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Taking a Different Road

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Taking a Different Road

Source:Chieh-Ying Chiu

Traveling the length of gently curving Provincial Highway No. 1, CommonWealth Magazine witnesses the rising vitality of grassroots Taiwan, and discovers seven traits that enable countless Taiwanese to prevail.

Taking a Different Road

By Fuyuan Hsiao
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 475 )

From a bird's eye view this 460-kilometer road resembles a long, thin part in a girl's hair. On both sides of the part stand densely packed high-rises with blue glass façades, gray corrugated-metal factories, lush green rice fields, white-washed school buildings and gilded temples, resembling colorful hair pins randomly put into the girl's hair.

This road has many names: Provincial Highway No. 1, the Western Corridor, the North-South Highway. But most people simply call it the "Provincial Road."

It's noon in early summer, and the sun is scorchingly hot. Along the highway in Sijhou Township, Jhanghua County in central Taiwan, women farm workers are ploughing paddy fields, all wrapped up to protect themselves against the punishing sun. As loaded trucks roar down the highway and motorbikes zoom past, time seems to have stood still for the farm women for much of the past century. In an endless cycle of plowing, planting and harvesting, they work from dawn to dusk for the livelihood of their families.

A Change in the Public Mindset

On April 22 this year, the day when this reporter traveled south on the Provincial Road to Sijhou, President Ma Ying-jeou made a far-reaching announcement in Taipei. In the company of Vice President Vincent Siew, Premier Wu Den-yih, Vice Premier Sean Chen and seven cabinet members, Ma declared that his government would not support the proposed Kuokuang Petrochemical complex in Jhanghua County.

The controversy over the petrochemical project, involving an investment of NT$600 billion, had gone on for nearly six years. Although the mega project was supposed to consolidate the competitiveness of Taiwan's petrochemical industry, it was stopped in its tracks by overwhelming public opposition, marking the dawn of a new era. In the past, the Taiwanese people were willing to sacrifice much for the benefits of economic growth, but today their definition of "living the good life" has changed.

"I deeply feel the moving vitality that comes from the soil... The Kuokuang project marks a crisis, but also an opportunity. We hope that the petrochemical industry can reinvent itself, enabling Taiwan to strike an appropriate balance between environmental sustainability and economic development... This would be generational justice, which many people have been demanding," Ma said. The president had a change of heart after seeing with his own eyes local oyster farmers kneeling in the wetlands of the Jhuoshui River praying for their livelihoods. He was deeply moved and became aware that public sentiment had changed.

Along Provincial Highway No. 1, the story of Taiwan "reinventing" itself is just playing out. Every day people along this road make all kinds of choices.

Should more industrial zones be established to develop the economy, or should agricultural land be preserved to guarantee food security? Should contract manufacturing be continued to maintain advantages in industry, or should manufacturers switch to making their own brands to escape the fate of eternally low profit margins? Should Taiwan fiercely compete with rival countries on the basis of scale, or instead open a new path, transforming into a land where "small is beautiful"?

Once again, Taiwan stands at a turning point.

A long, narrow, meandering highway that disappears into the horizon... On this road that travels the length of the island, Taiwan has made its way through the fog many times, seeking out a way of its own in the world.

Vitality at the Grassroots

Provincial Highway No. 1 begins at the intersection of Zhongxiao and Zhongshan roads, in front of the Executive Yuan Building, at the center of Taipei City. It passes through the island's five special municipalities and 41 smaller cities and towns. Like a shoulder pole it carries the heavy burdens of Taiwan's political and economic life.

Almost 75 percent of the companies who made it into CommonWealth Magazine's 2011 ranking of Taiwan's Top 1000 Enterprises are located in cities and towns along the Provincial Road. Together they account for 94 percent of the Top 1000's corporate assets (NT$107 trillion). These companies take advantage of the Provincial Road to connect to freeways, airports, and harbors, to ship their products overseas and do business with the rest of the world.

Near kilometer 149 of the Provincial Road in the Dajia District of Taichung City is the headquarters of the world's largest bicycle maker, Giant. Sitting in his office Giant chairman King Liu muses about the road's significance in his personal life.

Liu was born in the Shalu district of Taichung City, and married a woman from Gangshan, a suburb of Kaohsiung. Both communities are located on the highway. When Liu founded Giant 39 years ago, he opted for a plot next to the highway. And when Liu set a personal record by bicycling around Taiwan at the age of 73, his route, of course, followed this important traffic artery. The top-end bikes that Giant develops and manufactures at its headquarters are loaded on trucks in Dajia and sent to Taichung Harbor on Provincial Highway No. 1, to be shipped to customers around the world.

Lu Cheng-chang, director-general of the Yunlin County Agriculture Department, comes from a clan with roots in the agricultural industry. The family business, which operates on both sides of the Taiwan Strait, was the first to legally sell Taiwanese fruit in the China market. The 33-year-old Lu remembers how his father often took him along in his truck as a child, driving the provincial highway through Yunlin, Jiayi and Tainan in search of farmers who were willing to grow crops under contract to supply exporters.

"Without this road my dad would not have had the opportunity to do business and sell to the international market just by driving a truck," notes Lu. Due to his childhood memories, Lu, a marketing expert who often organizes farm product exhibitions in the region, harbors a particular fondness for the provincial highway.

When traveling the length of this busy highway, one can feel the pulsating vitality of grassroots Taiwan. The scenery along the road is far from breathtaking, yet excitement and surprises on the trip still take your breath away.

In some places the highway is dotted with eyesores, displaying an ugly, ravaged face – rusty illegal structures and mottled corrugated iron sheds on one side, makeshift foodstalls and garishly decorated betelnut stands across the road.

But it also has a more cultivated side. All along the road, little lanes lead to lovely wonders, and clusters of industry marshal endless innovation.

Feng Chia University vice chairman Kao Cheng-shu, a scholar on Taiwanese industry, often takes the Provincial Road when visiting small- and medium-sized enterprises for his research. "In this world full of twists and turns, the vitality of Taiwanese enterprises has grown stronger over time," Kao contends.

As Kao notes, Taiwan's manufacturers have had to cope with a lot of adversity. Over the past decade a fierce battle of elimination has taken place, as the world economy has undergone a structural transformation both in manufacturing and consumption. While global output has rapidly expanded, boosting supply, the consumer markets in Europe and North America have remained sluggish, drying up demand.

Yet Taiwan's battle-tested enterprises have been tenacious, keeping up with the changing times by upgrading R&D, production and integration capabilities. Along the Provincial Road, enterprises have set the best examples for Taiwan's innovative prowess by carving out their own roads to success, be it the science parks in northern Taiwan or the bicycle and precision machinery industries in central Taiwan.

Seven Survival Skills

Marking its 30th anniversary, CommonWealth Magazine dispatched a group of reporters across the island to take snapshots of Taiwan as it enters another period of transition. Instead of taking one of the fast and pencil-straight national highways or the high-speed railway, they traveled the winding Provincial Road, which moves at a more leisurely pace, encountering Taiwan as it really is.

The journey revealed seven overarching traits that are typical of the Taiwanese character: The Taiwanese are agile and flexible – when the mountain won't move, they build a road around it. They have a daring spirit that turns disadvantage into advantage. They are passionately committed to doing good. They are tenacious enough to always bounce back. They have a good nose for doing business worldwide. They are dissatisfied with the status quo, constantly seeking novelty and change. And they are friendly and open-minded.

Embodying a combination of these seven traits, Taiwan keeps meeting new challenges, boldly creating and courageously shouldering new tasks, not only carving out a road for survival amid adversity, but also becoming an essential model of development for the rest of the world.

Well-known Taiwanese nature writer Liu Ka-shiang once summed up Taiwan's difficult and arduous existence as the "big island" experience.

"Taiwan's most charming part isn't its beautiful scenery, but its people," Liu said of his native land.

Along Provincial Highway No. 1, the "big island" of Taiwan has created an alternative development model. Taiwan can't rely on natural resources, vast land or a huge population. It doesn't resort to violent political change, but accesses the persistence and ambition of every single Taiwanese to change the face of world industry, challenge the geopolitical chessboard and create a unique political and economic miracle for the rest of the world.

The era of road building is over, as Taiwan's highways already form a dense network. But the Provincial Road symbolizes the most beautiful aspirations of the Taiwanese.

At the end of his story "My Old Home," Chinese author Lu Xun writes, "I thought: hope cannot be said to exist, nor can it be said to not exist. It's just like any road on the earth. Actually, the earth had no roads to begin with, but when many men pass the same way, a road is made."

That's the road all Taiwanese are traveling, a road very much their own.

Translated from the Chinese by Susanne Ganz

Keywords:

好友人數