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How ham radio can save Taiwan — and the world

Episode Summary

Ham radio is as antiquated as modern-day communication technology can be. Yet in Taiwan, it has experienced a renaissance — although the reasons are all about danger.

Episode Notes

Taiwan has more than 25,000 enthusiasts of ham radio, the antiquated communication technology that is increasingly being used in war zones when all other communications is down. If China declares war on Taiwan, then these ham radio enthusiasts could be crucial for civilians and officials alike — and can offer lessons for the rest of us.

Read the full transcript here.

Host: Gustavo Arellano

Guests: L.A. Times China correspondent Stephanie Yang

More reading:

If China declares war, these ham radio enthusiasts could be crucial

Living in space can get lonely. What helps? Talking to random people over ham radio

China on Taiwan: ‘External interference’ won’t be tolerated

Episode Transcription

Stephanie: Back in September, I met up with a bunch of Taiwanese amateur radio enthusiasts who meet by the river every Tuesday night in Taipei. 

Stephanie: You could hear crickets chirping on the campground, the static of the radio. 

Stephanie: When communicating with other ham radio operators on the radio waves, a lot of these “hams” preferred Morse code, which is tapped out through two metal paddles. Each time their finger connected with the right side of the paddle, it would emit a dit or a dot. 

Stephanie: And on the left side, a dot and a dash. 

Stephanie: Together, they created a language that allowed them to communicate with people, whether it was in Japan, Italy, Greece or other places. 

Stephanie: With this, they could ask simple questions such as, “Is anyone there?” “What's your name?” “What's your location?”

Gustavo: L.A. Times China correspondent Stephanie Yang recently spent time reporting on a ham radio club in Taiwan. Yup. Ham radio. But what is it?

Stephanie: Think of those really old school wireless radios, the ones that you get a lot of beeps and static on. These are the kinds of radios that they would use in old war movies, or on the other end of the spectrum, they would use them in very futuristic, post-apocalyptic movies when there were no other means of communication left.

Gustavo: Well, it's not just an obscure hobby anymore. If China declares war on Taiwan, then these ham radio enthusiasts could be crucial for civilians and officials alike. And if there's ever nuclear Armageddon in the world – well, goodbye, internet and cellphones. Hello, ham.

I'm Gustavo Arellano. You're listening to The Times Essential News from the L.A.  Times. It's Friday, Nov. 18, 2022. 

Today, how fans of a dying technology might suddenly become the key to Taiwan's defense should its neighbor decide to invade, and what the rest of us can learn from that.

My colleague Stephanie Yang covers China and Taiwan for The Times. Stephanie, welcome to Times.

Stephanie: Thank you so much for having me.

Gustavo: So when I heard you were working on a story about ham radio, I immediately got excited, but most people actually don't know what ham radio is. So to help them,  what exactly is ham radio and what’s its history?

Stephanie: Sure. So ham radio is something that I also recently just learned about.

Gustavo: Another youngster. 

Stephanie: Yes. I had heard the term here and there growing up, but you know, as someone who grew up with the internet, it's not really relevant to our current modern-day lifestyle because it's essentially this old-time wireless radio that people would use to communicate long distances by sending these electromagnetic signals. And so you can still see them in some old wartime movies being used, to communicate and also for espionage in different countries. And at the same time, on the other end of the spectrum, you can also see them in these futuristic, post-apocalyptic movies, because that's the only means of communication left when there is no cellphone or no internet.

Gustavo: Is it those radios where you're like turning the dials and it's going “re, reooreeoree.”

Stephanie: Yes, that's exactly it. So, ham radio is essentially a term for amateurs, which means non-commercial radio users. Amateur radio operators tend to operate in a certain range of radio frequencies, and these are set by the government. So these are hobbyists who really just like connecting with different people around the world. And so they have these radio sets that can range anywhere from what you might use or look like a walkie-talkie to these elaborate setups where you have a box that transmits and receives radio signals with dials that you can turn, and that's where you would get that static sound. At the same time, I think “amateur” is a little bit of a misnomer because a lot of them are really, really well versed in all of the technical aspects of radio.

Gustavo: Oh, OK. So what’s the backstory, then, of ham?

Stephanie: So ham radio first started taking off in the U.S. in particular by very, very smart engineers and physicists and technicians because it is such a complicated technology. But as more people started picking it up as a hobby, it really took off.

Stephanie: So ham radio essentially, is a range of radio frequencies used by amateurs to connect with each other over long distances. And so how they do that is the transmitters and receivers send out and take in electromagnetic signals that are sent into the Earth's atmosphere. And then they reflect and bounce off of a layer of electrons. And that way they're able to kind of follow the arc of the Earth, and from Taiwan, you can talk to people in Japan, in Italy, other places in Europe. 

Aside from being a fun hobby for a lot of people, ham radio is most often used in disaster situations – you know, World Wars I and II. While countries like the U.S. and Britain limited amateur activity, so there wouldn't be as much interference from civilians on the airwaves, they also enlisted those amateurs to help out with communications and espionage.

Stephanie: More recently there's been another great example of using ham radio during disaster or emergency situations with Russia's invasion of Ukraine. And so after Russia invaded Ukraine, we saw that ham radio operators were able to listen in and intercept communications from the Russian military.

Gustavo: Nowadays why do people even use it, given we do have the internet, you know? 

Stephanie: It is definitely less well known among the broader population because of things like the internet and cellphones, smartphones because, you know, when you want to connect with someone on the other side of the world, it's much easier – you just tap on your phone. But this interest has persisted with hobbyists all over the world. For example, in the U.S. the latest count is that there are about 850,000 licensed amateur radio operators.

Gustavo: Oh, OK, so it's still relatively used, but how did ham radio come into Taiwan?

Stephanie: Ham radio in Taiwan, if you look at the global picture, was relatively late. Essentially, ham radio was brought over to Taiwan from the Chinese mainland, with the Chinese Nationalist Party of the KMT, when they were fleeing mainland China after losing the Chinese civil war in 1949. Before that, Taiwan didn't really have any amateur radio operators. But for a long time it was actually banned in Taiwan because they were still very wary of mainland spies. So Taiwan actually didn't start opening up for amateur radio licenses until 1984, around the time that they did away with Marshall Law as well. So a lot of the hams here in Taiwan when they were first learning about this technology, they actually had to learn English or Japanese in order to just read the manuals on how to use these things.

Gustavo: A lot of the times when people do talk about ham radio, it seems like, oh yeah, it's a hobby, but how are these people who are adopting it in Taiwan, what are they using it for?

Stephanie: Well, if you look at today, Taiwan has about 25,000 licensed amateur radio operators. But this technology is getting a second look because of all these concerns about cross strait tensions and the possibility of war. That number could actually increase because more and more people, especially younger generations, are interested in learning more about this technology and how to use it.

Gustavo: We'll be right back.

Gustavo: So Stephanie, we’ve been talking about ham radio and how it could be used during disaster situations like what’s going on in the war in Ukraine. In terms of Taiwan … what’s the situation been like there since we last had you on the podcast in July?

Stephanie: So since the last time that we talked about this, the situation somehow has gotten worse. 

Xi Jing Ping speech: [Chinese]

Stephanie: Chinese President Xi Jinping has really emphasized the importance of China's unification with Taiwan, while Taiwan's government has taken a more negative stance towards closer ties with China overall. 

President Tsai Ing-wen speech: China has been squeezing Taiwan, ruining cross strait relationships

Stephanie: So over the past few years, China's relationship with Taiwan has deteriorated. 

Protest Ambi: Stop bullying Taiwan!

Stephanie: And so this actually got even worse in August, when the U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi made a diplomatic visit to Taiwan. 

Pelosi: America stands with Taiwan.

Stephanie: And this really angered Beijing. And in response, they launched this unprecedented level of military drills around the island to show their displeasure at this diplomatic visit and also make clear that, you know, President Xi Jinping would not tolerate any sort of talk about Taiwan independence. On top of that, you recently had the National Party Congress where President Xi Jinping was able to confirm essentially his third term as China's leader, making him the most powerful leader in China since Mao Zedong. And that is something that'll be interesting to look at going forward given, Xi's focus on Taiwan, and some analysts say that, now with another five years in power and no political challengers on the field, that'll really let him move forward more boldly. 

Gustavo: Meanwhile, you have 25,000 ham radio operators across the way in Taiwan. Who were some of the people you talked to, and what did they tell you about how they got into ham radio?

Stephanie: So there is a group of Taiwanese ham radio operators that meets down by the river in Taipei every Tuesday. They are essentially spending their evenings hanging out with like-minded hobbyists, playing around with their devices and just seeing what kinds of new setups they can do. For a lot of these people, it makes sense that ham radio would come in handy in a wartime scenario. Here they've also helped out with emergency response,  disasters such as floods and earthquakes and even helping out with the crowd management at New Year's Eve events in Taipei. And then at the same time, you know, some civil defense experts and people who are interested in, if conflict really were to break out in Taiwan,  learning more about what they can do 

Shoichi chou: I started caring about politics around two years ago (Mandarin).

Stephanie: So, for example, I talked to one Taiwanese resident, who is a 45-year-old owner of a laptop customization studio. His name is Shoichi, and he says that ham radio is something that he remembers from when he was young.

Shoichi chou: My dad and my uncle used it in the 1960s (Mandarin).

Stephanie: He remembers his dad and uncle using it. He remembers using it to talk to his friends, to date. But it was only about last year when he decided to reacquaint himself with his technology because he was thinking, you know, what might I need, if something were to break out.

Shoichi chou: I started to think about using ham because of the political situation (Mandarin).

Stephanie: And so now, he keeps a wireless radio in his emergency go-bag.

Shoichi chou: A life surviving backpack .. and water or you know ... 

Stephanie: He told me that I feel like it's incredibly important. If just a few bases don't have electricity, you won't have any way to use your phone.

Shoichi chou: If there is no electricity, there is no way you can use your phone (Mandarin).

Gustavo: Is Shoichi a typical ham radio operator in Taiwan or are they more just enthusiasts and hobbyist?

Stephanie: A lot of the current crowd is mostly made of hobbyists who got into it just because they were exposed to it at some point and wanted to learn more. So you know, a lot of them learned about ham radio in their early years. Even back, before it was legally allowed to operate amateur radios. So a lot of the members that you see at these weekly meetings, they've been engaged in this for 30-some years. Some of the newer crowd doesn't come into contact with it as easily, but I did talk to one younger generational participant who learned about it through YouTube. And so he was saying that maybe it's not that younger generations aren't interested in this, maybe it's just that they don't see it as often, so they don't have the opportunity to learn more.

Gustavo: Yeah, it all seems fun. It all seems fun. But in Taiwan it seems there's always this looming threat. So, are other people talking about like maybe we are gonna need ham radios in case of something?

Stephanie: Yeah, obviously the Russian invasion of Ukraine earlier this year really put a lot of Taiwanese people on high alert for the possibilities of what they could see at home. Another thing that has come to the attention of many people here is the vulnerability of Taiwan's internet connectivity and communication lines. For Taiwan, it's heavily reliant on a handful of undersea cables for its internet connection and data. And so what we saw, you know, earlier this year in August when China launched a series of unprecedented military drills around the island, that really highlighted some of the concern about what China's military could do to cut Taiwan off from the rest of the world.

Gustavo: If those cable lines go down, if Taiwan is basically cut off from internet, from the rest of the world, then how would these ham radios be used by people and how much would Taiwan have to rely on them?

Stephanie: So this is a question that I think is still up in the air and something that people are trying to figure out. Now you have government agencies really focusing on this issue of connectivity and internet access. But for ham radio, I think that one of the ways it's useful is that enthusiasts say that you can reach other people across the island basically using this technology if you needed to. At the same time, you could use ham radio to reach some of the outer lying islands in Taiwan that would otherwise potentially be cut off. And so, what we would see as far as organization is a little bit unclear, especially if, the current situation, a lot of younger generations are not necessarily familiar with this technology. And so that's what some civil defense experts and groups are trying to fix right now by hosting more events and panels to help people connect with this technology, and essentially learn more about how it could be used.

Gustavo: And how is the Taiwanese government, if at all, reacting to this? Because as you said earlier, no one was allowed to use ham radios under Marshall Law that the island was in for decades, and now all of a sudden it could be something that the Taiwanese government can use or at least have people help them.

Stephanie: Yeah, so I think that this is something that is not quite yet on the radar of the Taiwanese government as far as defense approaches. For the most part, I think the Taiwanese government has been focused on increasing military spending, buying more missiles and, basically, tools to deter an attack from China. It's pursued this kind of porcupine strategy, to essentially increase the potential losses for an attack so that it would discourage China from doing anything of the sort.

Stephanie: But at the same time, I think that they haven't quite figured out the civil defense part of the picture yet. And so, when you're seeing a lot of people on the ground here thinking about, you know, what could I do to learn more and to help out – things like taking, shooting classes, things like taking first aid classes and getting EMT certified –  that's something that's still happening much more on a grassroots level. And I think that's true of ham radio as well.

Gustavo:  We'll be right back.

Gustavo: So, Stephanie, we've been talking about ham radio in Taiwan and because Taiwan is under constant threat from China. But you see around the world, these are very interesting times. Should we all start learning how to use ham radio?

Stephanie: Yeah, I'm not gonna lie, that thought did pop into my mind while I was learning about this technology and seeing how they were using it. But you know, it's a really interesting time to be looking at this technology, not just because of Ukraine and Taiwan, but given Russia's invasion and the increased military aggression of China in the Asia Pacific, I think a lot of countries are thinking about their own military strategies, and what they might do also to confront potential future conflict. 

Gustavo: On the other hand, you mentioned it earlier, when it is depicted, it's either in the past, in the faraway past or in the very bad future where this is the only way that we could communicate with each other across long distances. So maybe we should start learning it.

Stephanie: Actually, I did get an an email from from a reader after the story published, who is a ham radio enthusiast in the U.S. and he asked me a similar question, like, did we convince you? Like, is this something that you'd be interested in learning more about? It's so very technical. I think that it's really cool that it's something that could be used. But at the same time, because it's a little bit inaccessible for people like me, I think that that's still a barrier to more widespread adoption. But I think from talking to some people in Taiwan, there is the interest there, especially among the more technically minded that are really, really interested in technologies like this. 

Gustavo: And then finally, just knowing how crucial this technology can be to the Taiwanese ham enthusiasts that you talked to, what do they think about their future?

Stephanie: For a lot of them, I think that they’re ready to assist if needed. But the other thing about Taiwanese people is even though they are more wary now of a potential invasion, they're also quite used to this idea of cross strait conflict breaking out. And so it's not necessarily something that's brand new to them. But at the same time, for a lot of people it's still unclear what a move on Taiwan would look like from China – whether that would be a blockade cutting Taiwan off from the rest of the world, whether just more increased military activity around the island to demonstrate their power or whether that would be a full-scale invasion. And so that's something that I think people are still grappling with.

Stephanie: For the ham radio community in Taiwan …

Stephanie: For now, you know, they mostly see it as just something they really enjoy in a way to connect with each other. So at your typical ham radio meeting on Tuesday nights, they put up lights in the tree. They bring tea. 

Stephanie: They chat with each other about their newest gadgets. 

Stephanie: And so for the most part, you know, watching them play with their devices, I think the bigger concern for them is some misconnection that they're getting on their radio rather than the possibility of war.

Stephanie: One of the more exciting moments of the night was when one of the ham radio operators received an incoming message from someone in Bosnia.

Stephanie: Immediately, people crowded over. They wanted to know where this was coming from and what they responded to the message.

Stephanie: Unfortunately, their responding message never got through.

Tape: OK, Bye-bye.

Gustavo: Man, when the world ends, let’s hope we’re getting a response. 

Stephanie: Exactly.

Gustavo: Stephanie, thank you so much for this conversation.

Stephanie: Thank you.

Gustavo: That's it for this episode of The Times Essential News from the L.A. Times.

Shannon Lin was the jefa on this episode. Mario Diaz mixed and mastered it and Jazmin Aguilera edited it. 

Our show is produced by Shannon Lin, Denise Guerra, Kasia Broussalian, David Toledo and Ashlea Brown. Our editorial assistants are Nicolas Perez and Roberto Reyes. Our engineers are Mario Diaz, Mark Nieto, Mike Heflin.

Our editor is Kinsee Morlan. Our executive producers are Jazmin Aguilera, Shani Hilton and Heba Elorbany. And our theme music is by Andrew Eapen. I'm Gustavo Arellano. We'll be back Monday with all the news and desmadre, Gracias. 

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