As the saying goes, you don’t choose books; books choose you. Rather than keep reading a book by National Security Council Secretary-General Su Chi (蘇起), which I intend to review for the Taipei Times, or distract myself with Murakami Haruki’s Wind-up Bird Chronicle, I spent my day off reading Simon Reid-Henry’s fascinating dual biography Fidel & Che: A Revolutionary Friendship, while enjoying Café Odeon’s fine selection of Belgian beers and perfect background music.
Why, on Sept. 11, 2009 — eight years after 9/11 and the day former Taiwanese president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) and his wife were receiving life sentences for alleged corruption — would I pick, or be picked by, a book about the Cuban revolution and the two individuals who spearheaded it?
That’s a good question. As I approach a burn-out, my mind wanders and needs to take a step back from Taiwanese politics — only to be drawn back in as parallels and analogies emerge in what would, ostensibly, be altogether different histories. As it turns out, Taiwan and Cuba — both island nations threatened and politically isolated by a larger neighbor — have quite a bit in common. I have lived in Taiwan for almost four years, and visited Cuba twice. Both countries have amazed me and won my admiration and love for their accomplishments in the face of great odds. While Taiwan eventually became a democracy, Cuba remains authoritarian, a system that replaced a right-wing regime propped by Washington.
What struck me, as I followed a young Ernesto Guevara and Fidel Castro become radicalized in the face of injustice, is that the revolution in Taiwan may not be over. After all, it faces an existential threat in China’s ambitions to annex it — and heaven knows that even if Taiwan has become a liberal democracy, its opponent remains radical and revolutionary at the core. Given this, can Taiwan afford not to be revolutionary as well? Can a democracy survive in the face of a far bigger undemocratic opponent? As the Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) administration and the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) forge ahead with their policies of tying Taiwan economically — and eventually politically — with a murderous and undemocratic regime, it might be time for Taiwan to see the emergence of its own Ernesto “Che” Guevaras and Fidel Castros, for it is becoming amply obvious that democratic means will not suffice. I regret to say this, but when a government rides roughshod on democratic principles in its quest to achieve political goals that do not have the sanction of the majority of the population, something must be done to correct the imbalance. Even Fidel, radical that he was, initially relied on opposition politics to change things, until the military coup by Fulgencio Batista obviated that recourse.
I am all for democracy. But on the eighth anniversary of the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington — the day I was starting my Master’s Degree in War Studies — I am convinced more than ever that extremism will arise if all other democratic venues have been extinguished. Extremism, or radicalism, as probably better applies to the two subjects of the biography I read today, is not its own raison d’etre; it is, rather, a means to counter injustice, and when democracy is ignored, or threatens to be undermined by external forces, it may not be entirely unacceptable for it to turn to more radical means to right wrongs or make itself heard.
Almost a year ago I was publishing a well-received article titled “Wanted: Angrier Taiwanese Youth,” which called on young Taiwanese to stop wasting their lives on video games, TV and other leisurely activities and to act in a meaningful way to ensure the survival of their beautiful country. Nearly one year has elapsed, and I have yet to see signs that what needs to be done is being done. Many have written to me, some have published excellent articles on their blogs or participated in colorful demonstrations against Ma, his cross-strait policies and the visit to Taiwan of Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait Chairman Chen Yunlin (陳雲林). But it ended there, while Taiwan continues to drift into the toxic embrace of the People’s Republic of China.
Where are the youth of action, those who give a voice to ideas? Fidel and Che were flawed characters, but they never ceased believing in the idea, and never shied from doing what was necessary to achieve what they believed in. Their accomplishments were far from perfect — I have seen this firsthand on my visits to Cuba — but there is reason to believe that, had they not acted, Cubans could be doing far worse today.
Chen was a flawed leader. But he is being sacrificed by a regime that cannot help but bend over backwards to please Beijing. As he and his wife face life behind bars, Beijing has successfully split Taiwanese Aborigines, turned Taiwanese against one another, while dealing as death blow to the only opposition party in Taiwan that makes the country worthy of being called a democracy.
The sadness I experienced eight years ago is still clear in my memory, the tons of concrete vaporized in downtown New York, the thousands of lives extinguished in an act of ultimate anger. I deplored the act, and in fact joined an intelligence agency to ensure that such extremes would never be carried out on Canadian soil. But I remember being even angrier at the fact that the world had ignored serious — and reasonable — grievances for so long that a group of individuals had felt it necessary to make use of such extremes to awaken us.
I certainly do not wish a 9/11 in Taiwan, or anything resembling a Cuban Revolution. But if the voice of the people continues to be ignored like this, and if Beijing continues to succeed in its plan to annex Taiwan one voice at a time, I fear that nothing less will be necessary.