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(photo credit: Courtesy Photo)
Even the harsh jolt of an earthquake and strong typhoon winds could not shake the world's tallest building, a bamboo-shaped skyscraper towering above the Taipei skyline that has come to symbolize Taiwan's struggle for international recognition.
Despite these natural disasters, "Taipei 101 is still there, smiling every day to all its visitors," asserted the affable secretary-general and spokesman of Taiwan's Foreign Ministry, Michel Ching-long Lu. The 101-floor building, built on what was once a rice field and cemetery, projects Taiwan's aspirations, he said.
"The importance of Taipei 101 is that Taiwan should go out to the international community," Lu told a group of journalists hosted by the Government Information Office in September. "Taipei 101 is a symbol of Taiwan's success."
Noting that most top brands in the world - from Armani to made-in-Taiwan labels - have outlets in its lower-level shopping mall, he said it took over five years to put up, and was completed just two years ago.
Standing 508 meters tall, Taipei 101 also boasts the fastest elevators in the world, travelling at a speed of over 1,000 meters per minute. The 47-second ride to the top briefly stirs the stomach.
And at the summit there is a breathtaking view of the whole city, home to some 3 million of the country's 23 million citizens.
I could even see the large anti-corruption demonstration taking place across town against President Chen Sui-bian outside the Presidential Office, a healthy sign of Taiwan's lively democracy in action.
"Depose Chen!" chanted thousands of protesters, many dressed in angry red. The leader of the campaign is no other than the former chairman of Chen's ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), Shih ming-teh. Shih, who is dubbed Taiwan's Mandela because he spent 25 years in prison when Taiwan was under martial law, began an open-ended sit-in in downtown Taipei on September 9.
"We call on A-Bian [Chen's nickname] to step down," Shih urged in a televised address. "This will be a long battle. It won't be easy to topple Taiwan's most powerful man."
Shih has announced plans to hold a large protest march in the capital on October 10, coinciding with Taiwan's National Day celebrations.
Chen insists that he and his inner circle, including his wife, son-in-law and former aide, are innocent of charges that they embezzled state funds, and promises to complete his term as president in 2008.
A press release issued by the Presidential Office said Chen assured police investigators recently that he had not pocketed a single cent. But he has admitted to indirectly accepting large sums of money from friends in the form of gift certificates redeemable at an expensive Taipei department store.
TAIWAN, WHICH split from mainland China in 1949 and is viewed by Beijing as a part of China, had been governed for more than half a century by the nationalist party, Kuomintang (KMT), until Chen's election in 2000.
The anti-Chen protest began after the KMT and its supporters, who support closer ties with China and are collectively known as the Blues, failed to win a legislative motion to oust the president.
Chen, who narrowly won re-election in 2004 for a second term and whose independence supporters are known as the Greens, proclaimed in a landmark speech on August 3 that Taiwan and China were separate countries and he called on legislators to consider a referendum on a new constitution.
Beijing has threatened military action should Taiwan officially break from the mainland. In China, the Communist Party's mouthpiece, People's Daily, warned that "the chances of Beijing using military force to settle the Taiwan question may be heightened if Chen pushes for a referendum."
In the meantime, Taiwan has not been too successful in breaking the so-called "One China" policy that views Taiwan as an integral part of the mainland, and winning international acceptance.
Earlier this year, the World Health Organization again refused to recognize its status even as an observer, making its battle against diseases such as avian flu and SARS even more difficult. And on September 11, it failed in its 14th attempt to become a member of the United Nations, despite a recommendation from 16 of the 24 states with which it enjoys diplomatic relations.
A day after, Chen told UN reporters that he "deeply regretted" the decision by the General Assembly's General Committee not to consider Taiwan's participation in the international body.
"Taiwan fulfills all the conditions required for UN membership as stipulated in the UN Charter," he said. "Taiwan is an independent, sovereign and peace-loving country... The voice of the 23 million people of Taiwan should not go unheard, but rather should be heeded and taken notice of by the international community. More importantly, the people of Taiwan should not be deprived of their collective human rights."
Chen claimed that 80 percent of Taiwan's people supported the proposal for UN membership under the name of Taiwan. And indeed, according to the results of a survey by Taiwan Thinktank, 79% of Taiwanese are in favor of the country applying to join the UN under the name of Taiwan. (The survey, conducted in August on 1,072 adults, had a margin of error of 2.99%.)
Other surveys have shown the Taiwanese people are split over support for independence from China or unification with it, and at least one poll (sponsored by the Mainland Affairs Council) indicated that a majority supports maintaining the status quo now and making a decision on independence or unification some time in the future.
Taiwan, which held China's seat in the United Nations until 1971, says the world body is incomplete without it. Chen vowed that Taiwan would not give up its struggle to enter the UN fold.
"This year marks the 35th anniversary of Taiwan's withdrawal from the United Nations," he said. "Since we cannot return to the United Nations using the title of Republic of China, we have no alternative but to apply directly for UN membership under a new name - Taiwan."
AN INTERNATIONAL leader in the manufacturing industry, Taiwan today has the world's 17th largest economy, and is the 15th biggest trading nation. A big chunk of its trade (almost a fifth) is across the Taiwan Strait with mainland China, although it considers the United States and Japan its major partners.
"President Bush is the friendliest president we ever had," remarked Amber Chang, editor-in-chief of the Taipei Times.
The country is hoping for more than five million tourists this year. And it has much to offer the foreign visitor. Bruce Liu, the deputy director of the tourism bureau, said he believed there were two main attractions.
"The Taiwanese people are very friendly, and Taiwan is a very safe country. Totally safe," he said. "But we are always isolated by our big brothers across the Strait."
Liu said that although China had stopped its allies from establishing official diplomatic relations and direct flights, tourism was escalating. One sign I noticed was the vast amount of material available in English, which was not the case as recently as a decade ago.
Life in Taipei itself is certainly bustling, and there is no shortage of wonderful hotels, restaurants, cafes known for both quality coffee and tea, bars (Taiwan beer is excellent) and even an open-air night market that rivals the one in Bangkok.
Among the places not to be missed in the city are the National Palace Museum, one of the world's top museums that houses a truly awesome treasury of Chinese culture (including a tiny boat with sailors carved from an olive pit), and the historic Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall (which even features the late leader's sedan).
Interestingly, the Taiwanese government in September voted to change the name of Taipei's airport from Chiang Kai-shek to Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport.
The name change is significant. The cabinet pointedly added Taiwan to the name of the airport (even though the country's official name remains the Republic of China), but eliminated any reference to Chiang Kai-shek, the nationalist general and KMT leader who once ruled all of China and later Taiwan after losing the mainland to the Communists and fleeing to the island in 1949.
"In recent years, there has been an ongoing evolution," DPP Prime Minister Su Tseng-chang said in a statement. "We hope that this official name will restore the name that should have been."
Outside of Taipei, visitors should not miss the natural wonders of the Taroko Gorge national park, formed by the Liwu River carving its way through marble mountains. Taiwan, by the way, is now the world's second biggest marble exporter, after Italy. The highway leading visitors to the gorge was first built for military purposes soon after the KMT government fled to Taiwan.
Another must is the Juming Museum, a beautiful outdoor gallery in the hills that has an incredible collection of works by Taiwan's top sculptor, 68-year-old Ju Ming. Besides his famous Taichi Series, Ju Ming has new collections of life-sized sculptures of Taiwanese athletes and soldiers that are well worth seeing.
I asked Vincent Li, a guide at the Juming Museum, what he thought about the Taiwan-China conflict.
"What I can say is that the majority of Taiwanese do not really care about this issue," he replied. "What the majority of Taiwanese people want is to have a stable and peaceful life. We do not want fights against China. Fights can destroy the economy, life and even the whole country [Taiwan]."
The best known hotel in Taipei is the exotic Chinese-style Grand Hotel, where Chiang Kai-shek built an underground escape tunnel, but most tourist hotels offer excellent service at reasonable prices. Eating out and shopping are also relatively cheap for Israelis, although not as cheap as Thailand.
The weather in Taiwan, like its future, is unpredictable, and the visitor should always carry an umbrella, both against the hot sun and sudden rains.
Even the issue of typhoon warnings is affected by the island's lack of contact with international meteorological organizations.
While I was here, Taipei experienced a mini-typhoon, but this was not enough to order residents to stay home. They have become used to typhoons, just as they have learned to deal with the One China policy, and thrive in spite of it.
"This country used to be so poor that no typhoon would come to visit because there was nothing to sweep away," Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu quipped. "But today this country is known not only for its economic prosperity but also for the success of its democratization."
The writer was a guest of the Taiwanese government.