When your first real introduction to a country includes having tea with the President, one might want to know a little bit about what they’re getting into. When I got the invitation from the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in New York (TECO) to be a part of a delegation of “UN Experts” in December of 2014, it was clearly an opportunity to accept. As the head of an environment and social action for purpose nongovernmental organization, the Human Impacts Institute (HII), the opportunity to further a relationship with Taiwan not only presented an interesting organizational opportunity, but also a chance to explore one of the more complex social and political scenarios in the world.
Taiwan has been excluded from the United Nations since 1971 and to begin to understand the complexities of the China-Taiwan-world relationship is akin to embarking on a lifelong journey. In essence, I was invited by a government, The Republic of China (Taiwan), to visit a country (also Taiwan) that another country (People’s Republic of China, or mainland China) and, subsequently, most of the world doesn’t acknowledge as a country. Despite the democratic governance that exists in Taiwan (including a Congress, President, mayors, etc) a military, independent agencies, institutions, and companies, and a population of over 23 million, the government of mainland China, and some Taiwanese, consider Taiwan to be a part of China.
A far cry from the work we do, I was soon to become immersed in the complex relationship between the island of Taiwan, mainland China and the diversity of opinions, obstacles, and opportunities in the region and beyond.
The VIP package
To anyone who is immersed in the UN system, I would not be considered an expert. As someone who has studied policy relating to sustainable development, poverty, and the environment, I would consider my role as a “facilitator” who helps to connect people in the policy world to other sectors (academic, public, media, youth), and often ends up working on improving communications between the groups. However, for people who aren’t familiar with the library of acronyms--UNFCCC, WHO, CSD, NGODPI, I could go on--and the surprisingly small world of sustainable development “experts” in the UN system, I can hold my ground in an official session and wouldn’t be a total stranger to all in the room.
As HII had partnered with TECO on using the arts to communicate climate issues through our Creative Climate Awards in 2014, it wasn’t a complete shock to get the invitation to “get to know Taiwan” with a 5-day trip across the world. What did come as a surprise was the VIP treatment our small delegation received--from the jam-packed schedule including many top national dignitaries to the ten-course meals that eventually resulted in painful groans from our expanding stomachs. Assigned with the mission to “get to know Taiwan” by our hosts, my understanding of goals, protocol, and expectations was fuzzy, if not open-ended.
From an organizational perspective, our goal was to explore diverse partnerships, look for opportunities for funding and resource/knowledge-exchange, as well as see how we can support like-minded efforts abroad. However, I was soon to get a deep lesson of the surprisingly powerful role academia and the nonprofit sector have in the political complexities of Taiwan.
File and Rank
Having never done business in Asia, there were sure be customs and formalities to which I would want to adhere. When I directly asked about this at a pre-trip lunch with the TECO Ambassador and my fellow delegation members, which was probably a breach of protocol in itself, I was unconvincingly reassured that “just being yourself” would be fine. Although I wouldn’t call myself your ‘typical American’ in the sense that you can’t usually hear or see me coming from a mile away and I don’t profess carrying the torch of ‘leaders of the free world’, I have become very cognizant of the ease with which one can embarrass or insult others in a culture that you just don’t know.
Alongside the consistent prodding of my husband, I prepared myself by reading a book gifted to me by a TECO colleague, Why Taiwan Matters: Small Island, Global Powerhouse. A little bit about me: I’m not someone who drools over historical non-fiction by any means, however, the political and social history of the island of Taiwan is to-date one of the more confusing, complex, and interesting histories I have ever seen. If you’re intrigued, I suggest you grab an internet-capable device or buy this book for starters, and begin reading; I wouldn’t begin to do it justice. However, I will point out some key actualities/observations that were soon to become very relevant to my experience:
Taiwanese do not agree on the past, present, or future of relations with mainland China--what seems to be the leading option is this concept of ‘status quo’, where relations with the mainland stay how they are, with this ghostlike future of radical change (either complete unification or independence conditional on an unknown quantity of conditionalities) looming in the shadows of discourse;
With only 21 countries having full diplomatic relations with Taiwan, Taiwan’s access to international information, resources, and policy is greatly impacted;
Due to the political discrepancies between mainland China and Taiwan, many groups are hesitant to partner with the Taiwanese government with concerns for repercussions from Beijing--which subsequently opens up unusual potential partnerships between the Taiwanese government and nongovernmental organizations and academic institutions;
When you walk into a meeting, you know exactly where everyone stands in terms of rank and file, as it were
“The Capacity of an Ocean”
We were warned that the President of the Legislative Yuan (the equivalent of Taiwan’s Congress), Hon. Jin-pyng Wang, would try and get us drunk at lunch. The reports were both true and good advice in that our private luncheon with members of the Legislative Yuan was immediately preceding our meeting with President Ma. Before we got to the luncheon of non-stop toasting, the conversation with diverse Yuan representatives exemplified the diversity of opinion in Taiwan.
Of the political parties represented, each one presented a distinctively different goal regarding relations with mainland China--from unification or reunification to complete independence (albeit there is apparently a persistent threat by the mainland to use military force if serious talks of independence occur). Sitting side-by-side the legislators frankly and unapologetically declared their opinion on the matter--one which seemed to be an unending, and frustratingly cyclical, topic of national conversation/obsession. What increasingly astonished me as our whirlwind trip progressed was the increasing understanding of our role as academics and nongovernmental leaders in the formula: in the current status quo, it is our non-political positions that both fit into the accepted narrative, but also hold an unusual status as entry points to many high-level political negotiations. The situation presented and continues to present a fascinating opportunity for partnership between us.
As the meeting progressed to the private dining room of the Legislative Yuan, the preassigned seating chart led to organized pairings of conversations in the round. Despite the warnings, our sobriety foe, proved to be a strong adversary for some in our group. As he persisted with shotglass full and eyes fixed on my delegation colleagues, many succumbed to the “cultural” pressures. Luckily for them, we had neverending courses of Taiwanese specialties to protect ourselves from the liquor. As Hon. Wang raised his glass for all to join in another toast, my conversational counterpart from the Legislative Yuan whispered in my direction. It wasn’t the last time that luncheon I would be told, “ah...he has the capacity of the ocean”.
Tea With the President
As we walked into the Presidential Office Building of Taiwan on the second day of our trip, we had already had five high-level meetings, one of which started three hours after our landing from a 14-hour NYC-Taipei flight. From the presentations and conversations with Ministries of Civil Aeronautics Administration, Transportation and Communications to Professors from the Political Department of the National Taiwan University to the Environmental Protection Agency, a common theme had become clear: we were both learning about the workings of the specific ministries, while getting a distinctive insider look into the impacts of the political complexities of Taiwan and Mainland China on the day-to-day workings of each institution.
As one of eight non-governmental organization and academic institution representatives of our delegation, I also quickly became both humbled and mildly saddened to see how the only political entry-point for the island of Taiwan to participate in international fora such as the international climate negotiations of the UNFCCC and the World Health Assembly is through tenuous “observer status” or through organizations such as our own. I was stupefied to learn at the Ministry of Mainland Affairs---note that this is distinctive from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who were both our hosts and are not recognized by Beijing as legitimate (from the Mainland perspective: how could there be a ministry of foreign affairs for an island that is part of their country?)--that even the counterpart in Beijing doesn’t acknowledge the title of the Minister of Mainland Affairs. Despite the physical existence of these two offices, their negotiations are funneled through nonprofit organizations established in each location (Taipei and Beijing, respectively). So, in a way, this saves face in that the two entities are working with each other, while not really working with each other.
A stark example of what I gleamed as the importance of title and status in Taiwan, Minister Chang notified us of a great step forward in Beijing/Taipei negotiations through the 2014 use of “his official title” when dealing with his counterpart in Beijing. The stark importance of how the use of one word--”Minister”, that served as a proxy for diplomatic acknowledgment and deep-seated relational complexities--was not only a reawakening of the “devil’s in the details” nature of policy, but also a reinforcement of what I was observing to be a strongly status-stratified society.
As we entered the windowless equivalent of the Oval Office, the usual lineup of seating arrangements awaited us along the warm tea and already-familiar gift bags. Our well-deserved head of delegation, Professor Andrew Nathan of Columbia University, would sit next to President Ma and the rest of us would be seated in the predetermined order of our professional, and perhaps social, rank. Of eight “UN experts”, I was second-to-last. Despite my overwhelming sentiments of humbleness to even be considered worthy to be in the room, my nagging ego wondered what exact checklist was used to place me (I never did find out, but suspect it has to do with some sort of combination of age, education, and professional title).* The practicality of the seating arrangements, assuming that our counterparts were also seating according to the same criteria, was that one immediately knows where the metaphorical and, perhaps actual, power lies and, therefore, can use this information in the strategic planning of the encounter. From our delegations perspective, our strategy was to lead with comments from our delegation chair (his celebrity status as an expert on China and Taiwan, as well as his fluency in Mandarin made him a shoe-in and a great partner in debriefing post-meetings) following an often-formal presentation by our hosts. As the press took photos and recorded President Ma’s address, I sipped my fourth tea of the day.
The moment the prepared speech was completed, the press systematically left the room, doors were closed, and the floor was ours. As many of my counterparts inquired about details of the political realities, my mind wondered to what “lessons learned” could be extrapolated from a population who has situationally had to “depoliticize” countless issues on the international stage to get by for a country who is increasingly politicizing issues, resulting in more-than-frequent inaction. Specifically, I looked at the topic of climate change: where Taiwan’s only access to the international climate policy forum (UNFCCC) is through nongovernmental organizations--and they, therefore, the issue is necessarily situationally separate from “politics”.
Alternatively, in the U.S. climate change has, on behalf of climate deniers and pro-fossil fuel lobbies, become an overwhelmingly political and polarizing issue. If you’re a liberal, you support climate action, if you’re a conservative, you might not even believe it exists. This politicization of a topic that is inherently non-political (we are, indeed, talking about the planets systems and our role in them), the topic of climate in the U.S. has not only been falsely categorized, it has also been inaccurately allocated to a certain cultural sense of identity (i.e. climate change is only for the “environmentalists”). As someone who has seen far to many eyes gloss over when I describe my work as “environmental”, the terms and polarization of assumptions related with these false terms have, led to dangerous levels of inaction. So, when confronted with a polar-opposite predicament in Taiwan, the opportunity for learning was exciting. So, why not ask the President about it?
Ties that Bind
After five days of VIP treatment, high-level meetings, and tantalizing sneak-peeks into the culture and politics of Taiwan, it was time for our delegation to return to our respective homes (NYC, Washington DC, and London). All having come with diverse experiences and expertise, the trip both opened-up for us the realities of Taiwan, as well as exposed us to each other’s work and potentials for partnership across our work. Looking forward, it is evident to me that there is a real opportunity for an important exchange of experiences concerning the issue of climate change between our counterparts in Taiwan and those of us working within the United States. Perhaps, the exchange will be an experiential one of tactics for communication of issues, such as climate, in depoliticized ways (even within a political framework of the United Nations). Perhaps, this is also paired with an ongoing fortification of supporting the inclusion of all entities in international negotiations as critical to the planet as those dealing with addressing global climate change. Perhaps, the partnership potentials also lie in a growing network of multi-sector, international leadership that is working towards creative, new ways to address some of the world’s most pressing social and environmental issues.
The potentials are endless, the obstacles are great, and many of the goals are unclear. However, what is self-evident from my experience in Taiwan, is although the complexities of relations between the island and mainland China may not be resolved for centuries--or ever--the doors for partnership above and beyond political and historical ties are great. It’s an interesting road ahead.
By Tara DePorte, Founder and Executive Director, Human Impacts Institute
This piece in no way reflects the sentiments of the Human Impacts Institute or of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in NY or their colleagues. The views expressed in this article are those solely of the author.
*Authors note: Since writing this article, I have been informed that seating arrangement order considerations are usually based on professional/academic achievements, seniority/expertise in the field, and especially, relationship with the country. Age, gender or social ranks are not within the considerations.