A Half Century of TOPICS – Taiwan Business TOPICS at 50

Going through the magazine archives is a reminder of what has changed – and what hasn’t – over the past half-century in the Taiwanese economy and environment for multinational business.

This is the 434th issue of TOPICS magazine published by AmCham Taipei. Launched as a bimonthly publication in November 1970 – half a century ago this year – the magazine was then known as Taipei American Chamber Topics or TACT. Initially the page size was a compact 7×10 inches, approximately B5 dimensions. 

Over the decades, the magazine has gone through many transformations. The name became simply TOPICS in 1981 and a more descriptive Taiwan Business TOPICS in 2005. The page size increased, but more importantly so did the frequency of publication. TOPICS began publishing 10 times a year in 1995 and upgraded to monthly status in 2003 with the addition of its Wine & Dine and Travel & Culture special issues.  

Readership has widened as well. Instead of directing its attention to AmCham’s membership only, since the 1990s TOPICS has sought to provide thoughtful and well-researched English-language analysis about the Taiwan economy and the state of U.S.-Taiwan economic relations for the reference of all parties interested in those subjects. 

Whereas the early content consisted largely of reprints from other publications and the musings of sometimes pseudonymous AmCham members, the editorial direction in recent decades has been in the hands of experienced professional journalists.    

Bound volumes of issues of TOPICS reaching back nearly to the magazine’s beginnings fill rows of bookshelves in the AmCham Taipei office. Unfortunately, the first two issues of the magazines are missing, so we cannot be sure how the Chamber officers and Board introduced the publication in 1970 and defined its objectives. Through the years, however, the Chamber leadership has repeatedly confirmed the value of the publication – now available online as well as in printed format – in bolstering the Chamber’s brand and strengthening its communication with members, Taiwanese and American government officials, and the general public. 

Month by month, TOPICS has reflected the core message of the Chamber – that Taiwan is an outstanding if often under-appreciated location for multinational companies to do business, but one that could be even better if international standards and best practices were more closely followed.    

That the Taiwan government has also appreciated the role of TOPICS was made clear in 2018 when President Tsai Ing-wen, in her keynote address to the Chamber’s Hsieh Nien Fan banquet, praised the magazine’s “influential and insightful” in-depth articles, saying “they have been a valuable source of feedback for our policymakers.”  

Although originally written primarily with an eye to relevant concerns at the time of publication, many of the articles in the TOPICS archives now provide us with a glimpse into the history both of AmCham Taipei (see the accompanying report) and of Taiwan’s overall economic development.  

1970s: Looking Inward 

The cover from one of the early issues of TOPICS, published in 1973.

The early TOPICS was more of a club magazine for the Chamber than a serious business publication. Generally, each issue contained just a single report on some aspect of the Taiwan economy. (Among these was a series of articles in 1973 – on the Taiwan stock exchange, the threat of inflation, and the auto industry – by a young American freelancer named Donald Shapiro).  

The bulk of the contents was devoted to the Chamber’s social activities and golf tournaments (with plenty of photos of members), even reporting at some length on the record of a Little League softball team – the Eagles – sponsored by AmCham. Space was also allotted for corny jokes, shopping tips, memos from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and periodic reports on meetings of APCAC (the Asia-Pacific Council of American Chambers).  

A writer adopting the nom de plume of Al Manac contributed columns that delved into the origins and characteristics of each month on the Western calendar in turn. And a 1975 Cost of Living Survey put the price of a quart of milk at NT$25 and the average monthly rent of an apartment in Tienmu at NT$18,000.      

Based only on reading TOPICS reports, one would have little inkling that this period involved two oil crises that shook the world economy. Or realize the full extent to which Taiwan responded with an immense national infrastructure program (“the Ten Big Projects”) that included the first North-South Freeway, Taoyuan international airport, electrification of the main trunk railway, integrated steel mill (China Steel Corp.), and huge shipbuilding yard.  

The contemporary TOPICS was not even an ample source of information about the break in diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Taiwan in 1978. Nor did it cover AmCham Taipei’s strenuous efforts to help ensure the soundness of the “unofficial” relationship that followed, as well as assuring the smooth continued operation of American community institutions such as the Taipei American School, youth activities programs, English-language radio station, and American Club.  

In fairness, the Chamber leadership reportedly kept the membership well-informed about developments through other channels. In that pre-fax, pre-email era, the AmCham office mailed memos to members as often as several times a week during the immediate post-“derecognition” period. Waiting to communicate through a bimonthly publication was hardly a good option. 

Asked for his thoughts regarding TOPICS from that period, Marinus “Dutch” Van Gessel, the Chamber chairman in 1976-77, notes that the magazine back then was “not very sophisticated, but served its purpose as the glue to hold the Chamber together.” 

1980s: Taking on Policy Issues 

Having stepped up in 1979 to help influence the U.S. Congress in passing the Taiwan Relations Act and creating the American Institute in Taiwan, AmCham Taipei in the 1980s continued to get more deeply involved in public policy issues – and the pages of TOPICS reflected that change. A major portion of each magazine was devoted to reporting on the activities of the Chamber’s various committees. 

A paramount concern during this period was the growing U.S.-government irritation over its mounting trade deficit with Taiwan. “In the past year, we have seen the rise of the Protectionist tide go far beyond anything seen since the 1930s,” wrote Chairman Jerry Loupee in the December 1985 issue.  

“To say that the trade issue has reached a critical juncture is no exaggeration,” warned his successor, James Wang, in January 1987, noting that the bilateral trade imbalance in Taiwan’s favor was projected to reach US$17 billion that year. “What is worrying is that a widespread perception is developing in the U.S. identifying Taiwan as the major culprit indulging in unfair trade practices.” In commentaries in TOPICS, Chamber leaders repeatedly urged the Taiwan authorities to relieve the pressure by moving more rapidly to lower tariffs and other barriers and otherwise liberalize the trade environment. 

There was also a more positive side to relations with the U.S. – a steady flow of visits during the decade by prominent American political figures who delivered speeches at AmCham luncheon meetings or met with Chamber leaders over breakfast. The visitors included Anna Chennault, economist Milton Friedman, author and theologian Norman Vincent Peale, Congressman and future Vice-Presidential candidate Jack Kemp, and a whole string of U.S. Senators: Frank Church, John Glenn, Barry Goldwater, Richard Lugar, and Jay Rockefeller. The effectiveness of the new American Institute in Taiwan in representing U.S. interests was frequently cited.     

TOPICS also hosted a regular column, The Overseas Lifestyle, provided by the Community Services Center. Culture shock, workaholism, coping with drinking problems, and raising children overseas were frequent themes.   

1990s: Eyes on WTO and Cross-Strait Trade 

Reports on the meetings of AmCham’s various committees took up increased space in TOPICS in the 1990s as the focus on advocacy issues intensified. Major topics included preparations for the launch of the universal-coverage National Health Insurance program in 1995, rampant product counterfeiting that led to Taiwan being placed on the U.S. government’s Special 301 Watch List, the lack of a level playing field for foreign contractors competing for infrastructure projects, and plans for financial-sector reform to open the banking system to more private institutions. 

One of TOPICS’s earliest reports on Taipower’s plans to build the Lungmen fourth nuclear power plant appeared in the August 1994 issue when the project was still in the pre-tender stage. In a remarkably prescient account, staff writer John Witzenberg outlined what he described as the “bureaucratic/legislative quagmire” surrounding the project. He concluded that unless the situation were to improve soon, “ROC citizens may witness broken contracts, major project delay, or even project incompletion, and the winning bidder may look forward to legal battles.” (The project was later stopped and restarted several times before the final mothballing of the nearly completed facility in 2015).        

In one of the central themes of the 1990s, AmCham Taipei became a vocal champion for Taiwan’s admission into the newly formed World Trade Organization, a restructuring of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). In a September 1996 column, Chairman Christian Murck wrote: “At the top of our Washington agenda is Taiwan’s WTO application. At this writing, bilateral negotiations are virtually complete on an accession package that promises mutual benefits in the form of faster growth and a more transparent, internationalized economy in Taiwan. The AmCham in Taipei has given sincere suggestions on many issues to both governments during the course of this negotiation. We are pleased that both sides took our ideas seriously and gave them careful consideration. The commitments made will not be fully implemented until Taiwan actually becomes a WTO member. We therefore hope this process will be successfully concluded soon.” 

The March 1998 TOPICS reproduced a letter on AmCham stationery from AmCham Chairman Jeffrey Williams to U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky urging rapid completion of U.S.-Taiwan bilateral negotiations as a means of hastening Taiwan’s entry into the WTO. A key issue at the time was whether that entry would have to wait until after the PRC’s admission to the world trade body, as Beijing was demanding. TOPICS repeatedly stated AmCham’s position that Taiwan’s application should be considered on its own merits.  

A long-forgotten controversy from that era concerned U.S. trade sanctions under what was known as the Pelly Amendment to legislation designed to protect endangered species of wildlife. Taiwan was accused of illegal trade in rhino horn and tiger parts for use in Chinese medicine, and in 1993 became the first country sanctioned under the Amendment.  

The issue was discussed numerous times in TOPICS, including a two-page analysis by Bruce Berkman as his May 1995 report as chair of the Environmental Protection Committee. Although “the direct economic impact of the sanctions was very limited,” Berkman wrote, they created considerable resentment in Taiwan that the country had been unfairly singled out.  

AmCham Taipei encouraged both sides to find a solution. Following Taiwan’s passage of stringent laws to control trade in endangered wildlife, together with a concerted public education program, the U.S. lifted the sanctions in September 1996, ending a bilateral trade irritant and impediment to Taiwan’s WTO admission.   

A more momentous development during the 1990s was the gradual opening of economic contacts between Taiwan and China, made possible by Taiwan’s lifting of martial law in 1987. Based on what became known as the “1992 consensus” (that both sides would accept the notion of One China, though with different interpretations), representatives of the two sides met in Singapore in 1993. Those “Koo-Wang Talks” led to four agreements regarding trade and people-to-people exchanges. 

Among the main themes in the century’s first decade was the growing volume of cross-Strait trade and investment.

As observers began thinking in terms of a Greater China region, TOPICS published numerous articles about the implications of increased cross-Strait economic activity. As early as 1991, a column by business consultant Malcom Riddell referred to Greater China as “Taiwan’s best shot for continuing the Taiwan miracle, and multinational companies’ best opportunity to participate in that miracle and to succeed in the PRC.” 

Even more attention was given to the Taiwan government’s plan, launched in 1995, to seek to develop Taiwan into an Asia-Pacific Regional Operations Center (APROC) focusing on such areas as specialized manufacturing, R&D, transportation, telecommunications, finance, and media. TOPICS wrote about Taiwan’s advantages and challenges in each of those areas.      

Under the leadership of AmCham Taipei Executive Director (the position now called President) Lynn Murray Sien, who served concurrently as TOPICS’ publisher and editor-in-chief, the magazine during the 1990s adopted a more modern design, expanded its use of full-time reporters and freelancers, and began publishing more in-depth reports on important issues affecting the business community.   

AmCham Taipei’s first Taiwan White Paper was published as part of TOPICS’s September 1996 edition, expanding on the Taiwan Country Paper that had appeared annually since 1991. 

One of AmCham Taipei’s earliest Taiwan White Papers appeared inside this issue of TOPICS.

Toward the end of this turbulent decade, on September 21, 1999, Taiwan experienced one of the biggest natural disasters in its history – the cataclysmic 9-21 earthquake that killed more than 2,400 people and left an estimated 100,000 homeless, mostly in central and southern Taiwan. The TOPICS staff quickly pulled together a report for the November edition on the extent of the damage and efforts at recovery.  

2000s: New and Continued Challenges 

The next decade began with a watershed moment in Taiwanese politics – the election of Democratic Progressive Party candidate Chen Shui-bian as President, ushering in the first rotation in political power in the country’s history. AmCham held a symposium, inviting two noted political analysts from Taiwan and two from the U.S. to assess the consequences of the election. TOPICS summarized their remarks in report entitled “First Reaction.”  

One of the speakers was John Bolton of the American Enterprise Institute think tank, later to be President Trump’s national security adviser, who raised the question: “When is the PRC going to accept the exercise of democracy not only here but also there?”     

Later reports took a deeper look at the changes underway in the political landscape, which was often one of gridlock due to the inexperience of the DPP in governing and the difficulty for the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) in accepting a role as loyal opposition.  

The AmCham Taipei president during most of this period, Richard Vuylsteke, was a former magazine editor who understood the value of TOPICS for the Chamber and ensured that the publication had the necessary resources. 

Many of the main concerns in the new millennium were a continuation of earlier themes: 

Energy sufficiency. Well before the Fukushima disaster in Japan in 2011, whether to continue to develop nuclear power in Taiwan or turn the island into a “nuclear-free homeland” was a highly contentious issue. One of the many explanations in TOPICS of AmCham Taipei’s position on the issue came from Chairman Paul Cassingham in 2000. “With or without the Lungmen plant, foreign investors need to be convinced” that the government can ensure that the power infrastructure will keep pace with economic growth, he wrote. “Taiwan’s political parties have engaged in lengthy debate over the Lungmen plant. KMT members have supported the plant. DPP members have opposed it. But neither side has sufficiently addressed the objections of its opponent. It is time for nuclear politics to end, and for the government to convincingly address the economic and environmental issues involved.” 

WTO accession. After completing its bilateral negotiations with member countries, Taiwan had to wait several years for China to catch up, but on January 1, 2002 both were admitted to the world trade body, Taiwan just minutes after the PRC. A report in TOPICS hailed the development as opening new trade opportunities for Taiwan, though it also cautioned that certain sectors – especially the government’s Tobacco & Wine Monopoly – would face tough new competition. The article’s prediction that WTO membership would lead to the opening of Taiwan branches by foreign universities turned out to be mistaken. 

Cross-Strait economic relations. Among the new faces in the DPP Cabinet was Mainland Affairs Council Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen, a onetime AmCham member from her time practicing law. In a three-page interview in the April 2002 TOPICS, Tsai set out her hopes for gradually liberalizing the cross-Strait flow of talent and tourists.  

This photo of Tsai Ing-wen accompanied an interview with the then Mainland Affairs Council Chair in the April 2002 TOPICS.

More and more Taiwanese enterprises were setting up plants across the Strait, and Taipei-based executives at multinational corporations were finding their business operations increasingly integrated with their companies’ activities in China. The 2003 Taiwan White Paper called on Taiwan to “build on economic synergies with China” and to allow direct flights to start service.  

“The increased time and expense caused by the absence of direct cross-Strait transportation has already become a serious impediment to business and is forcing many multinational companies to relocate senior executives for Greater China operations from Taipei to Hong Kong, Singapore or Shanghai,” the White Paper argued. “More worrisome, this issue has become a symbol of Taiwan’s self-isolation from Asia’s fastest growing market. Taiwan’s proximity to China must be embraced as an economic strength, not just guarded against as a political risk.”  

Regional operations center. The APROC plan fizzled, largely because the absence of direct transportation links with China severely weakened Taiwan’s attractiveness as a regional center. But the idea of a larger regional role for Taiwan never fully disappeared. Once the KMT returned to power with Ma Ying-jeou’s election in 2008 and obtained Beijing’s agreement to establish direct air connections, the concept got a second wind. The July 2009 magazine cover story was entitled “Asian Hub: Has Taiwan’s Time Come at Last?” In the opinion of the analysts interviewed, Taiwan’s best chance of becoming a regional center would be in technology-intensive industries. In other sectors, such as finance, the obstacles were still too daunting. 

U.S. economic relations. The normally annual trade negotiations between Washington and Taipei were suspended in 2007 due to U.S. displeasure with Taiwan’s restrictions on American beef and pork containing the feed additive ractopamine. Through TOPICS, AmCham Taipei urged resumption of the talks for the benefit of other American business sectors.  

Other noteworthy reports from the 2000s included: 

  • “Taking Taiwan’s Temperature,” the cover story in the August 2003 issue in the wake of the SARS epidemic. TOPICS solicited post-epidemic perspectives from experts in such areas as hospital administration, public health management, and crisis management. (Reviewing those contents aided in the recent reporting on the COVID-19 pandemic and its ramifications).  
  • The November 2007 TOPICS was devoted to the “Vision 2020” project, in which specialists in 14 different fields were asked for their thoughts on what Taiwan should be like in the year 2020. (In the March 2020 issue, 11 of those experts updated their views).    
  • “High Speed, Low Returns” by staff writer Jane Rickards in the September 2008 issue, was one of the first reports in Taiwan to indicate the severity of the financial challenge facing Taiwan’s High Speed Rail, which was built on a BOT basis. The government took over majority control to save the company in November 2009.  

2010s:  Setbacks and Successes 

Since 2011, AmCham has conducted an annual Business Climate Survey of the top executives of member companies. The results, reported each time in TOPICS, have been quite consistent. The vast majority of respondents have expressed optimism about both the Taiwan economy and the prospects for their own business. The business leaders have been especially enthusiastic about the quality of life in Taiwan and the excellence of the workforce.  

However, the survey-takers have also highlighted three areas of particular concern: future energy sufficiency and stability following the phase-out of nuclear power, rigid labor laws governing working hours that are unsuitable for a knowledge-based economy, and the inadequate transparency and accountability in the regulatory process. 

During this period, TOPICS ran more cover stories on energy policy than any other subject. Most of the articles were written by then Associate Editor Timothy Ferry, who developed considerable expertise in the subject. The latest reports focused on the opportunities and difficulties presented by Taiwan’s push to develop offshore wind power and plans to decommission its nuclear plants. 

The need for more flexibility in working hours and overtime for knowledge workers was taken up both in White Papers and on the editorial page. A May 2016 editorial, for example, started that “an overly paternalistic attitude toward protecting white-collar professionals is bound to backfire, holding back Taiwan’s business sector from advancing to a new level of competitiveness.” 

On the regulatory front, TOPICS wrote extensively about two issues that ultimately represented advocacy achievements for the Chamber. The first was a campaign for Taiwan to adopt a notice-and-comment system similar to that of the U.S., ensuring that business and other stakeholders have sufficient time to study and respond to proposed new or revised regulations before they go into effect. In 2016, the Executive Yuan extended the notice-and-comment period from a mere 14 days to 60.   

Second, as argued in the Taiwan White Paper for more than a decade, was the importance of developing a mechanism to protect pharmaceuticals from patent infringement. Following passage of relevant legislation, Taiwan began implementing such a Patent Linkage system in August 2019.  

One of the keystone programs of the Tsai Ing-wen administration that took office in 2016 was the “5+2” plan to promote innovative industries. A May 2017 cover story about the plan attracted heavy online readership in both English and Chinese for many months. Individual reports followed on the program’s components: the Internet of Things, green energy, biomedicine, smart machinery, an indigenous defense industry, a circular economy, and high-value agriculture. 

In line with AmCham Taipei’s longstanding position that Taiwan must avoid economic isolation by seeking the participate in more bilateral and multilateral trade pacts, TOPICS during this period supported Taiwan’s pursuit of an Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) with China. The subject of numerous editorials was the progress being made toward formation of a Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) in hopes that Taiwan would be considered for second-round membership.  

When President Trump pulled the U.S. out of TPP shortly after his inauguration, TOPICS began advocating a U.S.-Taiwan free trade agreement as the next best alternative. In editorials, it urged that the beef and pork issues be resolved in the course of trade negotiations instead of preventing those negotiations from taking place.  

Other major developments during the decade were well-covered in TOPICS

  • The rapid aging of Taiwan’s population and consequent need for effective long-term care for the elderly. 
  • Challenges arising from the disruptive effects of the sharing economy. 
  • A series of food-contamination scandals that showed the need for better food safety controls. 

When the COVID-19 epidemic hit this year, TOPICS’ coverage of the crisis included an exclusive interview with Taiwan’s Vice President, Chen Chien-jen, an epidemiologist by training, on the lessons learned from the 2003 SARS outbreak that strengthened preparedness for the current pandemic.