Saturday, March 13, 2010

Reaching out

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.


FOARP said...

1) Very few foreigners understand Taiyu, but if it genuinely is supposed to be the national language then any nationalist movement (which is what you are talking about) concentrating on 'nation building' should use it. Sinn Fein's use of Gaelic, Batasuna's championing of Basque, the resurrection of Hebrew by the Israelis, etc. - these are some of the better-known examples of a very common theme.

2) Why on earth do you think that foreigners should be the target audience for such a meeting? Young people yes, but why foreigners? The meeting is not taking place overseas, and whilst 'gaining international support' is one of the topics under discussion, surely what they mean by this is that the Taiwanese people must decide a new strategy for garnering such support. It looks, yet again, as if foreigners are more passionate about Taiwanese independence than the average Taiwanese person - especially when, given your description, somewhere between 10-20% of the people at the meeting were foreign citizens.

3) Similar to the above, why is pride of place at such a meeting given to foreign speakers - people who, as you describe them, cannot even speak the local languages well enough to properly communicate in them? If they are there to give advice on how to better attract support, perhaps it would have been better had they been people with a better understanding of Taiwan - at the very least speaking foreign languages at such a meeting does suggest that their knowledge of the place is not as rounded as it might otherwise be.

4. You're quite right about how harping on the same old platitudes has led people to switch off. Just as the pro-reunification camp turns people off by arguing the rightness of their position based on the events of 1895-1949, so similar arguments by the pro-independence camp have a similar effect. Arguments based on the current and future benefits of independence are far more likely to be persuasive than harping on about fantasies like Taiwan actually being US territory, and launching time-wasting law suits in the US in an effort to make this come true.

Dixteel said...

hmm...this is indeed interesting. My observation seems to be that in Taiwan the transition is much smoother between generations. But in the US probably less so, not sure.

However, I am sure younger people are participating. Just the degree and number is really difficult to determine. Could be a lot and could be very little. Demonstration might not be the best way to determine young people's attention to the current issue because from what I know some younger pro-Taiwan and political aware people don't go to the demonstration simply because they are not used to it, does not like the atmosphere or simply don't know how to participate. However, they might be contributing in other ways.

But indeed maybe more young people need to get more involved...When the older people become older, someone else have to take their places in the demonstrations at least.

Dixteel said...

Hmm...FOARP, I think your first point is debatable. Majority of Taiwanese speak Taiyu of course, and there is nothing wrong with using it in conferences. However, I am not sure about making it as a national language etc. There are other languages in Taiwan such as Hakka and aboriginal languages that should be respected. And some Taiwan independence supporters can only speak mandarin. So on this topic I think Taiwanese need more discussion before a decision can be made....

Alton said...

Take heart. The Wild Strawberries rocked Taiwan just over a year ago. A boring conference is not a lost dream. It's just a boring conference.

J. Michael said...

FOARP: I didn't say that the meeting should have been shaped in favor of "foreigners," but rather that it should have been held in a language that all can understand — that is, Mandarin. There are many young Taiwanese who, for one reason or another, don't speak Taiyu well but who are nevertheless in favor of Taiwanese independence, or even the "status quo." That's an important base, because while many do not support outright independence, they nevertheless fear what China is doing to the "status quo" and the future of the nation as they know it.

I would never imply that because there were four or five English speakers in the room that the whole thing should have taken place in English. How colonial that would be!

Also, if you want media coverage from international wire agencies, Taiyu is self-defeating because reporters were trained in Mandarin, but not in Taiyu. What good is that if efforts such as yesterday's can't be publicised? At minimum, efforts should be made to meet non-Taiyu-speakers half-way. This is something the DPP administration did rather badly from 2000-2008, and I see the old guard perpetuating that mistake.

Voyu Taokara Lâu said...

In my opinion, to both preserve the local language(s), and publicize the content of a conference like this, interpretation service (for the press, and anyone among the audience who needs it) should not be saved and ignored. However, this is such an important thing that few people in Taiwan have taken note of. Most of them just keep on arguing which kind of language should be used and can be used in a gathering. Sigh!

Stefan said...

Taiwan has a mixed population - there are many people here who are descendants of the soldiers who came over with Chiang Kai Chek. I think most of these would be in favor of independence too, the independence movement shouldn't exclude them. I don't think Taiwan can afford internal divisions like that.