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A Book Explorer's Odyssey:Why Taiwan Matters

Updated: May 11

If you travel to Taipei for the first time, you are likely to be awestruck by the city's magnificent avenues the moment you get off the train from Taoyuan Airport. Broad, ruler-straight and imposing, they extend forward until disappearing in the distance, where another part of the city beckons with all its bustle and hustle. They possess a kind of grandeur, as if they are perpetually awaiting a presidential motorcade, a military parade, or an event that calls for nationwide celebration. They are also everywhere. At the top of the Taipei 101 tower, you see these straight lines criss-cross the city meticulously, bringing the rooftops of its stumpy buildings into neat clusters like those in a Lego world.

It was when I read Why Taiwan Matters: Small Island, Global Powerhouse, written by American scholar Shelley Rigger (任雪麗) and published in 2011, that I learned that many of these avenues were the products of the Japanese colonial era: ''To make Taiwan a more efficient and productive source of agricultural exports, the Japanese built an extensive transportation infrastructure,'' as the Japanese government was determined to build Taiwan into a ''model colony''. Like Hong Kong, Taiwan is no stranger to colonial rule. It was not unlike Hong Kong's handover when the Kuomintang regime took over the island after Japan's defeat in the Second World War. ''For Taiwanese, the return to Chinese control was simultaneously a very natural event — after all, with the exception of the Austronesian people, they were Chinese in language, culture, and ancestry — and a worrisome change.'' But soon the Taiwanese people realised the Kuomintang regime was corrupt and inept. People rose against it, resulting in the February 28 Incident. But Taiwan is different from Hong Kong in the sense that it was inhabited by the Austronesian people long before the Chinese, or people of Han ethnicity, came and ruled the place. There is one theory that Taiwan was what Sun Quan (孫權), Emperor Da of Wu in the Three Kingdoms period, called ''Yi Zhou'' (夷洲) in history books. Proponents of that theory cite this as proof that Taiwan has been Chinese territory since time immemorial. But historians differ as to whether Sun Quan really meant Taiwan by ''Yizhou'', as some of them believe that it was actually the Ryukyu Islands (琉球群島) that he was referring to. What is certain is that for centuries the Chinese people basically knew nothing about the island. After the collapse of the Ming Dynasty, Zheng Chenggong's navies conquered the island and defeated the Dutch outposts. Our Chinese history textbooks tend to depict the event as a hero of Han ethnicity triumphing over foreign colonists, returning the island to its rightful Chinese rule. What goes unmentioned is that before Zheng's arrival, no Chinese government had ever exerted administrative power on the island. Zheng's suppression of the Austronesian people, the indigenous people of the island, is also glossed over. Probably for the Austronesian people, Zheng's navies, the Qing administration and KMT regime were all colonists. It was in 2016 that President Tsai Ing-wen formally apologised to Taiwan's indigenous communities, following in the footsteps of other democratically elected leaders such as US President Bill Clinton (who apologised to the Hawaiian Indians in 1993) and Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd (who apologised to Indigenous Australians in 2008). In 2017 Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also apologised to aboriginal children. Is it impossible, or meaningful, to bring the US back to the rule of the Hawaiian Indians, or Australia to the rule of the aboriginals, just because they were the rightful occupants of the territories before the arrival of the colonists? After all, the US and Australia are democracies where the fundamental human rights of everyone — regardless of race — are protected, and no one can ever rule out the possibility of an Indian becoming US President or an Aboriginal becoming Australian Prime Minister. The same goes for democratic Taiwan. There is not an attempt to expunge the language of the indigenous people or put them into concentration camps. Democracy is not only about governing with the mandate of the majority, but also about ensuring the basic rights of the minorities are protected. It is also a gentle force of strength. Today the Taiwanese people — no matter whether they are of Hokkien, Hakka, Austronesian or even Hong Kong descent — can face their inconvenient history squarely without having to whitewash or erase it. They are friendly towards the Japanese despite the colonial rule. Their President apologised to the ingenious people, and they built the 228 Peace Memorial Park to commemorate the bloody crackdown by the KMT, a mainland Taiwanese (外省) regime, on the native Taiwanese (本省) people. To me, Taiwan's democracy is exactly why it matters. It is more important than TSMC's dominance in the semiconductor industry or Taiwan's strategic geographical location on the first island chain. After all, it was the counting of ballots in the 2020 presidential election that moved Rigger and her colleagues to tears. ◆Writer's Profile If life is a voyage, Terence Yip (葉凱楓) likes to navigate by the books. That's what he does in this column. (Email:

(Originally published in Ming Pao, a Hong Kong newspaper, on 1 December 2020.)

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