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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

Rethinking Marriage

On the ground, interest in reunifying wanes

By Alejandro Reyes / Kaohsiung


IT IS HARD TO say exactly what took place that balmy evening. On the surface it was a wedding. The groom, businessman Wu Jung-chang, sported a loincloth. Self-styled body artist Hsu Hsiao-tan wore a bride's lacy veil and white gloves -- but little else. Leaves pasted in strategic places gave her a veneer of modesty. To wild cheers, the 39-year-old television and radio talkshow hostess was borne down the aisle at the the trade exhibition hall on a sedan chair. Music thumped while disco spotlights and camera flashbulbs added to the tumult. It was an "event." Newspapers, television and radio covered it. Lawmakers discussed it in Legislative Yuan. And it was undoubtedly a hot office topic over Monday morning tea in Kaohsiung, the setting for the Oct. 19 nuptials, and across Taiwan. But surely it wasn't important.

Or was it? The ceremony would not have taken place 10 years ago, when the lid of martial law was beginning to loosen. Storekeeper Chang Wen-chien, 39, explained the significance: "This is not an everyday event in Taiwan. But we are much more open now. It isn't so strange. Nowadays, we have more fun. Our politics are more lively. Our society is more complex. We are simply more mature."

From martial-law uptightness to marital boldness in little more than a decade. Clearly, Taiwan has changed. But in a place with a turbulent past and uncertain future, next to a giant nation with whom it has an ambiguous relationship, what do the changes mean? The official position is that the Republic of China, with its capital in Taipei, has been a sovereign state for 85 years. But on the ground in Taiwan, talking to real people, very little seems simple.

Strolling the manicured lawns of the government's official Guest House on the Double Tenth (Oct. 10), the Kuomintang's national day, one discerns no suggestion of the island's simmering conflict. Ministers in tuxedos and evening gowns mix easily with guests, chatting over champagne and smoked salmon. This is the starchy world of officialdom where inhabitants could recite Taipei's One-China policy in their sleep.

Outside is another story. There, Taiwan is becoming, well, more Taiwanese. After returning to the island in 1991 following a seven-year absence, 36-year-old linguistics professor Chiang Wen-yu could sense democratization taking root. Chiang found once-underground activist organizations openly recruiting members. Political changes since then have only increased differences with the mainland. Ought Taiwan be independent? "Taiwan should be its own country," she says without hesitation. "I don't want to see reunification. Taiwan and China are so different now."

Economic integration, conventional wisdom goes, will lead to political convergence. But many in Taiwan see the wide wealth gap between it and the mainland as a serious impediment to reunification. At the Lexus showroom in downtown Kaohsiung, Taiwan's affluence is on display. Kau Du Automobile vice president Tony Yu Rong-huei beams because his dealership has sold 15 shiny 1998-model sedans -- at nearly $100,000 each -- in two days. Beijing calls for a Hong Kong-style reunion under the "one country, two systems" formula. Taiwan people are skeptical. "We don't really want to be in Hong Kong's position," says 21-year-old university student Steve Lin. "Maybe right now you don't see any changes in Hong Kong, but they will happen. 'One country, two systems' isn't enough for us."

Economics is one thing; there are also cultural factors. Taiwanese people, descended from natives of Taiwan, are starting to recapture their own distinct identity, focusing for example on the native Taiwanese language over Mandarin. Textbooks on Taiwan history are appearing in classrooms. About nine of every 10 citizens are island-born, including President Lee Teng-hui and Premier Vincent Siew Wan-chang. On top of everything, by far the greatest outside influences on Taiwan these days come from Japan in the form of magazines, fashion and pop music.

In fact, the mainland carries little attraction for many of the youth in Taiwan, especially after last year's missile crisis. Among the crowd at the nearly nude wedding in Kaohsiung was Joseph Huang, a 16-year-old high-school student. He says he never wants to visit across the Taiwan Strait: "I'm afraid they will hurt us." For Huang and many in Taiwan, it is "us and them." Years of separation mixed with a gospel of enmity have made it so. On different levels, the gulf is widening.


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