Hsu Hsin-liang, the 45-year-old publisher of the Alhambra-based Taiwan Times, is a somewhat shadowy figure in the complex political and social world of Southern California's ethnic Chinese communities.
Living in political asylum in this country--and believing that agents of Taiwan's government might seek to harm him--he keeps the location of his home secret even from many of his closest associates. He leads a life of isolation, rarely appearing at public events.
But Hsu intends to grab an international spotlight later this year with an audacious attempt to take an opposition party to Taiwan--an effort that he says he will publicize by flying to Taipei to face probable arrest and imprisonment.
The scenario is patterned after the dramatic 1983 return of Benigno S. Aquino Jr. from the United States to the Philippines, where his murder upon arrival at Manila airport led ultimately to his wife becoming president, and the return last year of opposition leader Kim Dae Jung from American exile to South Korea, where he has inspired the reform movement despite frequent house arrest.
Taiwanese activists led by Hsu plan to hold a convention in August in the United States to organize an opposition party that would be called the Taiwan Democratic Party. Hsu and other political exiles would then "take the party back to Taiwan" in defiance of a government ban on such organized opposition.
"My view is that whatever they do--let me in or not, arrest me or not--what we are expecting is simply to trigger new momentum for the opposition movement," Hsu said in a recent interview. "This is our goal. So long as we achieve this goal, we are successful. So I really don't care too much what the government will do to me."
If opposition leaders in Taiwan decide to form their own party, either before or after his return, the Taiwan Democratic Party would revert to being an overseas support group for whatever new party is created in Taiwan, Hsu said.
During his seven years of American exile, Hsu has devoted his time to political organizing and publishing. His newspaper, the Taiwan Times, which claims a circulation of 5,000, serves as a voice for Taiwanese activists in this country. Married and the father of three teen-agers, Hsu said his family will stay behind when he returns to Taiwan.
Sense of Destiny
"If you want to be a serious political figure, you cannot think of your family too much, or you can do nothing," he said. "Sacrifice is our destiny, in a sense, and also our families' destiny."
Hsu--who from 1977 to 1979 was an elected county official in Taiwan--was one of five key organizers of the last major attempt to challenge Kuomintang (Nationalist Party) martial-law rule in Taiwan. He escaped arrest in a 1979 crackdown against leaders of that effort only because he happened to be in the United States.
His colleagues in what came to be labeled the "Small Group of Five" were among eight people charged and convicted of sedition for allegedly instigating an anti-government riot on Dec. 10, 1979, in the southern city of Kaohsiung. Four of those people remain imprisoned.
Hsu speaks intensely of the aspirations of the Taiwanese people--who speak their own dialect of Chinese and comprise 85% of the island's population--to control their own destiny rather than be ruled, as they are now, by a government controlled by people born on the Chinese mainland.
"Our Taiwanese movement is not only a democratic movement," Hsu said, "it's also a Taiwanese nationalist movement. . . . The interaction between overseas Taiwanese and the democratic movement in Taiwan is quite intensive. A lot of opposition leaders come out very often and have close interaction with the overseas Taiwanese movement."
One such opposition leader from Taiwan, Hsu Jung-shu, a member of Taiwan's Legislative Yuan and the wife of one of the leaders imprisoned since 1979, spoke enthusiastically of Hsu Hsin-liang's plans in an interview during a recent visit to Los Angeles.
The loosely organized tangwai (outside the party) opposition--which is not allowed to call itself a political party and does not have the same rights as a political party--is presently "the No. 1 enemy of the Kuomintang," Hsu Jung-shu said.
"When Hsu Hsin-liang comes back, we become the No. 2 enemy," she said. "It will be safer for us. With his sacrifice, we can establish an opposition party. . . . When he comes back, the Kuomintang will arrest him. We'll get angry and excited, and announce the establishment of a new party."
Hsu Jung-shu predicted that this would happen shortly before elections for the Legislative Yuan and National Assembly that are scheduled for Dec. 6.
The scenario outlined by Hsu Hsin-liang and Hsu Jung-shu is taking shape at a time of sudden willingness by the ruling Kuomintang to consider political liberalization. Last month, authorities announced that, for the first time, opposition forces would be permitted to set up branch offices in several cities.
Hsu Hsin-liang described the opening of these offices as "parallel" to his own efforts, rather than directly connected, but stressed that if this or any other process leads to creation of an opposition party, he will support that party.
Some opposition leaders do not seem as optimistic as Hsu Hsin-liang and Hsu Jung-shu.
"Forming an opposition party is not so simple," Chou Ching-yu, a national assemblywoman whose husband is also one of those imprisoned since 1979, said during a current visit to the United States. "There is much work to do."
Chou said that Hsu Hsin-liang's first problem is getting to Taiwan.
"To arrest him or not to arrest him, either way will create a problem for the KMT (Kuomintang)," she said. "If he does not have entrance permission, maybe the KMT will try very hard to keep him from getting into the airplane."
Another opposition leader, jailed after the so-called "Kaohsiung incident" of 1979 and since released, expressed doubt that Hsu's plans would proceed smoothly.
"I don't think the KMT would willingly allow such things to happen," said this former prisoner, who wished not to be identified. "If we don't have good preparation, he might just disappear."
This person also expressed concern that two former prisoners now in the United States, Hsieh Tsung-min and Lin Shui-chuan, who have said they will go back to Taiwan with Hsu Hsin-liang, may face greater danger than he does: "They have both been political prisoners. . . . The KMT would be more resentful toward them--for a political prisoner to commit a political crime again."
Family to Stay Behind
Hsieh Tsung-min, 52, who has been imprisoned for a total of 11 years and now lives in political asylum in Los Angeles, said he will leave his wife and 5-year-old son behind when he returns to Taiwan, but that he does not believe he will be arrested there.
"The KMT can have a choice between an opposition party and a revolutionary party," Hsieh said. "We are an opposition party. I think we can make it clear that if the KMT represses us, it will make the opposition more strong, and help the revolutionary parties."
A spokesman in Los Angeles for the Coordination Council for North American Affairs, Taiwan's quasi-official diplomatic mission, declined comment on Hsu Hsin-liang and his plans, or what might happen if he tries to return to Taiwan.
Hsu said he believes he will be allowed to reach Taipei and will be arrested upon arrival. He would then depend on protests in Taiwan and the United States to protect his safety, and political change in Taiwan to lead to his release, he said.
In addition to support from Taiwanese activists in this country, Hsu is hoping for moral support from the Committee for Democracy On Taiwan, a group formed last month by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), Sen. Claiborne Pell (D-R.I.), Rep. Stephen J. Solarz (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Jim Leach (R-Iowa) to promote democratization on Taiwan.
Speaking at a May 20 press conference in Washington, at which formation of the new committee was announced, Solarz, who is chairman of the House subcommittee on Asian and Pacific affairs, sharply criticized martial law in Taiwan. Solarz also cited his co-sponsorship with Leach of a congressional resolution calling on Taiwan to allow the formation of opposition parties, guarantee freedom of speech and hold general elections.
At the same press conference, Kennedy introduced Hsu Jung-shu and Chou Ching-yu and declared: "They have been the victims of constant harassment and intimidation, but they have persevered, and we are here to honor them today and to pledge our support for their cause and for the cause of freedom on Taiwan."
Kennedy and Solarz made no specific mention of Hsu Hsin-liang or his plans, which had been announced at a May 1 press conference in New York and received wide coverage in Chinese-language newspapers but was generally ignored by other media. A press release from their new committee stated that it "does not endorse any political party, individual or group" but rather "seeks to promote human rights, freedom and democracy" as "the chief priority of America's policy toward Taiwan."
Hsu Hsin-liang said he believes the committee will "work very well as a deterrent" against "anti-human rights activities in Taiwan."
"America's attitude is very important," Hsu Jung-shu said. "If America wants Taiwan to be democratized, it is very easy."