What kind of Taiwan is ‘next?’

By Engelber Altenburger 古堡  / 

Tue, Jan 10, 2012 - Page 8

Will the socioeconomic and political situation further depress the “next” Taiwan, or will it regain hope and resurge as a paradigmatic island?

A multifaceted “Taiwan of despair” has replaced a once exemplary Formosa shaped by a decades-old economic miracle. Globalization, affluence and waste now reign among an impoverishment, marginalization and isolation that natives struggle to explain, while foreigners are excluded from any meaningful commentary.

One source of despair for outsiders is the literal incomprehension of a country where nature and human environment are beyond tangible singularity. A recent case was the assault on a foreigner in Taipei (Letters, Dec. 21 and Dec. 25, page 8; “Clashes of cultures and personalities,” Dec. 30, page 8).

The kind of assault that happened in Taipei may not necessarily occur elsewhere in Taiwan. “Aliens” may become the victims of offenders who have themselves been traumatized by hostile encounters. Taiwan has produced a society split into individualistic groups, in which consensus and national solidarity have been replaced by an underworld that is best not compared to that of Sicily. The infringement of group norms (as defined by behaviorist Irenaus Eibl-Eibesfeldt) easily leads to unpredictable violence.

Taiwan’s natural environment, already wasted by “civilization” is replete with danger — a biosphere with poisonous life; landslides tearing off mountain slopes, roads and villages; torrential floods devastating valuable land — pushing ever more people to the verge of despair. With this in mind the author condones some of his own unhappy experiences: such as an unintentional involvement with a gravel truck and the ensuing humiliating treatment at the hands of the authorities, who just couldn’t communicate with an adoga (big nose). Or one unprovoked physical attack, which reminded a Taiwanese friend of his own experience on a tour of Europe, where he said he had encountered genuine racist xenophobia.

At the time Europeans were establishing a foothold in the New World and their cultures transforming the Americas into modern Western nation states, Han migrants arrived in Taiwan and extended China’s cultural space into the Pacific. Although Western politics and alliances have preserved the Ilha Formosa in the 20th century as a display window of an intangible China, they have as much failed to create a nation state as they have fallen short of comprehending the Sinicized country or in introducing Western values as an antithesis to the ancient awe-inspiring beliefs that thrive in people’s souls and untold temples, along with popular superstitions and unfathomable fears.

Among the fears that foreigners will probably never understand is demonophobia — a fear of the “undead;” which in stress situations may trigger violence in a society polarized and haunted by angst and unrest. On the other hand, Taiwanese have long since proven that bravery is fostered by universal philanthropy and the harmonious coexistence of different ethical systems, languages, cultures, opinions and ideas. This makes the kind of xenophobia known by foreigners obsolete, although an essential fear (from the Greek, phobos) of what is different (xenos, for the unknown person) remains. It may also be this fear which, ironically, gives people a blind admiration for the strange.

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.