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August 23, 2002

What Taiwanese Fear


by Sascha Matuszak

As one moves from Japan through Taiwan and Hong Kong to Mainland China, a visible transition from extremely orderly to extrememly chaotic takes place. In Japan, the streets all seem newly paved and swept, the houses quaint and sparkling and the streams running through the Tokyo suburbs contain edible fish. People quietly play with their cell phones while cruising subways that would make the punctual German raise his beer in admiration. No car honking.

Taiwan is slightly less orderly, much noisier, but no less clean and developed. Prices are visibly marked and the stores carry the latest fashions, the latest models. Cars begin to honk a little more and one has to keep an eye out for "the path" that emerges through the flood of humanity. Taipei buildings gleam in the sun and the smell of garbage doesn't waft through the air.

As it sometimes does in Hong Kong. Hong Kong is currently undergoing massive construction, but one still notices the clean bay, swept streets and strict (more or less) adherence to traffic lights. The side streets are distinctly Chinese with the hawkers and flashing lights and aromas, while the presence of Indians, Pakistanis, Nigerians, Senegalese, Americans, British, Dutch, Italians and various other nationalities marks Hong Kong as a city worth visiting and spending your money in. Cars honk gleefully and "the path" shows itself in brief glimmers. Professions start to cluster together in neighborhoods as they do in the Mainland and one notices how quick one shop is replaced with another, all stapeled together with a girl out front and techno music inside.

Ahh, what a difference the border makes. Just a few feet past the Hong Kong customs agents one enters the land of smudged white tiled walls and opaque windows. Harassment by the customs agents begins immediately and lines become knots of document waving would-be laborers surrounding a stoicly unconcerned official.

All the dust in Hong Kong must have been swept across the line into Shenzhen. And every automobile, motorcycle, bus and rickshaw makes sure to raise the dust as it honks on by.

Peasants appear. Whereas in Hong Kong a peasant may peek out from under a construction helmet while shoveling mud, that Hong Kong laborer looks relatively well fed and the trucks and tractors he sits in look sturdy enough. A Shenzhen peasant wears the tattered blue uniform, consists of naught but bone, muscle and sinew and his tractor is a bamboo pole. That is if he has a job at all. There are no "prices" in Mainland China, just varying degrees of haggling skill. There is no "path."

And this is Shenzhen, one of the more prosperous cities in China. Every step West is a step away from the money, order, fast-paced business and leisurely optimism of the coastal cities and the rich islands of Taiwan and Japan.

Other transitions make themselves apparent as well. In the richer areas of East Asia, the people care not a whit what the foreigner is doing or who he is doing it with. The poorer the region, the more the police and the populace begin to take notice. Suddenly, hotels bear signs stating that approval has been given to accomodate foreigners. Suddenly, the Public Security Bureau takes an interest into where you are going, where you are staying, how long you are staying ...

Now, much of this "interest" is perfunctory/ obligatory. The PSB guys usually offer cigarettes and drinks and ask whether you study or work, make a lot of money or a little, like Chinese girls or not, but the atmosphere is more strained on the Mainland than it is in Hong Kong. Jobs are scarce, people aren't. Newspapers carry Jiang's every word and the T.V. reminds us of the merciless tactics of the Falun Gong.

Prosperity is seeping into the Mainland through the ports along with other middle class values: political apathy, jolly cynicism, tolerance of the strange, weird and foreign. But even Shanghai – Hong Kong's rival for the title of China's richest, most advanced city – can only extend it's influence a few miles past the city limits.

Throughout Japan, Taiwan and Hong Kong people speak of the Mainland as a nice place to visit and perhaps do business in, but a horrible place to live. A place where people spit and throw garbage on the ground, a place where corruption and bribery are a fact of life, a place where the wrong ideas can land a person in jail, a place where thousands are executed in the name of order. These are the nasty parts of the PRC. The parts that scared Hong Kong in 1997 and the parts that scare Taiwan now. Along with all of these unpleasant aspects come the wonderful things about China: the amazing work ethic, strong morals and ethics, respect for family, love of peace and laughter and a good smoke in the afternoon, generosity and community. These rich islands owe much of their culture to China. Philosophy, painting, language, business savvy. One sees the Mainland in Japan, as well as Taiwan and Hong Kong.

But it's the dirty, poor, desperate underbelly that scares them. Its the arrogance and belligerence of a totalitarian leadership, the need to "regain face" and end years of humiliation, the need to reclaim that scares China's neighbors. ASEAN worries about it, the Koreas, Japan and especially Taiwan.

This is what Taiwanese speak of when they say "sharing a house with a beggar." Taiwanese don't fear war as much as they fear a peaceful reunification that comes too quick.

An irrational beggar might attack, regardless of the consequences, but this is a simpler situation than the beggar that moves in and sets up shop, demanding a seat at the table. Several thousand years of Chinese culture would require the rich man to feed his beggar cousin. This is what Taiwan fears, much more than missiles and threats.

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  • Sascha Matuszak is a freelance writer living in Chengdu.

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