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How Taiwan once used female voice to win hearts and minds in China

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

China has long vowed to take control of Taiwan. It continues to pressure residents of the democratic island through online misinformation and propaganda. But decades ago, Taiwan once used its own form of information warfare to sway Chinese citizens to defect to Taiwan. One of its key tools - the female voice. NPR's Emily Feng brings us this story about the women and the music behind that effort.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SWEET ON YOU")

TERESA TENG: (Singing in Mandarin).

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: To this day, you can hear the soft, crooning ballads of Taiwanese pop star Deng Lijun or Teresa Teng everywhere in both China and Taiwan, including here from a set of massive outdoor speakers on the remote Taiwanese island of Kinmen, just a few miles from China's coast.

I'm standing in front of a three-story tall set of concrete speakers, and it's just blasting Deng Lijun songs in the direction of the Chinese mainland.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FENG: Not to be outdone, on the other side of the street, China set up its own speakers.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FENG: Until 1991, the speakers blasted patriotic propaganda to any Taiwanese living within earshot. This was information warfare 1970s style, each side trying to get the other on their side ideologically and possibly to even get their citizens to defect.

ZHEN MEIHUI: (Through interpreter) I was so happy I had an opportunity to be sent to Taiwan's outlying islands. My family asked what I would do going to such a dangerous place, but I thought, how great is that?

FENG: This is Zhen Meihui. She just retired from a long career as a radio journalist. But in her first job in her 20s, she lived on a military base on Matsu, another Taiwanese island just miles off China's coast. There, under tight security, she recorded broadcasts designed to be blasted on giant speakers towards China.

ZHEN: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: She demonstrates how she used to record. "Dear compatriots," she says, stretching out her syllables, the only way her voice could carry far and still sound clear. In 1979, when she was on Matsu, Taiwan was then run under martial law by a one-party authoritarian state. Its primary mission was to invade and take control of China. Zhen not only played music and relayed propaganda messages.

ZHEN: (Through interpreter) We'd get assignments from the Intelligence Bureau to transmit Morse code encryption numbers to Taiwan spies in China like this. (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: Other broadcasts tried to entice Chinese pilots to defect and bring with them military intel from China. Here's another newsreader, Chen Xiaoping.

CHEN XIAOPING: (Through interpreter) 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.

FENG: But Taiwan's Mandarin pop music was by far the most important tool, played into China either through speakers near its coast or by powerful shortwave radio signals. For a decade, starting in 1979, Chen even ran a talk show called "Teresa Time," an hour dedicated to just playing Teresa Teng songs on shortwave for listeners in China.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SMALL TOWN STORY")

TENG: (Singing in Mandarin).

FENG: China, of course, did its best to block Taiwan's broadcasts.

CHEN: (Through interpreter) China always interfered with the broadcast, but Teresa Teng sang lyrics with such clear enunciation, and her voice was so sweet and lovely. So her compatriots in China loved to listen to her.

FENG: Teresa Teng's music was not officially allowed in communist China then, but people there coveted cassette tapes with her music copied on them, smuggled in from the then-British colony of Hong Kong. To this day, she remains incredibly popular across the Chinese-speaking world despite her tragically early death 28 years ago this week. And Teng's music continues to transcend ideologies that divide the Taiwan Strait. For example, when political tensions eased in the early 2000s, Taiwanese host Chen Xiaoping finally set foot on the Chinese mainland. She met some of her former listeners and their children there.

CHEN: (Through interpreter) I realized there was no such thing called hatred between us.

FENG: As a young broadcaster, she'd been trained to think of Chinese people as gongfei, or communist bandits, as Taiwanese propaganda called them. But traveling to China, she realized...

CHEN: (Through interpreter) In a closed environment, we became mysterious to each other. But seeing each other in the same room, we realized we are not very different.

FENG: As in they were all people - people who want happiness and health and to listen to Teresa Teng's music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WO ZHI ZAI HU NI")

TENG: (Singing in Mandarin).

FENG: Emily Feng, NPR News, Kinmen Island, Taiwan.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WO ZHI ZAI HU NI")

TENG: (Singing in Mandarin). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.
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