Invited to Helsinki, Finland, to present my work on the dreams of university students in Taiwan, I took the ferry on Friday over to Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, to spend a day wandering around one of the best-preserved medieval cities in Europe.
Luckily, it turned out to be a rainy day — otherwise I wouldn’t have sought shelter in a seemingly uninteresting little museum on a narrow cobblestone street, where I stumbled upon an exhibit that brought tears to my eyes.
Replace the People’s Republic of China for the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, and Taiwan for Estonia — the story is the same: A giant country tries to gobble up a tiny one on its border.
Estonia has another element in common with Taiwan — its people love to sing.
The museum was holding an exhibit that documented in pictures how the Estonians got the world to recognize them as a nation by singing, in what has been called “the Singing Revolution.”
The Russians sent in tanks.
The Estonians placed huge boulders on the roads to block the way.
The tanks had to withdraw because the little nation captured the heart of the world with its solidarity song.
Russia relinquished its claims. The Estonians toppled Lenin’s statue.
One man climbed the pedestal and raised his arms in a gesture that expressed the feeling of a nation.
A photographer captured the moment for all time.
There is a big lesson in this for Taiwan.
But the question is: Can 23 million Taiwanese do what 1.5 million Estonians did?
And can they do it now while there is still time?
Do the Taiwanese have what it takes?
Do they deeply feel that Taiwan really is a separate nation?
Or do the people of Taiwan prefer to be swallowed up by China and digested into something that can have neither the significance nor the destiny that history has thrust upon this island nation?
Do Taiwanese parents care more about how much money they can grab today than they do for the future of their children tomorrow?
Are they that much like the late dictator Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) and his family?
I raised these points because I feel now is the time in which answers must emerge; and because, standing there in that small, faraway museum, it struck me that the way the Estonians sang their nation to freedom is an option for Taiwan that could win it the sympathy of world organizations that it hasn’t been able to obtain by any other method.
I work with the dreams of young Taiwanese college students.
I have seen inside their hearts and minds.
I know them to be world-class as a group, the equal of young people anywhere.
Though Taiwanese are perhaps not ethnically, linguistically or culturally separate from the mainland Chinese — they are a larger people, even though smaller in number; and they aspire to a higher destiny, even though on a smaller scale.
The world needs Taiwan and Taiwan needs a world that can see this.
As I stood before the museum exhibit with tears in my eyes, an old Estonian man approached me.
“Where are you from?” he asked.
“Taiwan,” I said.
“Oh,” he immediately understood.
“You are like us. We have Russia. You have China. The same story,” he said.
The old man was right.
Perhaps political leaders in Taiwan have forgotten that they have a higher mission than lining their pockets with cash.
This little nation is right now being ensnared in wording and behaviors that bit by bit will cause it to be engulfed by its huge neighbor next door.
Our young people stand to lose their nationhood and their opportunity for freedom and self-expression unless we act now.
What better way than following the Estonian example and organizing mass singing events — in English and Chinese — that can enable Taiwan’s young and old alike to come together and show the world they are a people unique among peoples, with a voice all their own.
If that voice can show it deserves to be heard, it will be heard.
The world organizations will listen. This doesn’t need to be restricted to Taiwan.
Sizeable student and resident populations of Taiwanese all over the US, Europe and elsewhere can join in — and carry the song of our people, and their dream of freedom and democracy, around the world.
If little Estonia, with only 1.5 million people could do it, why can’t we, with over fourteen times the population?
The only possible reason would be that we don’t care enough, and so don’t deserve a destiny other than the one that the Chinese Communist Party allows us to have. The Chinese hands in our pockets will then be much bigger, more numerous and greedier.
William Stimson is a US writer based in Helsinki, Finland.
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