KINMEN, TAIWAN, March 2008
As we saw images of China’s crackdown in Tibet this week, another rebellions Chinese province – Taiwan – risked the wrath of Beijing by asking voters to choose in a referendum whether it should apply to join the United Nations. China sees it as a hostile attempt at declaring independence and has – unusually – won the support of America in demanding that Taiwan backs off.
Taiwan, just off the east coast of China, was founded by the nationalist army defeated by Mao Tse Tung in 1949. It clung onto its UN membership until 1971 when the international community began to favour Beijing which insisted that governments could not recognise both.
But despite being left out in the cold, and China constantly threatening to military conflict, Taiwan has become a feisty democracy and one of the world’s most successful economies.
“He calls himself Maestro Wu, tall, thin gangly and absorbed in his workshop at the back of his store. Along one wall is welding equipment, lathes, sharpening blocks and along another stack upon stack of old artillery shells, caked with soil and rust, dug up from fields in the Taiwanese island of Kinmen – just a few miles from the Chinese mainland.
Between 1958 and 1978, China fired hundreds of thousands of shells onto Kinmen, and as a boy Wu Tseng Dong remembers spending days cowered in shelters. “It was really scary,” he says. “War isn’t like in the movies, you know. It’s very cruel.”
He snaps on a cigarette lighter, to start up a welding flame and carves a piece off a shell. Fifteen minutes later, he’s crafted a shining cooking knife, then tongue and cheek, he inscribes blade with War and Peace, with love from Mao Tse Tung.
“Should China say sorry,” I asked.
He pulled his protective glasses onto his forehead and eyed me strangely. “Why? If they say sorry, we have to say sorry. It was war. It’s time to move on and work together.”
There was a bustle of activity from the store, as two tour buses drew up, packed with Chinese tourists from the mainland, who were quickly queuing up to buy Maestro Wu’s knives.
At Kinmen’s small, modern airport, the TV screen showed unrest in Kosovo and more bombings in Iraq. Why had Taiwan been able to strip the past of emotional complexities, forgive and get on with life – when these other societies had not?
Before boarding the plane to the capital Taipei, the television showed the latest pictures of rioting in Tibet – one rebellious part of China portrayed as an oppressed victim of dictatorship, yet here was I in another that had somehow taken control of its destiny, whatever China had thrown at it.
Surely, for all of us, there were lessons to be learned, so back in vibrant, energetic Taipei, I put the question to J. C. Liao, who heads a Taiwanese multi-national company called D-Link.
“It’s about leadership,” he said. “Even when Taiwan was non-democratic, it was run by technocrats who understood that economic development and global trading was the only way to raise people’s living standards.
So in a microcosm, Taiwan’s equivalent to the Kalshnikov and car bomb, has become the internet wireless router. We were talking in a show room, shelves filled with gadgets that have become part of our everyday lives. D-Link and other Taiwanese companies hold up to ninety per cent of the global market – “Oh, and we make a most of them in China and that includes PC’s, note books. data cards,” said Mr Liao.
“So a new war,” I ventured, “would bring the world’s computer supplies to a standstill?”
“That’s right,” he said and as we played out the scenario of supplies drying up, communications ruptured, international supply chains severed, it made the banking Sub Prime crash look like a mere ripple.
The issue that China says could bring about war is if Taiwan officially declares independence. There’s the rub because banners strapped up around the capital urged people to vote ‘yes’ in a referendum for Taiwan to apply to join the United Nations. That’s like a red rag to a bull, dividing Taiwanese politics into two camps – the Kuomintang that eventually wants unification and the Democratic Progressive Party whose long term vision is independence.
But the added twist, is that America – backed incidentally by Britain – chose to intervene in Taiwan’s democracy by describing the referendum as ‘provocative’ and calling for Taiwan to cancel it. And that has prompted utter fury.
“They’re praising the people of Iraq for going to the polls,” argues Bi-Khim Hisao of the DPP. “Yet at the same time condemning us for offering a vote to our people on whether they want to be part of the international community. Let’s remember here, China is run by an authoritarian government, yet America is pointing its fingers at us for being provocative.”
The referendum was designed not to go through, but to put down a marker for the long-term future. Given that and the near-impossibility of any conflict breaking out, why has America, the proclaimed champion of democracy, tried to block democratic choice in Taiwan? It is, after all, a living example of what the US is trying to achieve in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.
“China’s being very clever,” explained Dr Chong Pin-Ling and expert in the China-Taiwan relationship. “It’s convincing Washington, Brussels and others that war could be imminent and using them to argue the case against Taiwan for them.”
“When everyone knows there won’t be war?”
He laughed loudly. “Oh yes. China decided that years back. America’s relationship has gone from containment to engagement and it’s now moved onto accommodation. China’s calling the shots now, and America’s doing its bidding.”