In the middle of 1996, during a period of cross-straits tension, ‘An Open Letter to the Social Elite of Taiwan’ was distributed. The letter was signed by Chou Wei-lin, for a group named Club 51. The Club was unknown at the time. But whenever there was a chance to disseminate its ideas thereafter, the Club would be on the street. In early 1999, when the controversy over relations between Taiwan and the PRC broke out again, Club 51 could be found protesting in front of the American Institute—the equivalent of the US embassy on the island—against Washington’s ambiguous stance. It might have been thought that the Club was there to demand American intervention in the Taiwan Straits to counter the threat of an attack from the mainland. But no, it was more radical than that. The captions at the top of the first page of its Open Letter called for Taiwan to join the United States of America as its 51st State, so as to ‘Guarantee Taiwan’s Security, Stability, Prosperity, Liberty and Democracy’.

Founded on the Fourth of July 1994 by 51 intellectuals and businessmen with American experience, the Club had grown to some 500 supporting members by 1996. Since then it has not generated any large movement, but has been quite visible in the media. Its chief animator, Chou Wei-lin, who has law degrees from universities in Taiwan and the US, is a former activist of the Taiwan independence movement, and an extremely articulate writer and speaker. Taiwan’s leading newspaper, China Times, devoted a full-page interview to him and to his Club’s ideas in May 1996, and he has appeared on various TV and radio call-in shows. footnote1 In 1998, encouraged by both sympathetic and antagonistic reactions to the Club’s programme, Chou published a highly imaginative work to substantiate his arguments and lay out his moment of utopia. It is entitled A Date with the US—the Ultimate Resolution of Taiwan’s Future: Taiwan becomes a State of the US in 2013; Say Yes to America. In it, Chou advocates a two-stage strategy. First, Taiwan becomes a trust territory, along Puerto Rican lines; then it seeks full statehood, along Hawaiian lines. Eventually, on January 1, 2013, a splendid sunny day, Taiwan becomes the fifty-first state of the USA. All Chinese names are changed forthwith: Yuan to Adams, Kung to Cohen, Chen to Dunn, Ding to Dean, Chou to Jefferson. All cities and districts acquire new place-names: Taiwan becomes Formosa again, while Taipei becomes Cambridge, Taichung Dalton, Kaohsiung Fairfax, and Hsinchu Talcom. Among the newly elected 46 members of Congress representing Taiwan, 22 are fluent in English; of these, fourteen are first or second generation mainlanders, and eight are natives, all educated in the US. Here are to be found the next generation of leading politicians, including James C. Stevens Jr (Soong Zheng-yuan, son of ex-governor James Soong), and Vincent W. Lane (son of former Vice President and current Chairman of the KMT, Chan Lian). On this fortunate day, the Taiwanese finally have ‘a sense of belonging, a sense of certainty, a sense of direction and a sense of security’. footnote2

What is the significance of Club 51? A moralizing reaction, common to nationalist left and right in Taiwan, will not be helpful in bringing out the issues at stake. In our part of the world, it has been a frequent practice to jump quickly to moral judgement in social controversies, foreclosing the possibility of critical reflection that might help us to understand better the real psychic forces at work in our societies. Two signs suggest it would a mistake to dismiss the Club’s project as merely outlandish. In abandoning any claim to national sovereignty, with the alteration of a single capital letter—switching from ‘State’ building (in the sense of Japan) to ‘state’ building (in the sense of California)—Club 51 projects a sea change in the parameters of the anti-colonial imagination that powered independence movements in the Third World in the past. Its form of identification might remind us of France’s départements d’outremer or, indeed, the fate of Hawaii; but its timing at the turn of the twenty-first century does seem to indicate an emerging new condition, beyond earlier historical moments of decolonization. There is another reason for such an impression. The impulses behind Club 51 are not confined to Taiwan. Comparable sentiments can be found in Manila and Okinawa, in Seoul and Micronesia, not to speak of Canada or Australia. How does one account for them? What can we learn from Club 51?

The Taiwanese background, of course, is a very specific one, and colours the fantasies of Club 51 throughout. The central arguments of the Club are highlighted, point by point, in the first paragraphs of its Letter of 1996:

If Club 51 cannot awaken the Taiwanese elite in time to give up such selfish and short-sighted practices as individual immigration, and to support instead the proposal of ‘Taiwan’s State-Building Movement’ for collective identification and naturalization into the US, within a few years Taiwan will not be able to escape the appalling fate of ‘Hong-Kongization’. Even if it could avoid this, it will be permanently beset by Beijing’s psychological warfare, plunging it into economic recession, falling confidence, and social unrest.

Conjuring up the spectre of Hong Kong on the eve of its handover to China in 1997 is calculated, of course, to trigger fear and insecurity in the Letter’s target audience. But the Club’s appeal does not just rest on demonizing the Communist threat to Taiwan. It also offers an attractive alternative to panicky individual exodus abroad. ‘Once Taiwan becomes another state in the US, we will be in America right here, and Taiwanese will not have to dwell in other places throughout the world as a minority of minorities in local societies’. The ingenuity of the Club’s proposal lies in its radical resolution of the deadlock over Taiwanese independence. The message is: let us give up our own nation-state, with its hopelessly ambiguous status, and join instead another of our choice. State-building will then no longer require endless, impossible and unsuccessful efforts to join the United Nations. We will just have to deal with one nation. Our half-way Americanization of the past fifty years can advance to a full new nationality. This vision is pitched not just to the elite, but to everyone living on the island. It answers to a general desire to ‘stay at home’ at this moment in history, as the economic success of Taiwan has drawn numbers of emigrants back to the island, after bad experiences of being discriminated against abroad—‘the minority of minorities’. The Letter goes on:

When Beijing announced its ‘missile rehearsals’ to threaten the Presidential election in Taiwan, our Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs called upon the Director of the American Institute, begging the US to uphold justice for Taiwan. Any clear-sighted person knows that Taiwan cannot survive without US protection. If the United States does not defend the principles of justice, ‘the Republic of China in Taiwan’ might soon become ‘the Republic of China in Los Angeles’.