Sunday, December 7, 2008

So near, yet so far

So Near And Yet So Far

by Jonathan Adams
Newsweek International
"China calling" blog

Recent anti-China demonstrations and violence in Taiwan have highlighted the wide culture and perception gap between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait.

Hopes were high under Taiwan's new president Ma Ying-jeou of a new era of cross-strait reconciliation. And indeed, there's been progress. The 15-year dream of direct cross-strait air and shipping links was finally realized earlier this month. And the island has opened its doors to more Chinese tourists.

But if the economies are drawing closer, the Taiwanese and Chinese peoples seem as far apart as ever. Witness events in the last month. In late October, a Chinese official visiting southern Taiwan was roughed up by a small, angry anti-China crowd (including, pathetically, an elderly woman who banged on the official's car with her crutch).

On Oct. 25, tens of thousands poured into the Taipei streets to demonstrate against China and the Beijing-friendly president Ma. A common refrain I heard at the protests: Ma is selling out Taiwan, sacrificing its dignity and autonomy for filthy lucre.

Things got worse during the Nov. 3-7 visit of China's top cross-strait negotiator, Chen Yunlin. Protesters trapped him in a Taipei hotel for eight hours. An unruly crowd surrounded and yelled at a celebrity Chinese journalist from CCTV. And enraged anti-China demonstrators clashed violently with police. (I personally saw one irate, hard-bitten southerner attempt to scale four layers of barbed-wire-wrapped metal barriers, before reason triumphed over emotion).

To be sure, the violent protesters were an extreme minority. Yet negative views of China are widespread here.

According to a recent government-commissioned poll, 65% of Taiwanese think China's government is "unfriendly" to Taiwan's government, and 46% think it's unfriendly to Taiwan citizens. Not too surprising, since China's coastline bristles with missiles -- over 1,000, by recent counts -- aimed at Taiwan, ostensibly to "deter" any moves towards formal independence.

But another poll, from "Global Views" magazine in September, surprised me more. The magazine asked "If both sides of the Taiwan Strait one day match each other in terms of the economy, politics and society, would you support unification?"

Fully 66% of respondents said "No" -- up sharply from May 2004, when 38% rejected the idea.

Anecdotally, nothing in my experience suggests that further exchanges will help reverse that sentiment. In fact, it may only harden attitudes.

Take the Taiwanese landlord I recently met, whose family runs factories in Suzhou. She complained about Chinese workers, saying if you compensate one for an injury, the next day scores of other workers come in with fake or self-inflicted ones, looking for their handout. Chinese take advantage of any perceived kindness or weakness, she said.

Then there was the young Taiwanese travel agent I met at one recent rally. She knows Chinese tourists could help the island's economy (and her own business), but she still doesn't welcome them. "They spit, and urinate in public," was her reason (she should have added chain-smoking indoors and out, which is a more serious nuisance, in my observation).

Or the young Taiwanese student I met on a bus to Quanzhou, in China's Fujian Province, where he was attending Overseas Chinese University. He spent most of the two-hour ride from Xiamen complaining bitterly about China. He spoke with contempt about the Chinese, who he clearly saw as backward, uncouth hicks. But what most upset him wasn't the people, or the lack of political freedoms, or free speech. No, it was the food. He missed his Taipei night markets, and quality seafood.

For their part, the Chinese have a host of complaints about Taiwanese. A fashion designer I met in Beijing said Taiwanese are snobs, and look down on mainlanders -- a common complaint. Taiwan bosses of mainland factories are widely viewed as exploitative slave-drivers who help themselves to at least one or two mistresses and lord it over their mainland "cousins."

Other Chinese I've met are either ignorant about Taiwan, or spout Beijing's propaganda line, automaton-like. "I must insist that Taiwan is a part of China, that is our bottom line," a young woman told me recently on an overnight train from Guangzhou to Xiamen. I had to look over to see if she was reading from a cue card. On the train coming back, after a couple of "Blue Power" Guangdong beers, a young man elaborated on how Taiwan was just part of the US' grand plot to keep China down. Riiiight.

For his part, Chen Yunlin was reportedly livid that Taiwanese police couldn't simply clear the hotel area of protesters -- a simple enough task in the mainland, but not in freewheeling, democratic Taiwan, where there's such a thing as civil liberties. He was stuck making small talk with the Kuomintang chairman for an uncomfortably long time ("So, is it always this warm in Taipei this time of year?").

If anything, the recent month has underscored the fact that unification remains a pipe dream. The differences in culture, attitude and mentality are far too vast to bridge. Taiwanese want to do more business with Chinese, take more Chinese tourist dollars, get to their mainland factories more easily -- that's about it. If Ma actually does anything to erode Taiwan's political freedoms, the violent minority throwing a tantrum last week could quickly become a majority.

I'd guess the Chinese delegation got the message. At Taipei's Grand Hotel, that gaudy monument to Chinese kitsch, a manager told Taiwan media that hotel staff walking through the hallways could hear late-night noises from behind the delegation's closed room doors. The Chinese were all watching Taiwan TV news -- 24-hour cable stations showing looping footage of the violent protests against them, and spirited, emotional debate about their visit.

For some of the Chinese, at least, the unification dream must have died right there.

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