You’d think that Hualien, perched against the Pacific Ocean and separated by mountains from the concrete jungles of Taiwan’s West Coast, would be as far as one can get from where I grew up: New York City. And, indeed, it sometimes feels that way: like when I want a bagel, or an off-broadway play, or to hear John Zorn make some noise on his saxophone. But sometimes Hualien can remind me of home… in the most unexpected ways.
The story of “La Michael” describes a group of young Amis people who try to convince their elders to name them “La Michael” so as to commemorate Michael Jacksons death. However, since the elders do not consider Michael Jackson a very important person, these young people need to prove his importance by winning a national dance competition with their team name, “La Michael”.
Re-posted from Savage Minds.
And here is a picture of the view (on a more typically cloudy day) looking back, from the balcony near my office.
Most of the people who live on the East Coast of Taiwan reside in a narrow valley between the Coastal Mountain Range (top picture) and the larger Central Mountain Range (bottom picture). The valley starts in Hualien city, and continues down about about a hundred miles, to the next coastal city, Taitung. About thirty miles south is the village where I did my fieldwork. Apart from the great scenery and the chance to improve my Chinese, that is one of the main reasons I took this job. But it is now four years since I came here and I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve made that thirty mile trip. That’s what I’d like to talk about in this post. I think the reasons give some insight into what life is like as an expat professor in Taiwan, what it means to teach near your field site, as well as some of the unique aspects of my current situation. Read More
Reading Panaj Mishra’s NYRB article about Burma, “The Revolt of the Monks,” I was reminded of the KMT’s adventures in Burma, a remarkable episode in the inglorious history of Taiwan’s ruling party. After several pages discussing the brutal suppression of last year’s protest by Burma’s monks, Mishra turns to the political-economic foundation of military rule:
But the larger explanation of its strength and longevity lies in a much-ignored fact: that Burma has been in a state of uninterrupted civil war since independence in 1948, with dozens of ethnic-minority insurgent groups, which operate in or control between one quarter and one third of the country, ranged against a Burman-dominated state.
It is in the context of discussing the history of this prolonged civil war that he briefly mentions the story of the KMT in Burma. Curious to know more I turned to Google, and found this excellent chapter from McCoy’s 1972 book, The politics of heroin in Southeast Asia:
The precipitous collapse of the Nationalist Chinese (Kuomintang, or KMT) government in 1949 convinced the Truman administration that it had to stem “the southward flow of communism” into Southeast Asia. In 1950 the Defense Department extended military aid to the French in Indochina. In that same year, the CIA began regrouping those remnants of the defeated Kuomintang army in the Burmese Shan States for a projected invasion of southern China. Although the KMT army was to fail in its military operations, it succeeded in monopolizing and expanding the Shan States’ opium trade.
… With CIA support, the KMT remained in Burma until 1961, when a Burmese army offensive drove them into Laos and Thailand. By this time, however, the Kuomintang had already used their control over the tribal populations to expand Shan State opium production by almost 1,000 percent-from less than 40 tons after World War 11 to an estimated three hundred to four hundred tons by 1962. From bases in northern Thailand the KMT have continued to send huge mule caravans into the Shan States to bring out the opium harvest. Today , over twenty years after the CIA first began supporting KMT troops in the Golden Triangle region, these KMT caravans control almost a third of the world’s total illicit opium supply and have a growing share of Southeast Asia’s thriving heroin business.
When the KMT were driven out of the Shan state the trade was taken over by warlord Khun Sa (pictured above), whose death last year was noted by Mutant Frog’s Roy Berman. Berman also linked to to this Taipei Times article about the plight of “‘stateless’ descendants of former Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) troops.”
Last year I wrote a post about Taiwan’s National Health Insurance program, having found a thoughtful article about the costs and benefits of Taiwan’s system. Now it seems that Taiwan’s system is getting even more attention, this time from a new PBS TV series: “Sick Around the World.” (All episodes of Frontline are available for free online viewing via the website!) Jonathan Cohn reviews the show and talks about health care in Taiwan:
The most interesting case study is probably Taiwan. A few years ago, when Taiwan decided to revamp its health care system, it studied other countries to determine which system might work best. Its conclusion? A single-payer system–one in which the government insures everybody directly–made the most sense.
Virtually alone among health care commentators in the U.S.–a category that includes me–Paul Krugman has been touting Taiwan for a while. The film makes it easy to see why. Today, the people of Taiwan have guaranteed access to health care–and, according to the film, it’s very good health care. There are no chronic waiting lists, like you find in Britain, and the care is very advanced. Among other things, Taiwan is among the world leaders in establishing electronic medical records–an innovation that should significantly improve care by keeping doctors and nurses better informed about patient histories and, no less important, avoiding potentially dangerous drug interactions.
Reid and Palfreman note, rightly, that the Taiwanese system isn’t as foreign as it seems: We actually have a similar program here in the U.S.–for the elderly. It’s called Medicare.
If you ask most people, democracy is synonymous with elections. But, strangely enough, few people who live in electoral democracies feel that elections result in a government which truly responds to their concerns. At its best, electoral politics seems to solve the problem of succession which plagued previous forms of government. Although it is not unusual for violence to break out during elections in many parts of the world, my sense is that even the most procedurally flawed elections in a one-party state make for more peaceful transitions between rulers. By this standard a bloodless military coup is actually slightly better than a violent election, so we’re placing the bar pretty low.
I find it much more useful to think about democracy in terms of institutions. Separation of powers has been an important part of democracy since the early Greek City-States, and was a central feature of the Roman Republic. George W. Bush and Dick Cheney have been doing their best to undo this founding principle of democracy for some time. They object to any congressional oversight of the executive branch, and have appointed Supreme Court judges who believe in a strong executive. We all know the endless stream of abuses which have taken place under the Bush White House, many of them posing serious threats to civil liberties. And yet, somehow, the basic building blocks of US democracy remain intact – barely. (True, we are setting the bar pretty low here when we point out that there aren’t black-booted brown shirts patrolling our streets, but still…)
These thoughts occur to me as Taiwan slips back towards one-party rule less than a decade after the DPP first gained control of the presidency. During that time numerous reform measures which would have strengthened Taiwanese democracy were repeatedly defeated in the KMT controlled legislature. It is unclear whether any of these will move forward now that the KMT’s position is secure, although the KMT’s anti-corruption rhetoric during the past election will likely result in at least some minimal reforms.
Several countries now mix proportional representation with voting for individual candidates, as Taiwan now does. However, it turns out there are two different models for how the mixing works: the
one-vote model Additional Member System (AMS) [UPDATE: See comments below for further clarification.] used in Germany, and the parallel model used in Japan. Not unsurprisingly, considering their close historical relationship, Taiwan has copied the Japanese system. Here is some background on the differences, courtesy of a 2004 BA thesis [link to PDF download] by Joe Michael Sasanuma:
Almost every single American newspaper ran stories about the Taiwanese election attributing the DPP’s defeat to “broad disenchantment among Taiwan’s 23 million inhabitants over the combative pro-independence campaign that has been the centerpiece of Chen’s two four-year terms as president.” I don’t know what motivated the average Taiwanese voter to support the KMT’s sweeping victory, but as best as I can tell, a major reason for the victory was the DPP’s lack of an effective strategy in the face of sweeping changes to the electoral system.
Shelley Rigger summarized the changes in the Wall Street Journal before the election:
The reform cuts the size of the legislature in half, to 113 seats from 225, and replaces the island’s 29 cumbersome multimember districts with a two-track system. This system combines representatives from 73 single-member districts (representing about 300,000 people each) and 34 seats chosen by a party-list system; each voter will tick both a candidate for his district and a party preference. Six seats are set aside for the island’s small indigenous population.
Over at Pinyin.info Mark Swofford notices a new trend of inserting “ING” at the end of Chinese verbs. When I twittered about this, Zonble pointed me to the above song by MayDay, the title of which is 戀愛ing (Lianai – ING), meaning “loving” or “romancing.” Interestingly, if you listen to the song they don’t pronounce it the way I thought they would. Instead of saying “ing” as in English, they spell out the letters. I suppose that reflects the derivation of this practice from the written form in online chatrooms and the like.
UPDATE: Also see this 1994 study on the “Assimilation of Roman letters into the Chinese writing system.”