Taiwanese have no appetite for war

Around the dinner table in Taichung, three generations tell Teresa Poole of a past and future in the shadow of China

AS THE Su family gathered at home for supper on Friday evening in the Taiwanese city of Taichung, the Peking government 2,500 miles away was trying to spoil everyone's weekend by announcing yet more military exercises in the Taiwan Strait. Such antics by the People's Liberation Army, however, were not going to be allowed to impair the Su's splendid dinner.

With three generations gathered for the occasion, Taiwan's modern history was there to be seen. Su Kin-lian, 70 this year, sat as the patriarch of the family, a neatly-dressed retired headmaster whose formal manners date back to his upbringing, when Taiwan was a Japanese colony. His son, Su Cheng-chi, 41, an architect, and daughter-in-law, Lin Gui-chao, 37, are typically hard-working beneficiaries of Taiwan's economic boom. Their two daughters, tearing around the huge, sumptuous apartment, had never known anything different. They were born into modern Taiwan: the eldest, Yu-ting, in 1986, just a year before martial law was lifted, and Yu-Hsuan in 1988, when Lee Teng-hui became the island's first native-born president.

China's wrath, and military manoeuvres, are targeted at President Lee, with the aim of undermining his public support ahead of presidential elections on Saturday. As Mr Lee pointed out last week, much to the annoyance of his critics in Peking, Taiwan's voters will choose "the first democratically- elected president in the 5,000 years of Chinese history". Viewed from a rather shorter historical perspective, Taiwan's evolution to an economically vibrant, pluralistic society has been even more remarkable.

Over three generations, the lives of most Taiwanese families have been transformed. The elder Mr Su, born in 1926, remembered: "When I was a child and went to school, I had to speak Japanese." And if one spoke the Taiwanese dialect instead? "One didn't," he said. "Only at home we spoke Taiwanese."

After Japan occupied the island in 1895, the elementary schools were segregated, and Taiwanese children learned from different textbooks. "The reason was, they did not like the Taiwanese to get a very high education." But Mr Su studied hard, the only student out of a class of 80 to pass the examination to qualify for higher education. "If you passed the tests, it was a very, very big story for the whole town," he said.

The elder Mr Su grew up in Peigang city, about 60 miles from Taichung, the son of comfortably-off farming parents. Given his academic prowess, he went on to a teacher's training college, where more than three-quarters of the students were Japanese. How did he feel about the Japanese occupiers? "In my mind and heart, I was almost like a Japanese. My education almost turned me into a Japanese. When I graduated, I felt loyal to the Emperor."

By the time Mr Su was qualified, Japan was about to be defeated in the Second World War and Taiwan's economy was in deep depression. "The clothes and food were of very low standard. Normally, people ate only sweet potato leaves. If you had the sweet potato itself, you were doing very well. At that time we had terrible inflation. If something cost 10 Taiwan dollars in the morning, it was 30 by the evening. When salary day came, I went to the school with carrier bags to pick up my money."

On 25 October 1945, about six weeks after Japan's surrender in mainland China, the Japanese commander formally ceded Taiwan to General Chiang Kai-shek's Kuomintang (KMT) Nationalist party. Thus began yet another foreign occupation.

When the KMT moved in, it was confusing for the elder Mr Su. "At first, before the KMT came, we felt so happy. We had had a dream of going back to the home country. But when the soldiers came we felt so disappointed. They wore short trousers, hemp shoes, and their educational standards were so low. Yet the KMT always felt superior to us, they thought the Taiwanese people were beneath them."

The linguistic rules for schools changed overnight. "Now it was prohibited to speak Japanese. So the KMT taught us teachers how to speak Mandarin. And the very next day, we would give the same lesson to our students," laughed old Mr Su.

Over the next four years, with the KMT steadily losing ground to Mao Tse-tung's Communist army on the mainland, conditions were not good on Taiwan. In 1947 the deepest wound was inflicted when the KMT massacred up to 20,000 islanders after a rebellion against police brutality. Two years later, Chairman Mao finally routed the Nationalists and a wave of KMT refugees retreated to Taiwan, looking for jobs and housing.The divisions between the mainland immigrants and the native Taiwanese etched deeper into society.

Taiwan was by now firmly under a military regime, and moreover, one which had pretensions of retaking the mainland. "It was very strict. You could not speak freely because of martial law." A classmate who joined the Communist Party was executed. Promotion was out of the question for those who were not KMT members, so in 1951, Mr Su joined the party. "I did not know what it meant, though!"

By the time his son, Cheng-chi, was born in 1954, the elder Mr Su was well on his way to becoming an elementary school headmaster. But Chiang Kai-shek's KMT was in total control, much to the frustration of the Taiwanese people. According to Cheng-chi: "I felt that with the old KMT, every policy and benefit was only good for people from mainland China."

Cheng-chi qualified as an architect, leaving him well-placed to benefit from the economic transformation that was starting in Taiwan. As the island opened up its economy, investment flowed in from Japan and the US, attracted by cheap labour. The stock market surged in the 1980s, and the construction industry boomed. Those with money could invest very profitably in land and property developments.

"There were a lot of opportunities for an architect," said Cheng-chi. Involvement in other businesses followed, and Mr Su became a shareholder in a paper company and a food factory, and even has a stake in a golf- course development on the mainland. Since Mr Lee became president, Taiwanese people have also secured greater political and administrative clout. "Right now, the old mainland people lose their power little by little," said Gui-chao. "So they feel unsafe. But it is they who cannot accept us, not the other way around."

Like many other Taiwanese people, the Su family would have a lot to lose if the cross-Strait tensions were to escalate badly. But the island has lived through many uncertain periods since 1949, and its people take a pragmatic approach. Jeffrey Cheng, 32, is Gui-chao's cousin. He works for Cheng-chi's paper company, but much of his adult life has been spent in the Philippines and the US, despatched by his mother in 1979 when American troops withdrew from Taiwan, as a foreign anchor for the family in case things went wrong.

Around the dinner table, reaction to China's bullying was mixed. "I don't worry, because the Chinese military is not strong enough to fight Taiwan. I am optimistic that after the election, both Taiwan and the mainland will have a meeting and start communicating again," said Cheng-chi. "I don't think so," replied Jeffrey. "It is very bad. I am worried about after the elections. Because if I was China, I would make the Taiwanese pay the price of having the election." Gui-chao added: "If the war started, if the mainland took over, their control would be unreasonable. So I hope that while the children are small, the situation can be controlled."

All the family, except for the two young daughters, have visited the mainland - but were far from impressed. "I went to the mainland a couple of times, but it felt different. It is not my society. It is a very beautiful country. But I don't like their system, I don't like the people. On the street I feel uncomfortable and uneasy," said Jeffrey. The elder Mr Su said it had reminded him of Taiwan 40 years ago.

The Su household was backing Mr Lee, albeit with some reservations about his more outspoken attacks on the mainland. "President Lee's speech is very blunt, so he makes China angry," said Cheng-chi, but he still wanted him to win "because he does everything for Taiwan". Jeffrey was also wary of the consequences of antagonising the mainland, but said he supported Mr Lee. "Because of this election, everybody in the world now knows where Taiwan is," he said.

Unlike many other countries in Asia, Taiwan has made a bloodless switch to democracy. "We feel very lucky," said Gui-chao. It is the relationship with China which now takes centre stage. Cheng-chi said: "Right now I prefer Taiwan to be independent, because we must have a voice within the international community. People must know we are a country, not an island."

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