Friday, June 26, 2009

Musings on a day off

Thanks to the idiosyncratic Council of Labor Affairs rules that govern us, editors at the Taipei Times have to work two extra days every month to accumulate sufficient hours to be considered full-time employees. What this means for those overworked personnes à tout faire is that every other week, we only get one day off rather than two, like everybody else.

For yours truly, this week was one such weekend, 24 precious hours that are invariably insufficient to recharge one’s batteries after six days of storming the beaches to meet deadlines (those who imagine armies of editors and sub-editors as in the movies or at, say, the New York Times, would be amazed by how few people can manage, often against incredible odds, to put out a 20-page newspaper seven days a week, 365 days a year). What one does on such a day is usually dictated by whatever amount of energy is left, which isn’t much. For me, it usually involves discovering new areas of the criminally underrated city that is Taipei. Ironically, and for reasons that could only possibly be explained by some demon (as George Orwell), it is also the time of the week when I do most of my thinking about Taiwan’s status and meaning within the international community.

After an insufficient amount of sleep (one must make the best use of those 24 hours), I headed for the Shida (Taiwan Normal University) neighborhood for an exquisite lunch of Lebanese/Israeli food ad Sababa, where I had a delicious platter of pita and hummus that would rival any I’ve had in Montreal or Ottawa, two cities that have large Lebanese communities. Sitting on the patio and absorbed in James Cameron’s (the British reporter, not the American moviemaker) highly recommendable memoirs Point of Departure, I delighted in hearing the different languages that were being spoken at the tables — Mandarin, Taiwanese, Russian, Filipino, English and French (ok, that was me on the phone) — which reflects well upon Taipei’s embracing of various cultures.

Braving the sweltering 35 degree Celsius temperature, I then walked over to this charming little store on Xinsheng South Road called Taiouan, which a day earlier had informed me that the book I had ordered, A Taste of Freedom: Memoirs of a Formosa Independence Leader by Peng Ming-min (彭明敏, seen left), had arrived (Peng also has a new Chinese-language book, titled A Perfect Escape, on the same subject, and Taiouan also has a DVD of interviews he gave after his return from exile in 1992). The store is worth visiting, as it holds a fantastic collection of books, maps, CDs, DVDs, T-shirts and paraphernalia on Taiwan, Aborigines and the country’s history. It will definitely be one of the first stores I approach when my book, Democracy in Peril, becomes available (sometime next month).

After my purchase I lingered in the neighborhood, which never fails to remind me of the famous Plateau Mont Royal in Montreal, what with its many bars, cafes, architectural style and on the whole sentiment artistique. I randomly picked a café that, as it turns out, had a very good selection of Belgian beer — something that, for some reason, this neighborhood has in abundance. Inspired by the European-esque, wooden feel to the place, I flipped through Peng’s book, then returned my attention to Cameron, every now and then looking at the world outside the window. Once again, as I have done countless times since moving to Taiwan three-and-a-half years ago, I realized how fortunate I was to live here among this exceptional, accomplished, hard-working, tolerant, welcoming and humble people, in one of those rare places in Asia where democracy and freedom of expression are an applied reality rather than some vague concept.

Looking at the students and young adults wandering the streets, it made me realize, too, how oblivious most seemed to be to the serious challenges their country is facing, as little by little China’s plan to annex Taiwan is progressing, with the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) government of Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) acting as a facilitator. Two tables behind me, a couple was engaging in an animated argument about the KMT and the leader of the opposition, Democratic Progressive Party Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文). But to me the scene was like a microcosm of reality in Taiwan: Inside, a few worried about the future of this country, while outside everybody went on with their lives as if nothing was wrong.

Reading a passage in Cameron’s book about the Korean War, my thoughts wandered again, this time on the fact that Taiwan’s democratization and liberation from authoritarian rule — coming full circle, as the book by Peng that I had just purchased deals with his arrest and exile from Taiwan under KMT authoritarian rule, let alone the fact that Peng once studied at McGill University in Montreal — was one of the rare examples of a successful peaceful revolution. No one ever picked up arms to challenge the KMT; no lynching or public trials occurred after Martial Law was lifted. Individuals like Peng, Chen Chu (陳菊), Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁), Annette Lu (呂秀蓮), Chen Yu-hsi (陳玉璽), Reverend Kao Chun-ming (高俊明), Li Ao (李敖) and Shih Ming-teh (施明德), along with their friends abroad, never made recourse to force to change things; all used the legal system (whatever its worth back then), contacts and dialogue to turn things around, an accomplishment that, though far less known, is arguably equally as important as India’s non-violent campaign under Gandhi to end British colonial rule. I say equally important because it puts the lie to the argument that democracy is impossible in “Chinese civilization” and serves as a guiding light for the 1.3 billion Chinese who to this day continue to live under a regime that brooks no opposition. I wish I could have said more about this in my book, but as is often the case, it is only once a manuscript is with the publisher that one’s best ideas emerge. Maybe not ideas themselves, but rather a certain clarity about them.

I often wonder if that success, peaceful as it was, may not have come at a price, especially now when the old demons seem to be rearing their heads once again. Is it not impossible that by virtue of their tranquility, peaceful revolutions are not as readily acknowledged by the international community, in that they do not leave the indelible mark on global consciousness as, say, the violent overthrow of a dictator like Romania’s Nicolae Ceauşescu? Is democracy achieved through non-violence cheaper than that which was gained at the price of blood, of violence made real by the global media? Is it easier to ignore, or to dispense with, than its murderous, vengeful kind? And perhaps more importantly, are peaceful revolutions quickly forgotten by the authors and their descendants, the significance of their achievements played down by the fact that they provided no sudden gasp of violence? Is this why the world doesn't seem to care about Taiwan’s fate today? Are young Taiwanese today, who seem so apolitical and oblivious to the storm that is gathering around them, less aware of the importance of what happened in the 1970s and 1980s than people of the same age in, say, Guatemala, El Salvador, South Korea or Spain? Are young Taiwanese today interested when an old democracy activist like Peng releases a new book about his life under an authoritarian regime? Do they even know who he is?

So much for a newsperson’s precious one day off. Arvo Pärt is playing in the background. Time to let go, to turn the mind off for a few hours.


Taiwan Echo said...


Anonymous said...

I think most people remain blissfully ignorant of the political chaos going on around them. While the holocaust was going on many Germans remained clueless, at least partly by choice.

However, one cannot assume that just because people are walking around having a good time and not obsessing over politics that they are not willing to fight and die for democracy. My wife had to learn how to fire a rifle in high school as did all her classmates.

She would be more than willing to stand on the shore with a weapon to protect those she loves should the worst thing happen.

Tommy said...

My own opinion on this is that much of the reason Taiwanese choose to remain oblivious about the tell-tale signs of KMT reactionary activity and the continuing China menace is that the matter is tied to prosperity.

When times are good, the incentive is less to push for something better. And most people never know what they lose until they really lose it.

Take China, for example. Why is that venal regime still in power? Because the middle classes and the working masses are experiencing comforts that they have never known, and those comforts appear to be increasing every day.

Why are Chinese officials so adamant about telling everyone that they are having a V-shaped recovery (which is actually funded on bank lending which supports fixed-asset investment rather than on a more durable type of growth that can improve livelihoods in the long run)? It is a confidence game. The masses must believe that things will keep getting better.

Under Ma, the Taiwanese masses see a certain degree of stability still. The recession has been safely brushed onto the shoulders of the DPP, and the KMT is pushing the prospect of better times when the economy recovers. The Taiwanese have turned that page. Unless a structural problem emerges -- such as the possible decline of the Chinese market in about 10 years due to the emergence of higher costs, an aging workforce, a runaway demographic aging process, and increased water shortages -- Taiwanese will still feel pressure to tie their star to China and not rock the boat. And the Chinese masses will maintain their alliance with the CCP.

A talk with my Chinese teacher the other day gave me food for thought. He is about 60, and has vivid memories of the Cultural Revolution and many of the nastier aspects of the last half century. He also has decent knowledge of Chinese politics (but not Taiwanese).

He seemed genuinely worried that some sort of crisis would emerge during the reign of the next generation of Chinese leaders. His reasons for concern deal with the lack of loyalty that many feel towards these relatively unknown hand-picked guys as well as their inexperience. This, combined with what he sees as ever-increasing pressures in China could force some kind of change, whether good or bad.

Hu and Wen are all about stability, and they have the ability to maintain it for now. Ma taps into this somewhat. The masses under all of them are happy to buy in as well.

But can we project this stability onto the next 20 years? Many panda-huggers in Washington, and in the O administration, would like to think so.

I think that the next 20 years could get interesting. I just hope Taiwan doesn't sink in the process. Too bad Ma seems intent on poking a hole in the boat.