Hope in Taiwan
These are simply not the worst of times for Taiwan – thanks to the many people rolling up their sleeves, taking responsibility, breaking new ground, dedicating themselves, and making a difference.
Hope in TaiwanBy Fuyuan Hsiao
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 540 )
Safe from the bone-chilling wind they have just come in from, eight young people in their twenties and thirties remove their wool scarves and down jackets and get right into an animated discussion around a long conference table.
Some of them have quit jobs in the US and Japan, or recently given up the white doctor's frock. They gather in this unremarkable building – once a military prison during the White Terror – to kick start the Teach for Taiwan movement.
The young team's vision consists of recruiting and training top caliber teachers, drafting new teaching materials and developing new teaching methods, reaching far to improve education in remote areas and influencing teachers within the existing establishment. They seek to change the dominant rote learning approach to truly reach and awaken students' interest in learning.
Liu An-ting, 24 years old, was fed up with the conventional educational structure. After graduating from high school in Taiwan, she "fled" to the US to pursue university studies. Deeply impressed at how many of her top American classmates joined the Teach for America project, which has attracted the participation of over 30,000 young Americans and benefited over 3 million underprivileged people, she determined to introduce its educational ideals to Taiwan.
Last July she returned to Taiwan to test the waters, planning to stay for just two weeks. But to her surprise, over 100 students showed up at a lecture she presented at a university, clearing chairs and tables away to make room on the floor "like a scene from the French Revolution." Seizing the opportunity at hand, Liu gave up her consulting job, apartment and car in New York and returned to Taiwan to start from scratch.
"If you want change, you've got to get involved," says Lu Kuan-wei, a soft-spoken, articulate 26 year-old that peers out of black-framed glasses. After graduating from National Taiwan University with a degree in medicine and earning his medical practitioner's license, he heard about the Teach for Taiwan program and discovered that his passion for education is stronger than that for medicine.
While mulling over what to do, he wrote a letter to Lien Chia-en, who was stationed on a medical mission in Africa. Lien responded, "If you see a need, and you have passion, your own way of thinking, and are prepared to take action, then you are the answer to that need."
Lu Kuan-wei then left his comfort zone, opting to "become the answer."
Along with 10 other similarly minded people, he held weekly lectures and informational sessions in villages, and visited campuses to try to persuade teachers and administrators within the establishment to join the effort.
This coming September the first group of 15 young teachers to complete Teach for Taiwan training will head to Taidong and Tainan to teach at schools in remote villages.
In a budding movement they are youthful beacons of hope. Up against all sorts of challenges in Taiwan's educational climate, they have taken it upon themselves to bring about change.
Not the Worst of Times
Seen from the air, Taiwan presents great beauty as well as a wounded landscape. But what would the people that occupy the landscape look like from an aerial view?
Perhaps it is a sad picture of stark contrasts, one full of the cacophony of pointing fingers, or one animated by passion, where people quietly take up responsibility, pioneer, persevere, and give of themselves in every corner of society.
The year 2014 marks the 120th anniversary of the Sino-Japanese War that had such a decisive impact on Taiwan's fate. Taiwan today appears stagnant, its taxation system and income distribution, economic growth, salaries, government efficiency, and legislative quality all ranking toward the bottom among neighboring Asian nations.
The latest State of the Nation Survey released by CommonWealth Magazine in January indicates that the Taiwanese public's disgruntlement and anxiety have reached all-time highs, with nearly 70 percent of the public expressing pessimism about Taiwan's future development. However, this is not the worst of times for Taiwan.
A corps of people that take it upon themselves to better their environment, wherever they work, makes sure of that by igniting hope for Taiwan.
Taking a broader view over a longer period, it is clear that Taiwan has never lacked the flame of hope.
An expert on modern Taiwanese history from the Japanese period to the present, National Taiwan University professor, Chen Tsui-lien, contends that over the past century Taiwan has endured at least six crisis periods where its fate hung in the balance, namely, its cession to Japan after the Sino-Japanese War in 1895, World War II, the Nationalist government's retreat to Taiwan in 1949, the ROC's withdrawal from the United Nations in 1971, the severing of diplomatic ties with the United States in 1979, and the Taiwan Strait missile crisis of 1996. "Each time people have abandoned ship, and each time someone emerges to right the ship," she says.
Professor Chen has recently completed writing A Century of Pursuit, which recounts the story of attempts to gain autonomy during the Japanese period, amounting to the first wave of Taiwan's democracy movement. She explains that, situated at multiple frontiers, at the intersection of various imperial powers, Taiwan has always found itself in difficult circumstances. And each time it had its back against the wall, some people would take up the gauntlet and make a better situation for Taiwan. "As long as there is hope, it is never the worst of times; but if everyone gives up, the times are truly dire," she asserts.
Taiwan Is 'A Notable Exception'
Examined under a microscope, Taiwan appears to herself as scarred and wounded, whilst through their telescope foreigners see her vigor and hopefulness.
On a cold, rainy night with a temperature of just 10 degrees Celsius, Waseda University Professor Wakabayashi Masahiro, who has studied Taiwan for 40 years, joins over 30 students in their campus club's cramped office of less than 35 square meters.
Someone asks, "Many say that Taiwan is a ghost island. What hope is there for her?" Without waiting for the person to complete the next sentence, he jumps right in, shaking his head, and says, "We Japanese scholars see Taiwanese people as brave and committed, and readily giving of themselves, which gives greater cause for hope."
Wakabayashi first encountered Taiwan around the time the ROC and Japan broke off official relations. In his estimation, Taiwan is "a notable exception" in the world – something of which it should be proud.
He gives three examples of how Taiwan has been an "important exception":
First, she was once recognized as a nation by the world, and was a member of the United Nations' Security Council. Only Taiwan has enjoyed such status for such a small place.
Second, despite being forced out of the U.N. and cut off from ties with the United States, Taiwan's economic, social and cultural development was essentially unaffected, maintaining close ties to the global community. "It is rare that a country is isolated while the society is not," she observes.
Third, externally Taiwan's sovereignty is not internationally recognized, whilst internally its sovereignty remains intact, and it acts as a major global economic entity, a status without parallel.
"Studying Taiwan means a lot to the world," asserts Wakabayashi.
A relaxed, comfortable way of life and the only example of a free democratic system in an ethnic Chinese society also make Taiwan the envy of the intellectual elite throughout the global Chinese community.
Statistics from the National Immigration Agency show that over 700 people from Hong Kong settled in Taiwan last year, a 32 percent rise over the previous year. A Facebook group set up recently by Hong Kongers called Evacuation to Taiwan counts over 5000 subscribers. And the number of students from Hong Kong applying to study at universities in Taiwan doubled last year over 2012.
Asia's Most Potent Social Force
In late 2012, Feng Xincheng, editor-in-chief of China's New Weekly magazine, led 70 staff members – including cooking and cleaning staff – on a tour of Taiwan. It was during this tour that they summarized their experience with the catchy phrase, "Taiwan's most beautiful scenery is her people."
Feng Xincheng admits that he comes to Taiwan at regular intervals "to breathe." In China, Feng feels the oppressive "destructiveness of the state, corrosiveness of the people, and helplessness of the individual." In contrast, "in Taiwan, I see the opposite," he says.
Jin Yan, professor at China's University of Politics and Law, frankly declares Taiwan's great significance to over a billion Chinese across the globe. "Taiwan should be more ambitious," he avers. Taiwan's freedom and democracy are a vital experiment for Chinese society, at the forefront of progress, and Taiwan can make a significant contribution to the world.
Perhaps the lovely feelings engendered by distance cannot represent the whole truth. At this time Taiwan really does need to improve. Its political and economic structures are off kilter, and it is becoming increasingly marginalized in the international community.
What Taiwan needs at this time is a counterforce, and this force comes from each individual.
Noted US political philosopher Hannah Arendt posited that power belongs to the individual. In a shambolic system, the individual must step up with particular courage and put their power into action.
Arendt asserted that "good people" are kept down because they relinquish choice. She stressed that only by not surrendering the power to choose can the individual have the strength to take on the evils around him.
Regular People, Extraordinary Feats
It is true that more and more individuals are becoming actively involved in social movements to reshape society. Taiwan has the most vital civil force in all of Asia, a critical factor underlying many people's hopes for the island.
All across Taiwan's 368 cities, towns and villages one can always find seeds of hope as people dedicate themselves to bettering their surroundings. Rolling up their sleeves and taking action ahead of the government, they organize various forces and influence more people to participate in bringing about change.
National Taiwan University vice president, Chen Liang-Gee, who grew up in the countryside village of Baozhong in Yunlin County, led students in the development of the world's first high definition integrated video codec chip, making him a hot commodity that even Korean giant Samsung has sought out to lecture on technology. The holder of over 100 semiconductor and electrical engineering technology patents, Chen has transferred all of it to more than 20 Taiwanese enterprises.
Professor Chen reflects that Taiwan's robust people power means that individuals can accomplish a great deal. Accordingly, he set the goal for himself to help elevate Taiwanese industry. In addition to transferring the technology he developed to industry, at NTU he promotes entrepreneurship, as it can have an exponential benefit to others.
"One need not be president to accomplish things; each individual can contribute to society by doing one's role well," he offers.
Camel, Lion, Child
The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said that nobility comes from accepting burdens and creating transformations. Nietzsche compared the three stages of spiritual metamorphosis to a camel, a lion, and a child. The camel symbolizes shouldering responsibility, the lion represents the free choice to create, and the child symbolizes the creation of new value.
Camels, lions and children exist on every inch of land around Taiwan, working hard to propel the country in a positive direction in a tug of war against the negative forces of "the impossible."
The door is open in 2014. You can see the dark, shabby corners within the light, or you can see the light amidst the darkness. The choice is up to you.
Tom Ta-Min Sun, president and CEO of TPK Corp., offered these poignant words: "Instead of complaining and criticizing, if we use our time to do things and solve problems, there is hope for Taiwan."
Translated from the Chinese by David Toman