This morning I attended the “Gaining International Support, Accelerate Taiwan’s Nation Building” conference organized by the World Taiwanese Congress at National Taiwan University Hospital’s convention center in Taipei. With guest speakers including former US diplomat John Tkacik and Nakajima Mineo, and opening remarks by Democratic Progressive Party Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) and Kaohsiung Mayor Chen Chu (陳菊), I had reasons to hope that the conference would provide new ideas to help Taiwan break out of its isolation and fend off Chinese encroachment.
Turnout was good, with perhaps 100 people showing up. The great majority of them, as always, were elderly Taiwanese, with perhaps 10 percent of attendees below the age of 40. Aside from Tkacik, the only foreigners in the audience were Austin University’s Donald Rogers, American writer Jerome Keating, Monash University’s Bruce Jacobs, and myself. Several Taiwanese-Americans or US-based Taiwanese were in attendance. Media coverage appeared to be limited to Public Television Service, which took some footage of Tsai and Chen.
After brief opening remarks — all in Taiyu, with the exception of Tsai’s, which were a mix of Mandarin and Taiyu — Tkacik gave his presentation, using both English and Mandarin, focusing mostly on history and providing as few anecdotes (by that time, Tsai and Chen had already left). This was followed by a brief question-and-answer session, which, like Tkacik’s presentation, didn’t yield anything groundbreaking. After a short break, Nakajima took the podium and delivered a speech in Japanese, with translation in Taiyu. After about 20 minutes of this, nearly one third of the audience was fast asleep, text messaging on their cell phones or, as Jacobs did to my right, reading newspapers. Nakajima was telling us that China and the US had entered a new cold war and that the turning point was the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989.
By 12:10, Don, Bruce and I had had enough and called it quits. Not before noting, however, that if such conferences can’t manage to captivate people who, like us, are interested about Taiwan and care about its fate, then there’s no way they will attract younger generations of Taiwanese upon whom the future of this nation depends. As I’ve mentioned before through my observations of demonstrations, I find it disheartening that there are so few young Taiwanese participating in political events that will affect the fate of their country. If the current leadership sticks to geriatric events such as the one I attended today, however, there’s very little hope younger Taiwanese will get involved. Putting them to sleep on a Saturday after a long week at school or at work won’t do it.
And for an event that supposedly focuses on gaining international support for Taiwan, focusing on the past, rehashing the same platitudes over and over again — and doing this in a language that next to no foreigners understand (with no simultaneous interpretation at hand) — will hardly make that come true.
The intentions were good, undoubtedly, and there were lots of good people in the room. But it was disappointing and somewhat depressing. At some point the old leaders will have to pass on the torch and help awaken young minds to the cause. Discussing the future, using engaging venues and speakers, and making the whole effort energetic — that’s what Taiwan needs. Youth need to be brought in, not excluded, and the old guard must start listening to the younger generation, something to which, I am told, there is a lot of resistance in the Taiwanese-American community and, I’m sure, in Taiwan as well.