Taipei - 'We reside in Taiwan, extend compassion to the mainland and set our vision on the world." This is the slogan on the corridor wall at the Mainland Affairs Council in Taipei.
The message echoed within the offices of all the officials I met in October as part of a group of journalists from around the world invited by the Taiwanese government to learn about their country.
Taiwan, or as the locals call it, the Republic of China, is an island measuring about 36,000 square kilometers off the southern coast of mainland China. With a population of approximately 23 million, by comparison to the People's Republic it is bite size. And it's not difficult to understand why Taiwan, despite the improving relations with the mainland, fears being gobbled up.
The only Israeli in the group, I was perhaps best placed to appreciate what it's like living with the threat of 1,300 missiles directed at your population. It was easy, too, to sympathize with the Taiwanese yearning for international recognition. It was disturbing to consider what happens when major allies switch allegiances and go for the bigger market. Taiwan, for example, held China's seat at the UN until 1971. Now, it is not represented in the body.
It was also refreshing to find a country not only devoid of anti-Semitism but actually eager to identify with the Jewish state, both culturally and politically.
Our group, a large contingent from South America and journalists from India, Sweden, New Zealand, Fiji, Oman and Korea, had been invited ostensibly to cover the "Double Ten" celebrations. October 10 is considered, at least in Taiwan, as its birthday: the start of the rebellion against the emperor that led to the establishment of the republic in 1911.
The celebrations this year were basically nonexistent. The official reason was the terrible toll in August of Typhoon Morakat, which killed some 600 people and displaced many more. An article in the Taipei Times, however, suggested that the government had downplayed the celebrations partly because of the conciliatory approach to the mainland being conducted by Taiwan's President Ma Ying-Jeou since he took office in May 2008.
Newly appointed Foreign Minister Timothy Chin-Tien Yang rejected this claim when I raised it, but everywhere we heard officials praise Ma's "flexible diplomacy."
Yang, like the deputy director of the Mainland Affairs Council, Joseph S.C. Hua, and Government Information Office director-general Stephen Chang, noted that the years of "cross-Strait tension" had denied Taiwan its rightful place in the international community.
Since the rapprochement with the mainland, Taiwan's international standing has improved: In May, it achieved observer status in the World Health Organization - hailed as the country's "biggest diplomatic breakthrough in more than 30 years." It is still actively seeking to participate in two other specialized UN organizations - the International Civil Aviation Organization and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. This year's typhoon toll is an obvious reminder of why the environment is so important just as the H1N1 flu epidemic underscores the need for an international approach on health issues.
The sticking point is mainland China's insistence on a "one-state principle," not only regarding Taiwan as part of that state but refusing to remove the missile threat or rescind legislation that would permit the use of force to implement it.
"In the past, relations were dubbed as potentially dangerous and were tense," said Yang. "Since May last year [Ma's election], we do not want to engage in these arguments, which are a futile exercise and counter-productive. No one can solve the problem of sovereignty in the near future so, rather, we have cast aside this difference to pursue a win-win situation... to cooperate for mutual benefit."
ALTHOUGH A major economic power - think Acer computers - Taiwan has also been hit by the "financial tsunami" and is looking to diversify. One of its obvious options is increasing tourism.
In 1993, I participated in a trip to Taiwan sponsored by Lufthansa which had just launched flights there. The vision and determination existed, but not the infrastructure. This trip, I was struck immediately by how far the tourism industry has come. Our hotel in Taipei, the Howard Plaza, met high international standards as did the Evergreen Laurel where we stayed in Taichung.
Road signs are in Chinese and English (unlike the Chinese characters-only signs I saw in the '90s) and schoolchildren, Scouts and even teenagers were eager to greet our group of obviously foreign visitors in English. Nonetheless, "Westerners" are not by any means the only welcome guests.
A huge potential market lies just across the strait. Nearly 11,000 mainland travelers visited Taiwan during the October holiday season. It's easy to see why. Without the widespread destruction of Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution, Taiwan is home not only to ancient Chinese treasures but also to the traditional way of life. Buddhist, Confucian and Taoist and other shrines are dotted about everywhere and the red lights of home shrines give the night sky a different hue as they shine out of apartment windows.
There is evident religious and ethnic freedom for minority groups such as the Hakka. It is also a viable democracy although Israelis who think they have a leadership problem should note that Taiwan's previous president, Chen Shui-ban, is fighting a life sentence for corruption.
Taipei, the capital, is not an attractive city, but certain spots stand out - one of them literally. Taipei 101, the 508-meter tall tower locals claim to be currently the tallest building in the world, offers a stunning view as well as upmarket shopping, with the emphasis on the "up."
I think of the Taipei Economic & Cultural Office in Tel Aviv's landmark Azrieli Towers and Taiwanese security seems incredibly light - less than the average local supermarket at home. On the other hand, visitors are asked to sanitize their hands with a provided spray as part of the anti-flu campaign. Perhaps we all face fears of some kind.
Outside, members of the Falun Gong hold a protest aimed predominantly at the mainland visitors. The demonstrators are evident at every major tourist attraction we visit, such as the National Palace Museum, where visitors with a Beijing accent can also be heard marveling at the treasures alongside hordes of well-behaved Taiwanese schoolchildren.
In the past, the People's Republic of China accused Taiwan of stealing its national artifacts although, another sign of improved relations, the two now exchange exhibits. The museum, completely revamped in recent years, houses a vast collection showing the development of Chinese art from the decorations on cooking pots some 8,000 years ago to the present. My favorite section is the incredible 18-century miniatures, of the type the Israel Museum in Jerusalem recently showcased under the title "Bizarre perfection." The Carved Olive-Stone Boat, a tiny but detailed vessel carved from one pit and decorated with a poem etched in tiny characters, has to be seen - with the help of the provided magnifying glass - to be believed.
Another sign of the common heritage was evident when we visited the National Taiwan College of Performing Arts where students stunned us with their acrobatics and Peking-style opera complete with martial arts.
TO FIND OUT why Portuguese mariners named the island Formosa (Beautiful) you need to look just outside the capital - to the incredibly verdant mountains and gorges which cover most of the land.
In Nantou County, we savored Sun Moon Lake, a honeymoon resort as attractive as its name. We also hit what we quickly dubbed the "Earthquake tourism" trail. A disastrous quake destroyed the area around Ji Ji township on September 21, 1999, and as part of a campaign to rebuild and revitalize it, the government is promoting tourism there. In Ji Ji, I met a Hebrew-speaking guide, Francis Hu. This was not a sign that massive numbers of Israeli backpackers have discovered Taiwan. Hu spent three years in Tel Aviv and was happy to recall his Hebrew as he showed us attractions ranging from a reconstructed old railway station, one of the many traditional potteries, and the Wu Chang Temple that partly collapsed in the earthquake and is being slowly replaced by a new temple next door. A 921 Earthquake Museum is being planned nearby.
One of the newest tourism trends is based on preserving quaint old streets and old-style towns. In Lugang in central Taiwan, my Jerusalemite heart skipped a beat at the sound of mid-morning explosions - my immediate association with the sound of exploding gunpowder is not, after all, firecrackers at a ceremony at a Taoist temple.
For food, I stuck to "Buddhist vegetarian" fare which is strictly vegan and also avoids problems of kashrut. Our Government Information Office liaison officer, Tso Lon-Di, treated me to an explanation of the homeopathic function of items ranging from various types of mushrooms to stuffed lotus leaves and lilies. She also patiently suffered my "tone-deaf" Mandarin, a language I studied at The Hebrew University in the early '80s but have not practiced much since.
Tourism in the South has been doubly hit lately not only by the typhoon but also by a Chinese boycott following a visit by the Dalai Lama. The official line notwithstanding, it seems Taiwan finds it easier to "cast aside its differences" than the People's Republic.
I did, however, meet tourists doing "roots" trips - residents of the US and Hong Kong (now part of China) visiting the island where they or their parents were born. Familial piety remains a strong concept. The aging population is a socio-economic concern, being addressed partly through encouraging what is known as the "three generations under one roof" idea. Although families in Taiwan are small, it is a world away from the enforced one-child policy of the People's Republic.
Most Taiwanese I asked said the Hong Kong model (the so-called "One state, two systems" principle) would not work for Taiwan. One pointed out Hong Kong's recent deportation of a Tiananmen dissident to the mainland as an example of the sort of problems that can occur even if united by a common cultural past and future economic vision.
It remains to be seen how Taiwan will celebrate its national day next year, one year away from its centennial. Both politics and natural phenomena are hard to predict but obviously have an impact. The date 10.10.10, however, sounds auspicious.