By Kumar David –
The majority of Lankans, of all hues, have not been favourably inclined to Taiwan (formerlyFormosa) since the early 1950s. The love affair with the Peoples’ Republic commenced with the Rubber-Rice Pact (1953) and continued through Non-Alignment, notions of Peaceful Coexistence and Non-Interference in each other Internal Affairs (meaning non-interference in each others human rights violations) and the gift of the Bandaranaike International Conference Hall. Recently the Rajapakses have tried to cosy up to Beijing, run up debts that will inundate future generations, and they have swelled the illusion that Beijing will protect GoSL from international penalties for human rights abuses. (They will learn the hard way that Xi Jiping will not hesitate to cut Lanka adrift and let it sink if the going gets hot).
Conversely, for the last fifty or more years,Taiwan(self styled Republic of China) has been an object of aversion to Lankans, seen as an American client, and a die-hard outpost of imperialism and capitalism. Chiang Kai-Shek has invariably been projected as an arch reactionary. This is all reflex for Lankans since Taiwan has been a closed book for most of us for decades. There is a rational element in this; the Peoples’ Republic is a giant force in Asian power play and global economics, and naturally Lanka linked its star to Beijing, recognising it diplomatically.Beijing doggedly bullies the world into snubbing Taiwan and unsurprisingly successive Lankan governments have grovelled. The ignorance of the Lankan public, yours faithfully included, about this impressive little dragon economy and its affable people, however, is less forgivable.
A four day visit to Taipei, spent roaming the streets, the public transport facilities and two museums, one marvellous, one impressive, helped dispel my ignorance. I was educated and enchanted by the visit. I am only too familiar with Chinese people in China, which country I have criss-crossed more than a dozen times, and of course Hong Kong, where I worked for twenty years. The Chinese are an able people with much to be admired, but not even their greatest admirers will say folks in the Mainland and Hong Kong are charming (I know an exception!) or helpful to strangers. Conversely, Taiwanese are courteous, invariably going out of their way to show the way or provide directions. Sometimes, perplexed on the streets, I was greeted by something I have never ever, in three decades, once experienced on the Mainland or Hong Kong: “Can I help you?” Over here the usual response to a query on the street is a ruff off-putting gesture and a brusque turning away. Hence it is not true that all Chinese do not give their seats on busses and the metro to pregnant women or the infirm (London and New Yorkare a little better). The commuting public of Taipei, over 90% ethnic Chinese, are very much an exception. So culture and behaviour are more varied and complex than race or ethnicity.
The National Palace Museum houses, as museums go – I have visited many in the Mainland – in my layman’s view, the best collection of artefacts and treasures of China’s history and archaeology. True the Kuo Min Tang under Chiang Kai-Shek carted away (Mainland people say looted) trainloads and shiploads of artefacts to Taiwan when it fled under American protection in 1949. In defence it can be said that these riches have been protected from the ravages of nature and the attention of culturally unlettered philistines. Those who have witnessed the ignorance, decadence and iconoclasm of Islamic fundamentalists who smashed the Banyan Buddha statues and cleaned out the Baghdad and Kabul museums, and the bovine dogma of Cultural Revolution Red Guards, will discover in these museums, something to be grateful for.
The museum staff have employed Taiwan’s IT expertise to put on dazzling demonstrations, varied displays, digital presentations and holograms, to bring a stunning display to the visitor. It really is a very impressive show case. True of course Chiang Kai-Shek could not ship out the Forbidden City and the Xian Terracotta warriors, so the big and heavy stuff still sits in the motherland!
The second museum I went to was the natural history section of the Taiwan Museum which provided an overview of the earth and the history of life on the planet. It houses an impressive dinosaur fossil collection (and full size replicas) including a gigantic brachiosaurus skeleton and a tyrannosaurus replica. It was pretty deserted on the weekday on which we went round, but I do hope it bustles with school kids on holidays. The third location I visited was a huge architecturally imposing memorial hall to Chiang Kai-Shek, housing a large collection of photographs and artefacts of the late leader. Unfortunately, political and historical commentary is stonily silent; well he lost, did he not?
An efficient and well oiled dragon
Taipeiclearly rivals Seoul for the title of world’s best networked city; Taiwanese companies many operating out of mainland China, are also the world’s leading digital chip makers. I used to say that Hong Kong had the world’s best public transport system; I have to change ranking now;Taipeiis better (equally comfortable, more frequent and efficient, better networked, and surprisingly, cheaper). The service is smiling, staff and public more patient with the old and the infirm.Taiwan’s rail, metro and bus systems are owned by state corporations. Let me remind you that Lanka’s CTB provided a better service than the private mafia now does and British Rail was superior to the lousy privatised rail system that the near-fascist Thatcher put in place.
Taiwan/Lanka are of comparable population (23 million/21 million) but somewhat different in size (36,000 sq km/65,000 sq km). However, economic development is vastly different; GDP ($470 billion/$65 billion) and per capita GDP ($20,000/$3000).Taiwanis a bustling immensely successful economy, Lanka a mess, on a steep downward slope – shove the government’s “Wonder of Asia” fiction in the bin.
Why did things turn out differently? There are three reasons. First,Taiwan adopted a dirigisme (directed by the state, but with a role for private enterprises growth track) as opposed to Lanka’s market prostitution (come and do as you will with me) beginning with JR. Second, Lanka, except briefly when NM was finance minister, never had a deep economic strategy; it has been shallow, lacked perspective for fostering value-adding manufacturing foundations.
Thirdly Taiwan, like South Korea, was not seduced by bogus intentions of transforming itself into an Asian financial marvel. Colombo, as a financial hub, can never be more than a seenibola outpost, and has missed a berth in the Asian manufacturing century stakes.Taiwan is a power house of high-tech industry – less of heavy industry, hence complementing China nicely – and only 2% of its GDP comes from the agricultural sector.
The right to self-determination
There is one point on which my Hong Kong and of course Mainland friends and I strongly disagree; that is the right of the people of Taiwan to be masters of their own fate. Politically, I have always supported the One-China stand to the extent that dismembering China was, at one time, a U Spolicy objective, in the heyday of its anti-communist crusade. My stand was never intended as a holy grail to be employed against the people of Taiwan. If they want to go, let them go I say! But it may never happen; a Taiwanese (or Tibetan or Xingjian-ese) declaration of independence is probably the only issue on which China will go to war, even with the US. Taiwanese politicians well understand this; even pro-independence parties only talk, but will never walk the talk even when in office. This is the realism with which Taiwan will have to live for the foreseeable future.
Actually Taiwan is in nearly all respects an independent country which runs itself just as it pleases in political, economic, social, cultural and defence matters. Its de facto independence is constrained only in international diplomacy; no UN seat or representation in UN agencies, and no diplomatic relations in all but a handful of countries, since Beijing will suffer apoplexy if anyone formally recognises Taiwan. The stupidity of nationalism I call it, but nationalism is a stupidity with we have to live in Chinaas much as Sri Lanka, the USA or Timbuktu.
Do the people of Taiwan want reunification or separation? The old nationalists stood for reunification, they just wanted the “bloody communist bandits in Beijing” driven out first. They are still around but a minority. A significant number want a formal declaration of independence, “but not yet” they say, like St Augustine. The majority seem to be emotionally mixed up, a state unrecognised by their own consciousness. The truth is that political reunification will not happen so long as the Communist Party rules China; that is, not even in my grandchildren’s life time.
It would be better for all if Beijing recognises the right of the people of the Taiwanese people to self-determination, knowing that this will facilitate the emergence of Taiwan as a new member of the community of nations. That’s fine, it‘s the way things are going all over the world. Globalisation facilitates secession into smaller nation states which then cooperate in a myriad new ways – the European Union, ex-Yugoslavia, the North American trade federation, the loose association of the ‘-stans’ in a linkage that includes China and Russia. An economic union and a two nation political formula of Chinaand Taiwan only formalise prevailing reality and validate an inevitable future. The opium of narrow nationalism is what stands in the way.