Saturday, November 5, 2011

China, without all the paranoia

I recently returned from a trip to Taiwan as part of an American Young Scholars' Delegation. Pretending that I could still qualify as “young,” I joined ten other American scholars as a guest of Taiwan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) for a week of meetings and sightseeing.

The purpose of this trip was for Taiwan to introduce itself to a handful of foreign scholars who previously had little contact with Taiwan, but who were interested to see the country up close. About half of our delegation were China scholars, with the rest having interest in aspects of Taiwan's culture, politics or society related to their own research.

As is my custom, on the first morning after the trans-Pacific flight, I hit the streets for a quick run and my first look at Taipei as the sun was rising. The area around our hotel in Taipei felt much like parts of Hong Kong or Shenzhen: green and well-swept.

Whenever I run in China, I am accustomed to being either stared at or ignored, but I was surprised when two different people greeted me during my first run in Taipei. One security guard enjoying a cigarette gave me a big wave and a deep-voiced “ni hao.” Another middle-aged Chinese man greeted me with broad smile, a nod and an enthusiastic “good morning!”.

In hindsight, I guess I shouldn't have been so surprised by the openness and friendliness of strangers on the streets in Taiwan. Our entire itinerary was intended to impart that impression. Everywhere we went, we were greeted with openness and a willingness to answer all but the most sensitive of questions. (I'll forgive the Deputy Minister of Defense for not fully answering Katherine's question about Taiwan's strategy for defending the Taiwan-held Jinmen [Kinmen] island against an attack by the mainland.)

And while no one chose to dwell on the negative aspects of Taiwan's politics, no one shied away from the facts that fistfights have occurred on the floor of the legislature in the past or that Taiwan's former president now serves a prison sentence for corruption. Indeed, on the day we visited the Legislative Yuan, there was a protest taking place on the street out front. No problem for us though: we just went around back. We learned that Taiwan has been continuously developing its own democratic system for the past two-plus decades, and that, despite the occasional chaos, despite the international isolation, and despite the ever-present threat of big, bad China next door, Taiwan's people have a say in how their lives are run.

Contrast this trip with, well, every trip I have ever taken to China. While the average Chinese citizen can be as open and friendly in private as the average citizen of Taiwan is on the street, there is a stark difference in the general atmosphere. (And I'm not just talking about China's awful pollution.)

Though it is hard to describe in concrete terms, there is a heaviness in China that one feels as soon as one steps off the plane – a sense that one must be careful about what he does, what he says and where he goes. (And any Chinese government official reading this is saying to himself, “well, of course! That's how it's supposed to work!”)

Despite months and months of trying desperately to get even the lowliest bureaucrat on the mainland to discuss China's auto industry with me during my field research a few years ago, out of over 100 interviews, I only managed to interview a single government official. (Though I did talk to several people who work in government-controlled “NGOs”.) And among those whom I did manage to interview, only a few were willing to delve very deeply into the political forces that have shaped China's industrial planning. Even some expatriates with whom I met were scared to talk openly with me. (One expat even demanded that I return his name card after the interview!)

Another surprise during our trip came in our visit to the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), the de facto embassy of the United States in Taiwan. Having visited a few US consulates on the mainland, I thought I had an idea of what to expect, and indeed AIT had that familiar smell of an old church with a pot of coffee brewing somewhere. But our meeting with AIT officials (our Taiwan MOFA minder remained outside) revealed a surprising level of enthusiasm. In contrast with the bunker mentality I have encountered among bureaucrats at US consulates on the mainland, these folks made no attempt to conceal their enthusiasm, indeed, their advocacy, for Taiwan and all it stands for.

This is not to say that our entire trip was propaganda-free. After all, Taiwan, just like the mainland, also has an agenda. But unlike the mainland, that agenda doesn't include the continued rule of an unelected government, the stifling of free speech, the occupation of, or claim to, territories that do not wish to be a part of the larger whole.

What Taiwan wants is quite simple. They want the rest of the world to know how open and transparent their system is, how much freedom their people enjoy, and how much like the rest of the developed world Taiwan is. In short, the whole purpose of Taiwan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs is to run out the clock. To use a basketball analogy, the task of MOFA is to keep the ball in play, and to keep the other side from getting their hands on the ball. I think the best hope is that China will eventually change into something Taiwan wants to be a part of.

Taiwan has been effectively isolated in the world by China, but Taiwan's diplomats are doing the best they can to let the rest of the world know they exist and that they have a society worth preserving in its present state. And judging by some of the results, Taiwan's efforts are paying off. To cite but one example, the citizens of Taiwan now enjoy visa-free travel to 124 countries around the world compared to only 34 for citizens of the PRC. (I don't know how many countries US citizens can travel to visa-free, but I'm certain it's fewer than Taiwan's citizens enjoy.)

There are, of course, downsides to Taiwan's position. The question of whether Taiwan should declare de jure independence from China or adhere to the status quo dominates Taiwan's politics – to the extent that important domestic issues often fail to get the attention they deserve. National elections tend to be primarily about a candidate's position on cross-strait relations.

Also, there appears to be some confusion around identity in Taiwan, and this confusion revealed itself in some of the language used. What are the people who live on Taiwan supposed to call themselves? Are they Chinese? Are they Taiwanese? The former may be confused with citizens of the PRC. The latter may be confused with aboriginal people who lived on Taiwan for thousands of years before the mainlanders arrived with Chiang Kai-shek in 1949. One of our tour guides kept using the awkward-sounding term, “Taiwan people.”

When we visited the National Library, I noticed that their “Center for Chinese Studies” called itself “漢學研究中心”which could literally be translated, “center for the study of the Han people.” But again, this excludes the aboriginal people who have lived on Taiwan for millennia. And the Palace Museum (which is a must-see for anyone visiting Taiwan) contained mostly relics that had been transported from the mainland, and a history timeline of dynasties presented as if it were Taiwan's own.

I have no suggestions for how Taiwan should address these issues, and in fact, I'm not certain that these issues are really all that important compared to the existential issue Taiwan faces with the ever-present threat of an angry mainland. And the mainland, whose Communist Party has painted itself into a corner with its irredentist claims to Taiwan, really has no way out but to persist with those claims.

Nor do I have any suggestions for the US in its Taiwan policy, other than to stay the course, maintain ambiguity and occasionally ensure that the security balance doesn't tip too far in the direction of the mainland. Taiwan doesn't want to give up its freedoms; China doesn't want to give up Taiwan; and the US doesn't want to see any of its aircraft carriers sent to the bottom of the Taiwan Strait.

The Chinese may often wonder why this tiny island of 23 million people is so important to the United States. After all, Taiwan hasn't really been a democracy for all that long, and the US has much greater problems to deal with in trying to extract itself from Afghanistan and in restoring growth to its own economy.

But having now been to Taiwan and seen with my own eyes what it is all about, I have a better understanding. In the end, America cannot help but admire and support a budding democracy trying its best to resist a bullying, autocratic overlord. A little over 200 years ago, that was us.