'Island Nation': Then and now

Reflections on the story of Taiwan’s success

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Actor Yang Lieh plays the president in "Island Nation" (Facebook/IslandNation1990 photo)

Actor Yang Lieh plays the president in "Island Nation" (Facebook/IslandNation1990 photo)

When I first arrived in Taiwan in September 1986, I knew of course that the world is always changing, but I never realized how much it would change, and certainly not Taiwan itself. I had already served for two years as a consular officer and then a political officer at the U.S embassy in war-ravaged Beirut, where sporadic fighting continued. My time there bracketed Iran’s taking 52 American diplomats and citizens hostage from November 4, 1979, to January 20, 1981. Thereafter, I spent three years in the State Department largely working on Middle East crises, many involving terrorist attacks, including the bombing of our embassy in Beirut, the kidnappings of Americans, and the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. The U.S. preoccupation with terrorism and the Middle East began in those years.

Except for the widening spread of terrorism, however, in many ways, the Middle East has not changed at all. It is still fraught with the same religious and ethnic strife, oppressive governments, and more often than not even the same rulers or their sons. When I realized this, I did whatever I could to get assigned to another part of the world, and I focused on East Asia, where I believed the possibilities for positive development were greatest. Before long, I would, in fact, see huge changes, both in Taiwan and in the People's Republic of China (PRC). Both would prosper economically, but only Taiwan would evolve politically into a fully free democracy. It was not an easy process, and there were many threats and missteps along the way. "Island Nation" (國際橋牌社) tells this unique story in a dramatic series.

First Impressions of Taiwan

Taiwan was much poorer in 1986, and it was still struggling under martial law. My wife and I were both Foreign Service Officers who had surrendered our diplomatic passports for tourist passports before arriving in Taiwan. This was so that we could study Chinese for 10 months at the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) language school on Yangmingshan mountain on the edge of Taipei before taking up assignments in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, and it would supposedly appear we had never set foot in Taiwan. I never understood why we had to go through this charade since it certainly never fooled PRC officials.

Most AIT students lived on the mountain, but because my wife was some five months pregnant, we wanted to be closer to Taiwan Adventist Hospital, where our first daughter was born in early December. Along with a few other students who wanted to live downtown, we commuted every weekday to class in a school-provided van driven by Tang Chu-Shih (唐柱石), whom we all fondly called Xiao Tang and who remains a friend of mine to this day. Our apartment was on Jinan Road, close to the Pearl Market where I bought my mother-in-law a pearl ring, which we learned a month or so later was plastic when it began to peel. A block away was the future site on Renai Road of the deluxe Dibao apartment complex which I would move into 23 years later when I was the AIT Director.

Our landlord, a quiet, thin, gentlemanly figure who lived on the first floor of our small apartment building, walked every day to work wearing a suit and carrying a briefcase and sometimes could be seen tending to his small front garden. I would only learn when I was about to finish my studies that this unassuming man was the owner of the new Howard Plaza Hotel built in 1984. I only learned this when he invited us and another U.S. family who lived in his building to a farewell dinner in a private dining room at the Howard Plaza. When I asked why he chose such an impressive venue, he told me it was his hotel. My landlord came to represent for me a different generation of people who were modest and unostentatious about their wealth. I sent him a thank you letter in Chinese, which was I think the only Chinese letter I ever wrote.

In those days, there was no 101 tower, and I recall that most of what is now Xinyi District and other built-up areas to the east were largely fields, some under cultivation. There was no subway system then, and when it rained hard, some streets would always flood up to the middle of your car’s hubcaps. Autos were relatively fewer then, but hordes of noisy motorbikes spewing noxious fumes filled the streets. If you washed your car in the morning, it was covered with soot by late afternoon. I could not imagine then a Taipei which would one day be far cleaner, greener, and quieter and have more manageable traffic than most other Asia cities I knew. Taiwan was still implementing an import substitution policy, so there were few if any foreign products to buy, and I don’t recall any luxury stores or French or Italian restaurants.

But the Taiwanese themselves provided strong compensation. Medical care was excellent, and our teachers were terrific and friendly to boot. No one in local restaurants ever gave us dirty looks if our baby daughter was crying, as I later learned was often the case in the U.S. Instead, our daughter was often a star attraction for neighboring tables who would welcome us and congratulate us on the birth of our child, offer us food, and recommend how we should take care of our then blond-haired baby. Foreigners were still a bit unusual then, but to this day most Taiwanese remain hospitable and friendly beyond anything I ever experienced in other countries. That has not changed.

At language school, neither the students nor our Taiwan teachers (at least those who were willing to talk about it) could justify why we still had to go into a locked school room if we wanted to read a PRC publication, or why the National Assembly still had representatives of the PRC provinces, or why overseas magazines sometimes arrived with blacked-out passages or even missing pages. Teachers would quietly intimate, however, their sense that the political situation was changing. Indeed, less than a month after we departed Taiwan, martial law was lifted on July 15, 1987.

Impressions of Beijing

When we arrived at the embassy in Beijing a couple of months later, the PRC capital seemed much quieter than Taipei because most people were riding bicycles or walking, there were fewer motor scooters, and the only cars were official vehicles. Late at night, the streets were usually empty. There were only three ring roads then compared to the seven now. We had to use Foreign Exchange certificates for currency, which cost much more to buy than the Renminbi that diplomats from Communist and developing countries were allowed to use. In those days, Beijing was poor, but it seemed much less polluted except when the fumes from the iron and steel works in the western end of the city, or winds from the Gobi Desert, were blowing in, or when it was winter and every home was burning charcoal briquettes. When all three happened at once, you could barely see six feet in front of you.

The official posture of the U.S. government, and therefore our embassy, in those days was that U.S.-PRC relations were getting better and better every day and in every way. This is what we told a seemingly never-ending stream of Washington officials, Congressional leaders, and CEOs all excited to visit the PRC for the first time. Most did not recognize that all could not be well in countries run by communist parties. Everyone assumed, in any case, that as the PRC prospered, it would liberalize. So the world was shocked by the Tiananmen Square massacre on June 4, 1989, the fall of the Berlin Wall later that year on November 9, and the collapse of the Soviet Union and its empire in 1991.

The Tiananmen Massacre

Beijing’s leaders, in particular, trembled when the Wall fell and congratulated themselves that they had cracked down when students, workers, and even families had joined demonstrations in Beijing and elsewhere to protest for more democracy and against evident social inequities like special stores for Chinese Communist Party (CCP) members. When they finally did so, however, the energy behind the demonstrations in Beijing, which had begun on April 15, was already fading and fewer people remained in Tiananmen Square. But it was too late because an internal political struggle was taking place within the CCP, with Deng Xiao Ping emerging as the victor and deciding to teach the people “a lesson.” It was our embassy’s assessment based partly on body counts in hospitals that at least 800 people had been killed and many more had been wounded.

The Tiananmen massacre of Beijing citizens on June 4, 1989, forever changed my view of the PRC under the leadership of the CCP. My view was only reinforced by my assignment in Beijing following Tiananmen to serve as the political officer who would meet four times a week for over a year with dissident scientist Fang Lizhi and his wife Li Shuxian, who had sought political refuge in our embassy. Ambassador James Lilley had appointed me to brief them regularly on what was happening in negotiations for their release and also to report on their views and requests. I also then accompanied them on their U.S. Air Force flight to freedom, initially in the United Kingdom.

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 convinced the Communist Party leadership in Beijing that they had chosen the wisest path in Tiananmen. Their view was only reinforced by quiet conversations with Washington and other governments around the world who, in effect, said that to the maximum extent possible they wanted to get beyond Tiananmen and return to doing business as usual. This was certainly the view of Henry Kissinger and Brent Scowcroft, who served as emissaries to Beijing following Tiananmen and saw our dissident embassy guests as mere obstacles to renewed bilateral relations. That assessment would clearly help shape and reinforce the views of PRC leaders like Xi Jinping, who rules the PRC now and presumably for life. Inexorably, after Tiananmen, the two sides of the strait moved in opposite directions.

Taiwan Begins Its Path to Democracy

In contrast to the PRC, a year later in Taiwan there were no casualties when from March 16 to March 22, 1990, “Wild Lily” Taiwan students demonstrated around Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall on behalf of democracy, seeking direct elections of Taiwan's President and Vice President and popular elections of all representatives in the National Assembly. The demonstrations coincided with the inauguration of Lee Teng-Hui on March 21 to a six-year term as president. He won, however, in an election in which he was the only candidate, only one party was recognized, and only the 671 members of the National Assembly voted. Nonetheless, he was the first Taiwan-born President of the Republic of China, and in 1996, in Taiwan’s first democratic presidential election, Lee Teng-hui was again elected. Meanwhile, in 1991 the members of the Legislative Yuan and the National Assembly elected in 1947 in China were forced to resign, and in 1992 Taiwan held its first democratic election of the Legislative Yuan.

Political Progress Around the World

The arc of history elsewhere was also moving in a more positive direction toward democracy and independent sovereignty. In 1990, Nelson Mandela was released from prison in South Africa and became the leader of the ANC party, and in 1994 he became the president of South Africa after being elected in the country's first multi-racial elections. That same year, East and West Germany reunited after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In 1991, Boris Yeltsin became Russia's first elected president. Also in 1991 Croatia, Macedonia, and Slovenia became independent from the former Yugoslavia, and one year later, Bosnia and Herzegovina declared independence as well. In 1992, the Maastricht Treaty was signed, creating the European Union, aimed in part at preventing in the future the wars that had plagued Europe for centuries.

In 1991, U.S. President George H.W. Bush launched Operation Desert Storm with international support, sending in U.S. forces to liberate Kuwait from Iraqi occupation, and then following completion of that mission wisely withdrew U.S. forces. Unfortunately, his son George W. Bush would later launch unjustified wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that would presage continuing bloody U.S. involvement in the Middle East.

Returning to Taiwan 22 Years Later

By the time I returned to Taiwan in 2009, and in the ten years I have lived here since, I have found a totally transformed country — more beautiful, more cosmopolitan, more prosperous, and more successful. Taiwan had already held four democratic presidential elections, and in January 2020, it will hold its seventh. Despite problems that any country may face, Taiwan has exceeded almost everyone's expectations. As I have often said, it is a modern miracle, a country that moved from poverty to prosperity and from dictatorship to democracy in a matter of a few decades, and it did so with virtually no natural resources other than the talents and hard work of its people. Taiwan is now as notable for its emphasis on human rights and the rule of law as it is for its world-class strengths in technology, medicine, engineering, manufacturing, and innovation.

Why "Island Nation" Matters

"Island Nation" is an important reminder that Taiwan’s achievements as a country were hard-won. For the first time, Taiwan tells its own story through a superb dramatic recreation of its heroic struggle for democracy. A relatively small country beset by both domestic and foreign threats and challenges, Taiwan overcame tremendous obstacles to transform itself into the democracy it is today. It is a remarkable story of brave people achieving great success against all odds that, while little known to many audiences, has universal appeal. Taiwan is, in fact, a modern miracle, and "Island Nation" beautifully portrays the human dimensions of the efforts that made it possible.

About "Island Nation"

"Island Nation" is a 10-episode TV drama that will be released on Feb. 2, 2020, on the Taiwan Public TV Channel. It tells the story of Taiwan’s political struggle for democracy in the 1990s after martial law had been lifted and those who were promoting reform had to overcome great challenges in order to move the country forward. This is Taiwan’s first-ever political drama based on its own history. Singer-actor Yong Lea (楊烈) will be playing Taiwan’s first Taiwanese-born president, and Lin Tzay-peir(林在培)performs as his political rival and Taiwan’s then-premier. Up-and-coming actress Chen Yu(陳妤, The World between Us)also plays a leading role as a journalist. Mark Twain Pictures is the production house behind this series, with Sylvia Feng (馮賢賢) as its executive producer and Issac Wang (汪怡昕) the producer. A book entitled "Island Nation and its Age" (國際橋牌社的時代) will be published at the same time, serving as an introduction to the drama’s historical background and as a dedication to Taiwan’s collective memories of those years.

William A. Stanton is vice president of National Yang-Ming University. He previously served from August 2017 to July 2019 as a professor at the Center for General Education at National Taiwan University. Dr. Stanton previously worked for four years as the George K.C. Yeh Distinguished Chair Professor and founding director of the Center for Asia Policy at National Tsing Hua University (NTHU). From October 2014 through January 2016, he was also NTHU’s senior vice president for Global Affairs. Dr. Stanton previously served for 34 years as a U.S. diplomat. His final posting was as director of the American Institute in Taiwan (2009-2012).