Taipei,Taiwan….wow, quite surprising. We took an 8-hour tour of the city, visiting many of the museums, shrines and monuments with some of the most important Chinese art and historic collections anywhere. Beginning with the 10th Century when Chinese Emperors seized art treasures for their own pleasure, the National Palace Museum holds over 700,000 items, many dating back over 4,000 years. We also visited the Martyrs Shrine, an excellent example of classical Ming Dynasty architecture. The Lungshan Temple, a 250-year-old center for Buddhist and Taoist worship, was quite amazing. All that smoke you see in the photos is from incense sticks that hundreds of worshipers were lighting and using to pray to one or more of their hundred “gods”. Buddhists, Taoists and worshipers of the philosophy of Confucius, which comprise 90 % of the Taiwanese population, were there on this Saturday in abundance. Our guide told us they even worship the fruit of their choice, vegetables, their favorite cookie (bet you didn’t know that Oreos were gods) and even long, flat noodles which they think if they eat them will provide long life and happiness. Pretty foreign practices to Judea-Christian types. The Chiang Kai-shek Memorial, with its octagonal, blue tile roof and pristine white marble walls was impressive but we did not have time to vault the 86 steps up to the top, one for every one of Chiang’s years on earth. We were told that the statue of Chiang at the top looks remarkably like the one of Abraham Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. Currently the 5th tallest building in the world, the Taipei 101 skyscraper has 101 floors plus a 147-foot spire and is quite spectacular, dwarfing all the buildings surrounding it and dominating the skyline; however, as you can see, the top 50 floors or so were obscured by the clouds the structure rose up to penetrate.
Taiwan is a relatively small island, only about one-third the size of the state of Ohio, but with a 23.3 million population and an amazing per capita income level for an Asian Pacific country. By comparison, the per capita income of $ 38,400.00 annually is higher than that of Japan ($ 35,900.00) and blows away that of mainland China ($ 9,100.00). Some perspective, the per capita income in the U.S. is $ 51,700.00. This is a thriving economy with only 4 % unemployment.
I have always thought the history of this country to be quite interesting. Here is a summary you might find enlightening based on information we have been given on this trip and a lecture we attended on our recent sea day. In the early 17th Century, the island, formally known as Formosa which mean “beautiful isle”, had a small, aboriginal population comprised of mostly dissidents and merchants. Residents were forbade immigration to mainland China. An imperial government was established in the late 17th Century and there were 159 recorded rebellions over the next 200 years. Control of Formosa was ceded to Japan in 1895 and a search was started for “The Best of the West”, a modernization program designed to lift the small nation state from obscurity. The Japanese modeled the political system after Germany’s and the economic system after the British. There was military rule at first but then limited self-rule evolved. Japanese became the official language and they embarked on an aggressive program of road, bridge, harbor development and hospital construction along with a nationwide school system. The native Taiwanese favored the Japanese to Chinese rule and the population grew from 2.5 to 6 million during the 45 years of Japanese rule. By 1945 there were only 50,000 mainland Chinese residents on Taiwan and there was much disruption with those people causing robberies, lootings and violent demonstrations throughout the country.
In November, 1943 a new Taiwanese leader emerged, Chiang Kai-shek. He met with President Franklin Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill at the Cairo Conference and he was guaranteed support to create an independent enterprise under government control. Led by Chiang and Sun Yet-sen, the Kon Min Tang (KMT) was formed and ruled all aspects of political and economic life on Taiwan.
In 1949 when the Communists won control of mainland China, the KMT cracked down on communism in Taiwan, killing some 20,000 dissidents, declaring Marshall law and forming the Republic of China (ROC). Chiang was named President and Commander of the Army and he imposed rigid censorship, established the KMT as the only political system and gave lifetime appointments to existing legislative seats. During the next three years (1949-1952) inflation dropped from 300 % to 9 %. The economic policies established expanded the skilled labor force and education was emphasized, which doubled the number of primary schools and tripled the number of colleges. A policy of import substitution, whereby anything that was formerly imported was mandated to be made in Taiwan and an emphasis on developing a strong export economy provided huge growth, while creating and expanding the middle class. Annual growth rates in the 1950’s averaged +8 % per year and in the 1960’s it was + 10 % with only 5 % inflation. All of this despite declining support from the United States. Between 1972 and 1979 the U.S. worked hard at building relations with mainland China, beginning with the historic meeting between Mao Tse Tung and President Richard Nixon. Meanwhile, the relations with Taiwan hit the skids as tensions between Taiwan and mainland China deteriorated even further. President Carter officially suspended the defense treaty formed by Roosevelt and abandoned Taiwan.
When Chiang Kai-shek died in 1975, his son, Chiang Ching-kuo, took over and when the U.S., between 1985 and 1986, put pressure on Taiwan to democratize, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) was formed to challenge the KMT. Marshall law was lifted but the government kept control of the radio and television markets. In 1988 Chiang died and a progressive Lee Ten-hui took over as president. He ended the perpetual state of war with mainland China, reduced the military, and tried to establish a peace. It was short-lived. In the 1990’s mainland China threatened invasion. President Clinton moved two battle groups into the Taiwan Strait in an attempt to defuse hostilities. In 1996 the KMT won the presidency again and began an economic drive which brought investment by Taiwanese firms up to $ 100 billion in mainland China while still talking about declaring independence. By 2000 the DPP defeated the KMT one last time and new President Chen Shui-bian once again suggested full independence. President Bush rebuked the new president. Bush wanted to maintain the status quo and declared that Taiwan was “not a sovereign country”. Shortly thereafter Chen was jailed on corruption charges. In 2008 Ma Ying-jeou was elected and pressed to improve relations with mainland China, where 40 % of their exports went and over $ 200 billion was invested.
Finally, last month, February 2014, President Ma formally met with China’s President Xi to discuss further improving relations….the first such meeting of the leaders of these countries since 1949. Interestingly, mainland China still has over 1400 ballistic missiles pointed at Taiwan and Taiwan has an undisclosed number pointed at the mainland. Let’s hope the outcome of last month’s meeting can calm the centuries long tensions between these two Asian countries.
Taiwan disproves the belief that democracy is a Western notion and contrary to Asian traditions. Taiwan has done this with a compelling combination of tight political control while freeing economic development and creating one of the fastest growing middle classes on the planet.
Next up, Okinawa, Japan. Until then,
God Bless you all.
Note: Photos to come in following blog