Discussions of Taiwan usually focus on the island’s strategic importance, its contributions to international trade and the need to draw a line in the sand regarding China’s growing military might and territorial ambitions.
We often lose sight of the Taiwanese themselves – 24 million of them — who are unique.
As a frequent visitor to Taiwan, I can tell you what a wonderful place it is and how special its people are.
Sure, Taiwan has the 8th largest economy in Asia (the 18th largest in the world), not bad for a country with a population of 24 million. It’s now a mature democracy, rated one of the freest nations in the world. And, yes, Taiwan is the only democracy in the Chinese-speaking world, which provides a stunning contrast to the increasingly brutal totalitarianism of the mainland regime.
But there’s so much more.
To me, Taiwan is the towering splendor of Taipei 101 (when it opened in 2004, the tallest building in the world), the National Palace Museum (with 700,000 pieces of art and artifacts, spanning 8,000 years of Chinses history), the exotic Shilin Night Market and the Bangka Lungshan Temple, dating back to the 18th century.
There’s also the bustling port city of Kaohsiung, the Kenting National Park with its miles of beaches and hundreds of species of butterflies and the picturesque Sun Moon Lake, nestled in an Alpine setting, a favorite for honeymooners.
All of this is a backdrop to the people of Taiwan – racially Han Chinese, but with their own identity, as dissimilar to the mainland Chinese as the American colonists were to the British in 1776.
The Taiwanese are religiously diverse, with Buddhism and Taoism dominating, but Christianity, Islam, Confucianism and various indigenous religions thrown into the mix.
With 24 universities and 45% of the population with a bachelor’s degree or higher, they’re among the best-educated people in the world, excelling particularly in math and science. This probably accounts for their dominance in high tech. Taiwan is the most technologically advanced microchip maker in the world.
South Koreans are known for bonhomie, hence their reputation as the Irish of Asia. For me, the Taiwanese have them beat hands down. They are exceedingly polite but also outgoing, friendly and helpful. Even if they don’t speak English, they’ll try hard to give tourists directions.
They cherish family and manners, both natural reflections of Confucianism. The elderly are treated with respect. The stranger is honored.
A visitor can stay at a 5-star hotel and look out the window of his room to see people practicing tai-chi in a neighboring park or pass the shop of a Chinese herbalist or a man doing acupuncture on his way to the most modern of shopping malls.
These people will never be absorbed or fated to live as subjects, like the Hong Kongese.
China’s military might (which grows almost hourly) will have to be confronted at some point. Beijing in possession of both sides of the Taiwan Strait would be a nightmare. If Taiwan’s economy is grafted to the PRC’s, it will be virtually unstoppable.
But, please, have some concern for the great people of Taiwan, the human factor in the equation. If the past century taught us anything, it’s what happens when large nations betray small nations and lose their soul in the process.
• Don Feder is a former Boston Herald writer and syndicated columnist.
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