The power of the nut

If an anthropologist were to study Taiwan they might well find betel nut to be one of the unique and defining characteristics of Taiwanese culture. For many Taiwanese men chewing betel nut is not just a habit, but something that defines their identity. Taiwanese women’s bodies are used as a powerful marketing tool for the nut. The phenomena of the betel nut beauty is unique to Taiwan.

I remember seeing scantily clad women sitting in neon-lit glass booths along the side of the road when I first arrived in Taiwan. I initially presumed they were soliciting for sex. It wasn’t until several months later that I learned they were just selling betel nut.

I recently updated the page on my Taiwan website about betel nut. This page gets more hits than any other page on the website. Obviously there is intense interest in betel nut and betel nut beauties in Taiwan.

Taiwan's legal status

China’s claims over Taiwan are about as valid as the UK trying to reclaim Australia. However, the question that must be asked is what exactly is Taiwan’s legal status?

An interesting letter was recently published in the Taipei Times. Richard Hartzell, a foreign long-term resident of Taiwan argues that Taiwan is actually a protectorate of the United States. The legal basis for this is the San Francisco Peace Treaty. Effectively it means Taiwan’s status has remained unresolved since World War II.

I find the analysis interesting although there are contrary points of view. I would argue that the sovereignty of Taiwan rests with the Taiwanese people. The problem is that international politics prevent them from freely exercising their democratic choice on this issue. Obviously there is the belligerence of China, but also problematic is the US’s ambiguous policies and the ineffectiveness of the UN. There is no hope for Taiwan in the UN because (a) it is not a member and (b) China holds a permanent seat on the UN Security Council giving it an effective veto over any efforts to recognise Taiwan’s independence.

The whole issue exposes the hypocrisy of governments around the world at many levels and also the failure of institutions, particularly the UN, to provide for international justice.

A million march for Taiwan

Saturday 26 March 2005 marked yet another important day in Taiwan’s history. One million people took to the streets of Taipei in a peaceful protest against China’s anti-secession law.

It was significant in that it united people from across the political spectrum. The people of Taiwan obviously wanted to send a clear message to Beijing and the world that they are united in opposition to China’s aggression and committed to peace and democracy.

Below are some links to media reports about the event.

A-bian on the ABC

Last night’s edition of Foreign Correspondent on ABC TV featured a program about Taiwan. It included an interview with President Chen, an interview with KMT legislator Su Qi and coverage of President Chen’s recent visit to the Solomon Islands and Palau.

The report was probably a useful primer for the average Australian with little knowledge of Taiwan, but it lacked depth and promoted various misunderstandings about Taiwan politics. It seemed to paint a picture of Taiwan where the politics was very black and white. According to the report Taiwan was a nation divided where 50% of people supported independence and the other 50% wanted to reunify with China. The reality is far from that simple and the only thing you could safely say about Taiwan is that there is a diversity of opinion and a majority of Taiwanese support the status quo, even if it is only to avoid any possible confrontation with China. It also failed to explain how the entire political landscape has been restructured since President Chen’s election in 2000 and that within the various political parties there are major differences of opinion on Taiwan’s status and relationship with China.

I suppose you can’t expect too much of a 20 minute TV program produced for an Australian audience, but to me it highlights the way Taiwan is misrepresented in the world’s media. Firstly, there is the oversimplification of Taiwan’s politics to a simple pro-independence versus pro-reunification divide. Secondly, China’s claims over Taiwan are subjected to virtually no scrutiny. Indeed if they were subjected to just a little scrutiny it would soon be obvious that China’s claims over Taiwan have little basis in either history or law.

Of course this probably reflects the way that most of the world kowtows to China in order to gain access to its markets. The media tends to reflect corporate and government interests. It seems that Taiwan is losing the PR war. Chen’s visit to Taiwan’s Pacific island allies was portrayed as something of a circus that did little to help Taiwan on the international stage. Surely there are creative ways that Taiwan could sell itself to the world and hence guarantee its security.

Details of the program including a transcript are available at ABC Online: Taiwan – Dire Strait.

The Ugly Isle

When the Portuguese discovered Taiwan they called it Formosa – the beautiful isle. While vestiges of that beauty remain if Taiwan were discovered today it might well be called “The Ugly Isle”. Taiwan’s economic miracle has come at a huge ecological cost.

The recently released Environmental Sustainability Index (ESI) ranked Taiwan 145th out of 146 countries. Only North Korea was ranked lower than Taiwan[1,2].

It is hardly surprising and any visitor to Taiwan could see why. More seriously it raises serious questions about Taiwan’s future. Is Taiwan caught in a downward spiral that it can’t get out of? Taiwan’s government policy is so focused on economic (read industrial) development that environmental issues are simply not a priority or at least don’t get the attention they deserve.

The construction of the fourth nuclear power plant is a case in point. Chen Shuibian was elected president in 2000 with a promise to halt construction of the fourth nuclear power plant. However, in the face of major political problems he reneged on the promise. What was most disturbing was that the government failed to make any significant efforts to develop alternative energy policies or to educate the people about the dangers of nuclear power.

During the 1980s when Taiwan’s era of martial law came to an end environmental concerns were at the top of the agenda in public protests[3]. However, now it seems there is little public protest about environmental issues despite the fact that things haven’t got any better.

While the people of Taiwan enjoy a high standard of living in most respects there must be serious questions about how long this can continue. Taiwan is heavily dependent on the importation of resources for energy and raw materials to sustain its economy. Despite this there has been negligible investment in either energy conservation or renewable energy generating capacity[4].

Climate change is an issue that has barely registered on Taiwan’s radar. The fact that Taiwan is excluded from participating in many international organisations might count for something. However, even if Taiwan had had the chance to sign up to the Kyoto Protocol one wonders if there would have been any significant efforts by the government to meet the emissions reduction targets. There seems to be a lack of basic public awareness about climate change.

There are few bright lights on the horizon for Taiwan. Perhaps Taiwan will serve as a canary in the coal mine and act as a wake up call showing the rest of the world the failures of industrial development. It would be much better if Taiwan could seriously embrace the need for ecologically sustainable development and lead the world forward to a cleaner, greener future.


  1. Taiwan’s environmental sustainability seen low (Taiwan News 27 Jan. 2005)
  2. Environmental index puts Taiwan at bottom of the heap (Taipei Times 20 Feb. 2005)
  3. “The Environmental Nightmare of the Economic Miracle: Land Abuse and Land Struggles in Taiwan”
    Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars, 1994, Vol. 26, No. 1-2, pp. 21-44.
    by Linda Gail Arrigo

  4. Energy and Sustainable Development in Taiwan
    Sustainable Energy Watch 2002 Report
    by Gloria Kuang-Jung Hsu