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Scenes From The International Desk: A Surprising Force In Taiwanese Politics


Our international correspondents spend a lot of time in the field talking to people at the center of news stories. And sometimes, they hear something that doesn't quite fit into the story that they're trying to file on deadline, but they can't shake it out of their head - a piece of sound that never makes it to air but that they can't forget. All this week, we've been asking our international correspondents to bring us their favorite piece of tape from 2019 that hit the cutting room floor. My co-host Mary Louise Kelly caught up with Emily Feng, our correspondent based in Beijing.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, BYLINE: So who are we about to hear from?

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: We're about to hear from a man named Chang An-lo. He's also known as the White Wolf in Taiwan, where he lives now. But before he went back to Taiwan, he spent a decade in the U.S. in federal prison, actually.


FENG: He was there for smuggling narcotics and also because he was linked to the murder of a Taiwanese American journalist. But in federal prison, he met a number of people, other criminals. And this is what he had to say about his time there.

CHANG AN-LO: (Through interpreter) Normally, the Chinese who go to the U.S. only see it as a heaven. But in U.S. federal prison, you see another side. I saw that side. U.S. federal prison was my school.

FENG: So in addition to being a criminal, Chang An-lo is also a mob boss, and he's a very famous pro-Beijing agitator. And I hadn't realized that, for someone who is so pro-China, that the U.S. had had a significant influence on his political outlook.

KELLY: Wow. OK, so let me catch up with you here. You were there in Taiwan interviewing a Taiwanese mob boss who has served time in a U.S. federal prison. What had you gone to interview him about, by the way, before you got on this path?

FENG: Something completely different. It was about the Taiwanese elections, which are happening January 11 and in which he's very controversial because he is lobbying for a number of pro-Beijing candidates. But he started talking about his time in the U.S., and he talked really fondly about his time in prison. He met a number of people who he said were Black Panthers, who were socialist activists, were Native American activists - basically, anyone who had a grievance in some way or another with the U.S. government. And what he took away from that decade and those people was that when it came to his own political activism and protecting Taiwan's interests, he should go with China. He should not trust the United States.

KELLY: Fascinating. What was going through your head as you're sitting there interviewing this man with an extraordinary story?

FENG: Skepticism. He, again, is a convicted criminal. He was a mob boss. He was part of this big gang in Taiwan called the Bamboo Union, which was highly influential in local politics in the 1990s. He, of course, denies now that he has any links whatsoever to that gang, but he's still really, really active in politics at the presidential and at the local level.

KELLY: Here in the U.S., the news about China is so much focused on the protests in Hong Kong and the trade war and all of that. Just where are things headed for Taiwan and China in 2020?

FENG: The big question of the Taiwanese elections is what to do about China, which is the much more powerful, more authoritarian neighbor at Taiwan's doorstep. And Chang An-lo is firmly on the side of the pro-Beijing camp. Many people see him as infiltrating Taiwan's democratic institutions, but he thinks Taiwan should look towards China. And given that the protests in Hong Kong are happening, a lot of people in Taiwan and Hong Kong are looking to the United States as both an ally and a protector. But Chang An-lo is this alternative voice, albeit a very dubious one, saying, let's not trust the United States. Let's trust China.

KELLY: That is Beijing correspondent Emily Feng, one of our many international correspondents who are sharing moments that will stick with them from 2019.

Emily Feng, thanks so much.

FENG: Thank you, Mary Louise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.