Saturday, August 22, 2009

Morakot two weeks on: ugliness and beauty

Typhoon Morakot revealed to the world that the central government in Taiwan was unprepared, disorganized and, on occasion, aloof, while demonstrating the unenviable political position in which Taiwan finds itself as a result of China’s territorial claim. Heads in the administration of President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) have rolled, though it is evident that the individuals who “offered” to resign (e.g., Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Andrew Hsia [夏立言] and Minister of National Defense Chen Chao-min [陳肇敏]) ultimately should not bear responsibility for the government’s failure to react in time, as the decisions that were not made — or that were made, but belatedly — rested with their superiors in the executive.

This buck-passing, used to shield the individuals at the very top, does not appear to have succeeded in deceiving the electorate and the media, however, as both continue to target Ma and his immediate aides for their criticism. In fact, even people who, under normal circumstances, are pan-blue supporters are crying foul over the government’s unwillingness to own up to its mistakes. A senior official at a well-established foreign academic institution in Taipei with strong connections to the Taiwanese government earlier this week commented on the Hsia case, basically saying that he’d known Hsia for 25 years, that he’s “a good guy,” competent, and would never have done the things he is now allegedly stepping down for. I have heard similar comments about Hsia by other people, including some who worked in the same agency. The ramifications this will have on continued support for the pan-blue camp — at least in its current iteration under the Ma leadership — remain to be seen; but one thing is sure: its image has suffered permanent damage, and there is no knowing if, at some point, some of the officials who have been unjustly forced to take the blame for the executive’s failings will not blow the whistle.

Still, it’s not all bad. While the government dithered and played politics, society hit the ground running and mobilized in commendable fashion, launching rescue efforts, raising funds and providing various kinds of support. Without proper oversight, this spontaneous outburst of generosity created overlap and may at times have been chaotic, if not wasteful, but there is no doubt that Taiwanese of all stripes cast aside politics, “ethnic” differences and the great north-south divide in this hour of need. In fact, compounded by government inefficiency, the argument could be made that Morakot rallied Taiwanese around the flag and brought people together far more effectively than any political rally by the pan-green camp could have hoped to achieve. A positive offshoot of this disaster, then, could be that the relative ease with which the Ma administration has passed agreement after agreement tying Taiwan’s economic survival to China — in effect turning economic integration into political integration — may no longer exist, and that opposition to his pro-China policies will henceforth be fiercer. The criticism of Ma that has suddenly materialized in foreign media, meanwhile, could also elevate the barriers he faces in his misguided quest for “peace” with Beijing. Though necessary when dealing with a regime such as that in Beijing, those hurdles had for the most part been absent. Hopefully, this will no longer be the case.

Also moving has been the foreign expression of solidarity, with numerous countries offering humanitarian assistance and individuals seeking to do their part. Just today, a number of Taiwan’s diplomatic allies — many of which are quite poor — organized a fundraising event in Taipei to help out. Many individuals, meanwhile, have sought to do something to help; groups of expatriates went south to participate in cleanup efforts, while others took photos, shot videos or reported on what was going on, helping to tell the story to the world. People abroad have approached the media and bloggers asking about which agency they should donate to. A friend of mine who works at the Liberty Times (my employer’s sister newspaper) was contacted by a Dutch friend who works in Hong Kong if a relief agency in Taiwan would be willing to help him out, as he was offering to fly over to Taiwan and volunteer for a week. In another instance, someone at my newspaper organized to have grapes cultivated by an Aboriginal community shipped to Taipei; no middle man: all the money will go back to that community to help with reconstruction. Many boxes were sold.

Amid the ugly politics that have characterized the past two weeks, many green shoots of love and altruism were seen, and we must cherish those. I’ve often heard people say that for some inexplicable reason, there’s a love story between individuals and Taiwan. Not only is it a sentiment that I share, but it has been in fully display over the past 14 days.

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