Meteorology across the Taiwan Strait

Scientists reflect on a historic meeting in Hong Kong

When two nations are at odds, scientists are sometimes among the first who can bridge the gap. During much of the Cold War, Walter Orr Roberts—the founding president of UCAR and first director of NCAR—maintained connections with a number of colleagues in the USSR and visited there often. Richard Anthes, who served as UCAR president from 1988 to 2012, was among the first U.S. scientists to visit China as tensions between the countries began to ease. Careful planning and some last-minute diplomacy were needed in 1989 to produce the first major meeting between atmospheric scientists from Taiwan and mainland China. As Anthes explains below, UCAR was a key part of the story.

Rick Anthes • January 24, 2014 | I recently participated in the Hong Kong Meteorological Society’s 25th Anniversary Conference on East Asia and Western Pacific Meteorology and Climate, held in Hong Kong last November 2–4. It was an especially meaningful occasion for me, because in 1988–89 I helped organize and sponsor what would be the first open meeting between meteorologists from mainland China and Taiwan since the Communist revolution in 1949.

Group photos of 1989 and 2013 meetings at Hong Kong Meteorological Society
Participants from two key Hong Kong meetings: (top) the International Conference on East Asia and Western Pacific Meteorology and Climate, held July 6–8, 1989, and (bottom) the Fifth Conference on East Asia and Western Pacific Meteorology and Climate, held November 2–4, 2013. The latter meeting also commemorated the 25th anniversary of the Hong Kong Meteorological Society. Here are high-resolution versions of the 1989 and 2013 group portraits. (Photos courtesy Hong Kong Meteorological Society.)

The meeting was held in Hong Kong, a neutral venue at the time because Hong Kong was still a British Crown Colony. (It was transferred to China on July 1, 1997.)

As a nongovernmental, science-based, academic organization, UCAR played an important role in making this meeting possible under an extremely difficult political climate.

My friend and colleague C.P. Chang, who was then a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School, recently wrote a fascinating history of this first meeting: “The beginning of meteorological exchange across the Taiwan Strait – Recollection of an ice-breaking event two decades ago.” (See English translation [PDF])

C.P.’s essay provides a rare and unusually candid look into the politics and personalities of leaders of the meteorological communities on both sides of the strait at this time, and the courage of a few individuals to take risks in order to start building a bridge between the two scientific communities.

Getting beyond “no”

In the 1960s and 1970s, the political climate across the Taiwan Straits was extremely hostile. The visit of a delegation of the American Meteorological Society to China in 1974 was a milestone in establishing a somewhat normal relationship between U.S. and Chinese meteorologists. But contact between mainland Chinese and Taiwanese meteorologists was difficult because their meteorological societies were closely associated with government weather services. The Taiwanese government staff was strictly prohibited against contacting anyone from the mainland, and vice versa.

In his essay, C.P. writes of one consequence of these hostilities:

“In 1979, [Taiwan president] Chiang Ching-kuo issued the official directive of ‘three No’s’ policy for participants of international conferences or activities in which people from the mainland also participated: No contact, No negotiation, and No compromise. As encounters with mainland counterparts in international scientific conferences became inevitable, the three No’s policy had caused too many awkward moments for Taiwan scientists. Mr. Wang Chi-wu, National Science Council’s Vice Chairman in charge of international cooperation, tried to modify the directive to another rather amusing “three No’s” for scientists in international meetings only: No contact, No handshake, and No avoidance. Namely, Taiwan scientists should not have contact with mainland counterparts, yet they should not been seen as withdrawing. This of course created even more awkward situations so that most people ignored at least one of the three.”

One meeting within another

The July 1989 conference was the first organized scientific meeting of the two meteorological communities, but it was held under the cover of an international meeting on East Asia and Western Pacific meteorology and climate. Its origins go back to 1987, when internationally renowned professors Tao Shiyan and Ding Yihui (Institute for Atmospheric Physics, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing) approached Patrick Sham (director of the Royal Observatory Hong Kong, now the Hong Kong Observatory) to explore whether the observatory might host the meeting.

This proved impossible, since the government of Hong Kong was very much opposed to being involved in any activity between Taiwan and mainland China. However, Patrick Sham (who happened to be the first Chinese director of the observatory during the period of British rule), personally supported the idea of a rapprochement between the meteorologists of both sides. To enable and host such a meeting, the nongovernmental Hong Kong Meteorological Society was created, and the meeting was designed as a gathering of individual scientists, rather than national representatives.

C.P. Chang, November 2013
C.P. Chang at the November 2013 meeting. (Photo by Rick Anthes.)

Because of the ongoing tensions, C.P. Chang could not take a visible lead in organizing or supporting the meeting from the U.S. side. He contacted me in 1988 to see if UCAR, as a nonprofit academic organization, would take this leadership role. C.P. knew that I had made several visits to both the mainland and Taiwan since 1982 and had good relations with leading meteorologists in both places. So I welcomed the opportunity to help with the meeting.

I contacted Karyn Sawyer (now the director of UCP’s Joint Office for Science Support, JOSS). Karyn had extensive experience in international projects involving the mainland and Taiwanese meteorologists. She enthusiastically agreed to help, and her Joint International Climate Projects/Planning Office, the predecessor of JOSS, provided some crucial funding to the new Hong Kong Meteorological Society to support their organization of the meeting.

Organizing a meeting between mainland and Taiwanese meteorologists back then was challenging enough in “ordinary” times, but the difficulties associated with this first meeting exploded with the June 4, 1989, incident at Tiananmen Square, which occurred just a month before the meeting was scheduled to occur. Already-high tensions rose even further, as all international exchanges were suspended by the mainland government and travel across the border between the mainland and Hong Kong border was banned.

For a time it appeared certain that the meeting would have to be cancelled. Indeed, in late June mainland Chinese authorities officially notified Karyn that the meeting was postponed indefinitely. The easy path would have been one of graceful acceptance and regrouping to try again sometime in the future. But C.P. did not give up. He plunged into many lengthy negotiations by phone, often in the middle of the night, with Zou Jingmeng, administrator of the State Meteorological Administration (now the China Meteorological Administration), as well as other leaders in China. Many mainland scientists did not have home telephones, which made the process even more challenging.

At first it looked as if these intensive negotiations had failed. But in mid-June, less than two weeks before the meeting was scheduled to begin, Karyn received word from the mainland Chinese that the conference was back on as scheduled. She immediately sent a telegram to C.P.: “Conference resumed, to take place 6 to 8 July as scheduled.” As C.P. recalls, “This was a big and certainly pleasant surprise!”

Rick Anthes and C.M. Shun, November 2013
Chi-ming Shun, director of the Hong Kong Observatory, and Rick Anthes (right), at the November 2013 meeting. Behind Anthes is a roster of previous directors of the observatory, which was established in 1883. (Photo courtesy Rick Anthes.)

The meeting was very successful, leading to three more meetings that UCAR helped organize and sponsor, including one each in Hong Kong; Jungli, Taiwan; and Hangzhou, China. The proceedings of these four meetings were published by the World Scientific Publishing Company; the fourth one became the basis of the inaugural volume of the World Scientific Series on Asia-Pacific Weather and Climate, launched in 2000.

Progress borne out of uncertain times

The fragility of the times in China in the days after Tiananmen Square and the precarious nature of this meeting—the only external scientific meeting allowed by the Chinese government that summer—was illustrated by an anecdote shared at last fall’s 25th anniversary conference. One of the mainland participants told C.P. that when their delegation boarded the airplane from Beijing to Hong Kong to attend the 1989 meeting, they found that the plane was empty. The dozen of them were the only passengers for the whole flight.

Despite the enormous change in the political environment in the region from 1989 to 2013, the interactions among the people attending the two meetings were remarkably similar.  Relations were not only cordial and respectful but, perhaps surprisingly, warm.  Difficult subjects were avoided; topics of conversation, as at most meteorological conferences, centered around science, families, personal interests, and of course the weather (Typhoon Krosa was affecting Hong Kong at the November 2013 meeting).

During the 25th anniversary conference, the Hong Kong Meteorological Society awarded honorary membership to six scientists for their contributions to the successful organization of the 1989 conference and the establishment of the society. C.P. and I were the U.S. recipients. The others were Ding Yihui from mainland China, Ching-yen Tsay from Taiwan, and Patrick Sham and Chiu-ying Lam from Hong Kong. 

A note of thanks

I wish to acknowledge the extraordinary leadership of a number of people who created the historic meeting a quarter century ago. Positions are those as of July 1989.

  • C.P. Chang (professor, Naval Postgraduate School)
  • Zou Jingmeng (administrator, State Meteorological Administration)
  • Tao Shiyan and Ding Yihui (professors, Institute for Atmospheric Physics, Chinese Academy of Sciences)
  • Patrick Sham and Chiu-ying Lam (director and senior scientific officer, Royal Observatory Hong Kong)
  • Ching-yen Tsay (chairman, Atmospheric Sciences Department, National Taiwan University)



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