Wednesday, 6 December 2006

My Taiwan Impression

Just read the latest issue of Yazhou Zhoukan, which published an insightful commentary on the dynamics and implications of the forthcoming mayor elections of Taipei and Kaohsiung, the two most prominent cities in Taiwan.

I don't know how many fellow citizens in Hong Kong care about the recent political drama in Taiwan, but having been a China reporter upon graduation and thus developed a special interest in the island that has been governed by a different administration for more than half a century, I can't help giving a long sigh of frustration and helplessness reading all about Taiwan these days.

And, I used to spend a week or so in Taipei every year. But I have stopped doing so since 2001.

This was prompted by nothing but disappointment.

Perhaps some people in Hong Kong and other parts of the world may find it difficult to understand the context and reasons for political tensions in Taiwan. It simply makes little sense to people outside Taiwan but for those who are living on the island it can be a matter of life and death.

The story began in 1945 when Taiwan, which was ceded to Japan in accordance with the Treaty of Shimonoseki signed between Japan and China under Qing Dynasty in 1895, was returned to China after Japan surrendered in the Second World War. At that time the Chinese regime under Kuomintang (The Chinese National Party) led by Chiang Kai-shek was notoriously corrupt and inefficient. Under the immense financial pressure during the Second World War and the subsequent civil war against the Chinese communists, the Kuomintang administration issued paper currencies at discretion but resulted in skyrocketing inflation that pushed the national economy to the brink of bankruptcy.

Taiwan was no exception. The 50-year disconnection with the Mainland during Japanese colonial rule inevitably resulted in mistrust and misunderstanding. When the Kuomintang troops set their feet on the soil of Taiwan after their defeat by the Communists, local Taiwanese did not see the newcomers as compatriots but foreign invaders not much different from the Japanese. Meanwhile, Mainland Chinese also saw Taiwanese as betrayers simply because they had been subjects of the Japanese colonists. Kuomintang's corrupt administration and high-handed policies did nothing but kept the resentment and hostility brewing. It was, therefore, not surprising to see the hostility erupted and resulted in the bloody suppression on 28 February 1947, i.e. the 28 February Incident that is often compared to the 4 June Massacre at Tiananmen Square 17 years ago. Up to 60,000 civilians were reportedly killed by the Kuomintang troops.

Unfortunately the deep-rooted hostility and mistrust has evolved into ridiculous tension between those who are born in Taiwan and Mainland China. Worse still, this has been exploited by some political opportunists as the pretext or justification for Taiwan independence. They condemn those who were born in Mainland China or whose forefathers came from the Mainland as potential betrayers of Taiwan. Those who can't speak the local Taiwanese dialect, which is very similar to the dialect spoken in southern part of Fujian province across the Taiwan Strait, are often seen as "outsiders" of Taiwan. In some cases the opportunists choose to deny the fact that the cultural roots of Taiwan came from the Mainland. In other cases they cite their favourite role model, the United States, which has courageously fought for independence from its arrogant and repressive master. Essentially, these guys believe that in order to defend and uphold the interests of genuine Taiwanese people, i.e. themselves, independence from China (whatever the ruling party may be) is the only option.

I have neither the academic capabilities nor the intention to discuss the complicated concepts of reunification and independence in this casual essay. All I want to say here is that I find it unacceptable to achieve questionable political objectives by promoting hostility among different groups of people in the same community. This is unethical and sheer contempt of human rights and social justice.

Can you imagine those who can't speak Cantonese in Hong Kong are being discriminated to an extent that they are seen as potential spies or betrayers who should be expelled from Hong Kong?

Unfortunately this shameless strategy is still proved to be effective in Taiwan as we have seen in the election and re-election campaigns of Chen Shui-bian. For years he has positioned himself as the "son of Taiwan" to safeguard Taiwanese interests against the bullying and threats of a rising China. But his ignorance of international relations and incompetence in governance, together with his obsession with power, should be blamed for the decline of Taiwan in recent years, at least economically and culturally. Taiwanese enterprises are struggling for survival as their plans in Mainland China are often seen by the sceptical administration as suspicious moves of betrayal. The incapability to expand inevitably leads to a loss of competitiveness and thus job cuts. A shrinking domestic market due to high unemployment simply starts a vicious cycle that can achieve nothing but reinforce hostility between Taiwan and Mainland China.

Culturally speaking, I feel extremely disappointed to see that the last foothold of traditional Chinese culture has been replaced, not complemented, by the rise of local culture and an obsession with Japanese and Western cultures. While you can find an abundance of excellent books on Japanese history and Western thought and cultural studies, very few titles are dedicated to China. Interestingly, China is often portrayed as a country that is completely different from Taiwan and yet with some connections that makes it closer than Japan and the United States.

How ironic it is when I remember how Taiwan and its people proudly proclaimed that it was the last foothold of preserving traditional Chinese culture, especially during the early days of the Communist rule when tradition was ruthlessly uprooted. Now that many people in the Mainland are regretful of what happened some 40 years ago and have started to work hard to retrieve and restore the lost roots, isn't it an unforgivable blunder for Taiwan to try to cut itself off from its heritage and isolate itself for the sake of nothing but someone's selfish motives?


  1. actually i remembered writing for a debate about independence of taiwan.but looking back now at least one has to admit that the democracy, no matter how corrupt it is now, was won with blood. It came with the lives of civillians. Does that not speak for itself. But what I don't understand is why the desperation for 'union' I am always looking at australia and new zealand for example. They have firstly people from the same region, a similar culture and have a 'lip and teeth' relationship
    Why can't the mainland and taiwan be the same? No wonder why so many in taiwan want neither independence or unification. It's because the only ones who benefit would be the so called elite political class

  2. Well, the Chinese people's obsession with "reunification" bothers me too. But now I think this may be nothing more than a straightforward response to the bloodshed and humiliation over the past 160 years or so. Nobody wants to see war again and reunification will certainly reduce the risk of having another civil war.

    The historical and psychological problems on both sides of the Taiwan Strait are never easy to resolve. This requires courage, wisdom and commitment that is yet to be seen on both sides.


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