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Taipei, Taiwan Today

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Photo: Zubin Shroff

Like the cities of Italy and France, Taipei abounds in literary bookstores, the kind that have Philip Roth rather than Dan Brown in the window display. Ze confirmed my impression of a small but cultivated reading public. Newspapers, he told me, publish literary supplements every day. The flow of translations from foreign literatures is brisk. Speaking of his own love for literature, Hao was embarrassed to admit that he worked in television. Laughing, he said, “I despise television. I really do!”

I asked Hao and Ze about the windows with metal security grating that I had seen on apartment buildings everywhere in Taipei. “It reflects the general sense of insecurity of the recent refugees from China, as well as of the Taiwanese who have long been residents here,” Hao said.

He and Ze went on to speak about politics with a frankness that slightly alarmed me; it would have been inconceivable in Mainland China. They explained how modern Taiwan remains the unfinished business of the civil war that raged in China in the early 20th century. Since 1949, when the Chinese Nationalists fled to Taiwan, the country has remained in a sort of limbo. American support for Taiwan’s separate identity has steadily dwindled since President Nixon traveled to Beijing in 1972 and began to normalize relations with China. But Taiwan is prevented from being absorbed into what Chinese Communists call their “motherland” mainly by the U.S. Seventh Fleet, which still patrols the narrow strait between Taiwan and China.

“Because Uncle Sam protects us from Big Brother,” Ze said, “we have been heavily influenced by him in many respects, more than we have been influenced by Japan, which ruled Taiwan from 1895 to 1945. American movies and music were very important to all of us who grew up after 1949. There were scholarships to American universities, and almost every educated Taiwanese aimed to study in the United States. Many of those who went as students settled down there.”

Meeting other Taiwanese, I discovered a reverse trend in progress: large numbers of those educated or formerly settled in Europe and America are returning to the island. Along with East Asian countries like Singapore and Malaysia, Taiwan was among the first movers of globalization, well before the word became widely known. It also helped bring Mainland China into the web of global trade and investment. Taiwanese money routed through Hong Kong accounted for a large part of the initial foreign investment in China in the 1980’s and 90’s. The chance to do business with the fastest-growing economy in the world is bringing many Taiwanese expatriates back to Asia.

In a posh club adjacent to Taipei 101, I met Joanna Lei, a businesswoman who was also an influential legislator for the KMT. We sat in a private room into which waiters dressed from head to toe in black discreetly brought one delicately flavored dish after another; the Chinese love of good food was evident in the loud gay voices eddying around the club, and the chopsticks fluttered over steaming plates of fish and vegetables.

Traveling to the United States as a student, Lei had risen from research editor at ABC Television to senior executive. She was, as she herself put it in a strong American accent, “one of the highest-ranked Asian-Americans in the media industry.” In the late 90’s, she terminated a promising career trajectory and returned to Taiwan. “I was half-fulfilled in America,” she said. “I wanted to see what I could do in Taiwan.”

Lei hasn’t found it easy to negotiate Taiwan’s highly charged and sometimes nasty politics. When I met her, she was fighting to clear her father, a former defense official, of corruption charges. The rise of China, she said, has crudely polarized Taiwanese society into people who want greater integration with China and those who want independence. She herself hopes for integration.

Indeed, as I discovered, the issue of reunification with China is a Taiwanese obsession. All my conversations in Taipei inevitably veered toward it. When I reported Lei’s views to Lin Cho-shui, a former legislator from the DPP, he responded sharply: “Taiwan is a democracy and China is a dictatorship. How can the two come together?”

Perhaps, as the writer Lung Ying-tai suggested, China will have to catch up with Taiwan and become properly democratic before unification can happen. Many Chinese intellectuals and activists, she claimed, see Taiwan as an inspirational model for democracy in China.

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