The timing of today’s earthquake in Taiwan was particularly weird, striking as it did at 1:01 PM, about 45 minutes into a luncheon at the Nikko Hotel hosted by Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Though former Congressman Paul Ryan had recently visited Taiwan, he was not in attendance. But I was, along with a dozen or so legislative aides to various political figures from the United States, all brought together to discuss the strengthening of Taiwan / US ties. I’d attended a similar luncheon last month, with a different but similarly-composed group of mixed Republican and Democratic political figures, roughly speaking half-and-half.
During last month’s luncheon, I’d delivered a brief, passionate speech about how defending Taiwan was a bipartisan issue, one of the few political issues agreed upon by American presidents from Reagan to Clinton, Bushes 1 & 2 and Obama, and now – insofar as determining where he stands on anything with any clarity – Donald Trump. It was a good speech, quite bipartisan indeed. I managed to quote (or otherwise invoke) presidents ranging from Teddy Roosevelt to Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton to Barack Obama.
I intended to deliver a modified version of the same speech today. It seemed a safe bet, seeing as the crowd was of a similar political disposition. But the earthquake changed that, starting at 1:01 PM, halfway through the second course, and lasting a good 30 seconds, with a few aftershocks in the minutes that followed. Though we were only on the third floor, it was disconcerting to say the least. Though the group took it in stride, people were clearly shaken (literally and figuratively).
One of the Taiwanese ministers made a joke that the earthquake had been planned to give the honored guests a genuine Taiwan experience. “It’s good to lighten the mood,” he said, “so I’ll turn the table over to Joshua Samuel Brown to continue lightening things up.”
Like I said, I’d planned on the same talk, but the earthquake seemed like a good excuse to begin instead by mentioning that the first article I’d ever written about Taiwan for an American publication occurred right after the 1999 Earthquake, still to this day the most devastating earthquake in Taiwan’s history. (Today’s quake was a mere temblor by comparison, 6.1, so far no reported casualties.) The article, which I’ll post below, was called Send No Money Now, and it ran in the print and web version of conservative magazine The American Spectator. As far as I am today from being your average reader (let alone contributor) to the American Spectator, I was even further twenty years ago. But at that time, support for Taiwan (albeit as “The Republic of China”, unsinkable battleship in the never-ending struggle against the entity known as “Red China”) was very much a Republican issue, with most on the left remaining comfortably mute on the subject with a few notable exceptions.
Times have changed, and its a good thing. These days, support for Taiwan is a bipartisan issue, though like the elephant in the fable of the blind men, supporters of Taiwan bring their own ideas to the table about what Taiwan really is. Bulwark against Communist China is still popular among anyone who has a beef with China (on either side). Home of the planet’s best health care system, from whom we could learn a great deal is definitely something that comes up more on the left. (Indeed, Bernie Sanders asked my Taiwanese friend about Taiwan’s health care system when we ran into him on the streets of San Francisco in 2016. I wrote about it at Snarky Tofu.) The Marriage equality issue still comes up, despite it having been dealt a setback in Taiwan’s recent election. Health care, freedom of the press, freedom of religion…honestly, with the exception of Taiwan’s draconian cannabis laws (think 1968 Texas and you’ve got the idea), Taiwan ranks very highly on the progressive end of the scale, and thus should be championed as much by the left as by the right, if not more.
Anyway, it was a good speech, not quite as one for the ages as my previous one, but a good speech supporting the argument that in 2019 support for Taiwan should be considered a fully bipartisan issue. Of course, getting to throw in my spot-on
Bernie Sanders impersonation worked to lighten the mood.
The luncheon was good, and following my talk, largely free of aftershocks. I sold a copy of Formosa Moon, always a good thing for a struggling writer. Anyway, since I mentioned Send No Money Now in my talk, and since the American Spectator Online doesn’t seem to archive as far back as 1999, I thought I’d post it below (with all the original incorrect Mandarin spelling intact). Enjoy!
Send No Money Now
I came home on September 20 to discover that Taiwan, my adopted homeland, had been hit by a major earthquake. I’d lived there for five years, and had just returned a few months ago. My first reaction was disbelief — that seems a common first reaction. I tried to call my friends and almost in-laws on both ends of the island, only to discover “da bu tong” — dead phone lines.
Then the shock kicked in. Taiwan is a country where every 7-Eleven has a fax machine, taxi drivers carry cell phones, and most kids can piece together the schematics for a PC motherboard by eighth grade. If the phone lines are down, something very serious is going on in Taiwan.
I moved to Taiwan in 1994, a naïve American whose grasp of the language consisted of two jerky greetings and a request for directions to the bathroom. I was invited to live on the fourth floor of the home of the Yeh family in Hsinchu, and spent the next two years basically being treated like a well-liked (but kind of slow on the uptake) special son. I later moved to Taipei, and lived there for three more years. I got by with a lot of love, encouragement, and the occasional use of minor career boosting guanxi (“pulling of strings”) from well connected friends.
I should be in Taiwan right now, searching for the injured in the rubble of the Sungshan hotel. I should be repaying their kindness with more than words, but I cannot. Perhaps this disaster is, as disasters often are in Asian culture, a portent of political upheaval.
Taiwan is a strange place to claim kinship with once you’ve left, but let me try: The uncomfortable state of official non-recognition doesn’t always give Americans a clear picture of my adopted homeland. “That’s in China, isn’t it?” is a comment I’ve heard, to which I usually reply “No, um, well, officially yes but, um, not really. China is a one-party totalitarian state. Taiwan is a democracy. You know, government elected for the people by the people, the sort of thing you read about in college civics classes.
Taiwan is by no means a perfect democracy — legislative sessions (as the Chinese Communists gleefully point out in the “why democracy doesn’t work for Asians” section of the People’s Daily) have been known to erupt in the occasional bench-clearing brawl. Those rumors that you may have heard about the KMT representative from Central Taiwan hurling a baby pig at a political opponent are true, but it should be noted that he apologized immediately — to the pig.
Still, the Taiwanese people are free to gather peacefully, worship freely, live where they choose and say what they please. Their constitution is a lot like ours, only without the guns. Were it not for Mainland China’s stubborn refusal to do business with anyone who doesn’t adhere to its inflexible labeling of Taiwan as a “rogue province,” Taiwan might be as well regarded in the world community as England, except it has better food, nicer weather, and a more efficient economy.
A Taiwanese scholar recently compared the relationship between Taiwan and China to “living in the same house as a 900-pound gorilla who thinks he’s your older brother.” Taiwan, looking to America for support, is becoming increasingly skeptical that help will come when the chips are down. My Taiwanese friends look at me incredulously when I talk about the American ideal of democracy. “We are a democracy, so why doesn’t America recognize us officially?” is a common question.
But the Taiwanese are nothing if not business savvy, they understand the mathematical realities of Sino-American relationships. There are only around 21 million people on Taiwan, as opposed to the the 1.2 billion potential consumers on the Mainland. If you’d each just agree to drink 100 bottles of Pepsi a day,” I tell my friends, “you’d stand a better chance at official recognition.”
Others picture Taiwan as nothing more than a gigantic industrial complex populated by drones spewing out low quality goods. The epicenter of last week’s earthquake was in Nantou, a rugged mountain county every bit as breathtaking as the Rockies west of Boulder. At that latitude it only snows at great altitudes, and when it does the roads are clogged with city dwellers hoping to see it before it melts. Taichung city, hardest hit by the quake, is only slightly less attractive than Denver, and with similarly toxic air. The east coast of Taiwan is sparsely populated by native peoples and the people who moved there hoping to push them out. The east coast highway is a two-lane road carved out of cliffs plunging into the sea, and is as beautiful and dangerous as any road you’d ever want to drive on.
The capital, Taipei is, to be fair, a rather ugly city*. But it is also home to many fine people. Even in the gray architectural sameness of neighborhoods like Hsinchuang and Sanchung, little pockets of beauty could be found. An old temple, the meticulously carved wooden pillars depicting legends of dragon and fable freshly painted, here. Two old men drinking tea and playing “xiangqi” (Chinese chess) on an ornate marble table there.
The Taiwanese have made a whopping contribution to the current cyber-driven world economy, one which is rarely acknowledged. That computer that you probably couldn’t live without at this point — some, if not all of the hardware, was born in Taiwan. A thank you wouldn’t kill anyone.
But don’t go packing up blankets, first-aid kits, and cans of tuna for Taiwan quite yet. Send that to Turkey, where the need is far, far greater. The Taiwanese have done pretty well for themselves over the last few decades, and should be able to pull through this disaster with the same quiet determination that pulled them through the “white terror,” decades of brutal martial law inflicted on them by Chiang Kai-shek, another leader with a somewhat unrealistic world view.
What these people need most costs neither money nor time: recognition as a free, conscientious, and eminently integral part of the family of nations. Some sort of acknowledgment is past due.
(Send No Money Now ran originally on 9/28/99)
* Taipei is an infinitely prettier city in 2019 than it was in 1999.
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