Saturday, September 02, 2006

Colors Shown

The level of personal involvement in politics in Taiwan is unlike anything I had ever experienced before. Not only are the news perpetually reporting on the ongoing plan to oust President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) or exposing every allegation of corruption, infidelity or other weaknesses, but politics—the great divide of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP)—extends, sadly, into the workplace. Whereas in Canada the distance between ordinary citizens and the powers that be in Ottawa appeared to be calculable only in light years, here in Taiwan people make the battle of politics a very personal one indeed. Perhaps this is a consequence of the small size of the country, where distance—physical, political—uses a very different scale from that which is used in immense countries like Canada, Russia, Germany or the United States.

To demonstrate my point. Yesterday, minutes before I was to leave the office for the last time, every Taiwanese employee was had an envelope by their supervisors. Immediately, this made all the employees talk among themselves. I knew, therefore, that something was up, and I started asking around to find out what was going on. As it turns out, the envelopes came from the very top, from the owner of the series of magazines and schools. The object was to strongly encourage every employee to make a NT$100 (approximately $3.10 Canadian) donation to support the fundraising campaign initiated to oust the president. As an incentive, all employees were told that should they make said donation and provide a receipt, they would get an hour off from work in return. Many said, in jest, that they would do it for three hours, but that one hour wasn’t enough. Humor aside, I believe there is great danger in mixing the gift of leave time to employees with politics of the kind that can affect an entire nation. In other words, some people will willingly make their donation not out of political belief, but simply for the fact that they would like to get an hour off. Others, as the invitation came from the top, might feel compelled to make the donation, as doing otherwise will identify them as someone who isn’t of the same political persuasion as that of the employer. In a way, this could be interpreted as a politically-based threat. I don’t know that this would be a widespread occurrence, but I can very well imagine employees of companies with strong political affiliations suffering the professional consequences of failing to donate.

I remember the first time I accompanied my parents as they went voting. What had struck me then was how secretive people generally were about their colors. One couldn’t tell if your neighbor was a Liberal, or a Separatist. Political persuasion was like a religion, something personal that you did not divulge publicly. Discussing politics made people uncomfortable. It was better—safer—therefore, to go into the little secluded room, drop the vote card in the box, and flee the premises. Conversely, here in Taiwan, people are very open about their colors. I know more about an uncle of Stephanie’s pan-blue (KMT) affiliations than about the man himself, and I know more about my father-in-law’s pan-green (DPP) beliefs, and how those have resulted in friction with the abovementioned uncle, than I know about many other aspects of his life. At work, one could easily know who was KMT and who was DPP (the former were in the majority, by the way). There is no doubt that my former employer was pro-KMT.

Whether this is a good thing remains to be proven. In a way, this showcases a deeper, more personal involvement in politics. This probably makes politics and its ramifications more immediate and therefore less distant than politics in Canada, where politics are seen as having very little impact on personal life. After all, Canadians could only argue with some difficulty that the Harper government has fundamentally changed the way they live their lives—as least not in the short term (I would argue, though, that it might in the mid- to long-term). Yes, the country’s foreign policy has changed somewhat, and some laws like same-sex marriage may eventually be reconsidered, but overall life has remained pretty much the same since Martin was ousted.

In Taiwan, however, the nature of a government can have a very serious impact on the future of the country, as the political objectives of the parties looking at each other across the great ideological chasm are very substantial. One pushes for independence, recognition at the United Nations; the other aims for reunification with China. As a result, the outcome of a political ouster, or of a presidential election, will have an immediate impact on the future of the country, in terms of the economy, democracy, security, and many other issues.

No one seeks the protection of the isolated ballot box here. Green, Blue, you show your colors and encourage others—by offering leave time if need be—to rally to the cause. No closet political beliefs indeed.

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