Sunday, August 4, 2013

But, what about Taiwan?

For anyone interested in China, it is difficult not to be fascinated by Taiwan. A ‘country’ whose existence is defined by the struggle to uphold its identity as a separate, sovereign, state. It has been warding off attempts to be integrated with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) for over six decades now, but the struggle doesn't seem to have gotten any easier. Being in Taiwan, however, it is difficult to notice that. 

Taipei 101, the tallest building in the world between 2004 and 2010 flanked by other buildings

An evening out in Taipei

Evening traffic in Taipei
The bustling, colorful cities with busy streets where young people seem to take their fashion cues from the latest western trends and carry the latest gizmos, make you wonder about the existential question that has defined the Republic of China (ROC) – What about Taiwan? Will it exist as a separate state? Will it eventually be reintegrated? Does young people in Taiwan even care?  This is the question that kept coming back to me throughout my stay; it is the question I asked as many people as I could. I am not sure I have a definitive answer; I am not even sure there IS an answer. But what I have are some very curious perspectives, that no doubt, lend a peek into the way today’s ROC thinks, and perhaps the way tomorrow’s Taiwan will act.

What is their greatest concern?
Taiwan has benefited from industrialization and liberalization that started early. The economy doubled several times between the 1960s and 1980s. In the last few years, GDP has consistently grown annually between 4% and 6%, and in 2012 per capita GDP stood at over $20,000 in nominal terms, while that in the PRC was at  little above $6000. But Taiwan's problems are of a different kind. As a result of jobs moving to the mainland, salaries in the island have stayed stagnant for almost two decades, pinching the middle class the hardest. High house prices that refuse to come down mean the dream of owning a home will remain just that for most. The high cost of living has invariably led to a low birth-rate, which, despite a recent spike, remains one of the lowest in the world, pointing to a future with fewer workers to spurt either consumption or add to the workforce. 

Fewer young people to join the workforce every year
As a recent study found, the greatest worry for Taiwanese students, therefore, is selecting a career with a future, and finding a job that pays enough. Perhaps that is why in my conversation with young Taiwanese - those finishing school or those who have just begin college, the question of PRC-ROC relations usually elicited vague responses. They know about the issue for sure, but seemed to have other priorities. Some of the older people, those in their thirties and beyond, had more interesting observations. Many believe an eventual reintegration is unavoidable - few look forward to it, some are resigned to it. Some point at the economic cooperation and claim even if it happened, the cooperation would ensure it wasn’t a bloody one. I must add here, these responses mostly came about in the course of casual conversations, and I did not follow the methods required for a scientific survey. 

As I met more people, one trait stood out - people love their freedom and their right to voice their opinion, either in support or against policies of the government. Protests are organized near the presidential office almost every weekend; sometimes against use of nuclear energy, sometimes against trade agreements with the the PRC. 

Anti government demonstration in Taipei

Protesting against trade pact with the PRC - demanding ouster of the government

Street play in anti government demonstration in Taipei

Anti government demonstration in Taipei - protesting against a trade pact with China
What struck me about the protests against policies building closer economic ties to the PRC was the composition of the crowd - save the students that put up a street play on the issue, most in the crowd looked like retired people. Those who I spoke to, asking about the importance of the issue to young people - seemed divided; some lamented that the young simply did not care. Others however, had a more important explanation – they believed that the reason young people didn't spend much time on the issue of ROC-PRC relations, is because they were born and brought up in a Taiwan that had built a completely separate identity for itself. Raised in the time of peace, in a democratic set-up, they were so conscious of their political rights and freedom, being a part of the PRC was not even something they could comprehend.

The full import of this belief struck home yesterday - as thousands of students descended in central Taipei to protest the suspicious death of an army corporal. They were unhappy with the government's assurances, and wanted speedy action against the guilty. I could not visit the protest site as I was out of Taipei for most of the day. But late at night I saw astonishing pictures flash across tv screens - the young people of Taipei described variously as elusive and self-centered, out in the street, standing for a cause they could identify with - one of personal freedom and possible human rights violation.

Image courtesy: Taipei Times

Image courtesy: Taipei Times
Thousands - sitting in protest barely 100 yards away from the presidential office, raising slogans, demanding answers even while a large police force kept a tight watch, but did nothing to stop the peaceful demonstration. As I sat fascinated at the live pictures - it was suddenly clear to me what it meant to be a young Taiwanese. And why a young man/woman in the Republic of China could not see himself/herself as a part of the People's Republic of China. At least, not yet.

Deep Pal, M.A. in International Affairs, 2014
Sigur Center 2013 Summer Language Fellow
National Taiwan Normal University, Taipei, Taiwan.

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