Taiwan: Living in the shadow of Big Brother
The ability of Taiwan to survive as an independent island state has long been questioned. It occupies a precarious position in the sea to the east of the Chinese mainland and is regarded as a rebel colony by its powerful neighbor.
Taiwan in its present form was established in 1949 by nationalists who fled to the island following the Communist takeover in the mainland in China. The Chinese Communist Party has repeatedly said it wishes Taiwan to be reunited with the rest of China and often threatens the island with shows of force, including live fire exercises and “practice runs” of an invasion. In return, Taiwan is one of the most heavily-defended regions in Asia.
Despite these challenges, Taiwan has not only survived but flourished. It leads the world in the production of semiconductors, and this has helped it to grow into the twenty-third largest economy in the world. Its citizens enjoy a large degree of individual and political freedom and the levels of poverty, unemployment, and crime are low.
The economic rise of mainland China has increased its diplomatic influence around the world. It has used this influence to block Taiwan from participation in the international arena. Taiwan has been denied even observer status at the United Nations, and Taiwanese passport holders are not permitted to visit UN premises. The same restrictions apply to the World Health Organization and other global bodies.
Any depiction of a map showing Taiwan as separate from China attracts the wrath of Beijing. Most of the time, Taiwan’s leaders try to avoid challenging or provoking China and aim to promote their own interests by building alliances with friendly countries.
The response from China resembles the jealousy of a former partner who bullies rival suitors. Beijing threatens to cut links with any country which recognizes Taiwan. For most small economies, China’s wrath is a terrifying prospect. Even the tiny Pacific nations, Kiribati and the Solomon Islands, which had been recipients of generous Taiwanese aid, recently severed links with Taipei as a result of pressure from Beijing. There are now only fifteen countries which have diplomatic missions in Taiwan. In return for loyalty, Taiwan rolls out the red carpet for the leaders of the few nations which still support it.
Taiwan can also count on allies within the political elite in the United States, even though there are no official diplomatic links.
Taiwan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Joseph Wu, recently told a group of visiting journalists from Europe that he was confident that with Donald Trump in the White House, Taipei would still be able to rely on Washington’s staunch support.
He reminded the reporters of the ringing endorsement by US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, who described Taiwan as a “democratic success story, a reliable partner, and a force for good in the world.” Mr. Wu said, “As far as I can see, relations are still warm, and I expect that relations will get better because Taiwan shares the same values and the same interests as the United States.”
Mr. Wu also pointed to strengthening links with the EU, despite the official lack of diplomatic recognition. At the moment, the only European state which officially recognizes Taiwan is the Vatican. This is mainly because of animosity between the church and Communist China, which officially advocates atheism and disapproves of religion. However, a thawing of relations between the Vatican and China appears to be taking place as Christianity is becoming more accepted on the mainland. Mr. Wu acknowledged that if the Vatican were to pursue some sort of formal relationship with Beijing, this might have an impact on its links with Taipei.
Referring to the persecution of Catholics in China, he said, “We all have a responsibility to do something to make sure that Catholics in China enjoy their religious freedom.” He also asserted that the Vatican and Taiwan share a common interest in providing humanitarian assistance to “less fortunate people.” Taiwan uses its technical, medical, and educational expertise to help developing countries in Asia, Africa, and Central America.
On the margins
Taiwan’s leaders complain that they miss out on vital medical, scientific, and other essential resources and information because of their exclusion from international meetings and organizations.
A senior Taiwanese official cited the example of the SARS epidemic, which has still not been wiped out in Taiwan. He said that not being able to participate in WHO means that Taiwan is prevented from gathering information on how to tackle the disease.
Science and technology
Taiwan is positioning itself as a global leader in technology and science. It has 3 major science parks providing support to businesses, scientific, and academic institutions.
As part of the delegation of foreign reporters, I traveled by high-speed train to Taichung, where we were taken on a tour of the Central Taiwan Science Park. This facility undertakes pioneering research on the development of AI and robots. The Speedtech Energy company specializes in developing, producing, and exporting products based on solar power. These can range from street lights and water pumping systems to cameras, lights, radios, and fans.
Chelungpu Fault Preservation Park, located just outside Taipei, was established to commemorate the devastating earthquake in 1999. The centerpiece is the original Chelungpu Fault, which triggered the earthquake that killed more than 2,000 people and caused billions of dollars’ worth of damage. The park is part of the National Museum of Natural Science. One of its functions is to carry out research into the causes of earthquakes and ways to minimize their impact.
The Taiwanese government is investing heavily in tourism with the aim of attracting more than 8 million tourists a year. Many visitors come from Japan, as well as mainland China.
The capital, Taipei, is a bustling and lively city, offering many attractions. The National Palace Museum houses a collection of nearly 700,000 pieces of ancient Chinese imperial artifacts and artworks. Another landmark is the National Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, erected in memory of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, former President of Taiwan, which is referred to officially as the Republic of China. The soldiers there are an impressive sight in their sparkling white uniforms, polished bayonets, and coordinated drills. Bangka Longshan Temple is a Chinese folk religious temple built in 1738 by settlers from Fujian during the Qing rule. It served as a place of worship and a gathering place for the Chinese settlers.
A modern highlight is the Taipei 101 Observatory, one of Taiwan’s tallest buildings. From the top, one can enjoy spectacular panoramic views of the city. The high-speed lifts which take you to the viewing level were built by Japanese engineers.
Most tourists enjoy a visit to one of the lively night markets – riots of noise and color with alleys lined with stalls selling clothes, hats, bags, gadgets, electrical goods, toys, and souvenirs. The pungent smells wafting from the street food can be overwhelming.
Taiwan has an impressive range of high-end restaurants and eating places offering international and local cuisine. We had memorable meals at the Palais de Chine hotel and the Japanese restaurant in Okura hotel. We also visited a mall in central Taipei, where chefs serve soups, sizzling grilled beef, duck and chicken, seafood, salads, noodles, and rice dishes.
Our group agreed that our final meal at Din Tai Fung Dumpling House was the best eating experience of the trip. Delicacies on offer include green chilies stuffed with marinated minced meat, “Xiao Cai” – Oriental salad in special vinegar dressing, and shrimp and pork wontons tossed in chicken broth.
Teams of chefs, working in 3-hour shifts, produce the most mouthwatering delicately-flavored dumplings with a dazzling range of delicious and imaginative fillings. Smiling waitresses brought us seemingly endless courses, but we still found space to try the dessert: dumplings in a hot chocolate sauce.
We managed to stagger back to our hotel, as we did after every meal, vowing that we could not face any more food – until the next lunch or dinner when we again succumbed to temptation! An adventurous member of our group even managed to track down a place where one could taste snake soup.
Hotels for every budget
Hotels in Taiwan vary from 4- and 5-star luxury establishments where one can hire a personal butler to more modest choices for those on a tight budget. Our base in Taipei was the sumptuous Palais de Chine hotel, which is designed to combine the elegance and grandeur of a European palace with the reflective calm and serenity of the East. The rooms are comfortable, spacious, and clean.
The staff is extremely helpful and courteous. This was my first experience of the Palais de Chine chain, and I was certainly impressed and will stay in one again if the opportunity arises.
The Grand Hotel is another imposing palace with historical significance. The hotel was established in 1952 at the behest of Chiang Kai-Shek’s wife to serve as a suitably grand base for visiting heads of state and other foreign dignitaries. The restaurant on the top floor offers spectacular views of Taipei.
Sun Moon Lake
Taiwan and its outlying islands cover some 36,000 square kilometers of forests, mountains, and coastal areas. It has well-developed facilities to enjoy activities ranging from hiking, cycling, boating and other water sports, birdwatching, and exploring historical sites.
After our hectic program, it was a pleasure to venture out of Taipei to the picturesque Sun Moon Lake. It was soothing to wake up to a view of the tranquil lake ringed by hills thickly covered with trees and flowering plants including bamboo, cedar, palms, frangipani, and hibiscus. We went by boat to a temple, which contains the remains of the Buddhist monk, Xuanguang, and a statue of the golden Sakyamuni Buddha. We could not leave without tasting another Taiwanese delicacy, though something of an acquired taste – eggs cooked in tea. These are sold at a tiny stall near the pier run by a woman in her nineties who has, over the years, acquired a monopoly over what is clearly a lucrative venture.
The area around the lake is home to the Thao people, one of more than 16 native tribes in Taiwan. According to mythology, Thao hunters spotted a white deer in the mountains and chased it to the shore of Sun Moon Lake. They were so impressed that they decided to settle there. It was rather sad to see them reduced to performing traditional songs and dances for boatloads of tourists, but one can learn more about their history and at the local visitor center. For sale are handicrafts, ceramics, and other items made by local people. The region is known for its tea which was brought over from Assam and Darjeeling. Also available are wines made from local sources including rice, millet, plum, and even bamboo.
Taiwan’s uncertain future
Taiwan is physically and influentially a minnow compared to its giant neighbor, yet its people are fiercely protective of its hard-won democracy and civil rights. With presidential elections due in January, the Taiwanese are reveling in the cut and thrust of political campaigning. Ultimately, one can only wonder how long Beijing will be happy to allow Taipei to position itself as a bastion of multi-party democracy and civil rights in East Asia enjoying freedoms Chinese on the mainland can only dream about.