TAIPEI reminds me of my hometown Penang because both are islands and geographically small in size. Unlike the provinces in mainland China, Taiwan has a sub-tropical climate.
It is also a Hokkien-speaking town. Many of the Chinese in Penang and Taiwan can trace their roots to Fujian, located just 160km across the strait.
Both islands are congested and choked with motorbikes, and even have the same population of 2.5 million people. Penang and Taiwan also depend on technology-based companies for the employment of their residents.
Many Penangites, especially from Chung Ling High School and Han Chiang High School, have ended up studying in Taiwan universities, mostly in engineering and computer science.
The food is also similar: I found oh chean (fried oyster omelette), bah kut teh and mua chee (rice ball with peanuts) in almost every night market.
All these commonalities made travelling in Taipei very easy for me.
Besides conversing in Hokkien with officials of the Government Information Office – the equivalent of our Information Ministry – I had the opportunity to exchange pleasantries with President Chen Shui-bian in the dialect during the recent National Day celebrations.
Taipei Economic and Cultural Office information division director Cecilia Chang said it was a shame I had visited many cities in China but not Taiwan (the so-called renegade province of China).
Besides, it was the third invitation from the Taiwan government and I was reluctant to turn it down again, especially when Ms Chang was ending her three-year posting in Kuala Lumpur. I had turned down the second invitation earlier this year when Taiwan was hit by SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) which took 84 lives.
The Taipei Economic and Cultural Office is the de facto embassy in KL as Malaysia does not have diplomatic relations with Taiwan. However, bilateral trade between the two sides rose 2.4% to more than RM9.1bil in the first four months of this year, with Malaysia enjoying a trade surplus of about RM3bil last year.
Together with several South American, Caribbean and African journalists, we were invited to stay for a week in Taipei in conjunction with the National Day celebrations on Oct 10, dubbed the Double-Ten bash.
My first taste of the kind of diplomatic treatment meted out to officials like Chang in Kuala Lumpur came when I attended a dinner hosted by the Information Minister Huang Hwei-Chen.
Together with Datuk Abdul Rahim Bakri from the Malaysian Friendship and Trade Centre, we were seated at one of the back tables of the posh hotel to signify our diplomatic status – or the lack of it. At the same table were officials from Singapore, Switzerland and Germany, countries in the same situation.
On the main table, together with minister Huang, were editors and diplomats from some of the 26 nations that recognise Taiwan. They were mostly small, developing African and Latin American nations that receive generous amounts of aid in exchange for their support.
Despite the celebrations, there was a dampener for the Taiwanese that night. Word had gone around that Liberia would be severing ties with Taiwan and would announce it formally after Oct 10. Three days later, the announcement came.
Taiwan immediately accused China of using its influence in the United Nations to pressure Liberia, saying China had threatened to interfere in the budget for UN peacekeepers if the West African country did not sever ties with Taiwan.
During my one week’s stay, the daily briefings often included some China-bashing, which confused some of the Latin American and African journalists because the Taiwanese were, at the same time, telling them the staggering amount of investments they had put in mainland China. In addition, more than three million Taiwanese travelled to the mainland last year, making China the top tourist spot for the islanders.
With the presidential election likely to be called in March, Chen’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has started beating the war drums to win votes, including “creating a new constitution in 2006” and vowing to “walk our own Taiwan road”. The Constitution is over 50 years old, approved at a time when Kuomintang ruled mainland China.
Speaking in Hokkien to win the hearts of the grassroots, he has talked about changing the island’s name from the Republic of China to Taiwan, saying “Taiwan is not a province of one country nor is it a state of another.”
Chen, who would be defending his post, called the one-China principle “abnormal thinking that should not exist, it should be corrected” and said “there is only one China and one Taiwan.”
Since then, he has raised the stakes with even stronger remarks from his officials but the Taiwanese media has downplayed such outbursts, concentrating on calls for dialogue instead.
Such sabre-rattling has no doubt irked China, and many Taiwanese, especially those born in mainland China or have investments there, are worried.
Overseas Chinese, including the community’s leaders in Malaysia, have expressed their uneasiness over the tension, particularly the push by Chen for a referendum.
US-trained political scientist Dr Alexander Huang, vice-chairman of the Mainland Affairs Council, Taiwan’s top mainland policy-making body, has added fuel to the fire. With his American drawl and stinging criticism of China at press briefings, Dr Huang could well have stepped out from the White House with Donald Rumsfeld.
As I left his briefing, a confused journalist from Senegal asked me why Taiwan was not putting its money elsewhere if China was the number one enemy.
The answer is simple: the Chinese are practical. It made sense to invest in China because of its cheap labour and huge market. The use of a common language and culture also makes it easier for businessmen from both sides to make deals.
And as Dr Huang admitted, the Taiwanese and the Chinese have the same blood. Both are cousins and, cheekily batting an eyelid, he said no one could tell the future political scenario of China and Taiwan.
The old guards are gone and the new breed of leaders in Beijing and Shanghai include those who studied at American universities with Dr Huang and other Taiwanese leaders.
But as of now, no one is amused by the growing tension between China and Taiwan.
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