This peculiar insular behavior may derive from the necessity to be open to and to absorb anything “strange” (the first Europeans on Easter Island were welcomed by the Austronesians as gods). However, the range of xenophobia which is occasionally seen in the more polluted and overpopulated areas is as limited as Taiwan’s living space. The opposite may be found in the countryside, where hard-working farmers welcome any stranger, and may even teach him the lesson that Marie Curie, twice winner of the Nobel Prize, made one of her principles: “I do not think about things that have already been done. I am interested only in things which remain to be done.”
Does the slogan “Taiwan next” also retain this concept, by eulogizing the two vital values of solidarity and justice? Will these be feasible in a pluralistic and developing Asian democracy that on one side is obsessively split, stuck in a gap between underdeveloped and overdeveloped fringes, lingering between poverty and luxury, and on the other side seemingly deadlocked in hopelessness?
A Taiwan with no resources and yet so wasteful (millions of dollars once again blown into the air on New Year as fireworks transformed hard-earned wealth into smoke and mirrors) is reminiscent of a quotation by Adam Smith from his book The Wealth of Nations: “All over Europe there is a high increase in debts which can be seen as a heavy-handed term in all important nations today and will lead in all probability to economic ruin.” That was in 1776, the year the US declared independence.
Jerry Lai, in an analysis of Taiwan’s government, economy, society and education (Commonwealth Magazine, December 2011) said Taiwan’s faith in herself and foreigners’ trust in her has declined, with entrepreneurs relocating production to low-cost countries — China in particular. As the young generation is left with no hope for the future, most of the 100,000 or more students that graduate annually from 170 universities and colleges don’t even ask where they are going. Many of them are graduating without any skills, with meaningless certificates good enough to get a job, but not good enough to start a profession.
The warning of a societal implosion must be taken seriously, because it comes from the heart of the nation. Foreigners, by contrast, might never understand the totally different society of a physically and culturally isolated “other world.” Thus they are left with tired cliches, such as pointing to principles that are especially unpopular for politicians at re-election time, like “do not spend more money than you have on hand — on policy, economy or private households.”
The sky is the only limit for Taiwan’s future. Its socioeconomic and political situation is as likely to improve as it is to worsen or collapse — just like the euro zone or the “great empires.” Despair and paradigms stand close together, governed by an invisible thread rather than by coordinated organizations or standards.
Engelbert Altenburger is an associate professor of international business at I-Shou University.