From shoes to semi-conductors, Taiwan’s transformation

January 29, 2024 23:03

When I arrived in Taiwan in the summer of 1981, the island was under martial law and producing radios and sports shoes. Today, it makes the world’s most advanced semi-conductors and has just held a boisterous presidential election with several candidates.

This extraordinary transformation is the subject of “The Island”, my latest book just published by Earnshaw Books. It has made the change from one-party rule to multi-party democracy without a coup d’etat or political assassinations.

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In 2023, Taiwan’s GDP reached US$1.293 trillion, an increase of 1.4 per cent over 2022. Exports reached US$432 billion, the third highest on record, with electronics the largest sector, including semi-conductors, information communications, cloud computing and AI applications. In 2022, Taiwan became the world's 21st largest economy, with annual per capita income exceeding US$30,000.

In 1981, we could not have imagined this. The men had short hair, a legacy of two years of military service. The economy largely depended on making consumer goods. The transition into electronics had only begun. The streets were a sea of scooters and motor cycles.

As an unmarried guilao, I was invited to parties – but discovered that Taiwan ladies were only interested in Americans. Marriages to them offered the quickest ticket to the ‘promised land’.
President Chiang Kai-shek had died six years before, but his aim of “recovering the mainland” remained the official policy. No-one could question it in public – but many did in private, saying that military funds should be spent on projects benefitting Taiwan people.

Close to Taipei railway station, I bought “Rolex” watches for US$21 and a large dictionary by Lin Yu-tang (林語堂), one of China’s most famous translators, for US$12.

It was an ideal place to study Mandarin. The teachers were warm and enthusiastic; you could spend as much time with Taiwan people as you wished. Some foreign students stayed with local families.

Some teachers were nostalgic for their former lives in the mainland. They came from prominent families in Beijing, Nanjing and Shanghai, with large homes and servants.

In the 12 months before he died in January 1988, President Chiang Ching-kuo carried out many reforms. The most important was to abolish martial law on July 15, 1987. This led to a blossoming of civil society. Today Taiwan has more than 40,000 NGOs, of which 2,000 have links to foreign institutions. They were born out of school and university alumni, religious associations and professional and community associations.

Chiang’s successor Lee Teng-hui introduced democratic reforms, leading to the first presidential election by universal suffrage in Chinese history, in 1996. He won it with 54 per cent of the votes.
Four years later, I was covering the next election and interviewed Chen Li-shen, mother of Chen Shui-bian, candidate of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). We met in front of her one-storey house in rural Tainan.

She said she added water (水, shui) to the name of her son on the advice of a nun. Her husband was a farm labourer with no land; the young boy walked barefoot to school. He went on to graduate from the law department of National Taiwan University. He won the 2000 election with 39 per cent of the votes, the first DPP candidate to become president.

I wondered: in how many countries in the world could the child of a landless farmer become the president?

Throughout this democratic transition, the economy continued its steady growth, peaking at 10.25 per cent in 2010. Taiwan companies invested all over the world, especially in mainland China.

I had the good fortune to write three books about Taiwan. One is the story of the Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation (佛教慈濟基金會). Founded in Hualien in 1966, it has become the largest NGO in the Chinese world, with 10 million volunteers in 66 countries and regions. It has conducted charity projects in 128 countries.

Another is the story of the two Palace Museums and the 16-year journey of their art treasures across the mainland and, finally, to Taiwan. The book was made possible by the warm co-operation of the director of the National Palace Museum in Taipei and her colleagues.

The third was a biography of Faina, the Russian wife of Chiang Ching-kuo. An orphan from Belarus, she met her future husband when both were working in a metallurgy factory in Yekaterinburg in central Russia in 1933. Her odyssey from there to the mainland and then Taiwan was extraordinary.

I was able to write these three books, and the new one, thanks to the warmth, friendship and help of many people and the availability of material in a free and open society. I dedicate “The Island” to the people of Taiwan, who have maintained their energy, diligence and good humour despite the challenges they have faced, including the threat of a military attack.

A Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker.