Taiwan is a small country on a large-ish island, much blessed by nature, but struggling with the impact of a dense human population and rapid economic growth. Returning, for the first time in more than twenty years, to a country that I had lived in, off and on, for about a year, was most interesting. When I was last in Taiwan it was in the throes of its “Asian tiger” phase, and now has become, at least according to the taxi driver that picked my daughter and I up at the airport, much less dynamic. In the best tradition of the Taiwan citizenry, our driver was not at all shy about criticizing his government vigorously and with considerable sophistication.
Taiwan, also called the Republic of China (ROC) as opposed to mainland China, which is the People’s Republic of China (PRC), is always under more or less explicit threat of invasion or bombing by the PRC. Taiwan’s leaders must walk a thin line between asserting Taiwan’s right to exist as a country, which assertion is backed, more or less discretely, by the US, and provoking Beijing with too unequivocal and evident an existence. Alongside the global geo-politics are the more local politics that derive from waves of migration into Taiwan, with the indigenous Austronesian people of Taiwan having been displaced by successive sub-cultures of Han Chinese, as well as brief colonial occupations by the Dutch in the 17th century and Japan in the late 19th and early 20th century.
Taiwan is fascinating agriculturally as it has admirably fertile, well-watered alluvial plains on its western coast, which are intensively farmed in small plots (by American standards) usually of only an acre or two – much rice, some taro, vegetables, and fruit orchards. The excellence of Taiwanese plant breeding is a long-acknowledged fact in tropical agriculture circles.
Taiwan is a place that I found simultaneously delightful, disturbing and dystopian twenty years ago, and still find so, but for mostly different reasons this time around. One thing that is not so different and, unfortunately, much worse is the air quality in Taiwan. There are many explanations for Taiwan’s terrible air quality, such as major petrochemical processing facilities with footprints in the thousands of acres, large coal-burning electrical plants, trash incineration plants, the high tail-pipe emissions from the vast herds of scooters, second-hand pollution from the factories in mainland China, and the fine dust blown up out of the river-beds in dry, windy weather.
On the plus side, I was astounded by their success in addressing solid waste – trash, basically – and in the cleanliness of the rivers and streams. I have one unforgettably dystopian memory of Taiwan in the 1990’s, a scene glimpsed from the window of a bus – a man wandering through a vast, burning wasteland of trash in the outskirts of Taipei as the sun struggled to rise through the smoke . I also remember black, sulfurous waterways fouled with plastic trash, and the lovely white sand beaches of southern Taiwan littered by giant, surreal blocks of white styrofoam. None of that now, at least that I could see on this quick week-long trip. Quite an amazing feat, to change the everyday practices of everyday people so drastically, to effect social change so broadly, from big businesses to ordinary folks out in the country. This has been done through sustained policy efforts and clever design solutions over the last few decades that continue to evolve, energized by the demands of a politically active populace that demanded government action. Not only that but Taiwan has developed an outstanding network of buses, metros, trains, and bullet trains. Which is not to say that Taiwan has become an un-mitigated paradise – far from it – but there is much to learn from their successes.
Last but not least, for all our taxi drivers critical comments about the stagnant economy, the incompetent government, and the worsening air pollution, there was in him and generally in the people of Taiwan a gentle pride in their country, a sense of collective responsibility for being kind to each other and of representing their country well that my daughter and I felt wistfully envious of and wished, of all things, that we could bring back to the US.