The South China Morning Post, December 12, 2004, p. A17.
"Small and Free"
I sit at a table here in the interior of Taiwan, where I have lived for a year. My wife and I were invited by a Taiwanese acquaintance of hers at the university to dinner. The tiny restaurant was opened by two former students of hers, now married. The place is just one row of tables along a concrete floor smack up against the road. I marvel that a narrow tin shack like this can serve as a restaurant. "It's their home too," my wife's friend tells us. "When the last customer leaves, they move the tables aside and bring out the bed. This is where they sleep." When the coffee came, it was better than any I'd tasted. The meal was gourmet. too. My dish was like something I might get in France. The woman who brought the plates to the table was a customer who got up from another table to help out. This is Taiwan. I don't know how else to describe it except "postmodern."
The people seated at the table around me tell me they're Taiwanese, not Chinese. They don't want their little democracy and thriving free market society to be gobbled up by the same imperialist expansion that devoured Tibet. Taiwan has deep historical connections with the West and with Japan, as well as with China. It is an amazing and vibrant little nation whose diverse cultural strands mingle and mix in a marvelously fertile way. This is not China. The people here do not want it to be China. They want it to be Taiwan.
The Dalai Lama tells how the first time he traveled to Beijing to plead with China's leaders not to invade Tibet, he passed a point along the way where the Tibetan landscape and Tibetan houses, crops, animals, and people abruptly gave way to a Chinese landscape with Chinese houses, crops, animals, and people. He knew he'd left one country and entered the other. Sitting at the table in the restaurant with us is a professor who tells of an analogous realization she had of encountering a sharp national divide between Taiwan and China. It'd come when she'd first arrived in Canada to begin graduate school and met Chinese students from the mainland. My wife, a native Taiwanese, had the exact same experience in New York City. She met no graduate students at New York University more foreign to her than those from China. In the end she found it impossible to talk with them about Taiwan or anything else. The traditions, the background, the belief systems, the psychology -- the nationality -- of the Taiwanese and the Chinese were so utterly different. China, though, would gobble up Taiwan like it did Tibet, and then try to obliterate what is indigenous here, like it's done there. This is what the Taiwanese don't want.
The democratically-elected president proposed a referendum to give the Taiwanese people a way to make their views felt. With characteristic audacity, China warned of "consequences" should this go through. Now the President of the United States has seconded that warning. The functioning of Taiwanese democracy interferes at this time with America's global agenda - Korea, Iraq, the war on terrorism.
Taiwan is little. It lies close to China. But it is no more China than America is England. The United States just happened to be big enough to defend itself and far enough away. In the two centuries since, America has gotten steadily bigger. It seems bigness has become more centrally what America is about today than freedom. Its big diplomatic schemes with China are more important to it than the liberty of one little country.
I once read a science fiction story about a glittering crystal city in which life had reached absolute perfection. There were no flaws. There was no crime. There was no disease. Every single inhabitant led a charmed life -- except for one. The price for all this was that one single little girl, absolutely innocent, had to be locked in a dungeon deep beneath the center of the city. No school for this little girl, no playmates, no books and no hope. In rags she huddled in the corner of her dank cell. I forget the premise of the story and its plot but the image springs to mind now as an apt one for Taiwan in the new Pax Americana.
"Nobody cares about you!" the arrogant Chinese deputy snapped rudely at the Taiwanese representative who was trying to ask help from the World Health Organization (WHO) to combat the SARS epidemic China caused. Many died in Taiwan from SARS. Taiwan never did get admitted into the WHO, just like it's excluded from the UN. One of the only places in the world that loves America and where Americans are welcomed with open arms, Taiwan leads a diplomatically buried existence. Only a handful of tiny nations recognize it officially.
What a heavy price to pay for this new world order, with America riding glorious and big at the helm. This may make sense to the President of the United States - a big country like that. It makes me ashamed to be American, and proud that I happen to live now in small, free Taiwan.