Within two hours of my landing in Taipei last week, two people mentioned their love of shakshuka, the spicy Israeli egg dish. One was a Turkish journalist and the other a local resident.
In that typically Israeli way, I was both proud of our culinary fame and relieved that Israel is being seen not only through the prism of conflict.
I traveled to the capital of Taiwan for last Friday’s inauguration of Tsai Ing-wen, the country’s 14th president and the first woman leader in the Chinese-speaking world. I was part of a press delegation, some 40 journalists from more than 30 countries, flown in by the Taiwanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs. As Dr. Chen- Sheng Ho, director of the Department of International Affairs at the Taiwan Institute of Economic Research, noted when we met in his office: “Taiwan would like to be friends with everybody, that’s how we survive.”
About the size of the Netherlands, Taiwan (or the Republic of China), has a population of some 23 million.
Its desire to be liked and internationally accepted was evident throughout our weeklong stay. It is proud of its democracy, particularly in contrast to China, and sees itself as an essential part of the region. Tsai’s election is considered a setback to Beijing which abides by the One China principle that considers Taiwan a province, not a separate country. Ousted president Ma Ying-jeou from the Nationalist Kuomintang party favored closer ties with mainland China, and crossstrait ties improved during his eight years in office.
Our itinerary included a visit to the Legislative Yuan where we were addressed by the new parliament’s president (or speaker), Jia-Chyuan Su. At a later reception Vice Minister of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Leo Chen-jan Lee noted: “This is the third peaceful transfer of power of the Republic of China.”
We also visited Formosa Television (FTV) where Paul Tsai, deputy manager of the news department, noted that the country has seven round-the-clock news stations, hence the often sensationalist reporting and Taiwan’s name for parliamentary scuffles.
Tsai, a pro-independence, 59-year-old former law professor (who visited Israel and The Jerusalem Post while she was the leading candidate) was elected in a landslide victory in January garnering some 56 percent of the vote. Her election marks the first time the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has control of both the presidency and of the legislature since Chiang Kai Shek moved his Nationalist Kuomintang government across the Taiwan Strait to escape the Communist forces in the Mainland in 1949.
She was sworn in with an impressive ceremony and a speech stressing domestic economic strength and dialogue. I got lost in non-translation for most of the speech. My Mandarin, never fluent, has grown rusty in the more than three decades since I studied it at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Since the word for “problem” and “question” are the same, I accidentally found a hidden meaning when she proclaimed: “The people elected a new president and new government with one single expectation: solving problems.”
There are always more questions than answers, I pondered, and solving problems is not as easy as presenting a well-prepared inaugural address. (We thankfully swiftly received the transcript.) This was my third visit to Taiwan, the previous ones being in the 1990s and in 2009. With all due respect, these weren’t the national elections that the whole world followed with trepidation (and many of us joked about both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton).
Nonetheless, they are important. As former US ambassador to the UN John Bolton wrote in The Wall Street Journal, under the headline, “Tsai Ing-wen must be ready to act”: “Beijing’s approach to territorial disputes in the South China Sea has not been merely creating ‘facts on the ground’ but creating the ground itself. It populates its artificial islands with air and naval forces to make its claims concrete and menacing.”
While only the fourth topic in Tsai’s inauguration speech after discussing the economy, social welfare, and social justice, Tsai’s comments on the cross-strait relationship, promising dialogue and to become a “proactive communicator for peace,” were much awaited.
“Taiwan has always played an indispensable role in the region’s development,” Tsai said. “But in recent years, regional developments have been changing rapidly. If Taiwan does not effectively use its strength and leverage to proactively participate in regional affairs, it will not only become insignificant, it might even become marginalized and lose its ability to determine its own future.”
Not for the first time, I mentally replaced the word “Taiwan” with “Israel,” and felt an affinity.
The relationship with China is not Tsai’s only challenge.
From a Hakka and Taiwanese aboriginal family, Tsai has consistently stressed the need for a more inclusive society and the rich ethnic diversity was particularly evident in the inauguration (and our itinerary).
The swearing-in ceremony started with a military parade and ended with a flyby, but the artistic performances showed the island’s history starting from before the arrival of Chinese people, and the singers and performers included members of local minority communities.
In the spirit of democracy, a separate area was set aside close to the presidential palace where protesters could hold demonstrations.
Although we’d been warned security was tight, a Jordanian journalist and I agreed that it was practically nonexistent compared to what we’re used to.
THE PURPOSE of our visit was not only to attend the inauguration but see different sides of Taiwan.
Among the economic and environmental highlights, we visited the multi-million dollar Singtex Co.
which creates sweatproof, waterproof material from the waste of ground coffee beans and recycled plastic bottles, working with big-name international brands; and we visited the GoGoRo company producing electric smart scooters in the “Internet of Things” spirit.
In the South, we stopped by the world-class Kaoshiung Stadium, where solar panels also provide energy.
We took the superbly efficient High Speed Rail to Kaoshiung. The public service announcement informs passengers at the station that the escalator handrail “has been sanitized.” Locals seem more concerned with conventional germs than the sort of threats we’re used to in the Middle East but an earthquake of 5 on the Richter Scale, which made my hotel room sway, didn’t faze them.
At the Taiwan Indigenous Peoples Cultural Park our too-brief visit provided entertainment for all as we danced, played traditional games, and some of us were chosen to fire an ancient aboriginal bamboo cannon.
(I’m assured that the Israeli flag will now fly there.) Back in Taipei, a visit to the National Palace Museum – displaying priceless items of the sort destroyed in the Cultural Revolution on the Mainland – is a must.
So, too, is a tour of Taipei 101, the 508-meter tall skyscraper.
Unfortunately, during this visit the rain and mist made it impossible to see anything of the usually incredible view – a sign that not everything can be planned for. Only here, did we see a reasonable level of security. Taiwan’s landmark tower has the dubious honor of being on the Islamic State’s list of threatened buildings; another reminder that in today’s world, we face common threats.
I was asked what differences I noticed this time compared to roughly eight years ago. The ubiquitous moped riders now all wear helmets; road works that caused traffic jams have become major highways; Taiwanese cuisine is becoming more sophisticated (like Israeli food, even shakshuka). Above all, Taiwan, a global leader in LED manufacturing, has many more buildings and streets decoratively lit up.
The future looks bright despite the problems and questions.The writer is the editor of The International Jerusalem Post.