How Taiwan used women’s voices to send secret messages into China and woo defectors

KINMEN, Taiwan — Back in the 1970s, Tian Liyun could not travel to China’s mainland, but her voice could.

She was among a crew of Taiwanese broadcasters who took turns trying to cajole listeners in Communist China to defect. They recited slogans and played music, with powerful speakers and shortwave radios carrying their message the short distance across the strait to mainland China.

Not to be outdone, on the other side of the strait, China set up its own loudspeakers to blare missives and music back at Taiwan.

Now discontinued, the dueling propaganda broadcasts echoed a turbulent history shared by China and Taiwan — driven apart by unresolved historical enmity after a bloody civil war. For the Taiwanese women at the front line of this audio standoff, the job gave them a unique viewpoint into cross-strait relations and Taiwan’s eventual democratization. Their stories gain new relevance today at a time of heightened tensions between Taiwan and China.

“Our job was to fight for hearts and minds,” Tian, 67, says.

A sometimes musical approach to information warfare

It was 1974 when Taiwan’s government first sent Tian to Kinmen, a tiny island that’s far closer to China — less than 2 miles off the coast at certain points — than it is to the main island of Taiwan.

At the time, Taiwan was ruled under martial law by an authoritarian one-party state, which was laser-focused on battling its way back to defeat the Chinese Communist Party that ruled the mainland.

Taiwan’s National Security Bureau tasked Tian and the other broadcasters not just to win over Chinese across the strait, but also transmit coded messages to Taiwan’s spies on the mainland.

China did its best to block the shortwave signals and set up its own loudspeaker system to drown out Taiwan’s broadcasts with recordings of speeches from Communist leaders.

“Our broadcasts to China always suffered interference,” says Chen Xiaoping, 65, another former Taiwanese broadcaster. “They would play Peking opera, the loud cymbals muddling the sound of our broadcasts.”

One of the key tools for information warfare was the female voice — especially the dulcet tones of Teresa Teng, one of Taiwan’s biggest pop stars at the time. Though officially banned in Communist China, Teng’s music was nonetheless coveted by Chinese listeners, who cherished cassette tapes with her music copied on them, smuggled in from the then-British colony of Hong Kong.

In 1979, Chen began hosting a radio show called Teresa Time, dedicated to playing Teng’s music for an hour each day to listeners in China. She says using Teng’s music was strategic, because the singer enunciated extremely clearly, so her words could go long distances without getting muddled.

“The thinking was, Teng’s beautiful voice could penetrate people’s hearts and because you listened to her music and heard her speak, you would know just how prosperous and free a place Taiwan is, and you would want to defect [from China] towards freedom,” Chen explains.

Now looking back, she laughs at this argument, given its long authoritarian rule. “That was what the times were like then. For us broadcasters, [the content] had nothing to do with our lives at all, actually. It was completely a matter of national policy,” she says.

The few women on the base

For two decades starting in the late 1950s, Communist China and Taiwan routinely shelled each other. Taiwan’s Matsu and Kinmen islands took the brunt of China’s artillery fire, due to their proximity to the mainland. On Kinmen, thousands of people were killed by the shelling. Today many older buildings on Kinmen still bear bullet holes and shrapnel scars.

But in 1979, the shelling stopped. That’s when broadcaster Zhen Meihui, 65, arrived on the island chain of Matsu, which is just a few miles from China’s southeast coast and was fortified with Taiwan’s troops at the time. Few other journalists wanted her position, but she thought of the posting as a great adventure.

“My family asked me what I was doing going to such a dangerous place, but I thought, how great is that?” Zhen told NPR.

For broadcasters stationed on Taiwan’s outlying islands — some of the few women on military bases their — life outside of work was closely monitored by military authorities. The women were required to have male chaperones with them wherever they went. Going to the local movie theater or the produce market was often the highlight of the week.

The broadcasts were also tightly controlled. Taiwanese intelligence agents would write the scripts and check them word for word. The broadcasters recorded their segments on tape reels, which were amplified toward China by a powerful shortwave radio system originally built in the early 20th century by the islands’ then Japanese colonizers.

The broadcasters were encouraged to sound warm and natural, recording conversational segments about the weather, local Taiwanese news, and played recordings of patriotic Taiwanese songs as well as Mandarin pop ballads.

“Speaking behind the microphone and having their voices transmitted by radio waves seemed to be just another way to perform their grace and femininity,” says Isabelle Cockel, an academic at Britain’s University of Portsmouth who has studied women in Taiwan’s military.

Some recordings also involved hanhua, or “yelling words,” that would blare out of enormous outdoor loudspeakers on Kinmen and Matsu. Zhen learned to stretch out her syllables as she yelled, so a phrase like “Dear compatriots!” could take up to five seconds and be clearly heard. Shortwave broadcasts also had to be read at a precise speed.

Under Taiwan’s authoritarian state, any slip-ups in pronunciation were punished.

“We laugh at North Korea now, but back then, we were just like them,” says Chen, the host of Teresa Time.

Intelligence officials also required the broadcasters to occasionally transmit Morse code-encrypted messages for their spies in mainland China.

Both Chen and Zhen say they also made regular segments teaching Chinese pilots how to defect to Taiwan.

“Planes then couldn’t carry enough fuel to fly directly from China to Taiwan. So I would teach listeners some techniques, like how to wave your airplane wing flaps a certain way to signal to allies: ‘I am defecting. I want to go to Taiwan,'” Chen remembers.

In 1982, a Chinese pilot named Wu Ronggen successfully defected to Taiwan with his plane. He had become enamored by Teresa Teng’s voice while secretly listening to Chen’s radio show.

Listeners connected with the announcers

The radio broadcasts ended in the 1980s as Taiwan began a path toward democracy. In 1987, the island ended nearly four decades of martial law, and in 1996, it held its first competitive presidential election.

Amid these political reforms, the broadcasters hustled to find their place in a shifting media landscape. Once entirely state controlled, media outlets could now be run independently. Underground radio stations were allowed to formally register as commercial entities.

“I went from being an announcer who read other peoples’ manuscripts to being able to start writing and producing myself, to even start a radio station and learning new communication technologies,” says Tian, the broadcaster once based on Kinmen. She is now a journalist for a private multimedia company.

Despite earlier hostility, the women behind the broadcasting say their perceptions toward China have softened over the decades. “Of course, at the time we really thought our compatriots in China were suffering and we really felt in our hearts we could help them and lift their spirits,” says Chen, the Teresa Time host.

They also built personal connections to listeners in China through radio. Tian says Chinese listeners would often write letters to her and ask about her safety.

A sense of shared Chinese culture also connected the broadcasters and their secret, dedicated listeners. “We saw ourselves as all culturally Chinese people who had received a Chinese education. And many [who had fled to Taiwan after the Chinese civil war] always hoped to go back to their home in China,” Tian says. A large minority of Taiwan’s population is descended from Chinese troops and refugees, and Taiwan’s post-civil war government emphasized its Chinese roots, though that focus has decreased in the last decade.

Chen even traveled to China in the early 2000s, when cross-strait tensions eased, to give talks at university campuses and meet her former listeners and their children. Many people in China had listened to her show despite the threat of punishment if they were caught.

As a young broadcaster, she had been trained to think of Chinese people as gongfei, or communist bandits, as Taiwanese propaganda called them. But traveling to China, she realized, “it was in a closed-off environment that we became mysterious to each other.” A few people came to her talks because they were curious what a Taiwanese person looked like; they had never seen one before.

Seeing each other in the same room, Chen said, she realized people in China and Taiwan were not very different after all in their pursuit of happiness and prosperity. “And, of course, we hope that everyone in China can be free,” she says.

As for the towering speakers, Kinmen’s Beishan Broadcasting Wall has become a tourist destination.

And to this day, the crooning ballads of Teresa Teng still play from its speakers — now softly, for visitors to enjoy — as relics from a time of strife that still resonates.

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