February 2024

Despite its lack of premises, Taiwan’s nomadic press club supports a growing band of correspondents

Thompson Chau chairs a TFCC briefing with Taiwan’s foreign minister, Joseph Wu, at the Sheraton Grand Taipei Hotel on December, 2023. Photo: Michael Garber

TAIPEI – Liquor was oiling the conversations of more than 150 journalists, academics and diplomats in a ritzy 15th floor bar with panoramic views across Taipei.

The party was buzzing with chatter on the prospects for Taiwan’s upcoming presidential election, and many of the local reporters and visiting correspondents in attendance were catching up with friends and colleagues, new and old, from across the world. 

The “happy hour” (the last people left around 2 a.m.) was hosted by the Taiwan Foreign Correspondents' Club, as an upscale version of the club’s regular gatherings.

Formed as the Taipei Foreign Correspondents' Club in 1988, the TFCC is a very different beast to the FCCJ. It is much smaller, has no permanent home, no paid staff, and its membership structure is looser and cheaper.

The TFCC has about 200 members – about half of whom are journalists (compared with the FCCJ’s 1,455, of which 242 are regular members). Annual fees for both correspondent members are NT$6,500 (about ¥30,000) – the equivalent of about two months in Tokyo.

The Taiwan Foreign Correspondents’ Club [TFFC] holds a briefing for correspondent members with presidential candidate Lai Ching-te of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party. Photo: Michael Garber

Taiwan was until a few years ago seen as a bit of a backwater for international correspondents. But with the island democracy’s importance rising on the global stage and authorities in Beijing turning the screws on reporting and limiting professional visas, there has been a wave of journalists moving to Taipei in recent years. Many cover China, with others writing about the region at large.

“There was an unprecedented amount of media coverage on the elections,” TFCC President Thompson Chau told The No. 1 Shimbun. “If you are based in Taipei, you cannot just cover China and the rest of Asia, but also the growing story of Taiwan itself and the threat that this democracy faces in trying to navigate its way through uncharted waters. These various factors make Taiwan an important hub.”

Chau, a Hongkonger who previously reported from Myanmar, moved to Taipei about two years ago following the military coup. He writes for Nikkei Asia and is an editor-at-large at Frontier Myanmar.

“The TFCC plays a key role in Taiwan as the institution representing the professional interests of foreign correspondents. Our functions include connecting foreign correspondents with academics, diplomats and officials in Taiwan by organizing panel discussions, book talks, briefings, and various other events,” Chau said.

“We represent the professional interests of correspondents so we sometimes lobby on their behalf and speak out on media freedom and other issues – when Taiwanese journalists got barred from entering the World Health Assembly last year, we issued a statement.

“We speak out when we need to, including on government actions, and also on regulations that we see are detrimental to journalists. At the same time, we work closely with the government.”

One major difference between reporting on Japan and on Taiwan is the access granted to foreign media by government officials, political parties, and companies. In the week leading up to the election, international press conferences were held by the foreign minister and all three presidential candidates. By contrast, just 11 incumbent ministers have braved the scrutiny of the FCCJ over the past decade.

With a giant neighbor constantly making noises about “unification” and threatening Taiwan with daily military sorties, the authorities in Taipei clearly have good reason to be more open with international media. The TFCC taps into this. In recent months, it has hosted its own briefings with candidates and the island’s former military chief, and in February will receive the speaker of the Legislative Yuan. Without a home, the club rents spots in hotels and other venues for these events.

Thompson Chau speaks to Taiwanese broadcaster TVBS on the sidelines of a panel discussion about Taiwan’s election. Source: screenshot

Permanent home?

Chau said the club’s lack of staff and facilities – no bar, restaurant, conference room, library, or workroom – means it can focus nearly 100% on journalistic pursuits. “Not having to run it as a business ourselves means we can really channel our time and energy on just getting things done.” He added, however, that many members were hoping for the TFCC to put down roots in the next few years.

“Those of us who have been elsewhere in Asia, like Bangkok, see the role permanent premises would have in terms of providing a safe, convenient working place for journalists, particularly freelancers, and also as an event venue so we don't have to spend so much time and effort coordinating events,” he said.

While the FCCJ takes up two floors of prime Marunouchi real estate, the TFCC is looking for more humble dwellings. “We're looking for core facilities, the facilities that will be essential for our members,” Chau said. “Many freelancers will appreciate some form of coworking space, and also a bar – after all, journalists need a watering hole.”

Because all the work is done (unpaid) by the five-person board, Chau added that hiring staff was also a priority.

Patrick Zoll, a Taipei-based regional security correspondent for Neue Zürcher Zeitung, a Swiss, German-language daily, was an FCCJ member during his stint in Tokyo. He sees sharp contrasts between the clubs. “The biggest difference between FCCJ and TFCC is the professionalism,” Zoll said. “The TFCC committee does a great job, but they all work full time and have to do it in their spare time. That obviously limits the capacity of what the club can offer. Whereas you can have multiple events per week at the FCCJ, there is one or maybe two per month at the TFCC.”

One challenge for the TFCC, Zoll added, is that there is a higher turnover of reporters in Taiwan, with many using the island as a temporary base while, for example, they wait for a visa for China. But, he added, the “TFCC is much smaller and younger than the FCCJ, so there is no history of old grudges and infighting.”

Andy Sharp is Politics and Economics Editor at the Nikkei Asia