Living in the shadow of Big Brother

Rita Payne reports on her recent trip to China’s tiny island neighbour which, undeterred by a host of challenges, still punches above its weight politically and economically

The ability of Taiwan to survive as an independent island state has long been questioned. It occupies a precarious position in the sea to the east of the Chinese mainland and is regarded as a rebel colony by its powerful neighbour.

Taiwan in its present form was established in 1949 by nationalists who fled to the island following the Communist takeover in mainland China. The Chinese Communist Party has repeatedly said it wishes Taiwan – known officially as the Republic of China – to be reunited with the rest of China and often threatens the island with shows of force, including live fire exercises and ‘practice runs’ of an invasion. In return, Taiwan is one of the most heavily-defended regions in Asia.

Despite these challenges, Taiwan has not only survived but flourished. It is a global leader in the production of semiconductors, which has helped it to grow into the world’s 23rd largest economy. Its citizens enjoy a high degree of individual and political freedom, while levels of poverty, unemployment and crime are low.

Diplomatic hurdles

The economic rise of mainland China has increased its diplomatic influence around the world, which it has used to block Taiwan from participation in the international arena. Taiwan has been denied even observer status at the United Nations, and Taiwanese passport holders are not permitted to visit UN premises. The same restrictions apply to the World Health Organisation and other global bodies.

Most of the time, Taiwan’s leaders try to avoid challenging or provoking China and aim to promote their own interests by building alliances with friendly countries. China’s response resembles the jealousy of a former partner who bullies rival suitors; Beijing threatens to cut links with any country that recognises Taiwan.

Shilin night market, Taipei
Shilin night market, Taipei

For most small economies, China’s displeasure is a terrifying prospect. Even the tiny Pacific nations of Kiribati and the Solomon Islands, once recipients of generous Taiwanese aid, recently severed links with Taipei as a result of pressure from Beijing. There are now only 15 countries with diplomatic missions in Taiwan, which, in return for such loyalty, rolls out the red carpet for the leaders of those few nations still offering support.

Taiwan can also count on allies within the political elite in the United States, although there are no official diplomatic links. Taiwan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Joseph Wu, recently told a group of visiting journalists from Europe he was confident that with Donald Trump in the White House, Taipei would still be able to rely on Washington’s staunch support. He reminded the reporters of the ringing endorsement by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who described Taiwan as a ‘democratic success story, a reliable partner, and a force for good in the world’.

Mr Wu also pointed to strengthening links with the EU, despite the lack of official diplomatic recognition. At the moment, the only European state which officially recognises Taiwan is the Vatican. This is mainly because of animosity between the church and Communist China, which officially advocates atheism. However, a thawing of relations between the Vatican and China appears to be taking place as Christianity is becoming more accepted on the mainland. Mr Wu acknowledged that if the Vatican were to pursue some sort of formal relationship with Beijing, this might have an impact on its links with Taipei.

On the margins

When it comes to vital medical, scientific and other key resources and information, Taiwan’s leaders complain that they miss out due to their exclusion from international meetings and organisations. A senior Taiwanese official cited the example of the SARS epidemic, which has still not been wiped out in Taiwan. Not being able to participate in the WHO means that Taiwan is prevented from gathering information on how to tackle the disease.

Science and technology

Nevertheless, Taiwan is positioning itself as a global leader in technology and science. It has three major science parks providing support to businesses and scientific and academic institutions.

As part of the delegation of foreign reporters, I travelled by high-speed train to Taichung, where we were taken on a tour of the Central Taiwan Science Park. This facility undertakes pioneering research on the development of AI and robots. The Speed tech Energy Company specialises in developing, producing, and exporting products based on solar power, from street lights and water pumping systems to cameras, radios and fans.

Located just outside Taipei, Chelungpu Fault Preservation Park, part of the National Museum of Natural Science, was established to commemorate the devastating 1999 earthquake which killed more than 2,000 people and caused billions of dollars’ worth of damage. The centrepiece is the original Chelungpu Fault, which triggered the quake. One of the park’s functions is to carry out research into the causes of earthquakes and ways to minimize their impact.

Tourism potential

The Taiwanese government is investing heavily in tourism with the aim of attracting more than 8 million tourists a year. Many come from Japan, as well as mainland China.

The capital, Taipei, is a bustling city. Among its many attractions are the National Palace Museum, which houses a collection of nearly 700,000 ancient Chinese imperial artefacts, and the National Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, erected in memory of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, former President of Taiwan. Bangka Longshan Temple, built in 1738 by settlers from Fujian during the Qing rule, is a Chinese folk temple that served as a place of worship and gathering for the Chinese settlers.

A more modern highlight is the Taipei 101 Observatory, one of Taiwan’s tallest buildings, with its spectacular panoramic views of the city. Most tourists also enjoy a visit to one of the lively night markets, riots of noise, colour and pungent aromas.

Eating out here is a joy, as Taiwan has an impressive range of high-end restaurants offering excellent international and local cuisine. As for hotels, they range from 5-star luxury to more modest choices for those on a tight budget. We stayed at Taipei’s sumptuous Palais de Chine, designed to combine the elegance and grandeur of a European palace with the reflective calm and serenity of the East. The Grand Hotel is another imposing building with historical significance: it was established in 1952 at the behest of Chiang Kai-Shek’s wife to serve as a base for visiting heads of state and other foreign dignitaries.

Sun Moon Lake

Taiwan and its outlying islands cover some 36,000 square km of forests, mountains and coastal areas, with well-developed facilities for enjoying outdoor activities and exploring historical sites.

After our hectic programme, it was a pleasure to venture out of Taipei to the picturesque Sun Moon Lake, where one wakes to a view of tranquil water ringed by hills thickly covered with trees and flowering plants, including bamboo, frangipani and hibiscus.

The area around the lake is home to the Thao people, one of more than 16 native tribes in Taiwan. According to mythology, Thao hunters spotted a white deer in the mountains and chased it to the shore of Sun Moon Lake. So impressed were they that they decided to settle there. Today, it is rather sad to see them reduced to performing traditional songs and dances for boatloads of tourists, but one can learn more about their history at the local visitor centre, which sells handicraftsand other items made by local people.

Taiwan’s uncertain future

Taiwan is physically and influentially a minnow compared to its giant neighbour, yet its people are fiercely protective of its hard-won democracy and civil rights. In the run-up to January’s presidential elections, the Taiwanese have been revelling in the cut and thrust of political campaigning.

Ultimately, one can only wonder how long Beijing will be happy to allow Taipei to position itself as a bastion of multi-party democracy and civil rights in East Asia, enjoying freedoms Chinese on the mainland can only dream about.


Rita Payne is President Emeritus of the Commonwealth Journalists Association, and former Asia Editor, BBC World News

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