May 07, 2014

Don't Talk About Politics – But if You Don't, it May Be Too Late

There is an elephant in the room

-Don't talk to the Taiwanese about politics!

It was the first advice I was given after I moved to Taiwan. "Do not talk to the Taiwanese about politics; It will make them uncomfortable and it is not polite to make your hosts uncomfortable. Talk about food instead, or something else.".
No, this is not the elephant in Taiwan
I had been to Taiwan before but visiting a country is not the same as living in it. I knew Taiwan to be a wonderful country, full of interesting people that were all very sweet; So far so good. And talking about food is easy - it is my passion as well as theirs; TV, Radio, newspapers, it is all full of food - recipes, discussions about food, restaurant reviews - but very little politics - and it is not because it's not allowed, Taiwan is a democracy and as such, have free press. Still, the politics don't really make the media, not the way we are used to in Western Europe at least.  

Learning the hidden cultural rules is part of moving to a new country. I was lucky enough to get the advice early on which means I immediately started to observe what was going on around me, and it was true; The Taiwanese in most cases avoid what may make the next person uncomfortable, often a great treat, but also something that can be very dangerous - if you don't talk about what is going on around you, how are you going to be able to have an influence on it? When politics was brought up, normally by some foreigner not understanding better, the Taiwanese as a general rule seemed to switch topics.



In December two years ago met a retired professor in Tainan - 台南 - the city in the south that once was the capital of Taiwan, until shortly before Taiwan came under Japanese rule. The professor sat down with me when I was having coffee, and we ended up having a very interesting discussion for over two hours. Unfortunately I lost his number, but he did teach me a lot during the hours we spoke; He, who had had a lot of international exposure and worked both in North America and Europe, was the first one to really go into details and tell me about some of the issues Taiwan are facing. I didn't quite take in all he said then, but if I met him today, we would have a lot to talk about, not the least how Taiwan remains a country with many identities, not the least due to it's fascinating history and the location in the middle of a crossroad, where people have come and gone over the centuries.



Some things are always OK to talk about
One of the topic we talked about Taiwan's relation to China – "People's republic of China", established 1949 –  a very sensitive issue; A hot potato that many are uncomfortable talking about. Regardless of how you feel about it, China do play an important role in Taiwan, not the least because China is one of the key export partners for Taiwan (see link for numbers). Many Taiwanese companies also get their raw materials and their semi-finished products from factories located in China. Taiwan is in in more ways than one connected to China – yet China is the elephant in the room that many Taiwanese pretend not to see. Or at least that's how it used to be. However, that may have changed. 

In March 2014 I witnessed something happen in Taiwan, something that, had you asked me only three month earlier, I didn't think was possible, not here, not in Taiwan. In March 2014 the Taiwanese decided it was time to raise their voices. In March 2014, the Legislative Yuan, the parliament, if you like, became the centre of attention, when it became occupied during what started as a student protest but later on developed into something more.

It is not up to me to go into what is wrong and what is right when it comes to the protests in Taiwan, this is something the Taiwanese need to work out on their own - but what I can say is that the protests really seem to have changed something in Taiwan and with the Taiwanese people; For the first time I hear people who normally don't discuss politics talking about what's going on, discussing back and forth in a way you may only have done with your close friends before, if that. 

Regardless of what you think about protests and the underlying issues, regardless what side you are on, it is essential that we are not afraid to have an opinion of our own, that we are not afraid to speak our mind; For a democracy to be a real democracy, we must dare to discuss what is difficult, what makes us uncomfortable. Just like in business, change will happen, and it is better to do your best to make sure the future is yours, rather than letting someone else decide for you.

Maybe it is because I am a woman, or maybe it is because I grew up in a country where democracy was often discussed, but democracy is and will always be incredibly important in my eyes. Voting is to me a privilege but also a duty. Having your say is and will be something I will take the fight for. But then again, it is easy to say when you don't risk your life for it, as people do in many countries. 

Taiwan is a young democracy, and very special, not the least because of it's sensitive political situation and the location, squeezed in between Japan and China, two of the big powers in the region, this is why it is extra important that the Taiwanese stand up for themselves – because if the Taiwanese don't, who will?

I for one do believe that what we witnessed in Taipei in March 2014, was history being written. In a country with over 20 million people the 400 000 people that were estimated to have come to Taipei for protests may sound like a low number, but for Taiwan, a country where protests are unusual, it may be the highest number ever to take the streets, at least in modern history. In a country where "a few thousands" is often considered to be many, 400 000, as reported by those attending, is an unbelievable number.

Whatever route Taiwan decides to take; Let it be the path that the people decide, a people well informed and ready, and, hopefully, as much as possible, agreeing to what needs to be done.

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References

When it comes to the numbers, 400 000 was reported by some sources during the demonstrations in the end of March (March 30).
The Diplomat stated 350 000, see link, while Bloomberg reported over 100 000 (see link). 
There streets were regardless completely full - I had friends who were there photographing and it was amazing to see. I was myself busy teaching a group of Europeans about Taiwan. 

http://www.china.org.cn/english/kuaixun/38073.htm - on China history
Economics, see Trading Economics, http://www.tradingeconomics.com/taiwan/exports

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