It's difficult to know what to believe in Taiwan. True, the experience of one-party totalitarianism for over fifty years has left some deep scars and rotteness on politics and society, but recent reaffirmations of Taiwanese identity and culture may, if taken too far, endanger the harmonious fabric of a multi-cultural and multi-lingual society under the wings of a developing
democracy. The national identity crisis, whether you identify yourself as Chinese or Taiwanese, has the potential to erupt and divide the country in two opposing and extreme camps, which may serve to further undermine the search for cooperation and consensus necessary for nurturing a new political system, and for breaking away from the old corrupt and "guanxi"-based top-down mannerisms. Has the handover of power from the pro-China KMT to the pro-Taiwan DDP brought about real benefits?
As an outsider, as someone who admittedly does has not lived in Taiwan for more than a few months at each time for the past fifteen years, but as someone who cares deeply about developments of his native country, there have been noticeable differences. The north-south divide has definitely been shortened. Events like National Day, or even the Lantern Festival are now organised in cities other than just Taipei, something that would have been inconceivable years ago. Taiwanese, as a language and culture, is no longer shunned aside and displayed only on the sidelines, but is encouraged and promoted. School children now must learn and another 'mother tongue' next to the official Mandarin. The diversity of cultures and languages (Chinese, Taiwanese, Hakka and aboriginese) have finally been recognised in various policies promoting "unity in diversity". TV and radio stations, designated protection reserves and tourism have all helped to uplift the previously suppressed status of the vast majority of people under the veil of "everyone is Chinese.
But these are just a few 'on-the-surface' examples of the improvements in the past few years. How much have the lives of people really improved? Open up the predominant proportion of broadsheet newspapers in Taiwan, and there are articles and pictures abundant with negative reporting and criticisms about the government and establishment. Can this simply be attributed to the dominance of the pro-KMT think-alikes in the media? Can this simply be balmed on the public's desire for sensationalist news and gossip and thirst for scandals and 'exclusives'? Or has the general state of social, political and economic stability and prosperity gone really downhill ever since the new government took over?
I'd like to give the current government the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps, as in all 'chinese' cultures and societies, the traditions of 'friends and family first', "guanxi", 'and mutual back-scratching' is prevalent, yes. And perhaps some elections promises and slogans are intended to sway voters and win sympathies. But really, how easy is it to reform something, someone, let alone an entire organisation of state, society and people that have been under the monopoly dictatorship of one authoritarian party sanctioned by the repression and fear-mechanisms of the military and police? I'd like to think the DDP came to power with good intentions and a reform-minded strategy. But reform and change is only effective and possible if the system works in that direction, or better still, is willing to be changed and reformed. Unfortunately, when the entire structure of the way power and economics is organised is itself defunct and achronastic, anything, however well-wishing and well-intending too will be contaminated.
I've come across a few blogs which shed some light on the issue.
One paints a bleak and 'rotten' example of how much Taiwan has gone from bad to worse, and seems to be beyond rescue. The main argument is built on a translation of a respected business-orientated magazine in Taiwan, part of it reads:
"In the past, these people [politicians] in Taiwan are beyond criticism. Those who make criticisms are said to "denigrate Taiwan." In order to "love Taiwan," the media in Taiwan had to keep silent, or even be forced or willingly to praise the leaders. In this silence, Taiwan has the reached the end of the road where Taiwan had managed to denigrate itself. Today, the trust in the leadership, the governability, the economic future and even social attitudes are rapidly disintegrating. When the day comes that the people of Taiwan finally wakes up, Taiwan may have already reached a stage where it no longer matters what people have to say about it.
Thus, in Taiwan today, we are afraid that we have reached a moment when we must seriously confront the problem of "rottenness." The rotting of a country and society could not have happened suddenly, for it must have been a gradual process. The key elements have to be the loss of morality in the political figures, the loss of the sense of right versus wrong, the perversion of the justice system, the existence of double or even multiple standards as well as the terminal financial deterioration. The rottenness also reflects the chaos of anarchy and nihilism among the people, which eroded the complete society. Social accidents and disasters become magnified, small-time thieves become big-time robbers, homicides become major crimes, trains get derailed and airplanes fall down from the sky. Some day, people will find that they want to stay above the fray but that is an impossible dream. From this moment, the road that Taiwan is taking is the path towards "rottenness."
There are officials, but no government; there is a society, but no rules; there are media, but no sense of right or wrong. Taiwan is rotting down this path, and is there any other way out other than continuing?"
Then there is this rebuttal, which makes strong and backed-up arguments to the contrary.
Sorry the entries are a few months out of date...but rottenness could have gotten worse, or better since.
UPDATE: 1 MARCH 2006
A sample of the divide of opinions about the state of Taiwan.
UPDATE: 2 MAy 2006
And then there are also articles like this one, which praises Taiwan's uniqueness