On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Taiwan insists on walking its own road

Many Penangites, especially from Chung
Ling High School
and Han Chiang
High School, have ended up studying
in Taiwan
universities, mostly in engineering and computer science.

The food is also similar: I found oh chean (fried oyster omelette), bah kut teh
and mua chee (rice ball with peanuts) in almost every night market.

All these commonalities made travelling in Taipei
very easy for me.

Besides conversing in Hokkien with officials of the Government Information
Office – the equivalent of our Information Ministry – I had the opportunity to
exchange pleasantries with President Chen Shui-bian in the dialect during the
recent National Day celebrations.

Taipei Economic and Cultural Office information division director Cecilia Chang
said it was a shame I had visited many cities in China
but not Taiwan
(the so-called renegade province of China).

Besides, it was the third invitation from the Taiwan
government and I was reluctant to turn it down again, especially when Ms Chang
was ending her three-year posting in Kuala Lumpur.
I had turned down the second invitation earlier this year when Taiwan
was hit by SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) which took 84 lives.

The Taipei Economic and Cultural Office is the de facto embassy in KL as Malaysia
does not have diplomatic relations with Taiwan.
However, bilateral trade between the two sides rose 2.4% to more than RM9.1bil
in the first four months of this year, with Malaysia
enjoying a trade surplus of about RM3bil last year.

Together with several South American, Caribbean and
African journalists, we were invited to stay for a week in Taipei
in conjunction with the National Day celebrations on Oct 10, dubbed the
Double-Ten bash.

My first taste of the kind of diplomatic treatment meted out to officials like
Chang in Kuala Lumpur came when I
attended a dinner hosted by the Information Minister Huang Hwei-Chen.

Together with Datuk Abdul Rahim Bakri from the Malaysian Friendship and Trade
Centre, we were seated at one of the back tables of the posh hotel to signify
our diplomatic status – or the lack of it. At the same table were officials
from Singapore,
Switzerland and
countries in the same situation.

On the main table, together with minister Huang, were editors and diplomats
from some of the 26 nations that recognise Taiwan.
They were mostly small, developing African and Latin American nations that
receive generous amounts of aid in exchange for their support.

Despite the celebrations, there was a dampener for the Taiwanese that night.
Word had gone around that Liberia
would be severing ties with Taiwan
and would announce it formally after Oct 10. Three days later, the announcement

immediately accused China
of using its influence in the United Nations to pressure Liberia,
saying China
had threatened to interfere in the budget for UN peacekeepers if the West
African country did not sever ties with Taiwan.

During my one week's stay, the daily briefings often included some China-bashing,
which confused some of the Latin American and African journalists because the
Taiwanese were, at the same time, telling them the staggering amount of
investments they had put in mainland China.
In addition, more than three million Taiwanese travelled to the mainland last
year, making China
the top tourist spot for the islanders.

With the presidential election likely to be called in March, Chen's Democratic
Progressive Party (DPP) has started beating the war drums to win votes,
including "creating a new constitution in 2006" and vowing to "walk our own
Taiwan road". The Constitution is over 50 years old, approved at a time when
Kuomintang ruled mainland China.

Speaking in Hokkien to win the hearts of the grassroots, he has talked about
changing the island's name from the Republic of China to Taiwan,
saying "Taiwan
is not a province of one country nor is it a state of another."

Chen, who would be defending his post, called the one-China principle "abnormal
thinking that should not exist, it should be corrected" and said "there is only
one China and
one Taiwan."

Since then, he has raised the stakes with even stronger remarks from his
officials but the Taiwanese media has downplayed such outbursts, concentrating
on calls for dialogue instead.

Such sabre-rattling has no doubt irked China,
and many Taiwanese, especially those born in mainland China
or have investments there, are worried.

Overseas Chinese, including the community's leaders in Malaysia,
have expressed their uneasiness over the tension, particularly the push by Chen
for a referendum.

US-trained political scientist Dr Alexander Huang, vice-chairman of the
Mainland Affairs Council, Taiwan's
top mainland policy-making body, has added fuel to the fire. With his American
drawl and stinging criticism of China
at press briefings, Dr Huang could well have stepped out from the White House
with Donald Rumsfeld.

As I left his briefing, a confused journalist from Senegal
asked me why Taiwan
was not putting its money elsewhere if China
was the number one enemy.

The answer is simple: the Chinese are practical. It made sense to invest in China
because of its cheap labour and huge market. The use of a common language and
culture also makes it easier for businessmen from both sides to make

And as Dr Huang admitted, the Taiwanese and the Chinese have the same blood.
Both are cousins and, cheekily batting an eyelid, he said no one could tell the
future political scenario of China
and Taiwan.

The old guards are gone and the new breed of leaders in Beijing
and Shanghai include those who
studied at American universities with Dr Huang and other Taiwanese

But as of now, no one is amused by the growing tension between China
and Taiwan.