Tuesday, October 16, 2007

A parade not for all

Last week on Oct. 10, the Republic of China (ROC) celebrated its National Day with the biggest military parade in 16 years. The practice of showcasing one’s armaments — at least to such an extent — had been abandoned in 1991 for fear it might provoke Beijing. Although the reasons for the resumption of massive military parades have yet to be known, it is not difficult to imagine that nationalism, riding the winds of Taiwan’s bid for UN membership, has something to do with it, as is the fact that this was the last such event with President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) as leader of the country.

Sold on the promise of seeing a wide array of the nation’s military equipment, from an Air Force flyby to armored personnel carriers to various missiles, I, and many others, headed for the Presidential Office, in front of which said parade was to begin. It soon became evident, though, that reaching the Presidential Office proper would be impossible, as every artery leading to it had been blocked with gates, barbed wire and rows of police officers, some of whom were equipped with the body shields so prominent at WTO summits while others held long hardwood staves that, if used, promised much pain. So, like water we gathered up at the dam, vying for positions from which, we hoped, we could see some of the parade as it passed by. Around us, rows of ROC flags beat to the breeze.

And we waited. And waited.

With the parade scheduled to begin at 9:19am, many among us began showing signs of impatience when, one hour later, we still hadn’t seen or heard anything, except for the occasional shift in police deployment. Many pictures were taken of the police officers who stood impassively behind the barbed wire, many of whom appeared to be much younger than me.

At one point a woman began shouting something incomprehensible, whereupon three or four police officers, prompted into preventive action, seized her and carried her away. That was the end of the momentary disturbance. Then, walking solitarily on the boulevard, with media and a few security officials in his wake, strolled Shih Ming-teh (施明德), former chairman of the Democratic Progressive Party and, since last year, the leader of an anti-Chen movement, looking very much as if he were going to a golf game. Some people near me shouted words of support, but quickly the eerie quietness — quite unusual for the usually rowdier national day celebrations I am accustomed to — descended upon us once again, with people chatting calmly, taking pictures (mostly of themselves and their friends) and placing calls on their cell phones.

Then, all of a sudden, the skies above us were pierced by rolling thunder, the crowd cheered, and the flyby began, with dozens of helicopters, followed by F-16s and Mirage-2000s, training aircraft and transport aircraft. No sooner had they shot above our heads, though, than things once again quieted down and the waiting resumed.

I approached a police officer and showed him my press card, hoping it might allow me to reach a better vantage point, but it turned out I didn’t have the proper pass. So I waited with the rest of the crowd, a mix of Japanese and Philippine tourists, Taiwanese and curious expatriates. Come 11:30am, I decided to leave, knowing by then that the parade wasn’t coming our way and confident that, once back in the office, I would have access to all the wire pictures taken during the day.

Follow-up inquiries showed that the military parade was a closed event and that people (and even there not the average Joe) who wanted to attend needed to obtain a special pass from the Government Information Office beforehand. In other words, this was not an event for public consumption — at least not one in which ordinary Taiwanese could participate. So, I wondered, aside from the dignitaries and reporters who did have the special pass, who was this massive display of military technology intended for?

The answer is fairly simple. This was a signal, sent via the media, to (a) the nation’s allies — in other words the US — who frequently have criticized Taiwan for not doing enough to defend itself, especially in the wake of the drawn-out, KMT-stalled efforts to purchase armaments from the US, and (b) China, in a flexing of muscles intended to make it think twice about embarking on a military course to gain control over Taiwan, a message that was emphasized by recent news on the development of surface-to-surface missiles capable of hitting cities in China — the first time in years Taiwan had developed offensive military technology.

So as an exercise in nationalism, the parade cannot be deemed a success, for it did not generate the “cheer on the street” and flag waving where national dreams are born. For those who viewed the parade in the news, the emotional reaction of pride, if we can characterize it as such, was more distant. One, obviously, does not obtain from an image on TV or in a newspaper the same chill one gets from experiencing the real thing.

As a signal to the US and China, it may have worked, but the effects have yet to be felt. One thing is sure, however: the Taiwan Strait conflict is getting increasingly militarized.

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