What future for the Beautiful Island?
Start with Hong Kong. A bouquet of modern capitalism. Concrete, glass, steel. Banks, hotels, skyscrapers. Streets bedecked with anti-pollution face masks. And residents who advise visitors come to marvel not to drink the water. Then escape to a leaf-shaped island of some 24 million population which became known to untroubled, disinterested people outside only because it was the country of origin of much of the cheap electrical equipment they bought from their local branch of Currys or Comet. Once reliant on the export of cheap textiles or consumer goods the island rose to be among the world’s leading manufacturers of computer software and hardware. Not to overlook bicycle parts, some of which are used at a London East End branch of the not-for-profit Social Enterprise to help train locals who are homeless, isolated or unemployed (or perhaps all three) to make a kind of living as bicycle mechanics.
Within the island’s demographic stew there are some half a million descendants of about a dozen aboriginal tribes, settled with others who came over from mainland China. Together they can claim to be now one of the most peaceful societies in Asia. So – welcome to the island of Taiwan, to Ilha Formosa (beautiful island), to the Republic of China – a misleadingly splendid name for a state which is no longer a member of the United Nations and is recognised by only the likes of Belize, Malawi, the Vatican… Welcome to the beautiful scenery, the mountains, the golden beaches. To the flyovers whisking you above the factories and past the driven schools. To the nation state which exists by, through and in with, one tough work-ethic.
Of the competing mercantile powers it was the Portugese who, about 1590, “discovered”
Taiwan – and gave it the name Ilha Formosa. A long period of war, rebellion and murderous poverty while Taiwan was a “province” of China ended in 1895 when the Japanese occupied the island. This was supposedly “in perpetuity” but it came to an end in 1945, after a half century of martial law. Japanese rule was harsh – an estimated ten thousand people were killed – but not corrupt and it developed an educational system as well as roads, railways and industry. In 1943, as the Allied leaders were carving up the Far East in expectation of Japan’s defeat in World War Two, a “peace” conference in Cairo decided that, as a spoil of war, Taiwan would be “returned” to China under Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist Kuomintang (KMT). United States Vice President Truman’s response described the island as “America’s unsinkable battleship”.
Towards the end of the war there was a subtle change in the vocabulary of the Allied powers’ intentions; Taiwan was to be “temporarily occupied” on their behalf by the KMT. But this was soon undermined when civil war broke out on mainland China between the KMT and Mao Tse Tung’s “communist” forces. Preoccupied by those more pressing events, Chiang left the running of Taiwan to his deputy Chen Yi, whose regime was barbaric enough to provoke many “liberated” Taiwanese to regret the end of Japanese rule. In 1947 a minor incident connected to the state monopoly of the tobacco trade inflamed a series of widespread protests which were crushed with mass arrests, torture and execution of up to 30,000 people. (The day when it started – 28 February – is now a national holiday in Taiwan and New Park in the capital city Taipei was re-named 2-28 Peace park). That horror was a foretaste of things to come
By 1949, as the KMT on the mainland were facing defeat Chiang Kai-shek took refuge in Taiwan, where he continued to insist that one day he would prevail. Meanwhile martial law returned under The White Terror, with mass arrests of those alleged to be “attempting to overthrow the government”. Over 90,000 were taken in this way and at least half of them were executed. The scene of much of this was Green Island Lodge – a prison on a volcanic island separated from Taiwan by a few miles of nausea-inducing Pacific Ocean. Here there is lush scenery, one of the world’s three seawater hot springs, golden beaches, pristine coral reefs and dazzling tropical fish. This is where many Taiwanese come to enjoy a short break – if they can ignore that close by are a museum and a human rights memorial in place of the notorious prison where so many victims of The White Terror suffered and perished.
Apart from his willingness to commit atrocities, the defeated Chiang Kai-shek became something of an embarrassment to the Americans. In 1971 President Nixon and his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger offered an “opening” – a carefully chosen word of flexible interpretation – to China and, as if that was not enough, Taiwan lost its membership of the United Nations to China. During the following year the US and China met and agreed on a “communiqué” which, while not actually saying that Mao had won the civil war, “acknowledged” (more of those careful words) that the new China was a unified country of which Taiwan was a part. This betrayal of what was supposed to have been an unshakeable commitment was settled after the negotiators had been pleasured by an especially sumptuous meal, encouraging Nixon’s odious chief arm-twister, replete, to assure his hosts “After a dinner of moatal and Peking Duck I’ll sign anything”. Well, he was Henry Kissinger wasn’t he…
Chiang Kai-shek died in 1978 and his son Chiang Ching-kuo took over with an easier, less repressive hand. While martial law was still in operation it was possible in 1986 for the first official opposition – the Democratic Progressive Party – to be formed and to win a significant number of seats in the next election. In process with these changes in 1987 martial law was brought to an end; free elections are now an established part of political life on the island and the election of 2000 brought an end to KMT rule. It should be said that it is not unknown for elected members to try to sort out their differences through a punch-up in the Chamber and for political business to be obstructed through allegations of corruption. In 1991 the KMT claim to link Taiwan and the Chinese mainland was formally abandoned. Symbolic of the clearing away of a lot of the obstructive anachronisms imposed on the Taiwan of the 1940s, many of the statues of Chiang Kai-shek were vengefully torn down. It was symbolic too of Taiwan feeling its way into place as an independent competitor in global capitalism.
Part of this process is Taiwan’s promotion of itself as a tourist attraction to rival the best offered by the likes of Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia. “Where else” bellows a full page ad in a Sunday newspaper colour supplement “would you find time-honoured traditions that thrive in perfect harmony with the chic and the avant-garde”’. Apart from its “breathtaking scenery” the island’s vibrant ambition is testified to by “the city’s skyscrapers” – among them Taipei 101, the world’s second highest building, with the fastest elevator to whisk you from ground level to the top viewing spot in a matter of seconds so smoothly that you are unaware of moving. All of which demands that the Taiwanese people live by a patriotism manufactured as surely as those computer parts. And it all soaks down to the children, who devotedly learn the officially sanctioned Mandarin language – often along with English and Japanese – during an average 12 hour day in the classroom with extra tuition in Maths and Science at private cram schools on a Saturday.
But hard work, to whatever degree, has not been able to insulate Taiwan from capitalism’s chaos. The present world recession has cruelly broken the dream of ever-flowing Taiwanese prosperity. Unemployment is an encroaching problem no longer confined to the poorer, under-educated families but now also affecting graduates. A government subsidy intended to persuade companies to take on graduates has had the effect of worsening poverty at large by forcing applicants to accept lower starting wages – at about half the national average. Many employers – as in England – have pressed their workers to take temporary unpaid leave, or have stopped taking on new staff altogether. And there remains a serious problem of youth unemployment, with the rate for 15-24 year olds about twice that for the workforce as a whole and looming over it all is the real prospect of them being sucked into the ranks of the long-term unemployed.
After a history of savage repression, Taiwan is struggling now for a place among the trend-setters of Twenty-First Century global capitalism. For example they are trying for admission to bodies such as the United Nations and there are missions working for unity with China. As one guide (Robert Kelly and Joshua Brown, Lonely Planet ) put it: “So is Taiwan at a crossroads, or a precipice?” And it may also be asked – what will this do to a beautiful island which has already suffered so grievously? Will it turn out to be a modern capitalist power as frantic, as restless and as abrasive as Hong Kong?