Friday, September 18, 2009

Devil or Angel? The Lasting Legacy of
Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek in Taiwan

Adapted from
Asia Times Online
April 11, 2008

Taiwan's president-elect Ma Ying-jeou spent last weekend honouring his political ancestors: Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek and his son, the late president Chiang Ching-kuo. It's the latest move by Ma
and his Kuomintang (Chinese Nationalist Party) to polish the tarnished image of the Chiang dynasty and reinstall its name to public places and monuments. And it's meant to influence Taiwan's future by determining how people see its past.

By Stephen A. Nelson

TAIPEI - A new wind is blowing across Taiwan. And what many had hoped would be a breath of fresh air from president-elect Ma Ying-jeou may turn out to be a monsoon that brings the perfect storm of change.
To find out what direction the wind is blowing, one needs to look no further than Ma himself. Although he is praised as a pragmatist with a flexible attitude, critics have called Ma "a chameleon on a weather vane." And that weather vane now indicates that the "new wind" is a really blast from the past - a past when the Chinese Nationalist Party (Kuomintang or KMT) enjoyed one-party rule.

That's why Taiwan's current battle over the naming and renaming of public places and monuments dedicated to Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek is really a battle to determine Taiwan's future by determining how people see its past.

Kowtowing to Chiang
This past weekend, Taiwan celebrated the traditional Tomb Sweeping Day, a national holiday during which families visit their ancestral graves to pay respects to their forebears.

Coincidentally, it also happened to be the 33rd anniversary of Chiang Kai-shek's death. Not coincidentally, Ma - as the head of the KMT "family" - chose this day to visit two mausoleums in honour of his political ancestors: Chiang Kai-shek and his son and successor, the late president Chiang Ching-kuo.

Together the Chiangs ruled Taiwan for four decades - most of the time under brutal martial law. Chiang the elder ruled after the KMT's Republic of China got control of Taiwan's islands at the end of World War II. In 1949, after the KMT lost to Mao Zedong's communists in a civil war on the mainland, Chiang fled to Taiwan and held it as the last bastion of his regime.

When Chiang Kai-shek died in 1975, he was succeeded by Chiang Ching-kuo.

Chiang the younger has been presented in recent years as a "reformer" who benefited Taiwan by setting the groundwork for Taiwan's "economic miracle" and putting Taiwan on the road to democracy.

Critics, however, say that he was merely a pragmatist who acted to save the KMT and preserve its regime - the Republic of China on Taiwan.

So although those in the KMT have viewed his regime with great nostalgia, critics say that Chiang Ching-kuo was actually a more efficient and more brutal leader, having learned government at the knee of Joseph Stalin.

Chiang Ching-kuo died in 1988. Thirty years later, Ma Ying-jeou is set to become the first president since Chiang who was not born in Taiwan.

President-elect Ma Ying-jeou, not coincidentally, began his political career as Chiang Ching-kuo's English translator and secretary. He was promoted by Chiang Ching-kuo to become the youngest cabinet member in the history of Taiwan.

That would explain, in part, Ma's kowtowing to the Chiangs on Tomb Sweeping Day. And this just one week after his appearance at another Chiang landmark - the Taipei shrine formerly known as Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall.
What's in a Name?

Although Chiang Kai-shek's mausoleum (where Ma spent Tomb Sweeping Day) is actually outside of Taipei, it is the towering temple-like memorial hall in downtown Taipei that is truly Taiwan's answer to Vladimir Lenin's tomb in Moscow or Mao Zedong's mausoleum in Beijing.
The memorial hall is set like a glistening jewel in a palatial public plaza that is Taiwan's version of Red Square in Moscow or Tiananmen Square in Beijing.

In the main hall of the shrine sits a giant, bronze statue of Chiang Kai-shek, looking for all the world like a Ming Dynasty god-emperor. It is one of the largest bronze statues in the world, on a scale with the giant statues of Lenin in Moscow and Mao in Beijing.

In an effort to demythologize the Chiang legend, the current government of outgoing President Chen Shui-bian and his Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) recently renamed the shrine National Taiwan Democracy Memorial Hall. The name of the surrounding gardens was changed from Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Park to Taiwan Democracy Park. And the great public plaza was renamed Liberty Square.

The renaming was one of many controversial moves the DPP has made in the past year to distance Taiwan from its dictatorial past. Other moves include the renaming of Taipei's international airport that was for decades known as Chiang Kai-shek International Airport. It is now know as Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport.

Critics in the the KMT decried such changes as blatant political ploys by the DPP to drum up election support among its core voters by stirring up hatred of Chiang Kai-shek and the KMT.

But according to the pro-Taiwan Taipei Times (Taiwan's largest English-language newspaper), the anti-Chiang campaign was about something much deeper than an election victory.

In an editorial last December titled Let's feed Chiang to the historians, the paper said that the "destruction of Chiang's godlike status and the redefinition of his place in history are necessary parts of Taiwan's democratic transition, much like Spain's ongoing re-evaluation of late dictator Francisco Franco."

The paper went on to say that "Election concerns were of course one component in the government's decision to change the name Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall to National Taiwan Democracy Memorial Hall ... but these actions are also a part of the re-evaluation of Chiang's contributions and faults. These actions are an essential step in the process of lessening psychological trauma in this society."

The changes at the memorial hall have especially angered the KMT's old guard and their supporters, many of whom are "49ers" who arrived in Taiwan with Chiang Kai-shek's troops in 1949.
Led by Chiang Kai-shek's grandson, John Chiang, they have publicly protested the changes to the Chiang landmarks.

They have complained that Chen - a democracy-rights lawyer who fought against martial law - is a dictator. And they say that Chiang Kai-shek - a dictator who imposed martial law - is a hero who laid the groundwork for Taiwan's democracy.

For his part, Ma Ying-jeou has called the renaming of the memorial hall "illegal" and promised to revisit the issue when he becomes president in May. He has said that the name of the memorial could be changed back - and Chiang Kai-shek's great status restored - "if that's what people want."

Ma hasn't said which "people" he means to ask.

But by visiting the tombs of the Chiangs, Ma has certainly indicated which way he is leaning. And as usual with Ma, it's an indication of which way Taiwan's political winds are blowing.

Rewriting History - Again
To most historians, the Chiangs were ruthless dictators who ruled China - and then Taiwan - with an iron fist. In Taiwan alone, they were responsible for the deaths and "disappearances" of tens of thousands during the KMT's reign of terror (known as The White Terror) during the 38 years of martial law in Taiwan.

Some historians have put Chiang Kai-shek in the same category as Adolf Hitler, Stalin and Mao; noting that
Chiang admired and imitated Hitler, learned and borrowed from Stalin, and differed little from Mao. 

Certainly this is the view of the outgoing Chen and his DPP - a politician and a party born from the democracy movement that opposed the KMT's one-party rule in the 1970s and 1980s.

But during Ma Ying-jeou's visit to the Chiangs' mausoleums, Ma said that the Chiangs' actions are "open to discussion" and that their legacy is "open to different interpretations." And, he said, people are entitled to their own different views about the Chiangs.
"Their merits and faults can be discussed by historians but they left behind many important historical and cultural heritages which should be preserved," Ma said.

Ma may think that this is a matter for future historians to decide, but John Chiang and the KMT's
ancien regime have been emboldened by the party's one-two victories in the legislative and presidential elections. They are flexing their muscles by pressing for changes now.

Taking their cue from John Chiang, pro-KMT news media - which means nearly all of them in Taiwan - are polishing the tarnished image of Chiang Kai-shek and seeking to restore the damaged legacy of the Chiang dynasty. They continue to deify Chiang Kai-shek and portray him as a national hero, one who preserved Taiwan's freedom and laid the groundwork for economic miracle.

This version of the story has been eagerly picked up by foreign news agencies and repeated around the world.

An old proverb says, "Journalism is the first draft of history." If that's true, then the revised history of Taiwan is being written now. And it's a version of history we've seen before, when the KMT was writing the history books.

Dictator or deliverer?
So what are future history students to believe about Chiang Kai-shek? Was he a dictator or deliverer? A strongman or saviour?

"A lot depends on who you ask," said Taiwan expert Dean Karalekas, a Canadian journalist who lived and worked in Taiwan. "Was Chiang a strongman? Yes. But he was our strongman and it is important that we avoid the temptation to apply 21st century moral judgements to his actions," added Karalekas.

"The world was a different place then, and it operated under different rules," he said. "I'm not apologizing for him, but he has passed into history; and as a former student of history, I am hesitant to start judging its principal actors, of which Chiang certainly was one."

Another old Taiwan hand was less hesitant to judge: "[Chiang] was a dictator. If he delivered anything, it was a reign of terror to Taiwan," said Jeff Limburger, a Canadian who worked in Taiwan's news media for more than a decade and now works in Singapore. "Though to be fair, some of the people who were persecuted in the White Terror were also delivered by Chiang."

But even if Chiang was a strongman, was he also - as his supporters claim - the one who saved Taiwan by protecting it from the "communist bandits on the mainland"?

"Chiang Kai-shek did not save Taiwan," said Jerome Keating, author of several books including Island in the Stream: A Quick Case Study of Taiwan's Complex History .

"Taiwan, on the other hand, actually saved Chiang Kai-shek and the KMT. On the run from Mao Zedong's forces, they had no place to hide but Taiwan."


What saved Taiwan from Mao, Keating said, was that - in the beginning - Mao lacked the naval forces to cross the Taiwan Strait. The arrival of the U.S. Seventh Fleet, coinciding with America's involvement in the Korean War, sealed this fate: Mao and the communists on one side of the strait, Chiang and the KMT on the other side.
"Chiang Kai-shek and the KMT were lucky," said Keating. "Taiwan was not."

Necessary Evil?
But given the military conflict and the "Red Threat" from Mao's China, was martial law needed to maintain order? And was the White Terror (the KMT's reign of spies, disappearances, imprisonments and executions) a "necessary evil" to keep Taiwan "safe"?

"Martial law probably helped the government maintain control in
what would have been pretty tense and troubling times," said Limburger. "I can see how an alien power would have felt it was necessary to impose martial law in order to reduce the likelihood of domestic chaos as it contemplated how to retake its homeland."

"I guess from that point of view, you would call martial law a necessary evil," continued Limburger. "The White Terror, however - that was just evil."

Profits or Plunder?
But what about the claims that Chiang not only kept Taiwan "free" but rebuilt the economy after the losses of World War II? Did Chiang prosper Taiwan or plunder it?

Keating believes that the whole idea that "Chiang Kai-shek rebuilt Taiwan" is a fabrication, a myth.

"Chiang Kai-shek did not rebuild Taiwan;" he said. "In reality, he is the one who brought it to its lowest degradation."

The KMT and its historians have said that the "rape of Taiwan" took place during the Japanese colonial period, especially in the dying days of World War II.

But according to Keating,
the real denuding, pillaging and destruction of Taiwan was at the hands of the KMT in the final phases of China's civil war.

"Taiwan suffered tremendous destruction physically and morally. Taiwan was stripped of machinery, factory parts, materials, metals, foods, rice ... anything and everything that could be used to bolster Chiang's losing effort in China,"
Keating said.

And when the KMT retreated to Taiwan in 1949 and began rebuilding what they had destroyed?

"It was not because they loved Taiwan," he said, "but because they had no place left to go" and decided to "make a heaven of their hell" that they had created.

So three decades after Chiang's death, what are we to make of the recent changes that "smote the name of Chiang" from public places like Chiang Kai-Shek International Airport and Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall?
Were these just election ploys by the governing DPP?

"I don't think they were renamed in order to consolidate pro-independence support," said Limburger. "Deep green [pro-Taiwan, pro-independence] voters would have voted for the DPP candidate whether they got Chiang's head on a plate or not. I think it was actually a matter of principle. And the DPP were probably hoping that reversing the changes wouldn't be high on Ma Ying-jeou's priority list once he was elected."


But now, the pressure is on to restore the old name of Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall and Chiang Kai-Shek International Airport. Since Ma has promised to revisit the issue, will he wait until he is president and then change the name? Or push now for changes the old guard wants?

"I would be very disappointed to hear the hall and airport were renamed," said Limburger.

"Firstly, I don't think Chiang Kai-shek and his family deserve a public legacy. Secondly, I'd be disappointed in Ma. I really want to believe that he's actually a man of substance who will choose the sensible course over the politically expedient one every once in a while. If he caves on this one, it doesn't bode well for his presidency as a multitude of supporters and cronies push him to rush into China with open arms."

The Future of Democracy
But if Ma does give in - as many expect he will do as soon as he's sworn in - and the old names and Chiang's monuments are restored, what does all this say about Taiwan's democracy?

One person worth asking is Linda Gail Arrigo. Today she is a sociology professor at Taipei Medical University and spokesperson for Taiwan's Green Party. But three decades ago, known by her Chinese name Ai Lin-Da, she was one of the most recognizable foreigners in Taiwan.

During the martial-law era,
Arrigo was intimately involved in Taiwan's forbidden democracy movement and took part in the demonstrations that led to one of the country's most infamous military crackdowns: the 1979 Kaohsiung Incident, also known outside Taiwan as the Formosa Incident.

Arrigo's husband, future DPP chairman Shih Ming-de, was singled out as one of the ringleaders and sent to prison. For her part in challenging the KMT, Arrigo avoided prison but was deported to the United States.

At the time, Chiang Ching-kou was president.

For people like Arrigo, the sight of Ma Ying-jeou kowtowing to the Chiangs is an ill omen. "Even if the names [of the memorial and the airport] aren't changed back, a chill 'Blue' wind is blowing, just because Taiwanese automatically buckle down to please the new authorities," said Arrigo.

In Taiwan's colour-coded politics, blue is the colour of the KMT and its old-guard, pro-unification allies. Arrigo clearly thinks that the whole country is bending with the KMT wind - and that will mean a setback for those who have fought so hard for democracy in Taiwan.

"I think it is quite possible that there will be actual backpedaling on police issues and freedom of speech, but it will probably be subtle," Arrigo said.

And what about Ma Ying-jeou himself?

"Let's see how Ma faces the frying pan," Arrigo said. "But I expect the matter now is not really Ma as an individual, but the old evil style of the KMT."

Stephen A Nelson is a Canadian freelance journalist now based in Toronto but with one foot still in Taiwan. For eight years he worked as a journalist in Taiwan, including two years at the Taipei Times newspaper. He was also a broadcaster at Radio Taiwan International, where he produced Strait Talk – a weekly program about Taiwan and its place in the world.

What readers said about this story:
As an overseas Taiwanese I praise Stephen A Nelson's article Devils and angels in Taiwan. Ma Ying-jeou's KMT [Kuomintang party] with big help [from] the People's Republic of China, and perhaps many short-sighted Taiwanese and America's George W Bush administration as well, have defeated [the Democratic Progressive Party] overwhelmingly in Taiwan.
Taiwan's political troubles are comparable with those of Ukraine and Estonia, which have to deal with a big "race" problem. While in Taiwan last March during the presidential election, I encountered a China-born "Taiwanese" citizen who proclaimed, "China has so many people, what's wrong [with] killing some Tibetans?"
Tan Lim
Canada (Apr 14, '08)

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Taiwan's Return to Dark Days?
You be the Judge

By Stephen A Nelson
Asia Times Online
January 17, 2009

TORONTO, Canada - In a world rife with deadly terrorist strikes in India, anti-government riots in Thailand and civil wars in the Middle East, it may be hard for the rest of the world (even in Asia) to see Taiwan's struggle for democracy as anything more than a tempest in a China teapot. And certainly a worldwide economic crisis has eclipsed concerns for Taiwan's future as a separate state with de facto independence from China.

For many "China experts", last year's return to power of the old Chinese Nationalist Party (Kuomintang or KMT) in Taiwan was seen as a return to peace, order and good government by Taiwan's natural governing party. The restoration of the ancient regime was largely hailed as a good thing in Beijing, Washington and the international community.

To them, KMT President Ma Ying-jeou has "the right stuff". And the new trade and transportation agreements with China are viewed as "one small step" for Taiwan but "a giant leap" for regional peace and prosperity - despite consternation from Japan.

Even the KMT government's raft of arrests, detentions and imprisonments of senior Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) officials - especially former president Chen Shui-bian - is seen as a campaign designed to root out corruption and bring evil-doers to justice.

But other Taiwanese and critics say that Ma and his inner circle of senior KMT officials - most of whom have close ties to China - have made too many concessions and have already surrendered Taiwan's sovereignty to Beijing.

The critics say that Chen's imprisonment - and the arrests of many other DPP officials in the past months - bears all the hallmarks of a political witch-hunt. To them, it looks like a KMT campaign meant to silence political opposition to its aggressive pro-China policy - and to settle old scores with Chen Shui-bian and the DPP.

According to the highly regarded Taiwan Communique, these concerns "arise from popular fear that Ma's government, which has allowed a reactionary KMT to set policy, is ready to turn the clock back to the martial law-era if it will advance its goals and please its negotiating partners in Beijing. In addition, there is popular discomfort over the egregious lack of accountability and transparency in the secretive party-to-party negotiations that Ma and Beijing are pursuing in contradiction of Taiwan's own laws and constitution."

This has resulted in an ongoing war of words in the international press between the KMT government and those concerned with human rights and democracy in Taiwan.

In November, a coalition of human-rights, judicial reform and social movement organizations - including the China Rights Network and Taiwanese Human Rights Association of Canada - accused the KMT of "pulling Taiwan's human rights standards down to the level of the People's Republic of China (PRC)”. In an open letter published in several newspapers, the coalition cited suppression of protests during the visits to Taiwan of Chinese officials. They also complained about the apparent persecution of Chen Shui-bian, his family, and other DPP officials.

Also in November, similar criticism came from a group of 20 leading American, Canadian and Australian experts on China and Taiwan - including Nat Bellocchi, Washington's former de facto ambassador to Taipei. The group said the recent acts by the KMT administration resembled "the unfair and unjust procedures practiced during the dark days of martial law".

In particular, the experts said that the persecution is obvious because "only DPP officials have been detained and given inhumane treatment such as handcuffing and lengthy questioning, while obvious cases of corruption by members of the KMT - including in the Legislative Yuan - are left untouched by the prosecutors or at best are stalled in the judicial process".

In their joint statement, the scholars and journalists complained that the KMT was using the judiciary - the legal system of prosecutors, investigators, judges and courts - to persecute political opponents.

"We also believe that the procedures followed by the prosecutor's offices are severely flawed: while one or two of the accused have been formally charged, the majority is being held incommunicado without being charged. This is a severe contravention of the writ of habeas corpus and a basic violation of due process, justice and the rule of law," the experts said.

And, they protested, "the prosecutor's offices evidently leak detrimental information to the press. This kind of 'trial by press' is a violation of the basic standards of judicial procedures. It also gives the distinct impression that the Kuomintang authorities are using the judicial system to get even with members of the former DPP government."

This prompted a counter offensive from the government, which has accused the petitioners of getting their facts wrong.

In two open letters - published in English and Chinese - Minister of Justice Wang Ching-feng insisted that Taiwan is a country where rule of law pervades. She said that the arrests and detentions of Chen Shui-bian and others are legal and necessary to prevent them from colluding with co-conspirators, destroying evidence or fleeing the country.

In the first letter, Wang wrote, "We in the Ministry of Justice ... want to reassure those who are concerned about Taiwan, including those who wrote and signed the open letter, that there will be absolutely no erosion of justice in Taiwan, no matter who the accused is."

In the second letter, Wang insisted that the judiciary is acting independently from any political influence and stressed that President Ma Ying-jeou is not interfering with the legal process.

"Therefore, the allegation of prosecutorial bias against the DPP is entirely baseless," she said. "All of our prosecutors, without exception, are under the supervision of the prosecutor-general. There can be no doubt that our public prosecutors endeavor to prosecute crimes and protect the innocent while respecting due process."

But Taiwan watchers remain skeptical. Among them is Dean Karakelas, a Canadian journalist and political scientist who lived in Taiwan for eight years.

"Twice now, respected international scholars have signed an open letter pointing out bias in the actions of the ROC judiciary, and twice now the Justice Minister has responded defending the legality of its actions," said Karakelas.

"Let's be clear: it is not the legality that is being contested, but the morality. It is easy for a party that controls all five branches of government to make all its actions legal," he said. "But if the current ROC government wants foreign journalists to stop reporting on its unethical and undemocratic behavior, it is going to have to do more than point out how eminently legal these immoral persecutions are: it is going to have to behave responsibly, transparently and with respect for the principles of democracy."

And many familiar with Taiwan's realpolitik say that Wang Ching-feng's counter-offensive misses the point, because President Ma Ying-jeou is not pulling the strings - but his old guard KMT comrades are.

"I am very concerned about the judicial happenings," said Bruce Jacobs, director of the Taiwan Research Unit at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. "I'm not convinced this is being orchestrated by Ma. More likely, if it is being orchestrated, it is coming from [KMT chairman] Wu Poh-hsiung and [honorary KMT] chairman Lien Chan."

Others would add the name of another conservative force in the KMT: former governor of Taiwan province James Soong.

But if that's true, how would the KMT control the judiciary anyway?

"Taiwan has never had true transitional justice," said Jerome Keating, author of several books, including Taiwan: The Struggles of a Democracy. The KMT has always controlled the Legislative Yuan and through that the appointments to the Control Yuan [the body governing the judiciary]."

Keating said that during the Chen years, KMT legislators stifled the Control Yuan "allowing no appointments and thus paralyzing that body".

As a result, the vast majority of judges in Taiwan - especially senior judges - came up through the old political vetting process during the martial law era and is profoundly pro-KMT. In short, they were appointed by (and beholden to) the KMT.

Michael Turton, host of the highly regarded website The View From Taiwan, concurs. "Judges become judges by passing a fiendishly difficult exam which they devote all their time to, and they lack experience of the world and social and political maturity," he said.

If that's true, should the trials of Chen Shui-bian and others come as a surprise? And is Taiwan really returning to its dark days of martial law?

"Yes, I am surprised, but not totally," said Jacobs. "I would not phrase it [that way], as Taiwan has clearly not returned to the bad authoritarian past."

But, Jacobs noted: "The two institutions that have been slow to democratize are the judiciary (including the prosecutors) and the media."

Karakelas also disagrees with the idea that Taiwan is slipping back into a dark night of martial law. "Although the events taking place under Ma's watch are undeniably undemocratic, he is inadvertently doing the DPP a huge favor," he said.

What's more, Karakelas said, the anti-democratic moves of the KMT may spark the rebirth of a pro-Taiwan, pro-democracy DPP.

"By taking the steps he is taking, Ma's KMT is forcing the DPP back into its old role as rebellious, persecuted protest party," said Karakelas. "He's turning them back into guerrillas. [The DPP] was originally formed as a force to oppose the KMT's one-party rule ... and it lost its path when it took the reins of power. Ma is pushing the DPP back to a position in which it is comfortable, and where it operates best."

Karakelas is among those who point out that many in Taiwan voted for Ma Ying-jeou because Ma was supposed to represent a break with the KMT's past. Yet three prominent members of that martial-law era regime - former vice president Lien Chan, former governor James Soong and current KMT Chairman Wu Poh-hsiung are part of Ma Ying-jeou's inner circle.

So what does this say about Ma's leadership and who's really running the country?

Karakelas and others say this demonstrates that either a) Ma is too weak to resist the temptation to wield his executive power in undemocratic ways, or b) that the KMT is still inherently incapable of operating in a democratic, multi-party system.

"Like it or not, Ma is engaged in a zero-sum game: rapprochement with China must inevitably be paid for by sacrificing some of the freedoms that Taiwanese people have fought hard for," said Karakelas.

Karakelas said that the real problem is not "how will Ma balance the loss of civil liberties on one side and closer relations with China on the other side"? The real problem is "at what point will Ma lose control of his balancing act"?

In fact, Karakelas said, "Ma isn't in control, even now, of the balancing act, and that what we're really accusing him of is failing to rein in the more conservative forces within the KMT that are running wild - both in terms of political persecutions at home and abroad making rogue deals with China."

Jacobs also seems think that Ma is not really in control - and that the KMT old guard is.

In an editorial in the Taipei Times last fall, Jacobs noted that "the KMT still remains unreformed, but party reform has become even more urgent".

In the editorial, Jacobs said, "The KMT center, and not the Democratic Progressive Party, has become the most important opposition to the Ma government." Jacobs cites open rebellion from KMT legislators, as well as harsh criticism of Ma appearing in pro-KMT newspapers - as well as on the KMT's own news website, KNN.

Jacobs went on to say that the only solution was for Ma to move out the old conservative men in the KMT and take the reins himself.

Jacobs concluded the editorial by saying, "Clearly, gaining control of the KMT is much more than a domestic matter. And it is vital to the maintenance of Taiwan's democratic health. President Ma, please act soon!"

In the meantime, former president Chen Shui-bian is back in jail until his trial. There he will stand accused by special prosecutors who have vowed to get results. And he will be tried by a KMT appointed and approved judge - Taipei District Court judge Tsai Shou-shun - that critics say has already made up his mind that Chen is guilty.

Or, as the English-language Taiwan News put it: "Besides being reminded of former KMT secretary general Hsu Shui-teh's famous admission that 'the courts belong to the KMT', the script being followed should be familiar to anyone who observed politics in Taiwan during the KMT's decades of authoritarian or one-party dominant rule. Namely, if the KMT loses based on the existing game rules, it ceases to follow the rules or rewrites the rule book."
On his website, Turton wrote that this turn of events makes it clear that the trial of Chen Shui-bian is a political persecution. "Even the dullest spectator can understand a kangaroo court," he says.

"It's ironic - a fair trial with competent judges and prosecutors would have almost certainly resulted in a conviction - but now that the KMT has removed judges it doesn't like and played havoc with the prosecution and the trial process, it has tainted any conviction obtained," Turton said.

So what then is the future of Taiwan's struggle for democracy?

For years, under Lee Tung-hui, and later Chen Shui-bian, Taiwan's government enjoyed a positive reflection in the international press, with the possible exception of Xinhua. "The nation's commitment to human rights, democracy, civil society and transparency were hailed as groundbreaking," said Karakelas.

"The current government of Ma Ying-jeou should not be surprised that this positive reputation is being soiled. It has been scrambling to silence the reporters and commentators that report on its undemocratic behavior. It should be aware that Western journalists are not as easily intimidated as those in Taiwan," he said.

But what about in Taiwan? What will be the fate of the democratic movement?

"It's been said that the very powerful and the very stupid have one thing in common,” said Li Sai Fung, a former radio broadcaster in Taipei. “Instead of altering their views to fit the facts, they alter the facts to fit their views - which can be very uncomfortable if you happen to be one of the facts that need altering.”

For the KMT old guard, said Li, "Chen-Shui Bian and the DPP is one of the facts that needs altering."

Stephen A Nelson is a Canadian freelance journalist now based in Toronto but with one foot still in Taiwan. For eight years he worked as a journalist in Taiwan, including two years at the Taipei Times newspaper. He was also a broadcaster at Radio Taiwan International, where he produced Strait Talk, a weekly program about Taiwan and its place in the world. He welcomes professional enquiries.

Taiwan's President Ma Ying-jeou
weathers typhoon fallout

By Stephen A. Nelson
Asia Times Online

TAIPEI - In what looked like a game of political lifeboat, Taiwan's premier Liu Chao-shiuan resigned late last week - after the government was heavily criticized for what media reports called a "slow, incompetent and uncaring response" to last month's Typhoon Morakot.

And in this game of lifeboat, there are those who say Liu jumped - and those who say he was pushed.

"Of course President Ma Ying-jeou wanted him to quit," said Li Wai, a television producer who supported Ma in the last election but who now has her doubts about the man many people have labelled "the Teflon president".

"Ma will not tell you what he wants - still he will expect you to do it," said Li.

Such criticisms are becoming more common in Taiwan, even in pro-Kuomintang (KMT) - the island's ruling party - media, in the aftermath of Typhoon Morakot.

Typhoons are a regular occurrence in Taiwan. And each year the country gets hit by several such tropical storms. People are usually prepared for the worst. But in the wake of last month's Typhoon Morakot, parts of southern Taiwan received more than three meters of rain - three times the average annual rainfall - in just three days. This was in areas of Taiwan already made landslide-prone by earthquakes, harmful irrigation practices and devastation of natural forests cut down to make way for cash crops such as betel nut trees.

The number of dead and missing is now put at more than 700, after landslides buried villages, destroyed bridges and wiped out roads - mainly in southern Taiwan, and largely in aboriginal communities.

When Liu announced his resignation on September 7, he told reporters that someone had to take political responsibility for the death and destruction. As the country's top administrator, he said, that someone had to be him.

Less than an hour after Liu's announcement of resignation, Ma announced he would be replaced with Wu Den-yih - secretary general of Kuomintang. Another KMT stalwart, Eric Chu, was named as the new vice premier.

When Liu resigned, he was expected to take his entire 42-member cabinet with him. And indeed, the cabinet did resign en masse. But by the time the new premier Wu Den-yih named his new cabinet on September 10, only a handful of ministers had been tossed out of the lifeboat. Most of the ministers who had resigned with Liu were back in the cabinet with Wu. Critical changes include:

  • Shi Yen-shiang, chairman of China Petroleum Corp, Taiwan's biggest oil company, was named the new economics minister.

  • Tsai Hsung-hsiung, a minister without portfolio, took over from Chen Tain-jy as head of Taiwan's economic-planning council.

  • Former Veteran's Affairs Commission director Kao Hua-chu, an experienced and highly regarded military leader, was named the new minister of national defense.

  • Taiwan's representative to Indonesia and a former de facto ambassador to Australia, Timothy Yang, is the new foreign minister.

  • Former minister of the interior, Liao Liou-yi, is the new secretary general of the Presidential Office. Former chairman of the Research, Development and valuation Commission, Jiang Yi-huah, is the new interior minister.

    Critical areas where there is no change included Finance Minister Lee Sush-der and Mainland Affairs Council chairwoman Lai Shin-yuan - both of whom were reappointed to their posts.

    In responding to the cabinet shuffle, most international media reports focused on what effect the moves would have on Taiwan's relations with China, rather than what difference they would make to the people in Taiwan and how they would affect them.

    Ma's game of lifeboat was seen as "a move that is unlikely to alter the administration's pro-China policy". And it was reported that "most analysts see no significant changes in President Ma Ying-jeou's foreign, economic or China policies emerging from the new cabinet".

    Western media reports noted, "Taiwan's leaders typically replace top officials in response to criticism of the government." They said that Ma's predecessor, Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) leader Chen Shui-bian, "changed premiers six times in eight years, seldom causing alarm".

    Western media reports noted the reasons for the moves as Ma exercising damage control after what was seen as "his inability to take responsibility for a poor response to the emergency".

    Over the past few weeks, there has been considerable, pointed criticism in the press, especially over the typhoon's unusually high casualty rate. The critics argued that:

  • The government had failed to order evacuations before the storm hit.

  • People were not given enough warning to get out of the way of the mudslides.

  • The government was not prepared, even though typhoons and mudslides are a regular occurrence in Taiwan.

  • The government refused offers of aid from foreign countries because it didn't want to look like it was acting like a real country that was separate from China.

  • When the aid did come, it was too little and too late - especially when compared to how quickly and easily Ma's government got aid to their "Chinese brothers" after the earthquakes in Sichuan province last year.

  • Responding with "shock and awe" tactics, the KMT's solution has been to set up a commission - composed of central government officials and representatives of powerful corporations, without a single aboriginal member - to oversee the move of aboriginals off their ancestral lands and "voluntarily relocate" them to other, safer locations that are less prone to landslides.

  • Most of all, Ma and the KMT have been unfeeling, uncaring and petulant toward southern Taiwan and the people - mostly ethnic Taiwanese and aboriginals - who lived there.

    Jerome Keating, author of Taiwan, the Struggles of a Democracy, said this came as no surprise from a president whom Keating claims had constantly passed the buck.

    "A week after the destruction of the typhoon with the yet to be realized response of Ma's government, Ma had resorted to the blame game. First it was the Central Weather Bureau's fault for not giving a strong enough warning to prepare for the typhoon. Then it was the local magistrate's fault for not solving the problem, despite the fact that they had had no budget from the central government. Then it was the people's fault for not getting out of the way of the floods," Keating said.

    "The people - in Ma's words - were not as 'fully prepared' as they should have been. In the end, it was just about everyone's fault except Ma's. After all, he is only the president," Keating said.

    Ma did visit the affected areas - although only after a delay; he did publicly apologize, and he has ordered a public investigation into what went wrong in preparing for the typhoon and in dealing with the disaster.

    Still, foreign media reports have certainly pointed out that in the cabinet reshuffle - and in letting Liu take the fall - there is both damage control and buck-passing.

    And while the cabinet change was expected, indeed demanded - does it really address the criticisms directed at the government - especially those directed at Ma?

    The consensus in the media and with political analysts seems to be "no" - and that it was never really meant to. It's really meant as medicine to ease upset Taiwanese stomachs and make them feel better, so that the government can get on with business.

    "Reshuffling won't deal with the problem," said Keating. "Wu is a good old boy, more of the same."

    Liu Bih-rong, a professor of political science at Soochow University, seemed to agree: "The people had a lot of pent-up anger over the response [to the typhoon]," he said. "Ma panicked and for a while he lost direction as he tried to do damage control. Now with the reshuffle and as people have calmed down, he can put it behind him and refocus on China and economic issues."

    Indeed, media reports noted "the change from Liu to Wu is unlikely to cause many major waves, as power in this country largely rests with the president rather than the premier".

    What the reshuffle will do, analysts said, is consolidate power with Ma. Wu and Chu are ranking KMT members, while Ma is ready to reclaim his crown as chairman of the KMT.

    The Taiwan News, for example, noted that both Wu and Chu "will surely be more decisive in crisis management or disaster response than their technocratic predecessors". But, the paper added, Wu and Chu are "also deeply linked with local KMT and financial factions".

    So while Ma is not all alone in the lifeboat, he is definitely more in command. But will the reshuffle help the KMT in local elections later this year?


    Certainly the disastrous response to the typhoon seriously damaged the reputation of the good ship KMT, so throwing unpopular members overboard and taking on some new crew members can't hurt.

    Keating is among those who thinks that much will depend on the ability of the opposition DPP to exploit this weak link in the KMT's chain.

    But, observers note, elections in Taiwan tend to be won in two places: in the media and on the ground with local community organizations. And, the KMT has many friends in the media. Also, in many cities and towns, the KMT has more ground troops and is better organized than the DPP. Even where it does not have more local troops (in southern Taiwan, for example) the KMT - as one of the richest political parties in the world - has a much bigger war chest.

    But will the reshuffle, as some experts have already suggested, help Ma in his bid for re-election in 2012?

    Maybe not. As noted earlier, even some KMT-owned media have been openly critical of Ma. And foreign media seem far less enchanted with someone they practically fawned over just 18 months ago.

    In an article on the East Asia Forum web site, J Bruce Jacobs, director of the Taiwan Research Unit at Monash University in Melbourne, summed up the reaction this way, "In many ways, Hurricane Katrina destroyed the presidency of George W Bush. Quite possibly, Typhoon Morakot will destroy the presidency of Ma Ying-jeou."

    Li Wai put it another way, "Before he became president, we expected - we hoped - that Ma Ying-jeou would be a good president," she said. "Now we know he is not."

    Li Fong-yi, a Taipei office worker who voted for Ma last time, was less gracious: "Actually, we knew Ma Ying-jeou would not be a good president, but we had no choice," she said. "Frank Hsieh [Ma Ying-jeou's DPP opponent] came with too much baggage from the DPP."

    Stephen A Nelson is a Canadian freelance journalist now based in Toronto but with one foot still in Taiwan. For eight years he worked as a journalist in Taiwan, including at the Taipei Times newspaper and at Radio Taiwan International, where he produced Strait Talk - a weekly program about Taiwan and its place in the world.

  • Friday, June 26, 2009

    Pacific Paradise: Taiwan's Offshore Islands
    Kinmen, Matsu, Penghu and More

    Welcome to Paradise
    By Stephen A. Nelson

    Imagine a place where the turquoise ocean waters are crystal clear and the daytime skies are cobalt blue. A place where you can lie in the white sand and soak up the sun or bathe in the warm waters surrounded by the kaleidoscope of tropical fish that inhabit the coral reefs.

    In the afternoon, you can wander through picturesque fishing villages where centuries old cultural traditions are as alive today as they were a hundred years ago.

    At night, you lie on the rocks and gaze up at the clear sky stretched out like an endless black canopy studded with countless stars.

    To some, this would be an unattainable paradise. For you, however, it is as close as the offshore islands of Taiwan. To get there, all you need is a map and a plane ticket. But when you arrive, you’ll feel like you’ve died and gone to heaven.

    In big cities, high-rise buildings, city lights and urban haze can often obscure our view of Nature’s wonders. But when you come to Taiwan, you'll discover why early Portuguese explorers called this place the Ilha Formosa, “the beautiful island.” And when you visit our offshore islands, you’ll never want to leave.


    Sometimes people forget that the country of Taiwan is not just one island — it’s a group of islands, including not only the main island but also several smaller islands in the Taiwan Strait and the Pacific Ocean.

    Taiwan is right on the Pacific Ocean’s “Ring of Fire” — the fault line where the Euro-Asian and Philippine continental plates meet. It’s this unique geography that has sculpted the dramatic landscape and extremely diversified natural environment on Taiwan’s main island.

    But this fiery force has also created the diverse and individual personalities of Taiwan’s offshore islands. From the mountains of Kinmen and Matsu off the coast of China, to the ocean hot springs of Green Island in the Pacific, each island has its own unique scenery, history and culture. And each offers its own version of paradise.

    The main offshore islands are:

    • The Penghu Archipelago (also known as the Pescadores)
    • Green Island (once known as Fire Island)
    • Orchid Island (also known as Lanyu)
    • Kinmen (also known as Quemoy)
    • Matsu Islands (traditional home of the Goddess of the Sea)
    • Turtle Island
    • Little Liuqiu

    Each of these places has it own unique scenery and culture, where the land has shaped the people — and where the people, in turn, have shaped the land. As a result, the scenery and culture on each island is as unique and diverse as the people and the land themselves. Therefore, each island offers you something different. Whether you’re here to go sightseeing, souvenir shopping or snorkelling — and whether you’re interested are in our history, our culture or our natural wonders — there is something here for you.


    Taiwan is separated from China by the Taiwan Strait (Formosa Strait). The character of all the islands within these windswept straits is quite different from Taiwan’s main island. Where Taiwan can be mountainous and urbanized, the offshore islands are known for their sandy beaches, turquoise seas, and quaint fishing villages.

    For centuries, these islands have been a favourite stopover for explorers, adventurers and migratory birds. They come here for the climate, the natural wonders the and for the fish. So if you’re looking for a place to get away from it all, you’ve definitely come to the right place — especially if you like seafood.

    Picturesque Penghu

    The Portuguese explorers who discovered Taiwan called it the Ilha Formosa, “the Beautiful Island.” But they had another name for the Penghu Archipelago — they called these islands the Ihla Pescadores, "the Fisherman’s Islands." And when you go swimming or snorkelling in the surrounding waters you’ll find out why.

    Penghu is made up of 64 small islands situated about halfway between Taiwan and China. These islands provide quite a contrast from Taiwan proper. Whereas Taiwan has high mountains and is carpeted with verdant forests, Penghu is flat, dry and covered with grasslands and brush. This has made Penghu's islands an ideal habitat for migratory birds that flock here each year, turning the islands into a bird-watcher’s paradise.

    But bird watchers aren’t the only ones who will enjoy the wonders of Penghu. In the summertime especially, the islands are bathed in the tropical sun, highlighting the stark beauty of the coastlines. There are more than 300 kilometres of coastline in the Penghu Islands. Anywhere you go, you can head to the shore for a panoramic view of nature’s mosaic: black basaltic rocks, coral reefs and sandy white beaches that are especially beautiful when warmed by the reds, oranges and purples of the setting sun.

    Historic Kinmen

    In Chinese, the word Kinmen (or Jinmen) means “Golden Gate,” and certainly Kinmen can be your gateway into Taiwan’s past.

    Kinmen (also know as Quemoy), is a hilly, rocky island that lies just 2.1 kilometres off the coast of Fujian province in China. As the site of several major battles, and home to several underground military bases, it can give you fascinating insight into the relationship between Taiwan and China. Indeed, many of the historic sights and museums in this national park will show you a side of Taiwan you will not see elsewhere.

    But Kinmen’s story is not just about the battles. It is about the people who live here and the lives they have built. When you visit the villages and towns, you will see historic temples and large numbers of houses built in the traditional southern Fujianese, three-sided courtyard style. Walking into these towns is like walking into Taiwan’s past, where you can literally breathe the rich atmosphere of how things used to be.

    Magnificent Matsu

    Like Penghu, Matsu is not actually and island but rather a group of islands — 18 islands to be exact — the largest of which are Beigan and Nangan.

    These small islands are situated in the northeast corner of the Taiwan Straits and — like Kinmen — are separated from China by only a narrow strip of water. And like Kinmen — they are made up largely of granite.

    So you won’t be surprised to find out that Kinmen and Matsu have other things in common. Like Kinmen, wind, water, and fire have sculpted the landscape of Matsu. On each of the islets, you can see the jagged coastlines where sand dunes and pebble beaches are framed by steep cliffs. This has made the Matsu islands an ideal habitat for migratory birds — and a great place to be if you are a bird watcher.

    Because it is so close to China, Matsu shares Kinmen’s military legacy. So, like Kinmen, Matsu has several defensive fortifications and that serve as a reminder of the historic relationship between Taiwan and China.

    Matsu also shares a cultural legacy with Kinmen, but here life is more laid-back and perhaps more like it used to be in the olds days. Here, too, you will see historic temples dedicated to Matsu, the Goddess of the Sea. And here you will see houses built in the traditional southern Fujianese style, with a three sides and a courtyard. The difference is that here, you will see these houses built on the mountainsides.


    Green Island

    Green Island is located some 33 kilometres off the coast of Taitung in eastern Taiwan, and is a volcanic island where winds blow and waters eat away at the rocks all year round, creating a beautiful and diverse coast. Taiwan has plenty of hot springs, but on Green Island you will find something truly unique in Taiwan — a seawater hot spring. In fact, this is one of only three such hot springs in the whole world.

    Orchid Island

    Banyu, or Orchid Island, is situated off the south-eastern coast of Taiwan and, like Green Island, its neighbour to the north, was raised from the sea floor by the accumulation of volcanic lava. It has a humid and rainy climate, and its mountain areas (which occupy most of the island) are covered with dense rain forests that are filled with a great variety of plant and animal life.

    Coral reefs decorate the surrounding seas, and the Japan Current, which flows past, brings in large numbers of fish. This makes Orchid Island a paradise for fishermen and the place to be for snorkellers and scuba divers.

    In addition to savouring the beautiful island scenery, during a trip to Orchid Island you can also enjoy a glimpse into the fascinating aboriginal culture. Orchid Island is inhabited mainly by the Yami tribespeople, who still retain much of their traditional culture and lifestyle. For example, their traditional stone houses are built largely underground to avoid extremes of temperature as well as the ravages of typhoons. And if you love ceremony and spectacle, the Yami Flying Fish and Boat Launching festivals are like no others on earth.

    Turtle Island

    This small, solitary island located about 10 kilometres off the coast of Toucheng in Ilan County has volcanic terrain that, from certain angles, looks like a turtle floating in the sea.

    Here, water and fire have carved out an island where steep oceanside cliffs give way to caves carved by the sea. Mountain peeks are filled with steaming volcanic vents and hot springs that well up from deep under the ground. The whole island is home to unique vegetation and its surrounding waters are teeming with rich marine ecological resources. It is a perfect place to study both the volcanic terrain and the natural ecology.

    Little Liuqiu

    If you’re in southern Taiwan, especially if you’re around Kaohsiung, look out to sea. About 14 kilometres to the southwest of Donggang in Pingtung County, is Little Liuqiu Island. It’s a great place to go for a day trip or for an overnight stay.

    This islet is the only one of Taiwan’s offshore islands that is actually made up of coral. Strange coral rock formations are found throughout the island

    The ocean scenery is entrancing. During the day, you can take a trip in a glass-bottomed boat to view the many different kinds of living coral reefs around the island. In the evening, you can join the other visitors as you stand on the shore and wonder at the amazing sunset.

    Since this is a fishing island, you can expect two things. The first is a lot of seafood. The second is that the people here are intensely religious. There are a great many temples here — most of them dedicated to Matsu, Goddess of the Sea — each with its own unique features and special attractions.

    If you are longing for a peaceful holiday spent on an island paradise, what are you waiting for? Let the clear ocean waters, blue skies, and local people calm your soul and enrich your mind!

    Tuesday, June 23, 2009

    Tuesday, June 16, 2009

    Saving Face or Saving Lives?
    In China, It's Wrong Only If You Get Caught

    By Stephen A. Nelson

    Wednesday, Aug 22, 2007

    Although it's not part of China, Taiwan has a vested interest in China's tainted toy troubles -- partly because Taiwan is one of the biggest investors in China, and China is Taiwan's biggest market. So "when China sneezes, Taiwan catches SARS."

    But Taiwan is also an interested party because its own manufacturers have shown the same "Chinese" attitude toward labour laws and environmental laws: It's wrong only if you get caught. Or as a prominent Taipei lawyer once told me, "Rule of law is a foreign concept in Chinese society."

    Taiwan has a history as a place for "outsourced" manufacturing of everything from microchips to Barbie dolls.

    People in Taiwan know that big U.S. companies such as Mattel were getting their products made in Taiwan long before they were sending their production lines to China.

    The reasons were simple: In the 1980s and 1990s, cheap labour, few labour laws and even fewer environmental laws were the hallmarks of a third-world dictatorship hell-bent on economic development.

    And when Taiwan's fledgling democracy started to implement even minimal labour and environmental protections, those same big companies moved their production elsewhere: places like Vietnam and China. Places where labour and environmental laws -- when they exist -- are hardly ever enforced.

    Disposable labour and a disposable environment are the very reasons why manufacturers set up in China. And China, hell-bent on economic development, welcomes them with open arms.

    That's why China is poisoning its own people even as it produces toxic products for "foreign" consumption.

    The Chinese response to being caught out is the same as in Taiwan: Blame someone, then get back to business as usual.

    Inside the country, the impulse is to find the scapegoat and blame him. Make him pay. And in a society where guanxi (relationships/connections) is everything, the pressure for "heads to roll" can take a very dark and perverse turn.

    That's why Zhang Shuhong (張樹鴻) -- co-owner of Lee Der (the Chinese supplier making tainted toys) -- ended up hanging himself.

    To the rest of the world, the reaction is to blame the outsiders: "Don't blame us. Blame the foreigners. It's not up to us to enforce foreign standards. It's up to the foreign companies."

    In short, the whole thing is a foreign problem.

    Neither of these responses is particularly sane. Neither will save the environment or save consumers from potentially lethal products.

    But they will, in Chinese eyes, save face. So if manufacturers, consumers, environmentalists and governments really want to protect themselves, we have to make it a matter of honour. And we have to make it clear to China that it will no longer be "business as usual."

    All of us have to make the Chinese understand that the only way to restore their reputation (and their profits) is to stop blaming and start taking responsibility; stop treating safety standards as something "foreign" and start treating them as something essential to the future of China and the Chinese.

    And here is where Taiwan could show leadership.

    Taiwan could show the world that it is possible to stand up to Beijing and yet still do business with China. In fact, it could show the world that standing up to Beijing is essential to doing business with China.

    The question is: Will Taiwan do it, or will it back down because it doesn't want to be accused of throwing stones while living in a glass house?

    Friday, June 12, 2009

    The Undiscovered Country: Taiwan
    (Script from my first radio program
    on Radio Taiwan International)

    When I first thought about coming to Taiwan, I didn’t really know what to expect. Like many people, I came here with the idea of teaching English, making some money and – if I had time – travelling.

    What little I knew about Taiwan I gleaned from an outdated version of the Lonely Planet’s guide to Taiwan.

    Of course, that was before most people had the Internet. But even with the help of Netscape Navigator, I doubt I could have found out much about travelling in Taiwan.

    The truth is, not many people outside of Asia think of Taiwan as a travel destination.

    Millions of North Americans and Europeans visit Asia each year. They love to go to Japan and China to visit the cultural and historical places they’ve heard so much about and seen on TV.

    They flock to the beaches of Malaysia and Thailand and Bali.

    But travelling, exploring and discovering in Taiwan are not really high on their list of things to do.

    For most of the world, then, Taiwan remains The Undiscovered Country.

    And that is a great pity, because there is a great deal to discover.

    Sounds of the City

    The image most people have of Taiwan is one of a bustling, modern urban society of 23 million people who have turned this once rustic and agricultural society into a largely developed nation and an economic powerhouse: one of the “Four small tigers” of Asia’s economy.

    This is definitely true. But at the same time, Taiwan is a “living museum” of history and culture – a place where traditional Chinese, Taiwanese, Hakka and Aboriginal lifestyles are not merely preserved but thrive.

    Outside the cities, Taiwan’s urban jungle gives way to tropical forests that are teeming with exotic wildlife.

    In short, Taiwan is a traditional Chinese watercolour painted on a tropical canvas with a digital printer.

    OK, so that’s the big picture. But what people want to know is the nitty gritty.

    I had been here less than a week when friends and family started asking the difficult questions:

    Where is Taiwan?

    If you’re looking for Taiwan on a map, it’s easy enough to find.

    Find Japan and then trace your finger along the chain of islands that hug the coast of China.

    When you come to the island that looks kind of like a tobacco leaf, stop. That’s Taiwan: The one the European explorers called Ilha Formosa – “the Beautiful Island.”

    Taiwan’s main island lies about 160 kilometres off the south-eastern coast of China. It is separated from the mainland by the Taiwan Strait. Sitting on the western edge of the Pacific Ocean, it is about 394 kilometres long and about 144 kilometres across at its widest point. Americans always say it's about the size of Maryland and Delaware combined. Europeans say it's about the size of The Netherlands. I always say that Taiwan and its islands are roughly the same size as Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands.

    That's because the country of Taiwan also includes several offshore islands. These include the Penghu Islands – in the middle of the Taiwan Strait — and the islands of Kinmen and Matsu that are so close to China you can almost spit and hit the mainland.

    Like Taiwan proper, these islands still known to many in the West by the names given to them by the Portuguese explorers 400 years ago: The Penghu islands, for example are also known as the Pescadores. Kinmen is also known as Quemoy.

    What’s the weather like?

    In a word… hot. Hot and humid. Well, for most of the time anyway. And a lot depends on where you are.

    You see, Taiwan straddles the Tropic of Cancer, and that automatically makes for two climate zones: Tropical in the south. Sub-tropical in the north.

    So while there are four seasons, they are perhaps not quiet as distinct as the ones in more Northern climes. Summers will be longer and hotter. Winters will be shorter and not as cold.

    The things you need to know is that Taiwan is affected by the monsoon winds. That means May and June bring heavy rains. And late fall tends to be a warm, dry season — making it a great time to visit.

    Of course, we also get the occasional typhoons in summer and fall. To the traveller, these are generally welcomed as blessings in disguise because they do clear the air and cool things down quite a bit.

    What is it like?

    Taiwan proper – like many of the surrounding islands – lies on the western edge of the Pacific “rim of fire.” That means that it was forged by volcanoes and earthquakes. All this prehistoric activity has created majestic mountain peaks, rolling hills, sweeping plains and dramatic coastlines. This sceptred isle also features placid lakes and gorgeous gorges.

    On the East Coast, the jet-black cliffs seem to spring straight from the sea. Further inland, the Central Mountain Range features some of the highest mountains in this part of Asia. Among these is Jade Mountain (or Yushan).

    At over 3,000 metres, this is a climb for only the most adventurous. The less adventurous Nature Lovers can try to Alishan (or Ali Mountain). There you take a ride on the historic Alpine railway that is unique in this part of the world.

    These mountains are covered with forests, making them a virtual Noah’s Ark of wildlife.

    Here there are birds and beasts of every kind – about 18,400 known species in all – with more than 20 percent of them considered rare or endangered.

    For a more relaxed holiday, you can also soak up the sun in beautiful Kenting; take a romantic journey to placid Sun Moon Lake or visit the offshore islands of Kinmen and Penghu.

    What about the culture?

    Taiwan is truly the Beautiful Island. But Taiwan has more than offer than just natural beauty. There is also the beauty of more than 10,000 years of culture.

    Of course, the Aboriginals were the first people here and their tribal cultures, languages, arts and religious practices can still be witnessed today in the villages around Taiwan.

    But through the centuries, Chinese culture has taken root in Taiwan and the country has been developed with a Chinese sensitivity toward culture and art.

    You can see this in the ornate temples and religious ceremonies of the Buddhists, Taoists and Confucians. These include not only the famed Longshan Temple and Confucian temples in Taipei, but in the thousands of temples and shrines found in every corner of every town in these islands. Some of the oldest "Chinese" temples in the world are in Taiwan.

    You can also see the “Chinese characteristics” in the Taiwanese love of arts such as calligraphy, ceramics and paintings. When the Chinese Nationalists (Kuomintang or KMT) fled to Taiwan at the end of the Chinese civil war, they brought with them the crème de la crème of China’s treasures. That’s why today, the National Palace Museum in Taipei houses what many experts consider to be the finest collection of Chinese art in the world!

    Taiwan is also one of the best places in the world to see and learn about the Chinese “performance arts”. In fact, if you want to learn about Chinese dance and Beijing opera (or is that Peking Opera?) – forget about Beijing: Taipei is the place to be.

    So, are the people in Taiwan, like, Chinese?

    The simple answer is yes – and no. Well, maybe. But not really.

    Chinese people — including today’s Taiwanese and Hakka people — have been settling in Taiwan for hundreds of years, especially since the 1600s.

    But Taiwan’s rich and colourful history dates back much further — 10,000 years in fact — to the early Aborigines who are believed to have come from nearby Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia, as well as from other islands in this part of the Pacific.
    The descendants of these tribes remain in Taiwan today. In fact, some of the 12 tribes representing almost half a million people still practice and preserve the traditions of their ancestors.

    With its natural resources and strategic location, Taiwan has also been a natural stop for colonizers, both Western and Oriental. Beginning in the 15th century, both Holland and Spain fought over control of the island. And for 50 years — from 1895 to the end of World War II — Japan occupied Taiwan and claimed it as its own.

    These colonizers are gone now, but their legacy can be felt even today.

    Each of these groups has contributed to the today’s Taiwan. Here, the different elements of religion, architecture, language, living habits and food have been pieced together in an exciting and vibrant mosaic.

    What’s the food like?

    Perhaps the best example of this cultural mixing and matching is food. Only in Taiwan can you find in one place all the different styles of cuisines from the diverse parts of the China.
    Here you will find the famous Cantonese and Sichuan cooking styles, the renowned Beijing and Shanghai cuisines and the lesser-known but equally good Zhejiang, Hunan and Yunnan styles.
    Of course, wherever you go, you can also enjoy traditional Taiwanese cuisine, as well as the local delicacies of each area.

    And while the Japanese colonial rulers may have left, the Taiwanese fondness for Japanese food has not. Almost anywhere you go in Taiwan, you’re sure to find a restaurant that serves your favourite Japanese cuisine.

    And if you’re longing for something a little more familiar, the major cities also have some of the best Italian and Indian restaurants in this part of the world!

    Welcome to Taiwan

    In Taiwan then, the blending of Aboriginal, Hakka, Taiwanese and Chinese cultures has produced a rich and colourful tapestry that many visitors have come to enjoy.

    Come and see for yourself why those early explorers called this place the Ilha Formosa — “Beautiful Island.”