two consecutive chronological events (e.g., 1949 coming after 1945) created in such a way as to be roughly proportionate to the actual number of intervening years (e.g., four years of interval in this example) between them; (d) all the delegates are asked to stand and form a single line following the facilitator, who is standing at the beginning of the chronological line. The group follows the facilitator, and slowly and silently walks on the line through the two parallel chronologies, looking to the right and looking to the left. While walking, the delegates are asked to imagine what it might be like to live not only one side of the conflict history but also the other side’s; (e) after experiencing the walk, the group sits on the floor surrounding the two chronologies and shares discoveries and reflections on how their views of conflict history have been shaped in comparison with the alternative view, and why.

A question under study is: Are there any patterns emerging over the years as to how the delegates choose particular historical events to nominate over others? A short answer is yes. Comparing the chronologies that different national teams have come up with over the years, one may recognize recurrent events that overlap across the generations of Strait Talk delegates.

A sample chronology is adopted from the 2006 workshop. (See the appendix). The chronology reflects the highly unique group dynamics and perceptions of the conflict held by the particular individuals who participated in the dialogue that particular year. When juxtaposed with the chronologies developed by the delegates of the other years, however, one realizes that this 2006 version is similar in some important respects to how other Taiwanese and Mainland Chinese teams have demonstrated their interpretations of the conflict history.

At the core of this similarity is the shared perception that their conflict history starts in 1895, when the Treaty of Shimonoseki concluded the Sino-Japanese War and instituted Japanese colonial control over Taiwan. The fact that the delegates on both sides have repeatedly started their chronologies with the same event without much questioning is potentially significant because the young generations on the two sides have acquired their views on this conflict through different history textbooks and different political experiences for identity formation. Though the two sides attach different meanings to 1895 – with the Taiwanese often asserting that their nation was abandoned that year by the mainland [16] – they both share the worldview that the history of the conflict is time-bound thus not open-ended, and that this conflict has its genesis in that same year and in that same trauma-inflicting event. By implication, these young delegates choose not to go further back into pre-modern history to seek its origin, at least within the parameters of the exercise that require them to select only seven to eight events of their choosing.

Such a bounded nature of conflict history that started in 1895, however, was sometimes broken when the delegates chose much older events to start their chronologies with. For example, the Mainland Chinese team of 2005 chose as a starting point the establishment of the Qin (秦)Dynasty (221 BC), which first attained central government control of much of the vast territory that constitutes contemporary China. The rationale presented by the mainland delegates was that the Taiwanese search for independence breaks the historical unity of China that dates back to antiquity, at least up to 221 BC, and therefore it requires serious reconsideration within this larger historical context. Another example of expanding the conflict history beyond 1895 is the 2007 Taiwanese delegates’ reference to 1683, when Qing (清) forces from Mainland China captured Taiwan. These Chinese forces, the Taiwanese participants argued, came to Taiwan for establishing nominal control there and preventing the island from falling under foreign rule or otherwise from becoming an anti-Chinese outpost of local rebels. A series of anti-Chinese revolts that had ensued in Taiwan, they argued, sharpened distinct indigenous identities against the mainland conquerors and therefore challenge the assertion that Taiwan has been part of China since antiquity.

Despite these occasional references to events preceding 1895, the general trends of group dynamics among the Taiwanese and Mainland Chinese participants over the years are in favor of defining their conflict as a contemporary phenomenon. This implies that they are less inclined to seek its origin in antiquity. It also means that they are less likely to mythologize its genesis and dramatize their ancestors’ commitment to the deeply-entrenched official positions being held, namely, One China vs. Taiwanese independence. From a practical standpoint of conflict resolution dialogue, this tendency manifests most conspicuously when these young delegates demonstrate their readiness and capacity to treat the conflict as a set of contemporary issues and grievances, which one may argue are more negotiable and malleable than unexplainable myths carried over from time immemorial. This contemporary nature of the conflict, however, is still saturated with seemingly irrational emotions, as demonstrated by other propositions that follow.

Theme 2: Negotiability of Sovereignty

Conflict resolution dialogues over the years have also demonstrated the young Mainland Chinese and Taiwanese delegates’ willingness and ability to self-reflect on the nationalistic fervor in their respective communities’ claims of sovereignty. Through self-reflections – and sometimes through personal confessions of their inner thoughts – each of the national teams has endeavored to interpret for the other team a deep-seated emotional basis of their notion of inviolable sovereignty. They have also unpacked the multi-faceted nature of sovereignty, especially in the context of discussing both One China and Taiwanese independence. And through such a thorough-going process of unpacking and self-reflective sharing, annual dialogues have arrived at final consensus documents that lay out a wide range of possible political arrangements that transcend the conventional zero-sum mode of thinking characteristic of this conflict.

In the 2009 dialogue at Berkeley, for example, Mainland Chinese delegates responded to their Taiwanese counterparts’ questions about the basis of One China and Chinese nationalism underlying that policy. In the present author’s experience as a dialogue facilitator in different parts of the world, an emotionally-charged exchange about conflict parties’ essential positions, like One China, most often degenerates into antagonistic posturing and position-taking. Yet what had emerged from this particular exchange in 2009, as was often the case in other years, was a self-reflective attempt made by multiple Mainland Chinese delegates trying to help their Taiwanese colleagues see and feel the Chinese inner dilemmas.

The Mainland Chinese narratives shared on this occasion may be summarized as follows: contemporary Chinese nationalism underlying their sovereignty claims is fundamentally irrational but this Chinese version of irrationality has its own internal coherence and rationality. Chinese nationalism becomes most manifest when the nation is faced with great obstacles such as foreign policy crises, natural disasters, and economic recessions. This dramatized sense of national cohesion has little to do with a desire for territorial expansion; it has more to do with the desire for dignity and respect in relation to the world around them. Ordinary Chinese people are not necessarily attached to the anti-secession law of 2005, for they see it as elite politics at the government level. Nor do they necessarily link the proposed reunification of Taiwan and Mainland China to their own economic incentives, despite what many Taiwanese may suspect. What the Chinese fear most is the loss of their dignity and respect as a result of mishandling these sovereignty issues in general and the secessionist movements in particular. Therefore the Beijing government, and perhaps many of the ordinary Chinese people as well, strongly condemn what they see as the manipulative secessionist movement within Taiwan – especially under the eight-year rule from 2000 to 2008 of former President Chen Shui-bian and his DPP party – that challenges the dignified status of Mainland China.

This example of a Mainland Chinese narrative may not represent a consensus view of Mainland Chinese delegates who have joined Strait Talk over the past seven years. But it does illustrate the basic tone of authentic, self-reflective storytelling that they have offered repeatedly. It is significant, one may argue, that these views have been offered repeatedly in the presence of their Taiwanese counterparts, often to the point where the Taiwanese unreservedly verbalized a sense of surprise – or even a complete shift in their image of the Mainland Chinese – at hearing these self-reflections. Though omitted for brevity in this essay, narratives also abound that demonstrate the Taiwanese side of self-reflections, especially on the seemingly non-negotiable nature of Taiwanese identities and their desire for independence, in response to questions posed by the Mainland Chinese.

Another example of growing negotiability over sovereignty was observed in the workshop in 2006, in which mainland delegates endeavored to unpack the meaning of One China for Taiwanese participants. They distinguished between two levels of sovereignty to explain a multi-faceted meaning of One China, namely, legal sovereignty and cosmological sovereignty. Their explanation is summarized as follows:

Legal sovereignty emphasizes territorial exclusivity, as well as the rightfulness and capacity of One China to conduct its international relations as its sole representative. It is akin to the Westphalia tradition of exclusive sovereignty in western society. Viewed from this perspective, sovereignty is monolithic, non-negotiable, and non-divisive. China, on the other hand, has also internalized and exercised what may be termed as cosmological sovereignty throughout its long history of nation-building. This function of Chinese sovereignty emphasizes respect for a China-centered worldview, with a harmonious, integrated image of China as a collectivity of diverse peoples. Cosmological sovereignty represents the Chinese collective consciousness of nationhood that seeks respect from other nations and from its own constituent communities. It highlights inclusivity of different communities under the umbrella of the same Chinese cultural family. Historically such a “soft” aspect of Chinese sovereignty has been manifest when its central government provided security assurances to nations in its peripheries that regularly paid tributes to the Chinese central authority, thus becoming its suzerains. The central government, while flexible in its exercise of territorial control, has remained firm on one principle: the need to save face vis a vis its suzerains and the outside world surrounding China. [17]

Stimulated in part by this exploratory mode of inquiry into Chinese sovereignty, the Taiwanese and Mainland Chinese delegates, together with their American counterparts, then brainstormed a wide range of possible future scenarios that both accommodate and transcend the zero-sum, binary thinking that juxtaposes One China against Taiwanese independence. Their intent was not to commit themselves to one scenario or another but to broaden their horizon of future scenarios. In their final consensus document, the 2006 delegates conceptualized Chinese nation-building as a dynamic, ever-evolving process comprised of one or more of the following phases [18]:

1. One China, as a unitary state.

2. China, with Special Administrative Regions such as Hong Kong, Macao, and Taiwan under the central government’s authority to intervene when necessary.

3. Chinese federation, with a single constitution and a central representative government presiding over component states and provinces.

4. Chinese confederation, with separate semi-autonomous governing bodies in Taiwan and Mainland China coordinated through a shared central governing mechanism in terms of defense, foreign, and fiscal policy, while each body presiding separately over other matters within its own jurisdiction.

5. Chinese commonwealth, comprised of separate independent governments entering an international framework, like the British Commonwealth, to affirm their common heritage and promote goals of common interest; this option, in effect, accommodates Taiwanese independence.

A similar approach to conceptualize a range of sovereignty arrangements was adopted by a different team at Berkeley in 2009 in its final consensus document, through another dynamic, exploratory process. It is significant, from the dialogue facilitator’s point of view, that all the Taiwanese and Mainland Chinese delegates, along with their American counterparts, could unanimously agree on such a broad spectrum of future political arrangements, while choosing not to veto or exclude any of them as a non-starter after hours of often-heated exchanges.

These examples of the young Taiwanese and Mainland Chinese delegates’ readiness to self-reflect on the less visible logic of Chinese sovereignty and to explore alternative futures are illustrative of numerous other episodes experienced throughout the seven years of Strait Talk dialogue. The flexibility and openness to unpack their boundaries and taboos, however, were often challenged by their own inner commitment to what they see as unchangeable core identities within them, as the next theme illustrates.

Theme 3: Emotional Attachment to Collective Identities

The conflict resolution workshops have provided a unique window of opportunity through which one may witness how the deep-rooted collective consciousness of Chinese nationhood on the one hand, and ever-evolving, distinct Taiwanese identities on the other, manifest, especially when they come face to face with one another. When these two trends collide through emotional exchange, the collective sense of who they are as Chinese and Taiwanese, respectively, emerges as an assertive and seemingly non-negotiable identity inherited from the past in their body image. At these moments, young dialogue participants, despite their informal status that does not officially represent any constituency back home, are compelled to embody their home communities and their large-group identities, often with tears and emotional outbursts.

A Taiwanese-Mainland Chinese exchange observed during the joint conflict analysis exercise in 2007, among numerous other episodes, illustrates this point cogently. Given the floor first to share their perspective on the roots of the cross-Strait conflict, the Taiwanese delegates, led by one female spokesperson, started their presentation with a symbolic expression of their inner feelings:

Once upon a time, there was a new-born baby. Somebody came to take the baby but then left her. The baby was again picked up by somebody else and abandoned again. The baby girl eventually grew up, making an effort to become a truly independent person on her own. But her biological parents suddenly appeared at that point and asserted to reclaim her custody.

One way of interpreting the underlying message of this metaphoric expression is the following: a nebulous, burgeoning sense of Taiwanese collective identity began to sprout, like a new-born baby coming into existence, in response to the Qing Dynasty’s conquest of the island starting in the late seventeenth century. At the end of the nineteenth century, Japan emerged as a self-declared “liberator” in East Asia, seized the island from the mainland through the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-5, but abandoned it after pursuing its exploitive, colonial agenda for half a century and being defeated in the Second World War. Mainland China, represented then by the Republic of China under Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang (KMT) Party, took the island as a new liberator. But the KMT rule soon revealed its true nature when it led the systematic massacres of local opponents in the February 28 incident in 1947, generating a widespread popular sentiment that mainland rulers betrayed the Taiwanese again, reminiscent of what the Taiwanese had experienced in the aftermath of the Sino-Japanese War. As Taiwan had sought to develop as an independent nation for decades and gradually built a prosperous democracy, the mainland government under CCP rule, now distinctly different in character from the Taiwanese offspring growing up, claims its inalienable right to integrate Taiwan back into the Chinese family, often citing its ancient ties to Taiwan, imagined or real.

After these introductory remarks filled with metaphoric expressions, the Taiwanese participants moved to a more formal, systematic account of what they saw as the roots of the current cross-Strait conflict, emphasizing that at the core of their grievances was the frustrated need to attain greater respect and self-actualization in relation to the mainland. The mainland delegates, in turn, offered their conflict analysis, highlighting that historically, lack of unity within the Chinese state has often led to foreign invasions and to the disintegration of China. After detailed historical accounts by his team, one mainland delegate concluded the mainland team’s remarks: “… but 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.”

This concluding remark by one mainland delegate was followed by another mainland delegate, who was looking intently into the eyes of the Taiwanese counterparts, and added, “… yes, the bottom line of all of this is that we love you and we want you to come back to us.” These remarks by the mainland delegates invited the Taiwanese delegates’ equally emotional responses, with one Taiwanese participant raising her voice and saying, “We don’t want to be part of you. Leave us alone. Let us become who we truly are as an independent community.” 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. The group dynamics had then begun to focus squarely on how passionately individual members of each team could display their large-group identities as if they embodied their national communities.

This episode of 2007 illustrates a manifest pattern of group dynamics that have been recurrent throughout the seven-year history of Strait Talk. This pattern is characterized as a personification of the participants’ large-group identities, especially their national identities, which become predominant when these young delegates choose to take up their nations’ historical traumas and glories on their own. Interestingly, such a process of personification of their large-group identities was often expressed through, or at least triggered by, the use of family metaphors, as in the reference to parent-child relations in the episode just described.

It is significant that the hardening of the delegates’ attitudes through the embodiment of their large-group identities recurred persistently over the years despite the other two concurrent trends of “softening” described earlier, that is, the greater negotiability of perceived conflict history (Theme 1) and sovereignty (Theme 2). It is inferred from these trends that well-educated young “pre-influentials” like the Strait Talk delegates are now growing accustomed to communicating with each other their views on political taboos and boundaries in cross-Strait relations, yet at the same time, they do carry their share of nationalism inherited from the historical past. Raised in the third and fourth generations of the post-Civil-War era, these young delegates embody a unique mixture of the present and the past, change and continuity in their respective societies. And there is one more conspicuous trait that they frequently exhibit and that is worth highlighting, for it is likely to complement our understanding of this intricate mixture.

Theme 4: Deep Empathy, beyond Political Correctness

Empathy is a capacity to put oneself in the shoes of others and look at their relationships from the other side’s perspective. While carefully facilitated workshops are generally known to generate empathy between parties, the depth of empathetic exchange between young Taiwanese and Mainland Chinese delegates appears to be somewhat unique from the perspective of comparative peacemaking. This unique quality of empathy-building, it seems, has been facilitated in part by the delegates’ readiness to take extra steps to examine their own articles of faith and sometimes go as far as demonstrating clear signs of identity shifts.

In the 2009 workshop at Berkeley, for example, a Taiwanese delegate drew on her team’s presentation on conflict analysis and added a personal story about how much she regretted treating fellow Taiwanese students of non-Han minority backgrounds in her classrooms at an earlier stage of her education. Her comment was slightly off the track because the discussion was supposed to focus more on the relationship between Taiwan and Mainland China. Yet her storytelling about her own discriminatory treatment of Taiwanese minorities, which was intermittently interrupted by her sobbing and emotional bursts, introduced silence in the circle of dialogue. Other delegates listened intently. A few minutes into this Taiwanese participant’s storytelling, a Mainland Chinese delegate seated in front of her offered her reflection on her Taiwanese counterpart’s storytelling, summarized as follows:

Growing up in Beijing and educated at mainland schools, she has always believed that despite the tumultuous relationships with Taiwan and her awareness of the Taiwanese long-standing grievances, the small island nation will be integrated as part of One China sooner or later. She came to this dialogue with this worldview, which had been an integral part of her national identity. She could not foresee any circumstances under which such a deep-rooted belief within her could be changed. But having witnessed her Taiwanese colleagues sobbing with regret and having self-reflected on what they saw as their mistreatment of their own Taiwanese minorities, she now felt compelled to self-reflect on how her own society, Mainland China, should treat Taiwanese. “Taiwanese people have their own feelings, and we need to respect them,” she remarked. “Maybe the way we have been treating the Taiwanese has not been totally right.” While she was sharing her reflections, another mainland delegate, seated next to her, started sobbing quietly.

This episode of 2009 is unique in terms of the highly conspicuous nature of self-reflections transferred from one side to the other. But it is arguably quite common in terms of the way in which Strait Talk dialogues have opened up an unconventional, interactive space over the years for mutual learning in which the participants have voluntarily chosen to re-evaluate and transform their deep-seated assumptions on their own, with radical empathy. It is hypothesized that the method of dialogue facilitation and the informal atmosphere of relationship-building have helped deepen the level of empathy-building. Yet having facilitated dialogues in other parts of the world still undergoing systematic, active violence – from Rwanda to Israel-Palestine relations – the present author also hypothesizes that part of the young Taiwanese and Mainland Chinese delegates’ readiness to empathize deeply with one another comes from the fact that they belong to the generation that has no concrete, tangible memory of active warfare with one another. Six decades after the active fighting in the Chinese Civil War, in other words, the origin of their conflict is becoming increasingly more abstract and less tangible, unlike its long-lasting consequences still recognizable in their daily lives. Precisely because of the less tangible nature of the conflict, one may hypothesize, the immediate, tangible experience of in-depth, face-to-face dialogue has more promise than ever before as a way of transforming each other’s images that have been considered unchangeable for much of the long history of the cross-Strait conflict.

Conclusion: Envisioning a Way Forward

This essay has explored lessons learned from seven years of experience with Strait Talk, a movement intended to bring together young civil society delegates from both sides of the Taiwan Strait and from the United States for joint problem-solving and sustainable relationship-building. At the heart of this historical conflict is the Mainland Chinese search for coherent nationhood and territorial integrity on the one hand, and the Taiwanese desire to determine their own political future and to give full expressions to their diverse and distinct communal identities without Chinese interference on the other. Despite the deeply-entrenched structural nature of this conflict that has essentially remained intact for decades, the most recent trends in cross-Strait relations, catalyzed by the Taiwanese election of the KMT president Ma Ying-jeou in May, 2008, have introduced a burgeoning sense of civil society exchange, including an increasing number of ordinary Taiwanese and Mainland Chinese people crisscrossing the Strait through direct flights. Strait Talk builds on these emerging trends and seeks to develop a practical model of cross-Strait civil society exchange that activates peace potential inherent in these historical trends.

Moreover, Strait Talk, through its emphasis on highly interactive, experiential learning, offers a unique window of opportunity through which young “pre-influentials” who belong to the third to fourth generation of the post-Civil War era come face to face with each other across the Strait, and also with the history of their conflict that they have inherited from generations ago. Recurrent patterns of their group dynamics suggest at least four potentially generalizable trends about how this generation of highly-educated people have internalized their conflict: (1) both sides view the conflict as a relatively contemporary phenomenon thus time-bound in nature, not to be too open-ended or mythologized; (2) the two sides are ready and able to unpack the seemingly nonnegotiable nature of sovereignty – which confronts them either in the form of One China or Taiwanese independence – by way of self-reflecting on the rationality underlying the seemingly irrational attachment to sovereignty; (3) contrary to these two trends, however, the young delegates also carry with them a strong emotional attachment to their large-group identities and display them in a highly personalized way when their identities are challenged; (4) young delegates on both sides are also ready and able to extend deep empathy with one another when invited to do so through tangible, impactful experience, even to the point of crossing the boundaries of their political correctness.

These emerging trends demonstrated by young delegates in a safe, academic environment may not be readily replicated in the far more complex reality of macro-political dynamics that they will inherit. Nor is there any sign of systematic social change that the two governing authorities may adopt to settle the political status of Taiwan in such a way as to test the robustness of these young delegates’ conciliatory capacities. On the other hand, the opportunities presented since mid-2008 at the grassroots level for greater civil society exchange are real and unprecedented beyond doubt, though not necessarily irreversible. If the history of peace processes elsewhere in the world is a guide, these new opportunities arguably carry significant potential for shaping and reshaping the grassroots’ readiness either to accept or reject whatever major political choices the two governing authorities may make at some point in the future. From a macro-historical perspective – with decades to generations of gradual social transformation in mind – time is ripe today more than ever before to start making concerted efforts across the Strait to create robust, self-adaptive, and sustainable mechanisms of civil society interactions that deepen interdependence and make war unthinkable. Taking concrete steps toward these visions is in the best interest of both sides of the Strait seeing greater regional stability, not only at the civil society and business level but also at the government level. From a long-term historical perspective, therefore, Strait Talk represents the ultimate form of political pragmatism that takes the voices of coming generations seriously.


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Example of a Walk-Through History: Parallel Chronologies Presented by the 2006 Delegates

    Mainland Chinese chronology
  • 1895 Treaty of Shimonoseki, ceding Taiwan to Japan.
  • 1943-45 Cairo Declaration and Potsdam Proclamation, both stating the Chinese right to reclaim Taiwan from Japan.
  • 1947 February 28 incident – Taiwanese uprising met with massacres by the Chinese Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang (KMT).
  • 1949 People’s Republic of China (PRC) established.
  • 1979 Sino-US communiqué
  • 1989 June 4th Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui condemned PRC for the Tiananmen incident
  • 2000 Chen Shui-bian of Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) was elected as Taiwanese president.
    Taiwanese chronology
  • 1895-1945 Japanese colonial rule of Taiwan.
  • 1949 KMT, under Chiang Kai-shek’s leadership, retreated to Taiwan.
  • 1979 The US established diplomatic ties with PRC, away from the Republic of China (ROC).
  • 1994 The Qiandao Lake incident. Taiwanese tourists killed in China. Taiwan dissatisfied with response, leaning more toward independence.
  • 1996 First direct vote for Taiwanese national election, triggering a crisis across the Strait, with intensive Chinese military exercises.
  • 1999 President Lee proposed a special state-to-state relationship with the mainland.
  • 2000 DPP came into power with pro-independence slogan, ending half a century of KMT rule.


Note that in the actual exercise of walk-through history, each sheet of paper recording an event was much simpler than the entries into the above matrix. For example, the entry for 1895 was simply “1895 Treaty of Shimonoseki,” assuming that all the delegates were intimately familiar with the event.


[1] In this paper, the terms Mainland China and Taiwan refer to the two sides of the Taiwan Strait, with emphasis on their geographic regions and the populations associated with them. [Return to Text]

[2] Two more series of annual dialogues, one in Hong Kong since 2011 and the other in Taipei since 2012, were subsequently added. These dialogues are held in Chinese Mandarin. This essay will focus on the twelve US-based dialogues that the author has facilitated. More on these additional dialogues will be discussed later. [Return to Text]

[3] Introductory literature on conflict resolution – and on the related concepts of conflict management and transformation – includes Galtung (2004, 2010), Kriesberg (2007), Lederach (1997, 2005), Rubin, Pruitt, and Kim (2003), and Wilmot and Hocker (2010). [Return to Text]

[4] Recent studies on the security, political, and economic relations across the Taiwan Strait include: Romberg (2003), Bush (2005), Wachman (2007), Tucker (2011), Blanchard and Hickey (2012), and Wei (2012). While these studies vary greatly in focus, they generally point to the decisive roles that macro-structural dynamics play within Mainland China, Taiwan, and the United States, as well as in the larger regional and global contexts in which the three societies interact. This essay complements these works by analyzing the historical memory, identities, and group dynamics of young Mainland Chinese, Taiwanese, and US citizens who openly and thoroughly discussed diverse meanings of these macro-structural forces that bind them. For this reason, the major findings of this inquiry, listed above as (a) to (d), suggest a unique contribution to the analysis of cross-Strait relations.

[5] Historians debate whether the discourse of the Century of Humiliation has evolved from China’s actual experience in the mid-nineteenth century or in fact, it has been constructed more recently by the rise of contemporary Chinese nationalism (Gries 2004). While this essay does not seek to settle the debate, it acknowledges the active presence of such an emotionally charged discourse as an authentic reality to work on, regardless of the exact nature of its historical origin and its dynamic evolution.

[6] This line of future-oriented thinking that applies the theory of conflict resolution to cross-Strait relations has been explored by some regional experts. See, for example, Bush (2005) and Saunders and Kastner (2009).

[7] The founder of Strait Talk Johnny Lin was a nineteen-year-old undergraduate student at Brown University at the point of its inception in 2005. He currently co-leads the nonprofit organization as its president. For more information about Strait Talk, visit

[8] See below for different functions of conflict resolution workshops, such as relationship-building and capacity-building, for these functions illustrate a working theory of social impact that Strait Talk aspires to make by engaging pre-influentials.

[9] One of the opening exercises invites Taiwanese participants to be in the Indonesian shoes and their Mainland Chinese counterparts to be in the East Timorese shoes as they explore possible solutions to the East Timor-Indonesian conflict in the late 1990s. In this exercise, perceived power relations are reversed between the two sides. American participants split into two subgroups and work with either one side or the other. Arai (2012: 203-208) describes this method of experiential learning, which builds on the conflict parties’ own identities to elicit empathy and creativity, as cross-contextual case studies.

[10] On completion of a weeklong workshop each year, fifteen Strait Talk participants travel together to present their consensus document at such US-based organizations as the Council on Foreign Relations, Asia Society, and Asia Foundation, often engaging senior scholars and policy-oriented practitioners in attendance.

[11] There is a much broader range of functions that ICR has been used to serve than what this essay has considered. For a useful overview of these functions, see Rouhana (2000).

[12] ICR has been used to build and transform human relationships across many conflict-affected societies. See, for example, Saunders (1999, 2000) and Diamond and Fisher (1995).

[13] ICR’s contribution to capacity-building has been well researched and documented. Based on his extensive experience in the facilitation of Israel-Palestine dialogues, for example, Kelman (1995) observes that the ICR workshops that he and his colleagues have carried out helped prepare cadres of Israeli and Palestinian leaders, who subsequently negotiated or otherwise influenced various aspects of the Oslo peace accord in 1993.

[14] The research and practice on ICR has focused primarily on how to generate solutions to social conflicts (learning) and how to convey the solutions to policymakers and influential stakeholders within each of the societies involved in the conflicts (transfer). See Burton (1986), Kelman (1997), and Mitchell and Banks (1996).

[15] Joseph Montville offers a synopsis of walk-through history and its application to conflicts in American society at:

[16] Reflections on the meaning of 1895 offered by a 2009 delegate right after a weeklong dialogue capture this feeling metaphorically: “some see it as a woman being separated from a man while others see it as the birth of a new consciousness.”

[17] A Mainland Chinese delegate in 2008 even went as far as arguing that the whole notion of sovereignty, especially in line with the Westphalia tradition, is alien to Chinese society. He stated that the Confucian tradition underlying the Chinese ideal of good governance sees a nation in the mirror image of a family. Viewed from this perspective, he continued, the nation-citizen relationship in China is more akin to a father-son relationship bound by lineage and loyalty than to the Western notion of social contract between a state and its citizens who have given consent to its authority. This perspective, though not necessarily shared by all the mainland delegates, is worth noting because it illustrates how far the cosmological basis of sovereignty can possibly expand to override the conventional legal argument, with which Americans, as well as a growing number of young Western-leaning Taiwanese, are more familiar.

[18] A list of possible sovereignty arrangements presented here is simplified for brevity and modified for clarity from the original text of the 2006 consensus document. The original text may be obtained by writing to Strait Talk coordinators at:

[Return to Text]


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