By Assunta Ng
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
In the shadow of China, it is challenging for Taiwan diplomats to advance the island’s interests in Washington state, even though it has an office (Taipei Economic and Cultural Office [TECO], equivalent to a consulate), and China doesn’t have a consul office. However, Seattle’s TECO Director-General Vincent Yao seems to thrive even when China has lobbied our state and city officials to isolate Taiwan.
Yao, 52, who has been in the position for barely two years, has recently been promoted. His predecessors were not promoted as quickly. Typically, Asian diplomats, including Japan and Korea, stay in Seattle for three years or more. Yao will be in charge of all 15 TECO offices in North America. His new job will begin next year in Taiwan, as he leaves Seattle on Dec. 4.
If you missed Yao’s farewell parties organized by the Chinese and Taiwanese community in November, you are not the only one. Compared to his predecessors with over 400 people at their final dinners in Seattle, the 150 guests at Yao’s event at China Harbor Restaurant seemed modest, yet it reflected his wishes. People who were there wanted to be there, not because they were doing him or someone else a favor. In contrast, there were close to 600 guests at the Taiwan Double Ten celebration at the Seattle Sheraton and VIPs from all over the country, including non Asians.
Foreign service wasn’t Yao’s first choice
Yao studied international relations in college and graduate school. When he graduated, the global economic downturn hit, so he couldn’t find a decent job in the private sector with an ideal income and security.
Since he passed the foreign service exam, he thought he would give foreign service a try. Yao said, “My parents loved the idea of me joining the government. My parents fled the Chinese Communists from China to Taiwan when they were young. They hoped I could have a stable and reliable job … so that I would not suffer the struggles they experienced.” Now, Yao’s parents are proud of his achievements.
No money spent
“I haven’t asked anyone to spend a penny on me,” said Yao about his two years at TECO. This is a contrast to some of his predecessors who encouraged the community to host lavish farewell events, or to raise money for Taiwan artists to perform in Seattle.
What Yao preaches to the community and colleagues, is when it comes to his personal affairs, he prefers to be low-key. However, “high-profile” would be his goal for Taiwan’s official business. One of the guests at Yao’s farewell dinner was asked what she thought about Yao.
She said that when no one gossips or complains about him, it is a good sign.
U.S.-China trade dispute
The Chinese and Taiwanese community are aware of Northwest Asian Weekly’s stand — we are neutral in China-Taiwan relations. (The Asian Weekly has followed the U.S. federal government’s one-China policy since the paper was founded). We do our best to present balanced reporting.
But our readers’ eyes are sharp.
“You didn’t interview Director Yao in your recent article on U.S.-China trade disputes, [whereas] you interviewed only the Chinese consul general (Wang Donghua of San Francisco).” A valid point.
But the informal interview with Wang wasn’t planned. The timing worked. Coincidentally, Wang happened to visit Seattle’s Chinatown when I was writing about the trade dispute. I caught him when he was hopping from one community organization to the next in Chinatown. Besides, Taiwan plays no major role in U.S.-China trade disputes.
Yao echoed my sentiments.
“I don’t think Taiwan plays any role in these trade disputes,” he said. “Just like many other countries, numerous Taiwanese companies established their manufacturing bases in China, so these Taiwanese companies, as all the Japanese companies, Korean companies, and other companies who have invested in China, also suffer” when the United States imposes tariffs on China-made products. However, as manufacturers in China get fewer orders from the United States, many Taiwanese companies will gain, said Yao, as the United States may turn to Taiwan for increasing partnership since Taiwan is already an important partner and supporter.
Yao believes that China has engaged in unfair trade policies over the decades “against the U.S. and many other countries … The Trump administration believes the strategy to try to include China into the international norms over the past decades has failed, and it is time to try to change China’s behaviors.”
Americans’ biggest misconceptions about Taiwan
“The biggest misconception is that lots of people here and in Washington, D.C. believe that Taiwan is part of China.
“It is actually imperative that Taiwan remains a free democracy. Taiwan has been a full-fledged democracy for more than two decades. It has become a beacon of democracy for all Chinese-speaking societies around the globe.
“Taiwan never wants Americans to sacrifice their lives to get involved in any military conflicts in the Taiwan Strait. Rather, we need the United States to continue to fulfill its commitments under the Taiwan Relations Act (a U.S. Law), selling weapons to Taiwan and strengthening security partnerships so that Taiwan can defend itself.”
Yao said Taiwan doesn’t need sympathies. “Rather, Taiwan is seeking understanding from our (American) friends. The more you understand Taiwan, the more you respect the country, and the more you believe that the survival of Taiwan is not a simple issue to underlook.”
Two Washingtons differ
Prior to Yao working in Seattle, he worked in Washington, D.C. for 12 years.
What surprised Yao most about D.C. was “everyone there has something to sell to others.”
That includes lobbyists “selling their services and their connections,” to “think-tankers [for] their studies and discourse, and for foreign diplomats their own government’s interests.”
The lack of formal ties between Taiwan and the United States presents challenges to Taiwan’s diplomats in the Pacific Northwest. Yao said most people in D.C. know the partnership between the United States and Taiwan is stronger than those between the United States and some of its allies.
“However, here in Seattle, most people do not know that, so Taiwan’s status and my office’s status are sometimes downgraded.”
“A lot of people do not know whom and what they are dealing with when they work with me.
Consequently, it requires more work to lay a sound foundation before getting things done.
“I didn’t have many opportunities interacting with the overall Chinese and Taiwanese American communities … I certainly have realized that it requires different skills and mentalities to work with the Chinese and Taiwanese communities.”
Even with countless people he met, Yao said it is hard to find friendship in D.C.
“There are no friends forever, so you need to learn to know whom to trust, whom to work with, and whom to stay away from.” Yao’s experience is not unique. Diplomats often find that it is difficult to make friends while serving overseas. But Yao doesn’t feel lonely — work has taken much of his time.
“On weekends and whenever I have free time, I would love to be with my family. I think my family sometimes feel lonely, but they also manage to find things to do.” Yao has one son who attends the University of Washington. He said his son adjusted well.
“When he was little, he did have a hard time adjusting to new schools because he could not speak the languages … My son has a bright personality, so he likes to make new friends and … [it‘s] easy for him to mingle with people.”
Yao agrees that it is more challenging for his diplomat spouses.
“It is nearly impossible for the spouse to have his/her own career, or to have a stable, long-term career. Sometimes, the spouses need to do things that they are not really interested in.”
Assunta can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.